There’s hardly a better way to experience a culture than by participating in a destination’s traditional festivals. At least, that’s always been my motto, leading us to plan entire trips around the concept.
Oyster festival in Apalachicola. Theatre festival in New York City. Jazz festival in New Orleans. Wine festival in Barcelona. Asparagus, yes asparagus, festival in Istria.
Festivals offer a highly saturated sample of all things “good” in a town or area. The best of local music, art, and cuisine are staged for your enjoyment. You rub elbows with a diversity of local people, who are usually in an exceptionally good mood and grateful to share what makes their little patch of earth special. The energy and pride of an entire town and its inhabitants rise as the essence of place shines through.
One of our favorite festivals takes place this very weekend in the tiny, hilltop town of Spello, Italy.
In honor of this uniquely beautiful and creative celebration, here’s an overview of one of the world’s most colorful events:
SPELLO’S INFIORATE FESTIVAL
In Italian “infiorate” basically means “decorated with flowers.” While Infiorate Festivals occur in a handful of Italian towns, the annual celebration in Spello is distinctive.
Each spring, the narrow, twisting cobblestone alleyways of the medieval town center transform into a one-mile canvas of intricate and elaborate paintings – some of the largest covering over 950 square feet – created from natural resources of the Umbrian countryside.
Each composition consists of hundreds of thousands of flower petals and herbs. Fresh or dried petals and herbs are allowed. Berries are okay too.
Where Spello differs from other flower festivals is by what’s prohibited. No stems, wood, or synthetic materials of any kind are allowed. No artificial colors. No chemicals or preservatives.
All flowers must be picked in the wild. Most are collected from nearby Mount Subasio and the Umbrian-Marche Apennines.
It’s pure, local, flower power.
An Intricately Woven Tradition
Using elaborate floral compositions to showcase religious devotion dates back many centuries, but it is believed the modern tradition of flower festivals began at the Vatican when the top florist – who knew there was such a position? – resourcefully created enormous carpets of flowers depicting biblical imagery.
Today a mix of devotion, community zeal, and a sprinkle of competitive spirit, lead the citizens of Spello to spend most of the year preparing for the fest.
Family members, neighbors, civic and church groups form to plan and create a work for the festival. Each must officially register and agree to follow the strict rules. Approximately 40 groups exist today, each led by an artist or team of artists.
Each year the designs get more elaborate and competition more intense to win “best in show” recognition. But ask anyone, and they will say, at the heart of the Infiorate is community gathering.
To this end, each team works diligently together in preparation. While it’s estimated approximately 2,000 people participate on teams, that number seems low when you consider the communal effort required to pull off such an extraordinary feat.
Designs – ranging from biblical scenes and pastoral landscapes to abstracts and geometric motifs – are created, critiqued, and refined for months while flowers and herbs are picked, dried, and stored in each season to achieve a diversity of colors and shapes.
For weeks leading up to the festival, parties pop up around town with the purpose of plucking and trimming petals – while drinking vino and sharing stories and laughter is also of high priority.
We were fortunate to snag a “pot luck / petal party” invitation a few years ago, and, although we didn’t understand all the conversation (our Italian was ultra green at that time,) we loved every second of the communal experience and felt, in a very small way, like we contributed to a work of art.
Magical Carpet Race
Anticipation builds for “staging day,” on Saturday eve of Corpus Domini, always the ninth Sunday after Easter. Weather reports are watched obsessively for any sign of coming rain and wind and “what ifs” are discussed in hyper-detail.
When the day arrives and streets close to traffic, teams spring into action and the race begins. First up are tents and weather guards to protect each work in progress, then come lighting rigs – sophisticated enough to make any rock fest planner (that’s me, in a former life,) green with envy – a necessity when your team will be working late into the darkness.
Teams either chalk their design directly onto the street or roll out paper traced with the outline. Then using a color key and methodical plan of attack, skillful and patient team members begin placing each petal like pieces of tesserae in a giant mosaic.
Late into the evening is a festive time to walk the streets and watch teams at work until first light. We saw more than a dedicated few sleeping on the ground beside their creation. Watching the evolution of each work is the reward for forgoing sleep. Designs that at first appear to be rudimentary, through the genius of materials chosen for shade and shadows, morph into methodically-executed masterpieces as sections fill in and the sun begins to rise.
This morning, the entire town along with thousands of visitors, will have alighted onto the streets of Spello to begin the Sunday-morning procession.
Slowly climbing the steep streets beneath medieval archways, the festival-goers see colorful, natural carpets stretching as far as the eye can see. They walk slowly and deliberately as not to disturb a single petal.
Old and young, local and foreigner, everyone is in awe of the enormous effort and beauty.
Just about now, at noon, the official procession will begin as the bishop leads the faithful through the streets. Not hugging the side of alleys as previous walkers, but progressing straight through the middle of each street and work of art.
And by design, the laboriously composed floral designs are lost. They were only meant to be temporary, after all. A symbol of the temperance of life, much like the tradition of Tibetan monks who spend weeks creating sand mandalas to dismantle the works in seconds as a reminder of life’s delicacy and fleeting nature.
It’s a beautiful and profound experience any visitor is sure to long remember and the loveliest of windows into the very soul of an Italian town.
Visit the official website for more information on planning a trip to Spello’s Infiorate Festival next year – and if you go, let us know, we may meet you there!
For more about Corpus Domini, here is an English translation of Pope Francis’ message today.