If you are a regular visitor to Italy you are likely to be familiar with the tradition of saints’ day festivals, particularly in the smaller towns. These are events that involve the whole community, often with feasting and fireworks, the centrepiece being the procession of a sacred image around the town. Vico del Gargano, on the Gargano Peninsula in Puglia, is no exception, with several religious festivals throughout the year. I was lucky enough to experience one of these for myself.
Religious Festivals in Vico del Gargano
The town’s best known saint’s day festival is that of St Valentine, the patron saint of love, citrus fruits and Vico del Gargano itself. During the “feast of love and oranges” the statue of St Valentine is carried through the town festooned with oranges and orange blossom. (In case you were wondering about the connection, this part of Italy is full of citrus trees.)
Easter is another major festival and Vico del Gargano, with its series of processions from different churches in the town, has one of the most elaborate celebrations in the region. However, I was there at the beginning of May, and I witnessed one of the smaller saint’s day festivals, that of Santa Maria Pura.
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Festa di Santa Maria Pura
The Festa di Santa Maria Pura takes place each year in May. The ceremonial processions (in which a statue of the Virgin is carried through the town and down the hill to the Church of Santa Maria Pura) take place in the morning and evening of 9 May. However for a few days beforehand the church is filled with presepi (the nativity scenes that are common throughout southern Italy at Christmas time).
There are several legends associated with this church, but the one connected with the festival is a miracle that occurred on 8 May 1228. Apparently on this day the Madonna restored the speech and hearing of a deaf and dump shepherd boy. As a mark of gratitude his parents built a church on the site the following day.
Celebrating the Feast of Santa Maria Pura
The feast is not much advertised to tourists and the first I knew of it was when I saw (and heard) a red-jacketed band marching past the café where I was eating my breakfast. A bit of research directed me to the church, a little way outside the town walls.
I had a look at the presepi, then went into the courtyard where preparations had begun for the feasting that would take place later in the day. There was a stall selling religious items and elsewhere workmen were hammering fireworks into position for the display that would start once darkness fell. I tried in vain to find out when and where the evening procession would take place and eventually resigned myself to having missed the main activity. But jest then I saw that the road ahead was closed and a policeman was stopping the traffic. A few minutes later I heard the band, and the procession came towards me, proudly carrying the Madonna. A spectacle not to be missed!