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La villeggiatura – An Italian tradition that’s more than a vacation

August, holiday season for Italians. Ferragosto (August 15th) marks the apex of a highly developed tradition of vacationing. Usually translated in English as Vacation or Holiday, Villeggiatura is more than a simple vacanza (vacation) for Italians. Its full meaning includes not only a period of rest but also a place to recharge as well as many seasonal outdoor activities to enjoy.

It’s a ritual that gained popularity in the 1950s, but has deep historical roots that go further back. In the summer, Ancient Romans of high social status would leave the scorching heat of the eternal city and move to smaller towns near Naples along the Tyrrhenian coast. Pompeii, Herculaneum and Capri were popular spots for summer houses where Romans would enjoy boat rides, nature walks, and thermal baths.

Before the 20th century, the idea of going on vacation was reserved for the privileged few, as workers and farmers did not have the ability to take time off.  However, the years following WWII saw great changes in Italian lives and culture. As the memory of the war and hardships faded, Italians began to have more time and resources for themselves. Fueled by the Italian “economic miracle” of the 1960s that brought higher wages, automobiles and autostrade (toll highways), families began to vacation as never before. Packed in small cars without air conditioning, parents, kids and even grandparents would head off to their summer destinations.

Part rest and part escape, the ritual of villeggiatura for middle-income Italians included staying at family-run pensioni (small hotels) mostly at sea-side towns along the riviera adriatica (Adriatic coast) as well as in Liguria, Versilia (Tuscany) and Lazio. Italians headed to small towns whose citizens would welcome i villeggianti (vacationers) with open arms.  As a generation of movies depicts, Italians adopted new summer habits, that included wearing fashionable resort clothes (moda mare), tanning under the beach umbrellas (ombrelloni) and listening to fun summer songs thus fueling the image of a carefree country under the summer sun. Films such as “La spiaggia” (1954), “Il sorpasso” (1962) and “Sapore di mare” (1983) captured the atmosphere of those years.

In the 80s, la villeggiatura took a broader meaning as Italians began to yearn for a greater variety in their vacation destinations: in winter, many Italians would head to ski resorts in the Alps in a tradition called settimana bianca (white week). At the same time, i villaggi-vacanza (all-inclusive resorts) in exotic destinations became popular as well as traveling all’estero (to foreign cities and attractions). Italians have since adopted a more global approach to how they spend their free time and tend to explore new places.

This summer, due to Covid-19, Italians have given up trips abroad and resumed the practice of la villeggiatura in places close to home. For many, this time brings back memories of the effortless vacations of their childhood, and adds a sense of nostalgia for a time past.


YouTube Video on Villeggiatura (In Italian)

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