It’s the biggest food fight in Italy with 700 tons of oranges used as ammunition during the three-day battle. It commemorates the people’s rebellion against the city’s medieval tyrant, with aranceri (orange-throwers) on 50 horse-drawn carts representing the tyrant’s soldiers pitted against teams of aranceri on the ground. All spectators must wear the red Phrygian cap to show their support of the rebellion otherwise, as I witnessed, aranceri deem it acceptable to lob oranges at those bare-headed while shouting ‘traitor’. The battle is violent, exhilarating and very messy. If you’re sneaky, as I was, you can pick up oranges from the ground and join in (which is technically not allowed but rarely enforced), but being hit by a speeding orange is also an important rite of passage.
2. A Vespa ride
An old 50 Special Vespa is the perfect mode of transport in summer: fast enough to keep you cool but slow enough to allow you to gaze dreamily at the passing landscape. You could channel Roman Holiday weaving smugly between cars stuck in traffic jams and fluttering a passing wave at the Colosseum. Or, my favourite, take to the hills of Tuscany, the Colli Bolognesi, or the Colli Euganei and meander from one hilltop village to another, flying down sun-dappled lanes and then struggling hilariously to get back up in first gear. A handsome Italian man is also a good accessory for your Vespa.
3. An Aperitivo in Venice
The legendary ‘aperitivo’ has exploded in popularity outside of Italy, but nothing can replicate an evening bar-hopping in Venice, home to the Spritz no less. Lighting up canal-sides or squeezed into cupboard-like corners of piazza, the bacaro (the traditional Venetian bar) is dark, wooden-beamed and atmospheric. Here you can choose from a variety of aperitivo drinks, including prosecco, Campari spritz, or the Venetian speciality spritz with Select, along with a few cicchetti (Venetian tapas) to stave off the hunger. My favourite bar crawl route is along the Fondamenta della Misericordia, with a special stop at Al Timon for the boat terrace outside.
4. Eat at a Sagra
Forget Michelin starred restaurants, for some of the best Italian food you need to sit in a marquee, eat using plastic cutlery, and drink enough to join in the end of meal raffle. A sagra is a food festival celebrating a particular product in season at that time, from snails to clams and from the chestnut to the jujube berry. It’s usually a pretty raucous affair, but then it wouldn’t be a true Italian dining experience otherwise. Every year we go to our local sagre, but we’re still waiting on that coveted first prize in the raffle – a donkey.
5. Walk a Pilgrimage Route
You don’t have to be religious to appreciate this experience. You can do it for the history, for the art, or even just for the exercise as many locals do in Bologna when they take the 666 stepped porticoes up the hill to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca. Pilgrimage routes are Italy’s medieval arteries. Hiking the Via Francigena, which begins in England, passes through France and finishes in Rome, is one of my dreams, but less demanding routes are also possible. Bologna’s porticoes take around an hour to climb and at the top you can find a stunning sunset view. Alternatively you could visit the house of the Virgin Mary in the Basilica of Loreto. These experiences are humbling and moving, whatever your religious or non-religious orientation.
6. Stay in a Cave
There are a surprising number of towns in Italy with still-inhabited cave dwellings, albeit a little modernized since their medieval beginnings. Matera, in the south of Italy, is one of the most famous as its honeycomb network of caves has been inhabited since prehistoric times. In the 50s residents were desperately poor, disease-ridden and starving, so the government forcibly moved them to newly built tower blocks. After several decades of abandonment these caves are being rediscovered, so much so that there is a hotel offering a night in a cave for around 500 euros. If you’re on more of a budget there are several towns in Tuscany and Lazio with caves dug into the soft tufo rock, and a few are available for rent on Airbnb. Waking up beneath a rocky ceiling and opening the door onto the rugged cliffs and houses of Pitigliano, Tuscany, was a pretty special experience.
Rebecca is a travel writer about Italy and author behind the blog La Brutta Figura. Her latest challenge is to visit all of the 'borghi più belli d'Italia', the most beautiful villages in Italy, preferably on her light blue Vespa. She writes about all things local and unusual, including where to eat on a private beach on the Amalfi Coast, where to eat in a wine barrel in South Tyrol, and where you can visit a wine festival on a paradisiacal island.