The Festa di Fuoco or the Fire Festival in southern Italy’s Salento region has all the hallmarks of a tradition dating back to a time before time. It happens each January when the local farmers begin to trim back the vina (grape vines) to make them ready for the coming season. The trimmed vines are collected by the cities and townships and piled into giant bonfires with firework spectaculars and concerts.
This year I attended the focara in Lecce and was greeted with a warmth amazing even for a fire festival. The focara, or bonfire, took place my second day in town and so my command of Italian topped out at “ciao” and “piacere.” It was lovely to find that my limited linguistics were taken in a stride unique to Italians and was maybe even considered charming.
We arrived near the festivities not very long before the main ceremony and met some of my host’s friends by chance. The attitude here about most everything is the more the merrier, we drank beer and wandered past stalls of nuts, candies and other confections to the main arena, where the local politicians made speeches about the coming year. We were waved into the area nearest the 25-meter pyramid of vines and so were almost able to see San Antonio, who is the saint loosely associated with the festival, on his gold-framed portrait atop the pyramid with some clarity. The pyrotechnics began, first a loud sweeping cloud of light along the bottom tier of the pyramid, which then climbed each tier before reaching the top and culminating in a sophisticated firework display with blasts that rained heart shaped sparks across the warm winter sky.
After about twenty-minutes the fireworks display ended and we began to visit and talk with other people in the crowd and I was asked by a local journalist, who hosts a television show about Salento’s attractions to talk about how it was to be an American experiencing the fire festival.
“Well, I don’t speak Italian,” I said.
“That’s not a problem,” she said. Since it wasn’t a problem, she found her camera crew and the best angle for poor San Antonio’s effigy to be seen in the background and we began our conversation. How does one express how surreal and fun it is to see something that has been happening for what must seem forever for the first time? I gushed effusively about the lights, the sound, the wine, the amazing hospitality of the people and how southern Italy is an amazing and often overlooked treasure.
I am not sure how all of this translated, and I hope my sincerity could be felt. Perhaps it was, because only a few minutes after the interview the mayor of the town stopped by to introduce himself and, I think, say welcome. I must admit that it was an awkward moment and we both stood grasping hands and staring as each other since, as I have mentioned, my Italian was tapped at ciao and piacere. His English was finished with “hello.” So it was an interesting moment; and after it was over we found a pizzeria and stopped in for a bite.
Let me qualify the word “bite”- a bite of pizza in southern Italy means your very own 14-inch pizza, and you are expected to finish all of it. I was only able to eat three pieces and the cook was ready to kick me out the door for insulting her food. This may sound like a scene from a movie, but it’s the way it is. After mending fences with the cook we returned to the festival site to catch the end of the concert. The band played a techno rock mix and the lead singer and guitarist staged a mock bullfight as the crowd chanted, “Torre, torre.” What fire festival would be complete without a bull?
Each night since the start of the festival the smaller towns have held their own focaras and fireworks displays. We have passed by dozens of farmers pruning their vines and burning the waste in preparation for the growing season, and I have been recognized by people in the street more than once because of the interview. Perhaps the fire has done its work and the wine season will be productive and profitable. Let’s hope so!
Written and photography by Kimberli Waack