"Our float parade, Signora, each year these crazy people, they try to make it more special. For five hundred years these people are trying to out-do l'anno scorso (last year)." says the 80 year old barista. I am in a caffe in Marta—a small fishing village on the shores of Lake Bolsena, about 80 miles north of the center of Rome.
We have a home only 20 miles away from Marta. I tell my neighbor Pasquina I am off to the Barabbata in Marta and she tells me she did go to see it once but it was forty years ago. Italians are very territorial when it comes to their festivals. Marta is out of our zone. I have lived in this area for nine years and I never knew about this festival, so it goes unmentioned in my recently published book Somewhere South of Tuscany which chronicles life in this part of the world. What a pity…
Every May 14th * for the past five hundred and fifteen years, Marta has put on their Barabbata. Each year this little village in Tuscia, situated in the ancient Etruscan homeland, has shown off what it can do with its land. It is a float parade of the most unusual proportions.
Today it is pouring with rain, but we are here anyway.. The first float is an ancient wagon with a whole flock of sheep unsteadily balancing on its platform. They are carefully guarded by a stolid sheep dog and a pleased shepherd with his crook and all. He is dressed as he would have been five hundred years ago. The sheep and sheep-dog have looks of indignant resignation.
Their rear-guard is a group of contadini —farmers, marching with scythes held as a soldier would hold a rifle.
Next to come by is a float with fisherman. Their catch of the day is beautifully displayed on a bed of flowers of sunshine yellow ginestra and magenta roses. This 21st century vehicle has its modern façade completely camouflaged with intricate sheaves of wheat. My husband jumps back into the crowd of spectators as he finds himself connecting with a yard-long fish They make eye contact and he realizes the fish is still alive.
This is followed by a bunch of equally anciently dressed farmers tending to their float which is a full sausage and proscuitto making operation. One of the farmers is walking behind the float tending a brazier— cooking sausages. He has a small piece of bamboo he uses to blow on the coals to keep them lit as he marches and cooks simultaneously.
An olive press comes by with olive oil flowing out of it into a wooden barrel. Then a float appears belonging to a local vineyard with its wine press in full swing. The vineyard float is very popular.
More floats come, some filled with fruits and vegetables displayed in intricate patterns. Many are topped with in-season purple artichokes, big red tomatoes, and arbors of roses and Gerber daisies.