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Friday, 30 July 2010

The Miraculous Fruits of the Barabbata Festival, Marta, Italy

Written by Diana G. Armstrong
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The Miraculous Fruits of the Barabbata Festival, Marta, Italy, Barabbata, Madonna del Monte, May 14th, Lake Bolsena, travel Marta, Italian festivals, Diana G. Armstrong"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.

The Miraculous Fruits of the Barabbata Festival, Marta, Italy, Barabbata, Madonna del Monte, May 14th, Lake Bolsena, travel Marta, Italian festivals, Diana G. ArmstrongToday 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.

The Miraculous Fruits of the Barabbata Festival, Marta, Italy, Barabbata, Madonna del Monte, May 14th, Lake Bolsena, travel Marta, Italian festivals, Diana G. ArmstrongNext 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.


The reason for this whole parade is to honor Madonna del Monte. And it is here at her ancient church well above the town where the procession begins. Unfortunately for the parade, the road down to the lakefront cascades at a precipitous angle which is not ideal for the floats. It is especially challenging for the sheep wobbling on the back and the man tending his sausages as he walks behind, let alone for the people— donkeys and tractors are in charge of the floats. All are trying to hold their charges back from hurtling out of control down through the village and to the water's edge.

White Chiana cattle lurch by, decorated with huge red pom-poms dangling directly in front of their line of vision.

The Miraculous Fruits of the Barabbata Festival, Marta, Italy, Barabbata, Madonna del Monte, May 14th, Lake Bolsena, travel Marta, Italian festivals, Diana G. ArmstrongThe whole procession is received on the town piazza by the local town elders sitting on horses and dressed in their chaps made from long hair cattle. I had no idea Italy had cowboys (except, of course, on the Autostrada.)


The rain keeps on pouring down but nothing will stop the enthusiasm of the people on the floats or the locals watching.

As the parade winds down, we wander down to the lake and eat at the Ristorante da Otello. We order big bowls of lip-smacking Spaghetti all' Scoglio (Spaghetti of the Reef) which consists of a tantalizing array of freshly-caught fish and seafood nestling in spaghetti with a fragrant piquant red sauce spooned over the top for only 7 Euro.

They tell me at Otello Restaurant that the Barabbata actually dates back to ancient Etruscan times and is a celebration of the cycle of the seasons tied to a fertility rite. Lucky Madonna del Monte now claims this festival as her own.

We walk out of the restaurant, satisfied. The parade has come to its final halt. The proscuitto float has parked itself nearby under a tree. A large ham is hung from a lower branch and the farmer is expertly carving it with a massive sharp knife, and handing samples to the people.

And there go the uninformed tourists speeding right by this spectacle in Marta on their way from Rome to Tuscany.

©Diana G. Armstrong is an author, a cookbook author and a freelance writer of food and travel articles. Her recent book Somewhere South of Tuscany (April 2010) is available nationally. It focuses on restoring her 400 year old house and living and cooking in Italy. It may be viewed on her website www.DianaGArmstrong.com or www.Amazon.com . She lives in Lubriano a small village halfway between Rome and Florence.

*Many Italian festivals are tied into a certain day of the week, but not this one.  Barabbata is always on May 14th.

Local Information:
Marta is on the southern shore of Lake Bolsena, the cleanest and deepest lake in Italy. It is about 1 hour 15 minutes drive north-west of Rome.

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012