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Italy – Festa di San Matteo

It was Saturday morning, our last day in Salerno before returning to Rome and then home.  Our host asked us if we would be staying to watch the festival.  When we asked “what festival?” he explained.

It seems that San Matteo is the patron saint of Salerno and this was the day dedicated to his honor.  Our host told us that there would be a huge celebration.  The entire city would participate.  The day would be taken up with music, speeches, and parades culminating in the saint’s image and relics being taken out of the cathedral and carried through the streets.

I was excited by his news.  This kind of celebration was something I had read about many times but had never actually experienced.  I hadn’t known this was happening, but here I was in the midst of it.  Part of me wanted to put all other plans on hold and spend the day immersed in the festival; however, this was the day we had planned to spend outside the city at Pompeii.

The opportunity to see that amazing archaeological site was one of the key reasons I chose to come to Salerno.  It was also very important to our daughter.  With that in mind, I reluctantly decided I could not suggest we change our plans.  So, as planned, we descended via the public elevator to sea level and, like every day before, walked to our favorite tiny café for our version of a classic Italian breakfast, a cafe americano and a cornetto (Italian version of a croissant).

Once we were properly fortified, we walked ¾ mile down the main shopping street (Via Vittorio Emmanuel – as in every other southern Italian city we had visited) to the train station.

As we walked along, it was clear something different was happening.  The street was packed with people – especially families.  Children are almost always present on the streets in Salerno, but they were particularly in evidence that morning.  So were vendors selling balloons, small carnival style toys, noise-makers, and the Italian versions of  all the sorts of things we would associate with a public holiday, banners, street musicians, face painting, and big groups of friends/families gathering, talking and laughing.  We made it to the station, caught our train and headed off to a full afternoon of prowling through the streets of Pompeii.

Pompeii is truly amazing; not only for the sheer scale of it (it is a huge site; only partially excavated even now) but for the similarities it bears to our own small towns and the way we live 2000 years later.  We saw mansions and  hovels, gymnasiums and theaters, paved streets lined with fast food establishments and taverns, marketplaces and municipal buildings.  Every few blocks there were public water taps.  We walked and walked for hours and covered what seemed like miles, and still we only managed to see most, not all of the excavated portion of the site.  By the time we headed back to Salerno we were all exhausted, sun-baked, and foot-sore.

The afternoon was waning and sunset was on its way as we got off the train in Salerno.  We walked out of the station into a huge crowd of people!  The sides of the main street were jammed tight with pedestrians and the center was roped off to make room for marching bands and a procession of priests and altar boys in full festival vestments carrying candles and censors, accompanying the floats bearing the symbols of the saint and the Church.

Our apartment and the small public elevator that scaled the high, vertical cliff to our apartment were both directly behind the cathedral that was the focus and destination of the religious aspects of the celebration. that meant that we had to get to the other end of the parade route 3/4 miles north.   We  looked at the situation and decided the best course was to move west two blocks toward the harbor until we came to the tree-shaded walk along the seafront that is the pride and signature of Salerno.  There the pressure of the crowd let up and we were able to move with relative ease toward the cathedral.

We made our way north with the harbor and the open sea fifty yards on our right and the fringe of the crowds on our left.  As we went forward, we heard different bands playing every few blocks; their brassy marches competing with the laughter and screams of the people on the garishly lit  rides at the traveling carnival set up by the harbor.   I was expecting to hear what sort of music Italians had written for marching bands, so imagine how surprised I was to hear most of the bands playing American patriotic marches written by John Philip Sousa!

In spite of the crowds, we managed to make it to our rooms in time to watch the sun set over the Tyrrhenian Sea.  That was when the fireworks started.

These were not the large, bright, formal, municipal fireworks we might see on Fourth of July.  They were not shot high into the sky over the city from some distant, safe launch pad.  These were smaller, private fireworks that never rose above the height of the buildings.  Their primary impact was created by the loud explosions that they produced.  The streets immediately surrounding the cathedral and immediately below our apartment were shrouded in smoke and periodically shook with burst after burst of loud explosions for two or more hours after sunset.

The next morning, as we headed down for our last americano and cornetto in Salerno, we walked through streets littered with the debris left by the fireworks and the thousands of bodies that had been packed together partying there for hours into the night.


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