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Italian Customs and Traditions: La Passeggiata

A passionate traveler, Suzanne has spent time in different regions of Italy, particularly Puglia in southern Italy, and is studying Italian.

San Michele Salentino Piazza

San Michele Salentino Piazza

An Old Italian Custom

When I started thinking about the first time La Passeggiata (pa-se-ja-ta) came to my attention, it was not on my first visit to Italy, which was to the Eternal City of Rome, but on my second.

I witnessed this time-old Italian custom in a tiny village I fell in love with. Since then it has become the warmest welcome each time I return. So what is this most precious tradition I refer to?

La Passeggiata stems from the Italian verb "passeggiare", meaning to stroll or take a slow walk, emphasis on the slow, but it is SO MUCH more than that.

Piazza Carrignano, Torino

Piazza Carrignano, Torino

San Michele Salentino, Italy

When in Italy . . .

Picture the scene if you will. Two casually attired weary travellers pull up in a bright yellow Panda in the small sleepy town of San Michele Salentino (san /me-kay-lay/ sal-en-tino) on the southeast coast of Italy, as the sun bears farewell for the day.

Getting out of the car to stretch our legs, our first thought was “It seems very busy here on the piazza” (the village square), having taken a quick scan around.

As we looked closer, there were men of all ages walking slowly in small groups up and down this tiny square, chatting away, laughing, stopping when they reached the end and repeating the walk again. This they did many times.

We were fascinated. There were small cafes and a few takeaway eateries that had groups of men standing and sitting outside enjoying the last rays of the day, sipping a red wine or indulging in an espresso. Why was it only men? Were the Italian mamas not welcome?

The piazza that follows the Italian custom and traditional ritual of taking a nightly stroll.

The piazza that follows the Italian custom and traditional ritual of taking a nightly stroll.

Italian Etiquette

What we were seeing was a custom and tradition practiced in every Italian city, town and village that is the most Italian part of any day. Between the hours of 5 pm and 8 pm, there is a mass exodus from the businesses and homes as the passionate Italians take to the streets.

La Passeggiata is the social event of the day where friends can meet and catch up on the day’s activities. Women look for the latest bit of gossip or scandal while interlinking arms and at weekends it is a family occasion with the entire famiglia going for a stroll.

Many Italians will go for an unplanned spontaneous dinner with friends they meet on their stroll so being appropriately attired makes sense. In the summer months at the weekends, Italian families often decide to take a special passeggiata and head to the lakes or seaside towns for their stroll.

Italian cultural etiquette has long been recognised throughout the world as having three big areas of focus. The importance of the family and friends, the deep faith they have in their chosen church or religion and the importance they hold on dressing smartly with close attention paid to making an impression. First impressions are very important to Italians so this code of etiquette should not be underestimated.

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The Italian mamas catching up on the latest gossip during La Passeggiata in Florence.

The Italian mamas catching up on the latest gossip during La Passeggiata in Florence.

La Passeggiata - the father and sister of the painter. Painted by Vincenzo Cabianca (1867).

La Passeggiata - the father and sister of the painter. Painted by Vincenzo Cabianca (1867).

Origins of La Passeggiata

La Passeggiata signifies the time to “dress to impress” and “to see and be seen”. With Italian social etiquette being steeped in social behavior and traditions, reputation and consideration of others are important.

It was originally the custom for young women ready for marriage to be dressed in their best clothes and displayed in this manner by their families as image was important. They were also encouraged to flirt with all available men who were potential husband material during the walk. No doubt the mamas and papas would be keeping a close eye on any developments!

Today more often than not, many Italians will go home to change to make sure they are “fare la bella figura” or ‘cutting a beautiful figure’ before taking their evening passeggiata before dinner.

To see and be seen above Piazza Spagna, Rome

To see and be seen above Piazza Spagna, Rome

A Custom in All of Italy

In the big cities for example, la passeggiata will often take place in the main pedestrian zones, main streets and piazzas.

In Rome for example, the swell of people down the main shopping hub of Via Del Corso often brings traffic to a standstill as those out on their stroll do a bit of window shopping. A favourite venue is to head to the piazza and the two most famous and busy ones in Rome are Piazza Di Spagna or Spanish Steps and Piazza Navona.

In the smaller towns and villages for the evening stroll, just head to the central piazza or main street usually found in the historic centre or centro storico. During the week it signifies the end of the working day and it will be predominantly men that are doing their laps of the piazza, before heading home for mama's rustic cooking with the family.

Dress to impress—Italian style.

Dress to impress—Italian style.

A Memory to Cherish

Our first encounter was one we cherish. We have since experienced la passeggiata in many small towns in southern Italy and it is such a charming ritual, steeped in tradition.

It unites young and old within the community and keeps the flames of culture burning bright. If you find yourself out and about enjoying Italy, don’t be taken by surprise if you get swept along with the crowds.

If you go with it and embrace this important Italian custom, you will leave knowing you were part of something very special and you will be enriched by la passeggiata.

Ciao!

© 2012 Suzanne Ridgeway

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