Novoli Focara

Salento is beautiful not only in summer; every period of the year tells us something about this land rich in ancient events and traditions, all to be discovered. If you are on holiday in Salento in January and you like traditional festivals, don’t miss the opportunity to participate in one of the most characteristic festivals in the world: the “Focara”. The Focara of Novoli is the most awaited annual event of the winter Salento, steeped in folklore, popular religiosity with an extraordinary setting of music, art, entertainment and food and wine.

Novoli Focara
Novoli Focara ©

Origins of the festival

The event has very ancient origins, as also demonstrated by the Novoli Fire Museum, inaugurated in 2015, which tells of the importance that fire had for the peasant community. On this date, in fact, in many centers in Salento, the founder of oriental monasticism, protector of animals and healer of herpes zoster, commonly called “St. Anthony’s fire“, is celebrated in a particular way. In honor of the saint, each district raises its own bonfire made of freshly pruned vine shoots which in Salento are called “franzuie” or also “sarmente“. At dusk of the festival, it soon becomes a place for abundant local barbecues.

Preparation of Novoli Focara

Novoli’s Focara is the most spectacular bonfire in the entire Mediterranean with a base of 20 meters in diameter and a height of 25, apparently made up of at least 80,000 bundles of vine shoots collected after pruning the vines. The magic of fire attracts everyone, around 200,000 are present waiting for the great event, numbers that give the dimension of how important the event is which is centered around a ritual that has its roots in popular peasant culture, supported by a particularly religious heard.

The festival, organized by the Puglia Region and the municipalities of Lecce and Novoli, with the collaboration of private individuals, is an asset of the intangible culture of Puglia. It participates in the ministerial cataloging for recognition by UNESCO as an intangible heritage asset of humanity.

The Focara di Novoli is prepared starting from the beginning of December, by transporting the vine shoots, the celebrations culminate on 16 and 17 January with the lighting of the Focara, but the festival officially begins at dawn on 7 January, when the farmers begin to stack the bundles of vines, and it ends on January 18th with the “festa te li paesani”.

What happens during the event?

During the morning of the eve of the event, the image of the Saint is hoisted to the top of the pyre with the ritual of “barding“. The parish priest, in the presence of the civil and military authorities, blesses the Focara, starting the celebrations.

The highlight of the show is the lighting of the Focara (16 January), through a fireworks display, with a wonderful series of fireworks. A very long fuse is carried from the entrance of the church to the top of Focara, until the last series of fires lights the pile of wood in the general jubilation.

Novoli Focara
Novoli Focara ©

Every year the builders of the Focara di Novoli undertake to vary its shape, sometimes leaving a central opening, called “the gallery“, which during the procession is crossed by the procession accompanying the statue of the saint.

Music, artistic performances, painting and photography exhibitions, food and wine events and exhibitions, book presentations, meetings and debates enliven the event and cloak it with a high cultural depth, capable of reinterpreting the ritual, a reason for pride for all of Salento.

In the name of music around the fire, the Focara Festival has consolidated over the years and has seen renowned artists parade on stage. An example are Vinicio Capossela, Eugenio Bennato, Caparezza and Enzo Avitabile

The celebration continues in the following days with other important rites including the blessing of the animals, the solemn mass in honor of the Saint, and the procession; the blessing of the animals is a very important moment since, being a people of peasant origin and Saint Anthony being of humble origins, he was considered the protector of animals.

The mass

Great turnout and participation are seen during the mass in honor of the Protector Saint during which the “sandwiches of St. Anthony” are distributed, which, according to tradition, have the power to bring physical and spiritual healing.

At the end of the mass, the procession of Saint Anthony begins with the statue of the Saint, carried on the shoulders of the devotees followed by the crowd of faithful.

The procession has undergone some changes over time. In fact, years ago, many people completed the entire procession route barefoot, probably as a sign of gratitude for a grace received. They also held large candles in their hands, forming the so-called ‘nturciata (twisted). During the procession there was the custom of lighting the so-called strascina, that is, a very long battery of fireworks.

The current procession ends with the return of the statue of the Saint to the pizza where it is welcomed by choreographed Bengalatas, at the end of which the statue returns to the church and is placed on a throne adorned with floral decorations.

Typical gastronomy during the Focara di Novoli

Around the Fòcara, between music and dance, the live area will be to be enjoyed with typical local products.

Tradition has it that during the celebrations of January 17th, the feast day of the Patron Saint, both meat and dairy products are banned from the table. We dine on fish, so much so that on the occasion of the event the town has an exceptional fish market. Characteristic is the cod soup with gnocchi and fish scapece, a delicious vinegar marinade seasoned with saffron and breadcrumbs.

To complete lunches and dinners, the tables are adorned with characteristic Salento dishes, such as pittule, purciddhruzzi and cartiddhrate. Everything is accompanied by local wine excellences, Moscato and Negroamaro. The people who gather around the bonfire warm up to the sound of pizzica or enjoy a sandwich with turcinieddrhi (meat).

The Focara di Novoli event is truly a unique, enchanting and magical event. All this is made possible thanks to the union of a primordial element such as fire and the popular Salento tradition.

If you have decided to organize a holiday in Salento in winter, my advice is therefore not to miss it!

Santa Cristina festivals, Gallipoli ©
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