We got back from a week in Sicily on Sunday. It was our first holiday as a family of four, and – aside from a long delay at the airport due to a mix-up with our keys (to be fair, two screaming kids in the Europcar office probably sped things up a bit) and an incident with a pigeon on our return (I’m sure the home insurance man was trying not to laugh when I told him a pigeon had trashed my house while I was away) – we had a really lovely time.
I’ve got about 857 posts planned about our trip, and I should probably write them in some kind of order. But there was one thing that happened while we were out there that stood out: the Festa di San Paolo, in Palazzolo Acreide, the closest town to our villa. So I’m going to tell you about that first.
Festa di San Paolo – fireworks, fanfare and the four of us
It was pure coincidence that the event coincided with our holiday – I found out about it when Googling things to do in Palazzolo Acreide before we set off – and there wasn’t a great deal of information about it online. For that reason we were a bit worried about taking the kids (we’re not particularly confident travellers), but decided it’d be a shame to miss out as it was so close by.
I’m so glad we went. Palazzolo Acreide isn’t a big place – it’s a typical Sicilian town in the province of Syracuse, one of the island’s biggest names in terms of history thanks to a wealth of Greek ruins. For that reason, most tourists tend to stick to the city of Siracusa itself (particularly the area of Ortigia), or make a beeline for the resorts along the coast, rather than stepping off the beaten track.
On June 29th though, it felt like all of Sicily had come out to play. We arrived at one of Palazzolo Acreide’s many churches at 10.30am, just in time to catch a procession of marching bands, school children and horses parading through the town. The kids were gripped. Once they’d passed, we attempted to navigate our way to the Chiesa di San Paolo – where the main event was due to happen, according to our programme – via a few snack stop-offs.
We got to the church a bit early and, having snagged a great spot in the main square at 11.30, we realised there was no way the kids were going to wait an hour and a half. The crowds were beginning to build up as the locals assumed their positions, so we broke free from the throng and went for a wander down the main side-street that leads away from the church square. It’s lined with market stalls in the shade along the right hand side – you can’t miss it. We found a little (and I mean little) play area at the end and let the kids run about a bit until it was time to head back towards the church.
The main event – the craziest display I’ve ever seen
By this time it had really filled up and there was no way of getting to our original spot, but we found a space that was close enough to see part of the church at least. At 1pm sharp the church bells rang out and a pair of cherubs descended from the top of the tower down into the square, a trail of paper streamers following behind them.
From that moment on, all hell broke loose. The sky filled first with fireworks, then huge clouds of coloured smoke, then plumes of paper streamers that filled the air with fluttering confetti. The noise was deafening – it felt like we were in a war zone, with mortars going off in every direction – and the whole thing went on for a solid ten minutes. To get a feel for it, take a look at this video, which is the best I’ve found so far. But it’s really got to be seen (or heard) to be believed, so if you’re visiting Sicily in June it’s well worth timing your trip around this.
Afterwards – photographs in a sea of streamers
When it had all finally died down and the crowds – including us – had dispersed to follow the procession of the basilica (hoardes of men heave a giant icon of St Paul around the town, groaning and sweating under the sheer weight of the thing, while the two men up the top present naked babies from the crowd to the saint – yes, really), we decided to nip back to the square. It was a good decision – minus the thousands of people, the streets looked like they’d been coloured in with highlighter pens. Paper streamers filled every square inch of floor space and trickled down steps like psychedelic streams of water. The kids were IN HEAVEN. We let them loose in the stuff and they had a whale of a time, only stopping when a huge digger came to start the clean-up.
After a bit more wandering and a quick pit-stop for lunch (there’s an unassuming little shop on the square that does delicious rolls filled with prosciutto) we set off back to our villa with cameras full of photographs and heads full of memories, and it remains the standout event of the holiday. If you’re thinking of going, or your holiday to Sicily coincides with the event, here are our tips to make sure you get the most from it.
Our top tips for visiting the Festa Di San Paolo in Sicily
1. Get there early. For the buzz, yes, but also just to get a good spot. If you’ve got older kids you’ll be able to head closer to the church itself but it’s worth knowing people find a spot from about two hours beforehand and then don’t budge.
2. Take a baby carrier if you can. We took our buggy as the youngest isn’t a huge fan of the carrier, and the eldest is still too young to walk everywhere, but it was a bit cumbersome in the crowds and the view from down there can’t have been great.
3. Bring some shade. A buggy shade, a hat, some suncream – whatever. It all happens in the heat of the midday sun and there’s very little shade, so it’s best to be prepared.
4. Be warned: it’s loud. It’s probably the loudest thing I’ve heard in my life, and my 20-month-old wasn’t particularly impressed at first, so you may want to bring ear defenders if you’ve got a young baby.
5. Go back to the church afterwards. Head back to the main area once the crowds have cleared – the streets are blanketed in neon-bright paper streamers and it makes for a great photo opportunity.
6. Come back in the evening. There’s a huge fireworks display at midnight and, while we didn’t get to see it, it must be pretty special if it’s anything like the daytime event. There are illuminations all around the square, too, and various events in the run-up to the fireworks display.
7. Get hold of a programme if possible. Ours was in our villa, but if you can find one it’ll come in handy to find out timings for everything. It also includes details of the various events that happen in the days leading up to the 29th – there were things listed from the 24th onwards, although the 29th is definitely the climax.
There’s more information about the event here, and the Festa di San Paolo Facebook page is handy, too. Everything’s in Italian, but you’ll get the jist. And if you’re looking for info on mainland Italy, take a look at this post about visiting Tuscany with a baby.