If you’re city-hopping in Italy, and why wouldn’t you be, the 15th of August is not a date you want to be unprepared for.

As a rule, big Italian cities already tend to shut down during the summer. That’s right, Italian public transport is not usually that bad: they make a special effort during the summer. Many a shopkeeper takes to the beaches without a single thought to how that’s going to affect your shopping experience, and restaurants sometimes run out of that one thing that you wanted on the menu of a thousand items.

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That’s peanuts. On the 15th of August, on a day usually called Ferragosto, the entire country shuts down.

Ferragosto is nothing new, we’re talking ancient Roman tradition here. Named after a celebration initiated by the emperor who named the month itself, Feriae Augusti by Augustus in 18bc, it’s a bank holiday inconveniently placed smack in the middle of your holiday.

The first rule of surviving Ferragosto is to know it’s coming. Stock up on cigarettes, drinks, magazines and other necessities. In recent years a few services remain open, but most shops will close for the day, and getting your dose of relaxation may end up costing you a long walk in the hottest month of the year. You don’t want that.

[quote_box_right]At the start of this century, Ferragosto traditionally became the day when middle class families stuck in their city apartments would take to the seaside in colossal migrations of glittering family cars on Italy’s usually free-flowing highways.[/quote_box_right]

The second rule of surviving Ferragosto is, therefore, to avoid the seaside at all costs. If you’re in a city stay there, if you were sunbathing on the beach plan a trip to the nearest town. There are just under 60 million Italians, and a good 25 will be heading for your spot specifically. Don’t give them the satisfaction, and head in the opposite direction.

Rome is a particularly accommodating city. When an enterprising bunch of shopkeepers realized that shutting down in the middle of the tourist season may not be the best thing for business, they started keeping large sections of the city center open, just for you, even on Ferragosto.

Not every boutique participates, but the center of Rome on the 15th of August is not the wasteland that it is in other Italian cities. In line with the same reasoning, the municipality of Roma (and many other Italian cities, in all honesty), keeps its museums open all day, so on this day of unfortunate beach invasion, you’ll finally get a chance to get your culture on.

If culture is your thing, there’s all kinds of theater and open air concerts going on, most of which are set up specifically to celebrate this holiday itself.

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Whatever you do, however, plan your trips carefully, and make sure that your buses and trains actually run on Ferragosto. The already rickety public transportation system tends to suffer even more interruptions than usual, and many a service has taken to purposefully reducing rides on the day, to control some of the damage.

Ferragosto has the potential to be your worst holiday nightmare: stuck in a foreign city, cut off from your supply of smokes and booze, unable to shop and with nary a nice waiter to talk to. On the other hand, it can also be your chance to be one of those savvy tourists who know how to grab the sleeping bull by the horns, and have a quiet look around its private parts.

If you plan and execute it right, you’ll be able to enjoy the full beauty of any Italian city in a way that no other tourist will: all to yourself.
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Bella isn't Bella's real name, but Swindon comes dangerously close to being her real last name. She's our resident traveling reporter, and will be checking in with her stories from all over the world. If only she weren't so camera shy...

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