I dropped the ball on making a reservation for our Saturday night date. Fancy didn’t appeal to me, and I kind of liked the idea of stumbling into some place unexpected. We were turned away from three different restaurants before I suspected that something big was afoot. We made our way toward the new sushi place, which was a funny decision because in the piazza next to the sushi place loomed the beginnings of a crowd and a giant stack of wooden pallets topped with Christmas trees. Clearly we would not be sitting down for dinner this night. We ducked into a cafe for an Aperol Spritz and Googled “Varese bonfire” to learn more.
Each year on the 16th and 17th of January Varese celebrates the Feast of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of domestic animals. The first night, a bonfire is lit in front of the church at Piazza della Motta. The next day animals are blessed after mass, then children release balloons into the air. (You can get the full story here.)
Streets were lined with stalls selling donuts, crepes and vin brûlée. Our date night dinner consisted of a four-cheese polenta in an aluminum take out tray and plastic cups of Barbera from a cheese shop. We huddled in the crowd against the cold wind, waiting for the spectacle to unfold.
A procession of torches and a statue of Saint Anthony parted the crowd. The eerily lit statue reached its perch in the open doorway of the church and then the torches lit the fire.
Parents hoisted children onto their shoulders as the fire swept up the tower of pallets and the heat radiated into the square.
The crowd stood mesmerized by the fire (perhaps like us in awe of the fact that this could happen IN THE CITY) until the heat caused people to push away from it. Not to worry, water was periodically hosed onto the side of the fire closest to the church (where cloth banners billowed). And that fire burned big and bright.
We didn’t stay to see the fire fizzle out. My eyes were burning when we did leave, and we arrived home at a sensible 9:30 pm.
This spectacle was certainly a surprise to us, and we were delighted to witness such a purely Italian tradition. It reminded me of the time we stumbled upon a festival in Costa Rica. Sometimes the most interesting parts of our adventures are the ones that aren’t planned, aren’t they?