Every summer on the weekend closest to June 24th, the Feast of Saint John the Baptist, the community of Ossuccio hosts the Sagra di San Giovanni festival. A prime example of how ancient rituals, long-held legends and factual history are jumbled together to create traditions, this Lake Como festival has evolved over the last 500 years. As many as 30,000 people now gather each year in the bay between Ossuccio and Isola di Comacina to watch the fireworks on Saturday night. Boats crowd around the island, viewing parties extend up the hillside and food stalls are set up in Ossuccio and Sala Comacina for locals and visitors alike to eat, drink and be merry. The display lasts almost an hour, with music and narration recounting a devastating battle on the island in 1169 and the fireworks echoing off the mountains surrounding the lake.
On Sunday morning, the festival takes a solemn turn, with the local priest leading a procession from Ossuccio to the island for a mass held at the ruins of Sant’Eufemia church. The dozens of locals in period costume make for quite a spectacle as they board the traditional Lucia boats, and the alfresco church service on the island to honor the relics rescued during that fierce battle over 800 years ago is quite moving. In the regatta of Lucia boats later that afternoon, local teams act out age-old rivalries and try to out-row each other to great fanfare. The food stalls reopen in the Ossuccio city park after the regatta for another night of food, wine and dancing under the stars.
Sagra di San Giovanni Lake Como FAQs
Why June 24?
The Gospel of Luke dates John the Baptist’s birth exactly six months before Jesus – or June 24 – and unlike other saints, the church celebrates John’s birthday rather than the day of his death. This may or may not have something to do with the summer solstice on June 21, a day for pagan celebrations across Europe for millennia, and certain heathen traditions – such as lighting bonfires – may or may not have been “adapted” for the religious rituals as a clever way to convert heathens. Either way, the San Giovanni festival is celebrated across the world on this day.
Why Isola Comacina?
For centuries, the island was embattled as a key strategic position – the Gauls and the Romans built fortifications there, the European powers that be batted it back and forth as a political football and it all came to a head in the 12th century, when Frederick Barbarossa and the Holy Roman Empire sided with Como against Isola Comacina and its Milanese allies, eventually burning the island down to the ground in revenge in 1169.
Why a religious procession?
Isola Comacina was not only strategic from a military perspective. The Catholic Church also gave the island church a place of prominence. Bishop of Como Saint Abundius, who was eventually canonized, built a primitive church there around 450 AD; 7th-century Bishop Agrippino expanded the church and chose it as his final resting place; Bishop Litigerio oversaw the erection of a Romanesque basilica at the site in the 11th century and made it the canonical college for the region. The Relics of the Martyrs, originally brought to the island by Sant Abundius 700 hundred years before, were saved on that night in 1169 when some brave islanders escaped by boat before the fire.
Why all the snail shells?
In the past, the dish most people ate at the San Giovanni festival was polenta and snails. The resourceful locals filled the shells with lamp oil or wax and used them as candles to create a magical atmosphere. In fact, eating snails is another vestige of the pagan solstice festival – when eating these “horned” creatures was symbolic for overcoming adversity.
Where to watch?
The best place to watch the fireworks display (assuming your hearing is not that sensitive!) is from a boat. Your captain will want to get into position early for the best viewing angle – don’t forget to bring some snacks and drinks for the wait. If you’re staying with us at the Palazzo, our new sundeck offers an ideal spot to watch the festivities from afar and you won’t have to worry about the noise – you might also end up celebrating with our owners! If you prefer to be in the thick of it in Ossuccio, getting there by car is not recommended. They close down a section of the lake road and parking is at a premium. Take the public ferry to the heart of the action, or better yet, book a ticket on one of the party boats provided by the ferry company and enjoy dinner and dancing as well as the fireworks display on the water.