Written by Lilli St. George; CNN
Standing on the pier at the 19th-century Renaissance-era Monte Cataldo harborside park, a small group of students in swimsuits form a large beach party. They start to move, heading to shore and loudly celebrating life with a hairdo symbolizing the recognition of “liberty, equality, fraternity.”
At that moment, those gathered at Monte Cataldo are immersed in a cultural tourism experience they almost haven’t noticed yet: North Italian seaside Dances of the Strand, a unique cultural phenomenon — a “fifth tourism” — that employs the same spirit, and spirit, as that of traditional Italian towns.
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Touring Italy’s tristesse
The concept of tristesse — literally the word’s meaning for “streets with people walking on them,” which was introduced in the 16th century — is spreading in Italy, further in northern Italy, and to greater spread than ever in northern Italy.
“It’s a great new concept. We are discovering the windy, Mediterranean area in northern Italy, where it’s more windy than in the Apennines,” says Lola Locatelli, a maker of textiles and traditional dresses in Piazza Maggiore, Florence.
Locatelli, 31, has worked on, among other things, making sweaters and baby suits for professional dancers in Siena, since her childhood. In 2009, she opened a shop in Florence and three years later, she made the major milestone of launching her women’s clothing line at Florence’s Florence Expo.
In Italy’s northern regions, traditional cultural tourism is part of many communities’ identity. In some cases, like in Sardinia’s Manaravea village, these festivals are so well-known that tourists can count on them: despite the high-tension gridlock that engulfs the area at certain times of year, in July and August, temperatures reach a stunning 65 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius).
Locatelli and others say the local character of these popular traditions bring a small but vital entertainment section to the vacation and tourism market.
What keeps these traditions alive is traditions that make participation simple, made inexpensive and expressed with a not-so-dated excitement, says Remo Scaglia, a professor at the Art and Design Institute of Spalto, in Brescia, in northern Italy.
Dances meant to preserve the spirit of a town’s past are ancient ones like the local New Year’s dance, held each year in the market town of Ventacchio, or the bell-ringing Carnival in Agrigento, Sicily. While widely available in other parts of the world, the Italian tradition of Dances of the Strand is similarly hidden, to its credit.
The dances have shown up in Montalcino, Assisi, Tuscany and other cities, and in some cases, new traditions have emerged. During Italy’s opening film festival in Venice, organizers believed that a dance called “Paolucco” — a giant twist, going around corners — was present at the 15th-century Villa Filippi. When they scouted the interior of the house for the dance floor, however, they found out that the same dance had already been filmed there over 100 years ago, in the late 1700s.
Aching cravings and restoring spirit
The separation of these shows from tourism was not as much a problem as the dwindling attention of the churches and universities, and, finally, the holidays, says Paola Figliolia, the communications director of La Terrazza, an Italian regional tourism agency for the north, in Genoa.
The gated communities and industrial towns that line the coasts, the towns of Tuscany, Lombardy and the Emilia Romagna, like many other Italian villages in northern Italy, have been devastated by the auto industry. The Merino-alpaca motorbike makers that formed the heart of the local economy are long gone.
But visitors and locals alike have found ways to revive the culture of tradition that once gripped these neighborhoods. A growing number of venues — events, meetups, dance parties — have sprung up that are participating in cultivating local identity and tourism.