Picture it: a romantic Italian village, set along a rocky coast, with a rainbow of pastel buildings, and walking trails that overlook the sea.
A town on par with the postcard-perfect towns of Cinque Terre, but without the crowds of tourists swinging selfie sticks around or clambering about with trekking poles.
Oh, and did we mention they’re known for freshly-caught seafood served up by local fisherman? We know, we should all go immediately!
The spot we’re talking about is the sleepy Italian fishing town of Camogli located along the coast south of Genoa in the region of Liguria. Since 1952, the town of Camogli has hosted a weekend-long festival dedicated, fittingly, to fish. Or more specifically, fried fish.
During the second weekend of May, this festival is held in honor of Saint Fortunato, the patron saint of the fisherman. Throughout the weekend the streets are lined with tents selling traditional Ligurian cuisine, but the must-see event is the Sagra del Pesce, or traditional fish festival, which takes place on Sunday.
Your Game Plan For The Sagra del Pesce
If you’re thinking about approaching Italian food festivals like you’d approach festivals in the States — arriving early in attempt to be the first in line so you don’t miss anything – get after it but know you’ll likely be one of the first to arrive.
On our trip to the Sagra del Pesce, we arrived uber early, and, aside from a handful of locals on a morning swim and the volunteers setting up for the festivities, the town was practically empty.
Arriving early still has its perks though because you can pre-game by noshing on a few local bites. First stop at a café, sip a cappuccino, and then order a pastry to porta via (as in to-go) and enjoy it on the beach as the town wakes up. After soaking up the morning sun, head on over to a classic Ligurian focacceria (Revello is a good bet) to grab a mid-morning snack of the famous Focaccia di Recco — aka Italian flatbread stuffed with stracchino cheese that hails from the town of Recco just down the road.
Once you're focaccia-d out, head over to the festival’s home base, Piazza Cristoforo Colombo. The main stage will be set up with easily one of the largest frying pans you’ll ever see: as in, 28 tons, 4 meters in diameter, and with a capacity of 3,000(!) liters of oil. Then around 9:30AM the welcoming ceremony kicks off.
As soon as it’s finished, the lines start forming. Take that as your cue to find the ticket booth: the ticket gets you entry into the festival, a souvenir plate, and most importantly, a basket of fried fish—more specifically acchiuge, or anchovies!
The Food Festival With A Purpose
We're particularly into this festival because it supports a great cause. As in proceeds from the festival are donated to the Camogli Fisherman’s Cooperative, which supports the Slow Food practice of tonnarella fishing. This centuries-old style of fishing is a simpler and smaller version of the tonnara fishing system wherein a few chambers come together with a net known as the pedale.
The Camgogli tonnarella is one of the few still active in Italy, the only one still in operation in Liguria. It’s a highly sustainable form of fishing that has been in place in Camogli for last hundred years and managed directly by the fishermen of nearby Punta Chiappa.
In 2017 the tonnarella system was severely damaged and it not only cut the fishing season short but was detrimental to the fisherman and, in turn, the town’s economy. Suffice it to say the proceeds from the festival have a real and immediate impact on the town and that’s something we can totally get behind.
A Lesson In How To Eat A Whole Fish
But back to the festival itself: after you get your ticket, head back to the piazza which will likely be filling up with visitors from around the country. The line for the fish weaves in and out of barriers and continues all the way along the beach where people anxiously await their lunch of fried fish.
Surrounding the piazza there will be clusters of people sipping on espresso or sharing a bottle of wine while journalists start up conversation with those waiting in line. Thankfully the line moves quickly so even if you jump in line later than expected (hey, we just couldn’t say no to a glass of wine overlooking the sea!) you’ll likely get through it in an hour.
After grabbing your fish, your next decision is where to eat. Most festival-goers head to the beach and eat with their toes in the sand. For a less crowded option, go to the stony boardwalk known as Via al Molo, which is the perfect spot for watching boats enter the port while still overlooking the lively city!
If you’re not a regular fried fish eater, don’t be deterred when staring down at your basket of fish even though you have no utensils and scales and fins are still intact. Do like the locals and pick up the whole fish then bite into it and eat it whole aside from the head, tail fin, and spiny backbone.
Once you've finished your fish festivities, you should definitely stay around and make a day of being in the area. For something more relaxing, you can stay put in Camogli and spend the day soaking up the sun on the beach, snacking on focaccia and gelato, or getting aperitivo at a local restaurant. However, if you’re looking for more of an adventure, you can walk down the coast towards the train station where you’ll find the entrance of the hiking trail to San Fruttuoso — a hidden gem only accessible by foot and boat! From here, you can continue hiking or take a boat taxi to Portofino and/or Santa Margherita Ligure!
While there are many festivals in the Liguria region centered around food (and even more throughout the whole country!), the fish festival is by far the most popular in this region. It truly showcases the Italian way of life of creating a community focused on food and supporting the fisherman that allow this coastal town to thrive.
The Sagra Del Pesce Itinerary
9:30 AM | Award ceremony for the “A Poster for the Sagra del Pesce” contest
10:00 AM | Blessing of the fish and frying pan
10:15 AM to 12:30 PM and 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM | Frying and distribution of the fish
How To Get To Camogli
The closest big city to Camogli is Genoa so you can train or drive from there. Keep in mind that parking is incredibly limited in Camogli, so it is recommended to arrive via train or by boat, from Genoa or other cities along the Ligurian Rivera (like, say, Santa Margherita Ligure, Portofino, or San Fruttuoso).
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