By Dom Nozzi
Each evening, between the hours of 5 pm and 8 pm, Italians take to the streets, to walk and socialize, in a nightly ritual called “La Passeggiata” (Merriam-Webster defines this lovely Italian term as “a traditional evening stroll in the central plaza by a town’s residents”). Sociologists label la passeggiata a cultural performance, and on Saturdays and Sundays entire families participate, this frequently being the main social event of the day. Afterward, everyone heads home together for the evening meal.
For Maggie and I, la passeggiata is one of our favorite treats when we visit an Italian town. It is the much-loved evening community stroll, and we love encountering it.
The passeggiata in Palermo mostly occurs on their main walking street (Via Maqueda), and it is an unforgettable, inspiring sight to see. This link is a video I shot as we joined the stroll.
Via Maqueda is a large street, yet like our recent experience in Bologna, la passeggiata so fills the large street that it is a gridlock of pedestrian congestion that one normally only sees with a road clogged with cars.
But in contrast to car congestion, when everyone is angry with everyone else on the road, pedestrian congestion adds to the sociable joy of being on common ground with other people. As Dan Burden once said, cars are happiest when there are no other cars around. People are happiest when there are other people around.
One of many things that makes me proud to be an Italian is this lovely Italian tradition.
As I understand it, the size and popularity of la passeggiata on Via Maqueda has been growing over the years (it became a walking street in June 2018). I believe that is because such an event benefits from being a self-perpetuating virtuous cycle. That is, because humans are a social species and our world tends to isolate us from each other, something that draws people to sociably be with others is so enjoyable, so rare, and such a people-watching treat that others in the city start learning about the enjoyable event and join in. And this growing number of participants induces even more to join as word about it is spread (or people encounter it on their own). And so on and so on.
La passeggiata is, in the words of urban designers, a “social condenser” that most humans seek out to enjoy.
In my view, all cities, to be healthy, should have a nightly passeggiata.
In her book titled The Passeggiata and Popular Culture in an Italian Town, Giovanna Delnegro states that this custom “reinforces a sense of belonging. Individuals greet their friends and acquaintances while sharing all the latest news and gossip. Women frequently hold hands, walking together in what appears as an informal parade. As they mark the end of the workday, men can be heard to say andiamo a fare qualche vasca, or ‘let’s go do some laps.’ Not only is the custom of la passeggiata a social bonding experience, but also good exercise, and I can use all that I can get!”
According to Margie Miklas, “one of the original purposes of la passeggiata was to display the charms of young women who were eligible to be married, and in this process, parents of these girls encouraged them to be flirtatious. They wanted their daughters to fare una bella figura, or to look good. This could be one of the reasons that generally people change their clothing after working, and put on their finer attire, dressing to impress, for the evening stroll. The goal is, after all, or to see and be seen.
“In the larger cities such as Rome, some streets are just packed with people, making it nearly impossible for cars to get by. One of these streets, in particular, is Via del Corso, known for its shopping. As people are walking, it is not uncommon for them to stop and do some window shopping. Another favorite spot for everyone to congregate during this evening ritual is the piazza, and Piazza Navona is a wonderfully entertaining spot. Usually in the early evenings, you will find mimes performing, musicians entertaining and vendors demonstrating the latest new items. Piazza di Spagna, or the Spanish Steps, becomes another crowded spot for la passeggiata.
“As an integral part of everyday life in Italy, la passeggiata is an endearing custom in Italy, one that I enjoy very much. Italians like to share things and be with one another, and they like to be outside, as their homes are frequently small. Unless it is raining, you can count on la passeggiata to occur in every city, town, and village in Italy every day of every week.”