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Florence: The Best Festivals and Celebrations

Florence's Gioco di Calcio: First, divide the city into its traditional neighborhoods, cover Piazza Santa Croce with dirt, and don Renaissance costumes. Next, combine two parts soccer, one part rugby, one part football, and a heaping helping of ice-hockey attitude. This game, in which a few dozen men forget all the rules as they do anything they can to score goals, makes regular soccer look like croquet on Quaaludes. Give the winners a whole calf to roast in the streets and write it all off in honor of St. John the Baptist.

Siena's Palio: Anything goes at this bareback, breakneck horse race around the dirt-packed Il Campo, and the competitive contrade (traditional neighborhood wards) usually make sure everything does. The square is filled with costumed pageantry before the race, and massive feasts are set up on long outdoor tables that can stretch for blocks on the medieval side streets.

Prato's Display of the Virgin's Girdle: Prato keeps the Madonna's girdle under heavy lock and key year-round, but takes it out occasionally, amid much religious pomp and some medieval drum rolling, to show it to the crowds massed on the piazza.

Arezzo's Giostra del Saracino: Arezzo really comes alive for this Renaissance titling tournament where the target at which the mounted jousters aim their lances swivels around and can actually hit back.

Perugia's Umbria Jazz: Umbria's capital gets mellow and funky every summer in one of Europe's biggest jazz fests. Headliner acts and little-known maestros fill the squares, streets, and bars with some of the smoothest music around.

Assisi's Calendimaggio: This pagan rite of spring fest is held in Italy's holiest hill town. The town's almost-forgotten factions revive to wage medieval competitions and display feats of strength, and the whole town spends the week in courtly Renaissance dress. After a singing competition on the main square, the winner gets to crown his own fair damsel Lady Spring. The town returns to Christianity the next day.

Gubbio's Corso dei Ceri: In one of Italy's most ancient festivals, teams of burly, costumed men trot about town all day carrying three huge towers topped with statues of saints. After a wild invocation ceremony in the piazza, they shoulder the towers and tear up the mountainside as fast as they can. The town's patron saint invariably wins.

Spoleto & the Spoleto Festival: Gian Carlo Menotti's annual bash brings some of the biggest names in orchestral music, dance, and theater to this ancient hill town. Many of the events are staged outside in the Piazza del Duomo or the remains of a Roman theater.

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