La Sagra del Pesce, Camogli, Italy

The annual fish festival, in the beautiful Ligurian fishing village of Camogli, involves frying three tons of fish in 100 litres of olive oil in a four meter pan and 5000 people get to taste. Rupert Parker reports.

Camogli Harbour

Camogli Harbour

Procession to Bless Fish

Procession to Bless Fish

Galley Arrives at Frying Pan

Galley Arrives at Frying Pan

Frying Fish

Frying Fish

Fish Frying

Fish Frying

Fishes

Fishes

Fish Plate

Fish Plate

Eating Fish

Eating Fish

Eating Fish with Dog

Eating Fish with Dog

People with Fish Cartons

People with Fish Cartons

Camogli is an attractive fishing village, around 40 minutes by train, to the east of Genoa. Its name is derived from “case delle mogli”, the house of wives, since the men were always out at sea. Some fishermen still go out from here and its houses rise vertically five or six stories high, dominating the sea front, painted in distinctive pastel shades. The land rises sharply behind and by adding extra floors, they solved their housing crisis, when there was a huge fleet stationed here. These days, the promenade is full of bars, trattorias, restaurants and ice cream parlours and, although the beach is stony, there’s good swimming.

In 1952, in an attempt to revive the struggling post war economy they started a fish festival, on the day of the feast of St. Fortunato, patron saint and protector of fisherman. It started small with just six frying pans, but demand was such that next year they doubled the number. Still not enough, they constructed a giant pan of 395 cm which has now grown to four metres in diameter, with a handle six metres long. It weighs 28 tonnes so is supported by special scaffolding, erected in Piazza Colombo by the side of the marina.

The festival is a two day event with processions, bonfires and fireworks held on the Saturday night before the big fry-up on Sunday. I arrive in the morning, just as they’re heating the oil and already there’s a huge crowd lining up to get their portions of fried fish. Out of the impressive Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta comes a procession of choirboys and priests who climb up to the mega frying pan to give their blessing to the event. Although most of the fish has already arrived, the town’s ceremonial ten metre sailing boat, the Dragun, designed with 12 oars and two masts, turns up to deliver a basket of freshly caught writhing sardines.

They’re dusted in flour and there’s now a wait until the oil is hot enough. Suddenly the signal is given and the first of three tons of fish are lowered into the giant pan, bubbling away. The smell of fried fish wafts on the breeze and everyone in town is suddenly hungry. Unfortunately there’s a huge queue, but people diligently take their turns to get their portion – these used to be free but demand is such that they now charge five euros for a portion.

As frying continues, the promenade and the beach become a giant picnic area with people scoffing their fried fish – apparently a total of around 5000 portions are served during the day. It’s a marvellous sight and of course, this is just the antipasto, so restaurants capitalise on the huge throng of people and offer special menus. And on the road above the town is an impromptu market where artisan producers sell their wares. What I like about the event is that it seems mainly for locals, rather than tourists, with people coming from all over Liguria to sample the fish. Of course I wouldn’t be British if I didn’t miss the chips…

The next Sagra del Pesce will take place between 12 – 14 May, 2017. If you want to stay overnight, then book your hotel now, as there is limited space.

Accommodation

The four star Hotel Cenobio dei Dogi in Camogli is in a beautiful position overlooking the bay and has an excellent restaurant where you can watch the sun set.

La Camogliese makes a comfortable two star base in the town and is only a few steps from the sea.

If there’s no space in Camogli, then stay at the Hotel B&B Le Nuvole in Genoa. It costs from £70 for a classic double room with breakfast, based on two people sharing.

Restaurants

Ristorante La Camogliese serves good value seafood, on the seafront. Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, 76, 16032 Camogli.

Trattoria Dell’Acciughetta is an authentic trattoria in Genoa with a modern twist – try their risotto with raw oysters.

Soul Kitchen in Genoa has a limited menu but, unusually for Italy, a choice of meat, vegetarian or vegan.

Return flights from London Gatwick to Genoa start from £95 with British Airways

Turismo Liguria has information about the region.

Italia has information about the country.

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