There’s a picturesque little town, Coculla, nestled in the mountain region of Abruzzo, Italy. The white stone buildings set against the backdrop of mountains and lush forests steal your breath away with its panoramic views. The five hundred inhabitants of the town are pleasant and friendly. Coculla is a little piece of heaven right here on earth, and gives no clue to the extraordinary things that happen here on the first Thursday of May each year.
The Serpari, (snake catchers) are a clan of men who go into the forests surrounding Coculla on the first day of spring each year to catch snakes that are still drowsy from winter hibernation. They place the snakes in terra cotta jars or sheepskin bags and transport them back to the village. There, they remove the snake’s fangs.
The skills of the Serpari have been handed down through the ages from father to son. These men are highly skilled in the handling of snakes. The significance and catching of the snakes are in preparation for the Festa Dei Serpari, which pays tribute to San Domenica Abate, who lived in the 10th and 11th centuries.
The legend of San Domenica Abate began hundreds of years ago. It is said that he had the ability to heal snakebite. His miraculous powers are still recognized today and the Festival pays tribute to his skills.
The day of the Festival begins with a solemn church service, followed by a procession through the streets to the statue of San Domenica Abate. This may sound like an ordinary festival parade, but there is quite a difference. As the procession moves through the streets, they are alive with slithering, hissing snakes. As well, hundreds of snakes are draped on the bodies of the Serpari, who are accompanied by a group of girls wearing costumes decorated with ciambellone (doughnut type bread.) When the parade arrives at the statue, the snakes are transferred to it in honor of the skills of San Domenica Abate.
Traditionally, at the end of the Festival the snakes were killed, cooked and eaten. Today, they are released back into the forests and the town’s people partake of ciambellone, which is sweet bread that’s made into five rings to represent the activity of snakes biting their own tails.
The marketplace in Coculla comes alive on the day of the Festival. The stands sell anis flavored ciambellone, as well as other breads. The people of the village mingle, laugh, eat and enjoy the festivities. In the evening, they gather in the town square to feast on porchetta (roast pig) that’s been flavored with rosemary and other herbs.
The Festa Dei Serpari is a lot of fun and there’s no fear of being bitten by the masses of snakes that slither throughout the town. If you’ve never been to the Festa Dei Serpari, be sure to attend. It’s the experience of a lifetime and a fitting tribute to San Domenico Serpari.
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