La Focara (or “the Festival of fire”) is held every year from January 16 to January 18 and is one of the most popular winter festivals in the Puglia region. The small town of Novoli, 10 km nord-west of Lecce, plays host to the event, and for the importance this Festival the town has earned the nickname of City of Fire.
The centerpiece of the Festival of Fire is a huge 20 x 20 meter pyramid made of 80,000 – 90,000 bundles of vine branches tightly weaved together. The organizers state that this Festival of Fire showcases one of the largest bonfires in Europe.
The construction of the wooden pyre is not easy. The preparation starts about one month in advance, with the collaboration of local farmers who bring bundles of vine branches (each bundle has about 200 branches). On January 9 the real construction begin and the pyre is ready on January 15. If you have the chance, it could be interesting going to Novoli some days before the Festival to watch the “human chain” of 100 men standing on the pyre in construction and passing bundles. As the last branches are put into place on top the pyre, a small image of Saint Antonio Abate is placed in the center. On January 16 the pinnacle of this pyramid of branches is set ablaze with fireworks and the bonfire burns for 3 days and 3 nights.
But why a Festival of Fire? The festival began occurring in the city of Novoli in 1905, but the origins of La Focara date back even further to Byzantine times, when Saint Antonio Abate was alive. Saint Antonio Abate was recognized as the “protector” of Novoli as early as 1664 and legend has it that Saint Antonio stole fire from Hell and gave it to humans. This is the reason why the saint is the protector of those dealing with fire, and the reason why the tradition of Focara begun. Another more “practical” reason is that from ancient times pilgrims used to reach Novoli on foot to celebrate Saint Antonio Abate and, despite the fact that Salento offers wonderful weather, nights are cold in January and pilgrims needed to be warmed.
The Festival has now grown big and many other events are organized from Jan 16 to Jan 18: concerts of various genre, big stands with local products, and the Festival of Vine of “Parco del Negroamaro”. Parco del Negramaro is the name of an area north of Lecce where most of Negramaro, Salento local grapes, are produced and in this Festival of Vine many local producers exhibit and sell a fantastic range of local wines.