Setting off fireworks in memory of the immigrants

Festa participants parade through the streets of Hepburn Springs flick/Lisa Gervasoni

The Swiss Italian Festa in two small communities in Australia has become a must for lovers of history and good food.

This content was published on June 25, 2009 - 16:46

Every year the Hepburn Springs - Daylesford celebrate the heritage of their Swiss and Italian settlers.

The committee meeting at the Palais Restaurant in Hepburn Springs is well attended. Before deciding what to order for dinner, members have some important matters to discuss. This year's Swiss Italian Festa has been shifted from its normal date in April to October. The programme has to be worked out and sponsors contacted.

"In April there are a lot of other events going on and the climate is often unpredictable. It makes sense to postpone until the [Australian] spring," says Jenny Beacham, a member of the organising committee.

The idea of the Festa, explains committee chairman Robert McDonald, is to put on a wide range of events for the local community, the descendants of the early settlers and visitors to the region.

All flags flying

Organised for the first time in 1993, the purpose of the Swiss Italian Festa was to promote and celebrate the history and culture of Hepburn Springs and Daylesford (80 km west of Melbourne).

As the name suggests, the emphasis is on the heritage of the Swiss and Italian (mainly Lombard and Piedmontese) settlers who came to this part of the world in the second half of the 19th century.

From Ticino and Italian-speaking Graubünden alone, there were more than 2,000 immigrants, mainly poor farmers seeking their fortunes in the Australian goldfields.

From a small-town festival, the festa has grown over the years to become one of the region's main events. For ten days, these quiet little towns in the State of Victoria are transformed by a cheerful array of Swiss and Italian flags.

"In 2008, the Festa was attended by 14,000 people. A large number, if you consider that the total population of Hepburn Springs and Daylesford is around 6,000," points out Jenny Beacham.

"I don't know about such celebrations in other parts of the world, but I think ours is one of the biggest of its kind outside of Switzerland and Italy," she adds.

The blessing of water

Music, bowls and football tournaments, exhibitions, excursions to places of interest, visits to historic buildings and, inevitably, culinary specialities from Ticino and northern Italy. The Swiss Italian Festa has all the necessary ingredients for total immersion in the old European culture.

"In the schools in this area," says Jenny Beacham, "the children learn Italian as their first foreign language. The Swiss Italian Festa is an opportunity to involve the pupils and teach them about migration in the 19th century."

However, at the restaurant in Hepburn Springs, I am the only Italian speaker. Discussing things with the committee members, I realise that none of them has a direct connection with Switzerland or Italy. Why then so much interest in the "Swiss Italians"?

"Good question," replies Robert McDonald, who has Scottish roots. "I would just say that we share a great enthusiasm for this culture. Many of us have been on holiday in Ticino, Val Poschiavo or Milan".

"We are very proud of the heritage left by those who came to Australia in search of gold or to escape political persecution in their home countries. They have left us a distinctive culture and style of building. And we are very grateful to them for having discovered and preserved the thermal springs, one of the main attractions of the area".

Firework celebration

But the director of the Daylesford Museum sees things differently. According to David Endacott, what drives the Festa is not so much an interest in history as tourist operators' need to make a profit.

"What was once a celebration of local people's roots – he believes – has become an event dictated by economic and commercial interests."

"That's true," confirms Clare Gervasoni, who knows the Italian-speaking community of Hepburn Springs/Daylesford inside out. "The Festa is now organised by hotel and guest house managers."

But were it not for these people, points out Gervasoni, a past member of the organising committee, the event would probably have died out. "Very little money was involved and it was run by volunteers. The only way to keep the Festa going was to seek official support. But to get the funding, you have to organise serious events and have suitable venues and infrastructure.

In any case, she concludes, the Swiss Italian Festa is still an important event. "Nowadays there is even a firework display: goodness knows what the settlers would have said, had they known that 150 years later people would be firing rockets off to commemorate their arrival."

Luigi Jorio in Hepburn Springs,

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