Expat Essentials

The Things We Love: Summer under the stars in Italy

Every summer, from north to south throughout the 736-mile-long peninsula, theater sotto le stelle abounds for Italy, a country that loves cinema, opera, plays and concerts and the tradition of watching all of it under the stars.

Perhaps I was an insect in a former life. Perhaps it is my vivid early childhood memories of going to the drive-in theater in the days before air conditioning. Perhaps it is because I dream of having a drive-in theater, the likes of which have all but disappeared in the United States.

I am a lover of all things under the stars, especially movies. That’s why I’ve been taking notes while enjoying everything under the stars in Italy.

It started last year in Bologna, while living only a 12-minute walk from the Cinema Lumiere, a vast movie complex and archive of Italian cinema, with two “salas” (theaters), a film restoration lab, and a world-renowned film study center and library.

It was here during the winter and spring that I learned to love Italian cinema, its directors, actors, posters, history and festivals.

PIAZZA MAGGIORE, BOLOGNA (All photos by Nancy Wellendorff Church)

I could hardly wait for the outdoor season to begin in June in Piazza Maggiore. Each year, black and white posters, featuring close-ups with the likes of Marcello Mastroianni (my favorite) and Sofia Loren, invite the Bolognese cinema buff and visitor to two successive, free summer film festivals, “Il Cinema Ritrovato” and “Sotto Le Stelle del Cinema.”

After watching night after night of movies sotto le stelle — Italian classics, foreign films dubbed in Italian or with subtitles, or silent films accompanied by the local orchestra — I knew I would be forever drawn to make an annual pilgrimage to Bologna to enjoy the simple pleasure of watching a movie after dark, in the open, with other rapt audience members.


Last summer, I also had the pleasure of attending the 2017 Venice Film Festival on the Lido of Venice, with its red carpet and intense day-long schedules of every length and type of film. However, with the exception of the red-carpet events, the Venice Film Festival is not under the stars, which in this instance was fortunate, because it would have been rained out, leaving visitors to wonder if it should have been called sotto la pioggia, or “under the rain.”

Nearly every town has an open-air cinema, some in the main piazza, some tucked in the courtyard of a former castle, some within the confines of a medieval fort. All celebrated, anticipated, advertised with gorgeous posters, and all well-attended.

Not only do cinemas abound, but articles about where to find them, settings and ancillary events can be found readily, in English and Italian.


This year, after stopping in Bologna for four days for my first pilgrimage to “Sotto Le Stelle del Cinema 2018,” I spent July and August in Verona. Lovely Verona boasts the 2,000-year-old Arena of Verona, famous for its open-air opera, and a schedule that offers a different opera (in a series of five) every evening for nearly three months.

Having seen “Aida” last year, the grandest spectacle I’d ever witnessed with more than 300 performers on stage at one time, I knew I wanted to return.


In July, Luigina, my friend, host and one of Verona’s best ambassadors, treated me to “Nabucco,” another production with hundreds of performers on stage and in the upper rows flanking the stage of the arena.


Next I saw “The Barber of Seville” on opening night, marked by fireworks at the end of the performance. Last, I marveled at “Carmen,” with its chorus ringing out “Toreador,” and bikes and horses and cars traversing the stage throughout the production.

In the Arena, there are assigned folding seats ranging from 67 euros to 204 euros, and less expensive unassigned seats on the ancient marble rows of the upper arena for about 26 euros. There’s hardly a bad view, so I recommend trying at least one opera the next time you’re in Verona in the summer.


In addition to opera, I enjoyed a steady diet of movies under the stars in Verona. The films were most interesting, but the venues were, well, quintessentially Italian. One festival hosted a pop-up theater on an old landing of the Adige river, where we watched short films (cortometraggi) just feet from the water.


Another festival, the month-long Operaforte, took place inside the remains of an old Austrian fort, Forte Santa Caterina, on the outskirts of Verona. The “projection booth” was an old camper, and next to the seating area was a grassy courtyard decorated with strings of bare light bulbs hanging over picnic tables. The walls of the fort and the campy set-up gave it an intimate if not slightly retro feel.

We typically rode our bikes to all the theaters and enjoyed the rides home, especially those along the Adige River. One destination was across town to Cinema Fiume, in the shadow of the romanesque Basilica of San Zeno Maggiore, to enjoy the Cinema Estiva (Summer Cinema). As with all the other outdoor cinemas, it was packed to capacity each night.

Teatro nei Cortili (“Theater in the courtyards”) is an offering of plays from mid-June through early September which take place in the cloisters of two historic churches – Sant’Eufemia and Santa Maria in Organo – and the courtyard of one former military arsenal. Many of the plays are in dialect, adding to the immersive experience and the feeling that you’re seeing something most tourists would not venture to explore.


Teatro Romano, the beloved amphitheater on the eastern edge of the Adige near the ancient Ponte Pietra, is in use nearly every evening in the summer, with performances featuring dance, plays, and music.

This year featured a Shakespeare festival, capped off by a live, stage version of “Shakespeare in Love.”  While enjoying a cold white wine in the outdoor theater bar before the performance, I looked to my right to find several remnants of Roman columns within reach. And while delighted by the outstanding performance, I must say that watching the crowd of Veronese patrons fill the amphitheater and enjoy their own historical and cultural treasure made me grateful to be among them.

In mid-August, after an eight-year hiatus, Teatro Romano resurrected the movie series “Schermi d’Amore” (Screens of love). As always when surrounded by ancient stones and marble, I closed my eyes for a moment of gratitude for the privilege of watching a performance in the shadows of ancient Roman arches and a stories-tall Renaissance stonewall convent.

Bologna and Verona are two examples among hundreds of towns with cinema or theater or opera under the stars.  So, next summer, pack your fan, maybe a cushion, hop on your bike, and head to the nearest piazza or courtyard to enjoy the best of Italy under the stars.

Editor’s note: The Things We Love is a new series celebrating all our favorite aspects of expat life. Because maybe Dispatches focuses a little too much on tech and visas. Tell us about the things you love about the expat lifestyle in Europe at: [email protected]

About the Author

Nancy Church developed wanderlust at the age of 10, which fed her love of languages and led her to study French, then Italian. A world nomad, she lived in Bahrain and has since traveled to 26 countries.

An MBA, her career includes 25 years in product development and marketing in the financial services industry for firms including Ernst & Young. Before retiring in 2017 to travel extensively, Nancy worked for the U.S. Green Building Council promoting sustainable buildings and smart growth.

When not in her hometown of Louisville, Ky., she enjoys exploring and hiking in Europe, and visiting with friends she has made during her travels.

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