Had it not been for the sunny sky, I could have sworn that I was in Great Britain.
The high street was teeming with people, Union Jack flags were flapping in the wind, a slight aroma of fried cod tinged the air and the queens were waving to their starstruck subjects – Queen Elizabeth II from a gleaming car and her great-great-grandmother Victoria from underneath a lacy black parasol.
Schio has always been known as ‘the Manchester of Italy’
The time and space continuum seemed to have been broken, thus bringing two of the most formidable British queens together in the same, rather unexpected place. For instead of London, I was in a small Northern Italian town called Schio (pronounced 'ski-o').
This was British Day Schio – a weekend extravaganza dedicated to Great Britain during which the citizens of Schio declare themselves British. They dress up as British characters from past and modern times and even publish a newspaper (the headline of which this year proudly stated: La Citta' Piu' Britannica d'Italia!, ‘The Most British City in Italy!’).
“Schio has always been known as ‘the Manchester of Italy’,” said Claudio Canova, 51, a digital marketing specialist who conceived the idea for British Day Schio six years ago.
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The reason behind Schio's moniker lies in the town's industrial history. Just like Manchester, Schio was once a major wool and textile production centre.
New wool-spinning and weaving technologies imported from England by the Venetian patrician Nicolò Tron led to the creation in 1718 of an important wool mill in Schio. Tron was an entrepreneur, friend of British mathematician Isaac Newton and former ambassador of the Republic of Venice to the court of King George I. His attempts to introduce the English know-how to Venice were rebuffed by the Republic’s influential textile corporations. So, Tron headed to Schio in the northern confines of the Republic. The town was a centuries-old wool-producing centre with cheap skilled labour, abundant raw materials and a license given to it by the Republic of Venice in 1701 to manufacture fine textiles independently of Venice’s textile corporations. He employed nine English technicians who relocated to Schio with their families to work in Tron’s new wool mill.
Several decades later, Tron brought another English invention to the small Italian town: the flying shuttle.
Invented by Lancashire-born machinist John Kay, the flying shuttle significantly sped up the weaving process, which increased productivity and reduced costs. It could also be mechanised, paving the way for the automatic looms.
Schio soon became synonymous with high-quality textiles, which were exported all over Europe and beyond.
In the 19th Century, father-and-son duo Francesco and Alessandro Rossi (no relation to me) took Schio's textile production to new heights. Schio’s Fabbrica Alta, built in 1862 by Alessandro, who was inspired by the vertical woollen mills found in Manchester and throughout Great Britain, was the largest industrial plant in 19th-Century Italy. Today it is considered the imposing symbol of Italy's first industrial revolution.
Although now permanently closed, the Fabbrica Alta, with its tall body symmetrically dotted with 330 windows, is a testament to the close technological connection Schio has had with Manchester throughout the centuries, despite being almost 2,000km away.
“Add to this Schio's rainy weather and the grumpy character of its citizens, and you have the most British town in Italy,” Canova said.
British Day Schio evolved from SchioLife, a British rock-themed music festival spearheaded by Canova. “Since 2007, we have been organising concerts and had the opportunity to get in touch with many legendary musicians like Steve Hackett from Genesis, Sir Gary Brooker of Procol Harum, Rick Wakeman [the keyboardist of Yes] and Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull.”
“I realised that we live in the most British town of Italy and then we had to do something to highlight these characteristics,” Canova continued. “I think that after six years we have succeeded.”
Under the slogan of ‘Spicy. Independent. Original.’ – which according to Canova reflects the character of the citizens of Schio – British Day Schio has been enjoying an ever-increasing popularity since its inception. Held on the second weekend of October, the festival attracted more than 30,000 people in 2017. That year paid tribute to Oasis; the 2018 edition was in homage to Peter Gabriel.
Add to this Schio's rainy weather and the grumpy character of its citizens, and you have the most British town in Italy
“We choose the artists to whom we dedicate British Day Schio each year based on the social values they transmit. Peter Gabriel is one of the champions for peace in the world and his message is important for everyone. The first three editions of the festival were dedicated, respectively, to The Beatles, The Phantom of the Opera and Pink Floyd,” Canova explained.
“Who are you going to pay homage to next year?” I asked, only too eager to throw some names in the hat. You know, the best of British. Like Pet Shop Boys, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode…
Instead, the 2019 festival will be dedicated to Alessandro Rossi as it will be 200 years since his birth.
I arrived in Schio in the early afternoon on the day of the festival this past October. The central streets of the town were lined with grand buildings in shades of ochre, toffee and burnt orange. Ladies and gents strolled the pavements dressed in their best British-inspired costumes.
The window displays of the local shops sported copious amounts of British paraphernalia: biscuit tins in the Union Jack colours, British stamps, leaflets for the London Eye, postcards of the Queen, little flags with Harry and Meghan's happy faces. Throughout town, famous locations like Abbey Road and Carnaby Street had been recreated. Even the local gelateria had slapped a large sign saying ‘Ice Cream’ on its window.
“From the youngest to the oldest, the citizens of Schio love this event,” Canova told me. “British Day Schio attracts thousands of people, dressed up in British-style attire or as famous characters such as Harry Potter, James Bond, Dr Who, Sherlock Holmes. They talk in English on the streets as if it were normal. They enter the shops and ask for things in English, greet people with ‘Hi!’, ‘Hello!’, and ‘Good morning!’.”
And it is all done without irony – a genuine expression both of an appreciation for Great Britain and Schio's own industrial past.
“What will happen with British Day Schio after Brexit? Will you continue organising it?” I asked Canova.
“Certamente!” he replied. “Of course, we will continue to organise it. Indeed, with even bigger resolve.”
Manchester doesn’t know about British Day Schio yet. Canova’s plan is to contact the British city in the near future and build a relationship based on the historical link between the two cities.
“Will Brexit change how Schio feels about Britain?” I pressed.
“No, absolutely no,” he replied earnestly. “I think that the British citizens are historically always ahead compared to the rest of Europe and perhaps the world. I believe that the British people only want to defend their state from economic [and] financial invasions and not from the European citizens.”
Later that day, I headed to the large terrace in front of Schio's St Pietro Cathedral. From there I could see the main piazza below me filled with hundreds of people waiting for the festival’s centrepiece – the British Day Schio parade – to begin. Beyond the rooftops, I could see the cragged peaks of the Little Dolomites.
A rousing rendition of Scotland the Brave filled the air. There was nothing to betray that the musicians – dressed in kilts and skilfully handling their bagpipes – were not from Scotland but from the nearby Italian city of Vicenza. A long procession of historic British cars followed. They were beautiful and shiny, representing the British technological and design advances through the decades.
I think that the British citizens are historically always ahead compared to the rest of Europe and perhaps the world
Suddenly the crowd surged forward, eager to see something that was beyond my line of sight. Straining my neck, I glimpsed a gleaming open-top vehicle surrounded by four guards with bearskin hats.
“It's the Queen!” I shouted in delight.
Resplendent and with a posy in hand, 'Queen Elizabeth II' was taking in the adoration of the crowd, bestowing upon us one of her trademark waves every now and then.
You had to hand it to the organisers of British Day Schio. They’d managed to make even me – a Bulgarian totally uninterested in all things royal – giddy with excitement at the sight of the Queen.
While there is no shortage of festivals in Italy, British Day Schio is in a league of its own. Residents had adopted little bits and pieces of British culture and somehow managed to put them together in a red, white and blue puzzle held together by the pride in their own Italian town and its industrial history.
Most remarkably, the citizens of Schio had managed to master the notoriously hard-to-grasp British humour. You just had to look at the British Day Schio's newspaper where, in small red letters, it said: “The parade is to be held even in good weather!”.
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