Christmas in Italy: Shopping and celebrating south of the Alps
November 13, 2012
From the rustic Alpine charm of Trento to the romantic palazzi of Verona and Venice, northern Italy brings a distinct charm to the holidays through inviting sights, smells and tastes. Here, visitors will find a mixture of ancient beauty and modern refinement among Christmas markets, holiday traditions and delicacies.
While not as elaborate or large as some of the holiday markets in Germany, the mercatini di Natale in northern Italy provides their own twist on the tradition. With a diverse set of offerings, shoppers can find stocking stuffers for all of the loved ones on their list.
Along with browsing and buying local handmade gifts and crafts, enjoying the cuisine of the area is a highlight of any Italian Christmas market visit. Vin brule, an Italian version of hot spiced wine, is always served along with local fare.
During the holidays, expect to find heartier versions of typical northern Italian cuisine. Creamy risotto dishes, savory meat dishes, artisanal cheeses and warm polenta are staples of the winter months. Also around the holidays, travelers can find pandoro, Verona's buttery holiday bread, and Milan's tasty version of the fruit cake, pannettone.
Unlike the summer months when it's not uncommon to find yourself shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists, the winter months are much less crowded. November through February is considered the off-season and accommodations can be easily found for a fraction of their summertime rates. Be aware that Dec. 24-26, Jan. 1 and Jan. 6 are national holidays so most restaurants and attractions are likely to close.
The medieval town of Trento has one of the largest holiday markets in Italy and makes an excellent stop on your journey south. Set within the city's 13th century walls, this market offers a blend of handmade crafts and outstanding winter cuisine.
The Sapori del Mercatino section, literally translated to "Tastes of the Market," offers a sampling of Trentino food and wine. Don't miss the polenta brustolada, grilled polenta over a wood fire or locally-cured speck with gnocchi. This year, the market is open Nov. 24 through Dec. 24, from 10 a.m.-7:30 p.m.
One of Verona's most charming holiday traditions, Santa Lucia Day, Dec. 13, is celebrated by young and old alike. Similar to the American Santa Claus tradition, the children of Verona set out a list of gifts they want for Santa Lucia and a bowl of water and carrot for her donkey. If they've been good, they get a gift. The feast of Santa Lucia and the accompanying market in Piazza Bra is an exclusive Verona experience and has now become the symbol of Christmas for the city. The market hosts over 300 vendors in the shadow of the arena selling sweets and small gifts from around Italy. It only runs Dec. 10-13, from 9 a.m.-11 p.m.
Although the opera season at Verona's famous arena is over, throughout December Teatro Filarmonico hosts concerts, ballets and operettas performed several times per week.
In addition, the Verona Christmas market, Mercatini di Natali runs Nov. 23-Dec. 21, from 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Also worth seeing is VeroNatale, a festival of nativity art and tradition. This showcase exhibits over 400 variations of the Nativity scene inside the arena's underground passageways. The exhibition is open daily, Dec. 4-Jan. 23, from 9 a.m.-8 p.m.
Seated along the misty canals, Venice is a holiday shopper's dream.
For those in search of the truly unique, the Mercatino dell'Antiquariato antique fair in Campo San Maurizio between Piazza San Marco and Campo Santo Stefano is usually held the weekend before Christmas. Held only three times a year, this market offers unlimited gift options for the Italophile in your life.
Almost every evening offers a concert experience in one of the island's theaters or churches. A traditional mass at St. Mark's Bascilica at midnight on Christmas Eve is one of the highlights of spending the holidays in Venice. Traditionally, the Church of the Frari on San Polo also holds a musical worship held Dec. 26, St. Stephen's Day.
While traditionally less rainy than autumn months, there is an increased chance of running into acqua alta, the common flooding of low-lying areas of Venice. If you plan to go to St. Mark's Square, bring waterproof rain boots.
Editor's Note: This article previously ran in the Bavarian News print edition and has been updated.