All across the north of Italy from the Aosta Valley to Piedmont to the South Tirol, a multicultural blend of holiday celebrations will evolve. The holiday season stretches from Advent in late November, to Christmas, to saluting the New Year, and culiminates on the La Befana, January 6, 2010.
Glittering lights, colorful lights and solemn lights, all symbolic of certain traditions-line cityscapes, illuminate castles perched above small villages, and light up alcoves of reverence in chapels, churches and synagogues. As the days of December pass, more and more lights will be brilliant in the night. Even the Italian castles in the most remote places are strung up with lights, illuminating their magnificent structures against the blackness of the hills and mountains. The castle fortress of Bard in Valle d'Aosta (Aosta Valley) presents one of the most beautiful and spectacular winter holiday light shows. It is the celebration of the 'Noel au Bourg' taking place from December 6 to January 6, 2010. The fortress of Bard, a magnificent structure, is transformed into Christmas atmosphere, complete with a grand nativity scene, spectacular lights, and music. In Piedmont visit the Castello Reale di Carlo Felice in the town of Govone in Cuneo province. Both the inside and outside of the castle are transformed into an aura of Christmas. The Govone castle is open 10:00 - 20:00, and awaits its visitors offering warm hospitality, caroling, and traditional holiday sweets from December 5 to January 1, 2010. Theatrical performances take place in the town's center on December 13, and 20, and for the La Befana celebration on January 3 - 6.
The Christmas markets in northern Italy open the beginning of Advent-the fourth Sunday before Christmas. In the Valle d' Aosta (Aosta Valley) the Christmas markets are called 'Marche Noel', in Piedmont and across most of the north they are the 'Mercatini di Natale'. However, in the South Tyrol (Trentino-Alto Adige) they are called the 'Christkindlmarkts'. A list of Christmas markets is provided at the end of this article. I have traveled extensively around Italy during December each year and I find that the most beautiful holiday markets are to be found in Aosta city in Valle d' Aosta in northwest Italy, and the South Tyrol in Trentino-Alto Adige, in the northeast.
Christmas Market in Florence Italy / Dec. 2009.
Valle d'Aosta is an extraordinary place to visit, considering that four languages are spoken in this autonomous province-French, Italian, Valdotain and German-means that in every alcove of this massive valley you will find cozy cafes and osterias offering local food and drink specialites. The city of Aosta sits in the base of the valley, surrounded by the majestic Alps. Upon entering the city's historical center you immediately see the remains of the Roman wall that once surrounded it. The French language appears all over the city, from street signs, to cafes, to restaurant menus. One often hears French spoken, however, you will also hear the local Valdotain dialect that sounds a bit like French. In Aosta, even the Italian spoken has a different tone to it. Finally when I arrived at the Christmas market I was embraced with the strong fragrance of evergreen! As the days draw nearer to Christmas, the beautiful 'Marché Vert Noel' will spread through out the city center.
Piedmont also has a rich and diverse tradition for celebrating the holiday season, especially in the mountain communities where Occitan and Piedmontese speaking peoples stage beautiful cultural events. Then there are also the Waldensian communities in Piedmont, like Ivrea for instance, which hosts a lovely Christmas market. In other parts of Piedmont, such as Moncalvo in the Monferrato wine and truffle countryside, I discovered a pre-Christmas festival (on December 9) called the 'Fiera del Bue Grasso'. This is the 'festival of the fattened ox' - where the locally bred Piedmontese cattle are paraded around in a prestigious competition in the midst of the Moncalvo castle's grand piazza. The local restaurants were offering all sorts of Piedmontese beef specialities: for instance, the famous tartare di manzo (raw ground beef), gran bollito di bue grasso( beef stew), lingua di bue piemontese (ox tongue), risotto al brasato di bue al Barbera (beef with rice cooked in Barbera wine). While strolling through the market and sampling locally produced Christmas sweets, the pretty festive wrapped panettones were already on display.
St. Peter's Basilica in Rome
The Panettone Milanese is very famous and makes its debut in the shop windows already in early usually on December 7 during the festival of Saint Ambrose. What makes this particular panettone so unique is that it is very tall-the secret of the Milanese bakers. The panettone is made of Manitoba flour, eggs, butter, sugar, honey, saffron and raisins. However, there are many regional variations of panettone all over northern Italy.
The varieties of making panettone are endless. In Aosta Valley the tradition is to bake the mecoulin, which is a panettone dough containing raisins soaked in rum, and is lower and more rounded in shape. In Genova the panettone is made with raisins, sultan, pinoli, and marsala wine. The people of the Valtellina region (northern Lombardy), bake a bisciola rich with walnuts, dried figs, raisins and grappa Valtellinese, and shaped into a big loaf similar to a stollen. In the Veneto region, the local tradition is the Nadalin, made with almond flour, anice and pinoli, and baked in a star shaped pan. In the Alto Adige province, the South Tyrol, the tradition is to bake a zelten-Christstollen. The zelten is made with wheat and rye flour, honey, almonds, hazelnuts, pinoli, raisins, dried figs, candied orange and lemon peel, rum, and a pasticcio of spices: anice, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, cloves, cumin, and nutmeg. The lebkuchen is another savory Christmas specialty in the South Tyrol. It is a large honey cookie with unique flavor derived from the mixing of the wheat and rye flour with honey, hazelnuts, almonds, raisins, and candied orange and lemon peel, plus spices-anice, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, coriander, piment, and nutmeg. The regional specialties of panettone and other holiday sweets can usually be bought at the markets.
So, while you are walking around in the fresh cold air at the Christmas markets, eventually you will seek out a warm and invigorating drink. To really heat up your system, drink a cup of vin brulé, which is a spicy wine served hot. This is actually a very old tradition, dating from the time of the Romans who invented an herb-spice-wine called 'conditum paradoxum'. It was brewed with a large amount of bay leaves, wine, honey, black pepper, safron, dates and ground date seeds. However, the 'modern' Italian vin brulé is considerably more simplified: red wine, cinnamon, cloves, lemon, orange and nutmeg. Each region of northern Italy, of course, has its own version of this wintertime holiday drink, some still adhering to Roman traditions. And, some local Piedmontese like to emulate the Roman brew: Barolo wine, honey, lemon, bay leaves, rosmarin, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, coriander, and black pepper. In Valle d'Aosta, generally the vin brulé is called 'vin chaud' (French). In the German Walser communities of Gressoney - Trinité and Gressoney Saint -Jean of Valle d'Aosta, they drink glühwein as also in the South Tyrol. Although if you ask for a 'vin chaud' in Gressoney, they will understand you too. The traditional glühwein is made a little bit different than vin brulé: honey, lemon juice, lemon slices, anice, cinnamon, and cloves are mixe with the red wine. You can also cook your own vin brulé-trying out the regional specialties. I make my own 'spice-wine' during the winter season and the wines I recommend to use are a red
Cabernet, or a Merlot from the Veneto region. Very strong wines like Barolo, Nebbiolo or Barbera are not good to use-and remember to only use a red wine of good quality-to avoid headaches.
Get yourself a cup of hot vin brulé and go out and stroll through the markets in the cities, the charming towns and picturesque snow-covered mountain communities. Christmas markets and other exciting events are all listed below:
Aosta province: 'Marché Noel'
Aosta (AO): 'Marché Vert Noel' , The Green Christmas Market. Piazza Séverin Caveri, Aosta.
December 4 - January 6. Hours: 10:00 - 20:00. Closed Dec. 25.
Gressoney - Trinité (AO): 'Marche Noel', At Salone Polivalente. December 12,19 and 26. Hours: 11:00 - 20:00. Gressoney is also an excellent ski region, only 30 minutes from Aosta.
Pila (AO) December weekend of 18 -20. The 2009 World Cup of Mountaineering Skiing, "Coppa del Mondo di Sci Alpinismo a Pila". A world cup cross-alpine mountaineering ski competition in Pila, Aosta Valley. Some social events will take place in Aosta.
Aosta (AO): December 21. Piano concert. December 21 at 16:00. City Center. Featuring Canadian - Italian pianist Jonathan Cilia.
Bard (AO): 'Noel au Bourg' Christmas at the castle fortress. December 6 - January 6. The castle will be transformed into a light spectacular, featuring a bit of theater and plenty of traditional Valdostaner holiday food and drink.
Gressoney - Saint Jean (AO): Midnight Christmas church service. Church of Gressoney- St. Jean. December 24. Time: 24:00. Features traditional Walser German Christmas music performed by the Walserblasskappelle.
Piedmont province: 'Mercatini di Natale'
Turin (TO): Dec. 5 - 23 December. Piazza Borgo Dora. Weekdays 15:00 - 19:30; weekends: 10:00 - 19:00.
Sauze d'Oulx (TO) in Val Susa: December 5 - 6. Hours: 10:00 - 19:00. Offering the hearty food traditions of the Val Susa.
Oulux (TO): December 7 and 27. Hours: 10:00 - 19:00. Another cozy nook in the Val Susa where authentic food traditions will lure you in.
Susa (TO): December 6 - 8. Hours: 10:00 - 19:00. This small town also in the Val Susa, dating from the Roman period, offers a small and beautiful holiday festival. A cozy place to savor genuine Piedmontese mountain cuisine.
Ivrea (TO): December 19 & 20. All day. At Piazza Palazzo.
Casale Monferrato (AL): 'Nadal an Munfrà', Dec. 20 - 24. City Center. Hours: 17:00 - 24:00.
Usseaux (TO): December 26 - January 6 2010. Alpine Holiday Festival of Usseaux, in the Occitan language and cultural tradition. In the Val Susa region. Music, caroling, and theatrical performances for all ages every night.
Govone (CN): December 5 - 10 January. 'Il Magico Paese di Natale di Govone', the magical place of Christmas in Govone, festivities take place in the castle of Govone. Hours: 10:00 - 20:00.
Moncalvo (AT): December 19. Christmas caroling all through the streets of Moncalvo; by the Alpini group of Valle Bormida. Time: 17:00 in Piazza Garibaldi. Hot chocolate will be served.
Moncalvo (AT): January 6. La Befana festival.16:00 in Piazza Garibaldi.
Milan Christmas market: December 6 - January 6, near Porta Venezia.
Festival of Saint Ambrose and market. December 7 at the Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio.
Trentino Alto Adige - South Tirol: 'Christkindlmarkts'
Arco (Trento): November 20 - 23. City historical center. December. Hours: 10:00 - 19:00.
Trento: November 21 - December 24. Hours: Nov. 21 - Dec. 23, 10:00 - 19:30; Dec. 24, 10:00 - 17:00.
Levico, in Valsugana (Trentino): November 21 - 6 January. Hours: daily 10:00 - 19:00; Dec. 26-31 open 14:00 - 19:00; Jan. 1 - 6 open 14:00 - 19:00.
Bolzano - Bozen (BZ): November 27 - 23 December. Piazza Walther. Hours:10:00 - 19.30.
Bressanone - Brixen (BZ): November 27 - January 6. Hours: Mon. - Sat. 10:00 - 19.30; Sun. And holidays: 9.30 - 19:00; closed Dec. 25 and Jan. 1, 2010.
Merano - Meran (BZ): November 27 - January 6. City center. A beautiful Christmas market. Hours: Mon. - Fri. 10:30 - 19.30; Sat. & Sun. 9:00 - 19:30; Dec. 24 & 31, 10.30 - 16:00; Dec. 26 & 27, 10:00 - 19:30; Jan. 1, 12:00 - 19.30; Jan. 2 & 3, 10:00 - 19.30; Jan. 6 10:00 - 19:30.
Vipiteno - Sterzing (BZ): Sterzing city center. November 29 - December 24. Hours: Mon-Fri. 10:00 - 19:00, Sat. & Sun. 9:00 - 19:00; Dec. 24, 10:00 - 15:00. Jan. 1, 2010 13:00 - 19:00.
Last but not least, on January 6, is the La Befana. Children all over Italy wait for her arrival. The 'Befana' is the generous, warmhearted witch of the holiday season, flying into town during the night of the Epiphany on January 5. She is dedicated to flying around on her broomstick, all over Italy, bestowing delicious gifts to the good children and a chunk of charcoal to the naughty ones. A very colorful and jolly celebration of La Befana takes place in the community of Borgata Turina - San Germano Chisone (TO), in the Valle Germanasco of Piedmont. The town is tucked away in the snowy winterscape of this mountain valley, and not so far from such excellent ski resorts like Sauze d'Oulx and Sestriere. A renowned La Befana festival takes place in Usseaux (TO) community also on January 6; time: 21:00, at Salone polifunzionale. Moncalvo (AT) in the Monferrato of Piedmont will host a La Befana festival at 16:00 for children in Piazza Garibaldi. In the Valle d'Aosta community of Gressoney - Saint Jean (AO) another La Befana festival takes place on January 4 & 5, near the Weissmatten ski school and piste-they will offer a grand colorful distribution of sweets to the children.
The holiday season in northern Italy offers lots to see and do-for all ages. It is just a matter of deciding where you want to go! Happy Holidays. Enjoy your vin brulè...
Karin Susan Fester
Moncalvo (AT), Italy