A trip to Italy in the winter to visit my partner’s family made for an interesting experience to see how il natale (Christmas) is celebrated there. The first couple days were spent in his home city of Reggio Emilia to visit his sister then the latter days were spent in Ravenna visiting his mum. We had a couple of days between destinations to go somewhere different and while lots of Italian locations are better suited to the summer, it seemed apt to go to a wintery place this time.
I’d never been to the Alps and having not long seen the movie House of Gucci (where some scenes of the film were shot), I was intrigued to see some of the region and another part of Italy.
The Italian autonomous province of Trentino is located in the far north of the country, bordering Austria; this area is also known as the South Tyrol. The river Adige runs through it and its mountain range is called the Dolomites, a part of the Alps.
The capital of the Trentino region is the city of Trento, where we spent our first day and stayed overnight. We couldn’t check in until 3pm so we parked up in the street after a 3 hour drive from Reggio Emilia and crossed over towards the Piazza Duomo. As soon as we turned the corner into the main square it was an instant treat for the eyes, like something from 1950’s Italian cinema:
The buildings all had that lovely faded pastel colouring seen throughout Italy with ornate windows, Juliet balconies and hanging baskets spilling over with winter flowers. The air was immediately fresher in Trento and we were still in the relative pollution of a city.
I gravitated towards the fountain in the middle of the square, the Fontana di Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune) as I love any kind of art or sculpture related to the sea. It was originally built in 1768 but with the weathering of the centuries, it was replaced in 1945 with this copy. Neptune, the Roman God of the sea, sits astride the top tier while cherubs, water nymphs, seashells and sea creatures bedeck the rest, elevated by several stone steps.
Even the shops in the square are pretty as they inhabit old decorative buildings that were probably once used for nobler purposes than selling underwear and coffee makers. Two 16th century buildings are painted in frescoes by the artist Marcello Fogolino, who was a fugitive having been accused of murder, who sought refuge in the city and painted the buildings with scenes from Greek mythology to occupy himself and probably thank the city for being his hiding place.
We were in Trento on the 28th December but the Christmas markets were still open until the beginning of January. They’re free to enter (after showing Covid pass and getting a wristband so you can enter, leave and re-enter as you wish) and they weren’t too busy, maybe for being just after Christmas day.
There were various stalls selling local festive food and drink which is designed to keep you warm in the low temperatures. Here, you start to see the influence of Austrian and German flavours in food such as canederli which are dumplings in a broth with herbs and Parmesan cheese. Andrea was really keen for me to try one so we ordered two bowls of them and a vin brulé, Italian mulled wine.
Many people in the Alps enjoy drinking highly alcoholic liquors at times (usually after skiing) to warm themselves up and I was happy to try a couple.
The classic one of this region is called il bombardino which is sort of like eggnog, based on brandy and avocaat, served hot with whipped cream on top. It was really strong but had a lovely flavour and it definitely left that warming sensation in the chest.
Another liquor was a promise of an ‘elisir del l’amore‘ (love elixir) which was a concoction of blackberries and some unidentified alcohol. It was piping hot and felt like a cough remedy but it actually tasted really good. After this it was necessary to have another shot but this time of espresso, it was still only early!
I have to say, we had some unreal food over those two days. We went to a lovely restaurant in the evening which was in a cellar, called La Cantinota. Andrea suggested a sharing starter of a tagliere which is a selection of meat cuts and cheese. Speck is a local ham which was nicer than I thought it would be, and it came with proscuitto, coppa, bresaola, salame and an Alpine cheese. I’m not a massive carnivore but there is something about cured ham (and I adore cheese) and every piece on this board was divine.
Tartufo (truffle) is a common flavour in Italian cooking and this pasta was what I ordered for my main along with a good large glass of vino rosso and a side plate of salted potatoes. The picture doesn’t do the food justice, it was memorable. It’s strange how your tastebuds alter over time; a few years ago I’d never have entertained flavours of mushrooms, truffles, or even espresso (my first ever shot of espresso was in Talinn, Estonia, and I likened it to a shot of petrol at the time), but now I love them. I’ve loved red wine though since I was 21, admittedly after likening that to vinegar as an alcopop enjoying teenager.. the less said about that the better. Do they even sell Bacardi Breezers anymore?
The star of the show of our stay in Trento though was the view from the hotel balcony. We had dropped our bags off there before dinner and got a good look at the view of the mountains and sat for a while in the jacuzzi before showering and getting changed to go back out. I love the contrast of cold air and hot water, it reminded me a lot of the sensations of being in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland.
The hotel room had frosted glass doors that partitioned the bed from the balcony so when we woke up the next morning, I opened my eyes to not see much other than said doors. I stood up, slid back the doors and this time, the sun was much brighter, illuminating colours I hadn’t seen the evening before. I knew it would be a sight I’d always remember, breathing in the fresh December Alpine air, a world away from stuffy classroom air in work back home.
After a coffee and pastry, we got back in the car and drove 40 minutes northwards to the town of Bolzano. The drop in temperature was noticeable the second we emerged from the underground parking and while I’m quite tolerant to the cold, I had my coat buttoned to the top with my scarf wrapped around me several times.
The first thing I noticed were the road signs written in both Italian and German. The architecture was different- in place of swirly ornate façades there were more practical, serious; a bit staid yet still pretty.
We entered the Mercatino di Natale di Bolzano, which was quite similar to the one in Trento although it was bigger, busier, and the colder air made it feel more Germanic and festive. It is actually the biggest Christmas market in the whole of Italy but with that said, it is still quite petite. The surrounding buildings still had a touch of Italian glamour but the little church and the stalls felt more like you could have been in Frankfurt.
Here, we tried a locally produced honey liquour which again, was surprisingly strong, and of course I picked up a mandatory fridge magnet.
We moved on to the high street region where neaely every building looked good enough to eat, like something from Hansel & Gretel or any tale by the Brothers Grimm.
I’ve never been to Austria or Germany but walking up and down the medieval-feeling cobbled streets, seeing the market stalls with wheelbarrows filled with flowers for buying, stalls selling bratwurst and schnitzel and currywurst and hearing the sharper twang of German in the crowds rather than sing-songy Italian, it gave me a glimpse into what they might be like.
The cold brings hunger on earlier than usual so soon it was time to find somewhere to have lunch. I fancied trying something Austrian/German style so we found another basement cave-like restaurant and owing to its Germanesque name, we ventured down the steps into the warmth and promptly ordered a stein of ale and I ordered a German white wine (a Gewürztraminer- had to Google a version of that to remember what it was called and see how it is spelt- which I struggled to pronounce). It was lovely, pale, chilled and crisp and quite different to the usual savignon blanc I would order whenever I fancy a white instead of a red.
Andrea ordered the amusingly named ‘stinco’ which would translate as ham hock and I ordered fried egg and chips. It had a fancier name but, that is essentially what it was.
We were both so full after this we went for a long walk down the high streets and into some parkland with the mountains all around. It was just starting to become dusk and the Christmas lights were all twinkly and cosy and it just all looked so cute. We could have stayed another night but knowing we had a 3 hour drive back to Reggio Emilia, it made sense to head back that night to not eat in to the next day.
It was a lovely break away and amazing to see a part of Italy I had never even heard of, let alone thought about visiting. If you fancy visiting this region, the nearest airport to fly into is Verona then a hire car would be needed for the two hour drive although there might also be the option of a train.
I’m looking forward to seeing other parts of Italy on future trips, I can’t believe I didn’t visit this beautiful, historic and fascinating country until I was 30!
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