As Christmas approaches in the north of Italy, the days are very short and often the chill through your shoes from the cobble stones sends you indoors. The streets in the evening are very quiet and winter shrouds the towns in a lull before the first snow falls. This was our first winter and Christmas in Italy.
When winter arrived, Jim, myself, and our two young sons Marcus and Jason, had already been living in Italy for 8 months. We chose to live in Jim’s father’s home town; a pretty little town in Southern Lombardy called Varzi (It is situated in a lush green valley, and has a really cute medieval centre. It is actually quite a highlight for many guests who come along on our tours). Our boys were attending prep and grade one at the local school, where they were revelling in the freedom of unfettered play, brought about by the lack of health and safety restrictions!
We had no expectations as to what Christmas in Italy would bring. All we were hoping for was some snowfall, we were definitely not expecting to see the wondrous transformations that took place in townships. It seemed as though overnight, all of the towns in our part of Italy were set alight with golden fairy lights draped tastefully over the streets. Nativity scenes were also lovingly placed outside churches, even in the smallest of hamlets. The most marvellous shop-window displays were also created; each one rivalling the other. As we ventured out in the evening during this time it was like entering a golden wonderland!
As Christmas approached, Jim and I found ourselves in some confronting and confusing situations with our boys around the tale of Santa Claus. We had to do some fast and evasive talking every now and then. Marcus and Jason still believed in Santa, and of course our family Santa story was no different to the standard western version. However, one evening this version of "the truth" was severely challenged when, much to our chagrin, one of our friends suggested that ‘baby Jesus actually brought the presents’! After our friend's departure I hurriedly told the boys that she didn’t know what she was talking about, and just as I thought I had convinced them, one of Jim’s cousins confused matters further by telling them Santa comes just before midnight on the 24th of December! In this case I shamefully explained to the boys that she wasn’t all there! I was a mother desperate to not ruin the joy of Santa for my two little boys, and with some help and support from Jim I managed to do just that.
One very special memory I have of Italy at Christmas time is the magical Trento Christmas market. If you have the chance to go to Italy in late November- December I would highly recommend an evening soaking up the atmosphere here. The piazza is transformed into a Christmas wonder land with wooden market booths draped in golden fairy lights. Christmas songs play, ice sculptures are carved on the spot, and speciality Christmas decorations are ready for sale in many of the wooden huts. The spicy aroma of mulled wine mingles with the smell of sausages and sweet pastries. There is no need to have dinner before you go as the choice of food is wonderful as is the choice of schnapps. I believe the market has doubled in size since we were there - double the fun!
If you would like to visit this market, it is just a short drive up into the Alps, one hour away from Verona. You can click here to have a look at what they have planned this year.
Are you thinking of coming to Italy this Autumn? If you are then you’re in luck! Many people think Autumn is the best time to visit Italy, with crisp days, changing colours and seasonal food products to enjoy. Autumn in Italy is often characterised by the last lingering warm-to-hot days from summer, but typically without the humidity, or the hot nights. So even if it feels a little warmer than you think it should during the middle of the day, it’ll cool down in the evenings so that your after-dinner passeggiata will surely be pleasant. In September it’s also likely to still be warm enough after dinner to warrant a gelato while you stroll!
Autumn colours can be found in vineyards, foothills, and mountains in mid-October and into November. During the spring and summer Italy puts on the most amazing array of greens that I have ever seen, but come Autumn, when the Lombard poplars and chestnut woods change to yellow, the vineyards turn burgundy and you sometimes get a low lying mist settling in between the valleys it becomes a photographers playground!
When most people think of San Gimignano they think of a town of skyscrapers, characterised by the numerous towers within its medieval walls, surrounded by the most beautiful Tuscan countryside that there is to see. What most people don't know is that San Gimignano was also a stopping point for pilgrims travelling to Rome and within San Gimignano were eight hospitals with one 'pharmacy' or apothecary supporting them. Also, this sixteenth century apothecary is one of the oldest in Italy. It has been kept unadulterated and its appearance is what it was centuries ago.
Today the collection of the Apothecary represents one of the most beautiful and interesting collections in San Gimignano. Set on the first floor of the museum in the former Conservatorio di Santa Chiara, the display exhibits more than 100 ceramic and glass wares from the 14th century and features the original structure of the pharmacy "shop", where the medicines were sold, and the "kitchen" where they were prepared. On display also are some of the drugs that would have been used. Some of these are preserved in ceramic and glass vessels and were manufactured on the basis of precise information, collected in ancient recipes. On display also are the pharmacopoeia books from that time and the apparatus in which pharmaceuticals were prepared.
To make this fascinating experience even more enriching, imagine a kind of open-air museum where you can walk among aromatic and medicinal herbs, breathing in the aromas and fragrances. With the help of architects, archaeologists, botanists and gardening experts the city of San Gimignano and the Opera Group- Civita, have tried to recreate the herb garden that would have once supplied the busy apothecary.
Interestingly, among the records of the expenses incurred at the time of the great plague epidemics (1630-33) accounts can be read of the remedies prepared in the apothecary and applied during the epidemic. It seems that hundreds of pounds of honey were used as a soothing agent and remedy for catarrh. A remarkable quantity of violets must have been used, not only as the ingredient of various medicines, but also to disinfect and perfume the closed areas of the Hospital. It was believed, that the transmission of disease was spread through bad air, and so there was an enormous number of recipes for making scent-balls, to be held to the nose as a "filter" for the air. And to keep the inhaled "poison" from mixing with the saliva, it was recommended to chew bitter roots that disinfected the oral cavity. I would hate to be a mother in the 1600's having to tell your children to "Chew your bitter root. It's good for you!"
You can visit San Gimignano and Apothecary on day 7 of our 10 day Seaside to hilltops Cinque Terre and Tuscany tour . During this day you would say goodbye to the gorgeous Northern Italian Riviera and hello to the equally beautiful Tuscany! You will stop at San Gimignano on the way. With its amazing towers and stunning surrounding countryside, this will surely be one of the highlights of your time with us! After our San Gimignano sojourn we head to the commanding hilltop town of Montepulciano, where we spend the next four days together.
Out of all the North Italian Lakes, Lake Como is arguably the most beautiful of them all. If you were to Google ‘top European Lakeside destinations’, Lake Como comes up in all of them. Lake Como is best known for its stylish lakeside villas and has long been a favourite retreat for the rich and famous.
Spring is a wonderful time to be in Italy, especially April, May and early to mid June. It is warm enough for dresses and sandals and cool enough for sightseeing all day. It is also perfect weather for enjoying hearty meals and a glass or two of vino rosso or bianco! Most parts of Italy get less rainfall in spring than in the autumn and you can expect average maximum temperatures between 20-25°C.