Christmas time. Children love it: as the days go by and the 25th approaches they can hardly wait to see what Santa is going to leave underneath the tree. Most adults, whether they like to admit it or not, are also fascinated by Christmas time: lights are shining bright, decorations make every town look prettier, and one can indulge in hot mulled wine or one too many cookies without feeling overly guilty.
All over Italy, in big cities and small villages alike, the month of December is packed with Christmas events that range from religious processions and live nativity scenes to concerts and meetings with Santa Claus: there is something for everyone, so all one has to do is take their pick. Or not. Actually there is one place where everyone and everything sort of comes together, and that place is the traditional mercatino di Natale, the Christmas market.
This quaint markets have a long standing tradition: some of them date back to the Middle Ages, when people would wait for special fairs to stop by their town to buy products directly from artisans. Although nowadays presents, culinary specialties and other trinkets can be easily bought at the mall, visiting a Christmas market (or even more than one) during the month of December is something Italians enjoy immensely.
As most of them are located in the Alpine region, the weekends leading up to Christmas are often dedicated to short trips to Trentino and Alto Adige in the North East and Valle d’Aosta in the North West, where the markets look even more magical thanks to the abundant snow on the ground and the gorgeous mountains in the background.
Merano (http://mercatini.merano.eu/en/christmas-market-merano-meran.html) is probably one of the most popular destinations to soak in the Christmas atmosphere of beautiful South Tyrol. There you will find handcrafted wool products, a soft and fuzzy present perfect for those who suffer in cold temperatures, unique handmade Christmas tree ornaments carved in wood by local artisans, felted mittens for babies and adults alike and many other typical artifacts.
Of course Merano, and South Tyrol in general, is also an ideal destination for those who enjoy good food: its vicinity to Austria influenced the local cuisine, and the result is a wonderful fusion of Italian and Nordic flavors. Definitely worth a try are the fragrant pastries, the spiked apple punch and the spiced Christmas cookies sold at the food stands.
Pinè (near Trento) is also famous for its market, and very understandably so: it has been nicknamed by the locals “El Paès dei Presepi”, which means the village of the nativity scenes. Each year, from the beginning of December to January 6th, this small town becomes the stage where all kinds of presepi –more than a hundred nativity scenes- are showcased for everyone to admire: small and large, made of wood or painted clay, they are scattered around town on windowsills, under the arcades, outside churches and in the squares.
This market is perfect for those who travel with young children, as a large number of games and fun competitions are held every day, as well as story telling and a very special workshop with Santa and his elves. On January 6th, to finish off in style, a quirky parade sees everyone dressed up as the Befana, the old lady that brings sweets and presents (or charcoal!) to young kids.
The Villaggio di Natale di Flover (http://www.flover.it/) is the quintessential winter wonderland and, unlike most other markets, takes place indoors, inside a garden center in Bussolengo (near Verona).
Since 1996 it has showcased the latest trends in Christmas decorations as well as thousands of unique artifacts made by local artists. And that is just the beginning: those who enjoy crafts will definitely get a kick out of the many workshops offered at the Villaggio di Natale.
One can learn to knit for free and surprise loved ones with thoughtful handmade hats or scarves… or those who like to bake can get inspired and learn new recipes to prepare old classics. Free concerts featuring Christmas carols, visits from Santa and Mrs. Claus and free wine tastings round up what this amazing market has to offer. What else could one desire during the holidays?
For a more “metropolitan” experience, those who don’t have time to travel to the mountains and decide to stay in the city can browse the stalls of the traditional mercato degli Obej Obej, Milan’s historical Christmas market dating back as far as 1288. Although the times, and the location, have changed through the centuries, the atmosphere has not: the Milanese, young and old, browse the stalls selling antique furniture, vintage kitchen gadgets and paintings. And, as they do every year, they stop for a glass of hot mulled wine and a paper bag full of roasted chestnuts: it is the flavor of Christmases past and, hopefully, of many more to come.