Yes, Christmas Markets are primarily for shopping, but a vacation that includes Italy’s Christmas Markets (Mercatino di Natale) has the potential to replace blatant commercialism with some awe inspiring moments. You can have a big city experience and visit the multiple markets set up in Rome or choose to travel to a picturesque northern Italian village.
During the Christmas holidays, Rome is always dazzling and in Piazza Navona you’ll find its most famous Christmas Market. Here, you’ll be surrounded by food and drink specialties and a huge selection of locally made gift items. And, you’ll also be in an ancient setting with amazing nativity scenes and religious ceremonies.
In fact, Rome was the setting for the first Christmas mass, which was held at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore Hearing the church’s bells ringing at midnight on Christmas Eve as they have for so many centuries is a moving experience. The nativity in Santa Maria Maggiore, the oldest presepe or permanent nativity scene, was carved in marble by Arnolfo di Cambio in the late 13th century for the first Rome Jubilee. This nativity is currently on display in the church’s museum. Below the altar is a reliquary said to contain pieces of the original manger.
Nativity scenes have always been part of the Christmas season in Italy, but Christmas trees haven’t. Today, however, you can have the giant Christmas tree experience of Rockfeller Center, but in Rome it is located in Saint Peter’s Square. Large Christmas trees are also set up in other parts of the city. Rome’s main streets are decorated with lights and often have entertainment by roving musicians.There’s even a Christmas Market and an ice skating rink near Castel Sant’ Angelo.
It’s interesting to note that while you are shopping for gifts that will be exchanged back in the states on Christmas Eve or Christmas day, traditionally in Italy the suspense extends until Epiphany on Januray 6.
While shopping the Christmas Markets in Rome some convenient hotel choices are the Suite Art Navona, Hotel Raphael-Relais & Chateaux, or Relais Navona 71. These range in price from $170/night to $247/night. US Airways, British Airways and Iberia all have round trip airfares to Rome for just under $1,000 (travelocity.com). Travelocity also features packages with air and 5 nights hotel from $1,549 per person.
If you prefer that your Italian Christmas Market shopping experience take place in a small town, you have a number of choices from the northern border towns to the hillside villages in Tuscany. Each offers special sites and experiences for visitors who want to wrap up memories along with their presents.
In Tuscany, the village of Lucca’s Christmas market in Piazza San Michele is active throughout the holiday season, but they host an expecially merry Medieval Christmas market December 10-12, which showcases arts, crafts and music from the 14th century.
Siena is another Tuscan town known for its Christmas markets including medieval arts to add a festive note. This type of pageantry back home just wouldn’t be the same, because there you are in true medieval settings. You really can’t help but feel that somehow time travel might be possible and somehow, inexplicably, you’ve discovered it.
Farther north, in the Northwestern Italian town of Aosta, Italy you can experience Christmas Markets in Alpine settings that will make you feel as though you’re inside a festive snow globe scene. But this is not Hollywood wintry wonderland magic. This is the real thing from the snow to the sleigh bells jingling. Here a classic wintry atmosphere creates the perfect Christmas shopping setting. The Cecchin Hotel, located in Aosta City, has an Alpine flair and is well priced (from $127/night on venere.com).
You can expect a similar experience in Northeastern Italy, when you choose Trentino as your Christmas Market destination. This Tyrolian village market begins early in mid-November and extends through January 6, 2013. As with all of Italy’s Christmas Markets local foods play a special role in satisfying hungry shoppers and providing excellent gifts.
Shoppers can warm up with pauses for hot toddies and savory treats to chase the chill. You can even anticipate a large slice of hot apple strudel because Austria and Switzerland are right across the border. Grand Hotel Trento, located in Trento’s historical center, provides superb views of the Trentino Alps as well as a health center with sauna, Turkish bath and beauty treatments.
All in all, a trip to Italy’s Christmas markets holds the potential to return some of the awe-inspiring moments of the holidays as well as many small moments to savor. If this is your gift to yourself, be prepared to enjoy it for many Christmases to come. For more information visit christmasmarkets.com and lifeinitaly.com or speak with your local travel agent or a travel consultant specializing in Italy.