It was the eve of a fervent celebration planned for the Feast Day of Saint Joseph in 1906 when an earthquake struck the island of Ustica some 72...
When December rolls around and we start to think about Christmas the first things and places that come to mind are Nordic traditions, white capped mountains and quaint chalets in the Alps.
Yet, there is a special place that, every year, turns into an incredible winter wonderland and its location might surprise many: the beautiful region of Montefeltro, on the border between Emilia Romagna and the Marche, has an amazing Christmas atmosphere and is not yet as popular and crowded as other European towns famous for their holiday markets.
In the very heart of this region sits the quaint village of Sant’Agata Feltria, a small town that every year turns into a “Paese del Natale” (Christmas village) offering visitors the ideal atmosphere to shop for handmade presents, enjoy the culinary specialties of the area and rediscover the magic of this holiday.
The village, with its medieval buildings and narrow alleys, oozes charm and, in the past few years, has given its more Nordic counterparts a run for their money: less crowded and with milder temperatures, it is the ideal spot to spend a December weekend.
The real shining stars of the Sant’Agata Feltria Christmas market are local manufactures and artisans who sell their amazing creations at the various stands that dot the historical town center: there visitors can discover the finest handcrafted tree and house ornaments, nativity statues and homemade marmalades, jams and other local favorites.
But there will be other protagonists: kids and adults alike will be amazed at the sight of sculptors using chocolate to create their masterpieces, while the music of the zampogne fills the air. Santa Clause’s reindeers will participate to the festivities and will surely be a hit with little ones, while the presepe, the traditional nativity scene, is featured in an incredible exhibition showcasing the 70 best ones from all around the world. What makes this exhibit even more unique is its location: it is hosted inside the imposing Rocca Fregoso, once the town fortress and today a museum, perched on the steep side of Monte Ercole and overlooking the whole town.
The region is also famous for its mouthwatering culinary specialties and especially this time of the year, it offers unforgettable dishes, the “piatti dell’avvento” (Advent meals): recipes based on the area’s ancient traditions that show it is possible to prepare a feast starting from very humble yet genuine ingredients.
Chestnuts are roasted on the open fire, then peeled, and mixed with beans cooked in a special terracotta pot; stockfish is prepared with raisins and onions, while spaghetti are seasoned with a very peculiar mix of sugar and walnuts. Everything is accompanied by a special variety of bread, prepared following a recipe that has almost been forgotten that uses corn meal, flour and boiled potatoes. Dessert, too, is made using chestnuts: the castagnaccio is prepared in most Italian regions, and here, too, is offered in a special regional variation.
Of course many of these holiday specialties can be savored at the food stalls around town, but for those who want to enjoy a meal sitting at a restaurant, Ristorante Il Palazzo (http://www.ristoranteilpalazzo.com/) offers a special Christmas time menu offering local favorites including black truffle ravioli and juicy veal shank in a simple but friendly setting.
As the village of Sant’Agata is rather small, there aren’t many options as far as accommodation: luckily the surrounding area offers plenty of beautiful and historical agriturismi, ancient farm houses now turned into luxury rural hotels. Check out the Residenza d’Epoca San Girolamo in Frontino www.sangirolamo.com/eng/index.html) a beautifully renovated property featuring also a culinary school and a renowned Hostaria.
The easiest way to reach Sant’Agata Feltria is by car, taking the A14 highway exit Cesena Nord and then following the E45 road to Sarsina Nord. The closest airports are Aereoporto Internazionale Federico Fellini in Rimini (about 30 miles) and the Aeroporto Internazionale Guglielmo Marconi in Bologna (about 80 miles), while the closest railway stations are Rimini and Cesena (both about 30 miles away).