It may seem clichè to say that the center of the Christian world is one of the best places to experience Christmas but believe me, it lives up to the hype. Rome goes all out when it comes to Christmas but in a good way. Nativity scenes in every church, beautiful trees in front of Saint Peter’s and the Colosseum, a bustling Christmas market in the Piazza Navona and fabulous shop windows all beautifully decorated. There is definitely a festive feel in the air and when every bar has towering stacks of panettone and pandoro, what could be bad? There are special concerts and events throughout the season and a highlight to me is Christmas Eve mass in the Pantheon complete with Gregorian Chant. That is truly the magic of the season.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Gubbio has the largest Christmas tree in the world. Built on the slopes of Mount Ingino, it stands 650 meters high and is topped with a 1 square meter star that is made up of over 300 lights. The tree is illuminated nightly from the eve of the Immaculate Conception (December 7) to Epiphany (January 6) and this year the honor of the first lighting went to Pope Francis. Gubbio is a beautiful town in Umbria that is worth a visit and if you go at Christmas time, make sure you stay until dusk to see the tree.
Armenzano or Petrignano
Also in Umbria are two hamlets which both create a living nativity each year. To me, the living nativity is the most beautiful Christmas tradition. The first living nativity was created by Saint Francis of Assisi and took place in Umbria in the 13th century. The tradition is strong in this small region known as the Green Heart of Italy and there are numerous villages that hold their own event from Christmas Day until the arrival of the Three Kings on January 6. I have fond memories of Christmas spent in Assisi and Christmas night spent both in Armenian and Petrignano. The Petrignano presepe is bigger as is the town but there is something very special about the Armenzano. The pathways are lit by torches and you make your way through the town of Bethlehem while sipping mulled wine from terra cotta cups and taking in the spirit of the tradition.
There are Christmas markets throughout Italy but in my opinion, the ones in the Northern regions are the most characteristic and give a true feel of the holiday. The markets have a very Nordic/Alpine feel – little wood huts line the piazza and a warm glow of light invites you in to shop for decorations, small gifts and of course, local food specialties. My favorite markets are in Bolzano and Trento. Wandering the aisles of stalls while munching on roasted chestnuts is a sure way to get you in the Christmas spirit
There is no better place to shop for your Nativity scene that the city of Naples. Head to Via San Gregorio Armeno (aka Naples’ Christmas Alley) where you will find shop after shop dedicated exclusively to the figurines for your nativity. Of course there will be Mary, Joseph, the Baby and the Three Kings, but don’t forget the pizza maker (this is Naples after all) as well as today’s politicians and soccer stars. Everyone seems to have been present at the birth of Christ. And if that isn’t enough to tempt you, where better to dine on the Feast of the Seven Fishes than overlooking the Bay of Naples??
If your idea of celebrating means embracing the peace and calm of the season, then a stay at the luxurious L’Albereta hotel should be your holiday destination next year. This magnificent Relais & Chateax property pulls out all the stops: your room will be decorated in the holiday color scheme of your choice (red, gold or white), Santa stops in Franciacorta for a visit in the living room on Christmas Eve, attend mass at the church of Madonna della Neve, take part in a cooking class where you learn to make traditional tortellini in brodo (a must for any Italian Christmas table). This and so much more as you are pampered and spoiled for a long weekend. Merry Christmas indeed. You can find more details about the seasonal celebration on the L’Albereta website.
All this talk has me ready to hop on the next plane… we could make it there in time to hit all six of these places – no sleigh required. Who’s with me??