In spite of an abundance of twinkling white lights, a fair showing of tasteful decorations and a token Mercato di Natale in Piazza Santa Croce, Florence is not most people’s fantasy Christmas destination. Buy the presents here and move on. If you are after a good dose of traditional Yuletide atmosphere, you really need to leave Tuscany altogether and head north to the Alto Adige. Also known as the Sud Tirolo and home to the spectacular Dolomite range of mountains, this picture-perfect region lies only a four-hour train or car ride from Florence, and yet is culturally another country.
Indeed, it was another country Austria until after the First World War when Italy gained the territory stretching north from Trento to the Brenner pass. Eighty-five years on, the indigenous population cling proudly to their cultural and social heritage and a visitor to the region would be forgiven for thinking he was not in Italy at all. This is a bi-lingual society where all places names have both their Italian and German versions. Thus, Bolzano (the regional capital) is also know as Bozen and Ortisei is also St Ulrich; things can get quite confusing. Around 70% of the Sud Tirolo is German speaking, and 30% Italian; a tiny percentage of locals (mostly in remote, rural areas) even speak ‘Ladino’, an ancient, almost incomprehensible mix of Latin and Celtic.
The local ‘paesaggio’ is pure chocolate box (and typically Tirolean). In summer, wooden chalets cling to hillsides, their balconies brightened by cascading geraniums, while cows graze on sloping green pastures to a background of gently clinking cowbells. In winter, when the area comes into its own as a world-class winter sports destination, roofs are weighed down by a thick blanket of snow, innumerable white lights illuminate night time scenes, traditional red and green decorations festoon every house and Christmas trees cheer each community’s central piazza. The area’s ancient, picturesque towns and villages are rich in medieval architecture and home to some superb art. Foodies won’t be disappointed either: some of Italy’s best wines come from the Alto Adige and the rich pastureland means that cheese and cured meats are of exceptional quality. Many culinary specialities are derived from Austrian traditions (including melt-in-the-mouth cakes and pastries) and excellent hearty mountain food is on offer at numerous characteristic ‘osterie’.
High in the mountains, the going can get quite tough in winter if your car is not properly equipped with snow chains, so choose a base on lower ground from which to explore. Castelrotto (or Kastelruth) is a popular resort situated about 30 kms north of Bolzano in the foothills of the Alpi di Siusi. Although no longer the sleepy little place it once was, at its heart is an ancient Ladin village with a delightful piazza and an old church whose massive bell tower, complete with a characteristic ‘onion’ dome, dominates the town.
Overlooking the square is the Cavallino d’Oro, a charming hotel with 14th century origins which, in spite of its four stars, manages to maintain the feeling of a local hostelry. Christmas at the ‘Golden Pony’ is very special with celebrations focusing on Christmas Eve as is the custom in this part of the world. Guests are invited to gather before dinner to hear readings of the Christmas story and sing carols in front of a beautiful tree lit with real candles. Dinner is a delicious, multi-course affair featuring elegant versions of traditional dishes such as radicchio and chestnut-stuffed tortelli with a game and truffle sauce and roast goose with orange.
After dinner, guests join the locals (many dressed in traditional garb) in a packed church for midnight mass followed by hot mulled wine under the huge tree in the piazza along with music from the town band. Back in the hotel, a beautiful basket of fruit, nuts and home-baked cookies is placed in each bedroom for late night hunger pangs.
Don’t confine your visit to Castelrotto; there is plenty to do in the area over the holiday period. It goes without saying that there are endless opportunities for both cross country and downhill skiing nearby while the beautiful old towns of Bolzano, Bressanone and Merano all host big Christmas markets; look out for traditional knitwear and slippers made of boiled wool, exquisite traditional Christmas decorations and local culinary specialities.
A drive further east up, the Val Gardena will lead through a winter wonderland, from one gorgeous village to the next and a true sense of being in another time and another place. Beware: the skiing hoards arrive en masse after December 27th having spent Christmas at home. Sounds like a good time to head back south.
Castelrotto 0471 706333
Hotel Cavallino d’Oro, Castelrotto
0471 706337 www.cavallino.it