So! A little about our destination: Bolzano is the largest city in South Tyrol, a province in northern Italy. It is heavily influenced by its close vicinity to Germany -- both German and Italian are spoken there, and in fact many people we met spoke Italian with a heavy German accent. The menus were devoid of things like bucatini and pizza and melanzane alla parmigiana, filled instead with dishes called gröstl and knödel and kaiserschmarrn; the city reminded me a bit of Bologna but also a lot of Berlin; the weather was much colder than we were used to. We were anyways definitely up North and all agreed that the 4.5 hour train ride seemed to have brought us to a different country. Here are me and Emily on the train, happy to be on our way:
I wasn't quite sure what Bolzano would be like -- I'd agreed to go as soon as the words "Christmas markets" entered the conversation, and I admit I hadn't done too much research beyond that. The city, it turned out, was a welcome break from chaotic Rome, rather small, picturesque and cozy (for anyone that watches Gilmore Girls, Bolzano is like Stars Hollow, Italian edition). The air was noticeably fresher and cleaner, there were mountains everywhere we looked, and the sky seemed to shine even brighter there, a clear, piercing blue. We didn't take public transport once the whole weekend, finding that everything was easily reached by a few minutes walk. But the best thing about Bolzano? It takes Christmas very, very seriously, becoming a pure Holiday Wonderland from December into early January, with every inch of the city covered in lights, decorations, and tall, majestic Christmas trees. On our walks around the center, we found that Christmas choirs would gather on balconies and break into song when you least expected it; hot chocolate and mulled wine seemed to be the drink of choice for the whole city; everyone was swaddled in scarves and hats and seemed to be in an excellent mood. Emily commented that Santa Claus himself probably vacationed here, and I half expected to see reindeer wandering around. In short, it was a holiday paradise, exactly where I needed to go to get in to the Christmas spirit that I find lacking in Rome and that I so miss about the U.S.
So, what did we do in this marvelous Winter Wonderland? I wish I could tell you I went hiking on one of the many trails in the mountains of Bolzano, or that I went to see Ötzi, the mummy discovered on the border between Austria and Italy and kept in the Museum of Archaeology, but, as usual, the focus of my trip was ended up being the local food, plus exploring the mercatini di natale (surprise, surprise!) More cultural stuff next time, I promise. In the meantime -- highlights of the trip below!
Christmas Markets/Mercatini di Natale/Christkindlmarkt
Bolzano is known for its Christmas markets (mercatini di Natale in Italian, Christkindlmarket in German) and with good reason. The main square was packed with stands selling edible gifts like chocolates, gingerbread, cheese, salumi, wine, jam, and honey, as well as stands selling homemade Christmas ornaments, wreaths, jewelry, scarves, mittens, slippers, and lotions and soaps, among many, many other things. We got lots of free food samples (as Allie and Emily have demonstrated in the photo below), and I got most of my Christmas shopping done in just an afternoon. I won't list my purchases here (lest the gift-receivers are reading) but I came away with quite a haul, plus a few cool items for myself, like edible dried flowers (perfect for decorating cakes or cupcakes) and lavender-infused sugar. With its many Christmas lights, the mercatini were particularly beautiful at night.
What We Ate (!!!)
Surprise surprise, most important part of a trip for me -- as I've mentioned before -- is the food. I love sampling the typical dishes of a new place and learning what the locals eat on a daily basis, plus a little break from my usual Roman fare is always welcome. The cuisine in Bolzano is heavily influenced by German cuisine, and as a result was on the cozier, heavier side, well-suited to the cold weather and the mountains. We started our trip off with a fantastic and very traditional apple strudel (apfelstrudel) at Pasticceria Hofer, per the suggestion of my friend Chiara who has family in Bolzano (thanks, Chiara!) As you can see in the last photo, I was very happy to be eating strudel.
Next up was vin brulè (spiced wine, served hot) and hot apple cider at Christmas market. We got to keep the mugs they were served in, which was an added bonus. At lunch we split canederli, or cozy bread dumplings made with cheese, speck, or spinach, served with butter or in broth, and a bowl of gulasch (a beef stew). Later on in the afternoon we headed to Hopfen & Co. (another suggestion from Chiara) where we noshed on freshly baked pretzels and Emily ordered a beer (beer isn't really my thing). Deciding we still had room for dinner a few hours later, we headed to Il Cavallino Bianco (also recommended by Chiara) where we sampled spaetzl (spinach-potato dumplings similar to gnocchi) and served with speck, pork roast with potatoes, and more canederli. All of the food was off-the-charts amazing, as one would expect food in Christmasland to be. Expect recipes for homemade pretzels and canederli on the blog soon.
On our last day in glorious Bolzano, we started the morning off right with krapfen, fluffy, light, cream filled donuts covered in powdered sugar (probably what Santa and Mrs Claus themselves would eat for breakfast, we decided). After breakfast we headed to the Christmas markets to make final purchases, then had lunch there, opting for the polenta stand, where the polenta was served on the spot out of a huge copper kettle. We ordered polenta with gulasch (yum!) and polenta with gorgonzola and mushrooms (probably my favorite thing I ate the whole trip). Oh, and we also bought an insane apple cinnamon roll from the market to eat on the train ride home, in case, you know, we happened to get hungry again (shopping and traveling can be tiring, and we wanted to keep our energy levels up, obviously).
The factor that 100% confirmed for me that Bolzano was really, truly, a magical place?! There were dogs, everywhere, many in jackets, out for a stroll and shopping with their owners. I love dogs -- my sister and I have often lamented that we cannot have one in our apartment -- and miss my own beagle, Snoopy, year round, so this was like Christmas come early. We stopped to cuddle and pet many of them, which slowed down our shopping a good deal, but it was worth it.
And just when we thought that it couldn't get any better -- amidst the dogs we also spotted a miniature pony and two adorable llamas. PARADISE. If you're not a dog or animal lover, please just humor me:
La Funivia del Renon
We took the funivia (cable car) all the way up to the mountains to get the best view of the city. The view was stunning -- a little nerve-wracking if you looked down -- but really beautiful. We got off the funivia and had a walk around the town there, where we found a few cozy cafes, bed and breakfasts, and a small Christmas market. So, so, Christmas-y! In the words of my friend Kathryn, to whom we sent some of our photos: "If you're not feeling Christmas-y yet, you probably never will."
Bottom line? Bolzano might just be my favorite city I've ever visited in Italy. I was sorry to leave, but we all decided we'd be planning another longer trip next year, vowing to also add a visit to Merano and Ötzi the next time around. So: Merry Christmas, Bolzano!!! Until next year!!!