Italy in winter is full of music, carnival and delicious food. A time when you can explore cities, beaches and countryside and learn about the local traditions before the influx of summer visitors. It may be the ‘quiet season’, but there’s still plenty going on – here are some of my favourite things about winter in Italy.
Sounds and colour of Carnival
February may be one of the coldest months of the year, but across Italy it is filled with the colour and fun of Carnival. It’s a time when people come together to create costumes, floats and masks and local dancing schools will be practising for their part in the procession. Those with an artistic flare create the most amazing characters out of paper mâché, some as tall as four-story buildings. There are fun activities for children and even the very youngest will wear fancy dress costumes while throwing confetti at the passing carnival floats.
February may be one of the coldest months of the year, but across Italy it is filled with the colour and fun of Carnival. It’s a time when people come together to create costumes, floats and masks and local dancing schools will be practising for their part in the procession.
While most Italian towns hold various sized carnival celebrations, some of the grandest events are held in Venice, Viareggio, Cento, Oristano and Putignano. Strolling round the historic streets people keep warm by eating carnival food from street venders. The most famous are deep-fried fritters shaped like ribbons and covered with sugar or honey. A delicious taste of Italy in winter!
Italian winter food
Speaking of the taste of Italy in winter, the traditional dishes are of course as delicious as their summer counterparts.
I go to the local street market every Saturday morning and it’s great to see what is in season. In winter there are loads of fresh vegetables such as artichokes, cabbage, cauliflower, celeriac and leek, and everything you need for a good minestrone soup. You can also help ward off colds by stocking up on winter fruits. In January you will find stalls piled high with clementine, oranges, apples and pears. You can buy a bag of clementine for about €2.
After we’ve weighed ourselves down with bags of fresh fruit, vegetables and eggs, we always pop into the café to enjoy the delights of a cappuccino. Even more indulgent is the “cioccolata calda”; that rich hot chocolate drink that is so thick and smooth, you need a spoon to eat it. It’s what dreams of an Italian winter are made of! Glass cabinets which displayed gelato in summer, are now full of delicious pastries, cakes, biscuits and chocolates.
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Whether dining out or cooking at home, an Italian winter kitchen can create some delicious warming meals. Each region has its traditional dishes using the best local ingredients. No more summer salads and cool gelato, it’s time for more meaty, creamy pasta sauces, such as the ragù or carbonara, thick soups and stews, as well as smoked meats. In the Bergamo Alps you can warm up after a morning out in the snow, with a dish of polenta Taragna with added cheese, milk and butter. In Tuscany, finish off a countryside walk with gnocchi with wild boar sauce.
The changing seasonal weather is what helps Italy produce such quality crops of grapes, olives, fruit, vegetables and grain and in turn Italian cuisine benefits from this. After the heat of the summer you’ll be glad of the cooler winter weather. It’s a time when you can get out and about during the day, then cosy up in front of the log fire in the evenings. The weather can be changeable, so you’ll need to wear layers of clothes that are easy to take off, as it can be raining one minute, then the sun will come out and you’ll wish you hadn’t worn that thick jumper.
If you are looking for short mild winters then the southern Italy is the place to go. It can still be humid and wet at times, but you will see blue skies and daytime temperatures that rarely go below 10ºC. You will also get half the amount of rainy days too (compared to London). In a sheltered spot in the sun it can actually get quite hot, especially when you get stuck into some physical work around the garden or land. This is the best time of year to get logs chopped, before it gets too hot.
The sights to yourself
Winter sports enthusiasts and anyone who loves mountain scenery heads to the alps or Apennine mountains for a winter break. We live 30 minutes from the Apulian coast so we enjoy long walks along deserted beaches, coastal paths and through nature reserves. Towns that are packed with tourists in the summer are now pleasantly quiet, so we visit the monthly antique market in Ostuni knowing we will be able to park the car easily.
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Italy in winter is a good chance to visit one of the great cities like Rome, Florence and Milan. There are many fine art galleries, museums and palaces to explore, and in winter there are fewer queues, especially on weekdays. Those who love shopping can also go bargain hunting at the sales. You may even find furniture for the home, at reduced prices.
Health and fitness
Italy boasts the largest number of thermal spa centres in the world, with a tradition of body and soul treatments that date back to the Romans. There are ancient baths that have remained intact for centuries that will take you back in time, with their natural saunas, hidden caves and thermal springs. Many hill top towns in Tuscany have harnessed the mineral-rich waters for use as municipal terme (pronounced terMAY), or spas.
Italy boasts the largest number of thermal spa centres in the world, with a tradition of body and soul treatments that date back to the Romans.
Most Italians are keen on keeping fit and healthy, so there are many facilities for various sports, from swimming to ice skating. At this time of year you’ll see teams of cyclists out on the roads. Dance is also popular with all ages and you will find social groups and dance classes you can join.
Trips to the theatre
During the winter months, the theatres of Italy come alive with opera singers, musicians, dancers and actors. Some of the most famous venues include Teatro Alla Scala, the famous opera house in Milan, La Fenice (the Phoenix) in Venice, Teatro Comunale in Bologna, Teatro Verdi in Pisa and the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. The latter is the oldest opera house in Italy, founded in 1737.
It’s at this time of year, when there are fewer tourists around, that the locals begin to realise that you aren’t just visiting, but have chosen to live in their community. It’s then that you really start to feel at home.