Visiting Italy was never in my winter plans. I really wanted to go to Cuba. I visualized palm trees, white sand beaches, turquoise ocean, Salsa and Rumba, vintage cars, strong coffee and decayed brightness of Havana’s architectural gems. And then my partner in all traveling crimes called and informed me that she had already bought plane tickets, and we were going to Italy. Instead of enjoying rum on the beach I ended up with an airfare to Rome in winter.
Italy did not catch my imagination as a winter destination. My picture of Italy consisted of bright and sunny pieces of seaside beaches, white yachts, red convertibles, Vespa rides through the narrow streets, sitting outside at the table drinking coffee, listening to opera at piazzas – all in the summer, where men would necessarily be wearing white shirts and girls would be dressed up in puffy bright skirts. My brain, not primed with marketing images of winter Italy, stubbornly refused to create a plan of exploring Italy in winter.
Unable to deal with that myself, I set up an urgent interview with a Milano resident, the guru of Italian travel, and a person in full amore with the country, Daria Pereverzeva.
Nina Hazhala: Daria, I will have 10 days in Italy in February. Is it possible to fall in love with Italy in winter, and what routes you would advise to choose for that exact purpose?
Daria: Italy in winter is absolute love. That is the best time to feel the country and its culture, as it is barely crowded with tourists. There are plenty of options to choose from.
THOSE WHO LIKE IT COLDER and want to enjoy a real winter wonderland, should go north from Milan towards Valtellina Valley. I would advise to drive a car there, as it opens a lot of opportunities to enjoy the most picturesque road, as well as gives you freedom to make stops and enjoy walks in places you liked the most, to breathe in the fresh mountain air and take photos. But if you do not drive, trains will work just fine. Take a train from Milan to Tirano, and then a bus to Bormio. It will take about three hours to get to this beautiful town in Italian Alps and a popular winter sports resort.
My favorite is Bagni Vecchi (also in Bormio area) – hot baths overlooking the valley. Water that they use comes directly from surrounding mountain tops. This is the best place to regenerate your senses, mind and soul. While you are there, I would recommend to visit Evento termale in their sauna. To the sound of music, a person comes in with a bucket of snow. He molds a snowball, puts several drops of essential oil on it and throws that ball on the coal. Then he starts some dance moves using a damp towel to move aroma and steam around the room. He repeats his routine 3 times using various oils. By the way, healing nature of Bormio waters was widely known starting from 1300. Leonardo Da Vinci wrote about them: “In cima alla Valtellina c’è Burmi. A Burmi sono i Bagni.”
For lodging in the area, I would recommend Hotel Genzianella. It is located right at the foot of ski slopes. The interior is decorated in stile montanaro (or mountain style); they have good food and very friendly personnel. Rooms are small, but very modern. Mostly all rooms have balconies to overview the beautiful scenery around.
TRAVELERS WHO PREFER WARMER WEATHER will enjoy the areas around Naples or Sicily. I just want to caution you – do not drive there, unless you are an absolutely cold-blooded individual. In my opinion, southerners drive in a completely crazy manner. The winter temperature in the Southern parts of Italy is around +15C. It is not exactly beach weather, but it is the most comfortable weather for long walks and exploration of small towns, for observing and participating in traditional winter celebrations on piazzas. If you happened to be in Italy in February, take a short trip to Sicily. It is time when almond trees start to bloom there. That pink blossoming creates breathtaking effect, contrasting the minimalistic and desert-like architectural background.
WHILE VISITING THE REGION AROUND THE GULF OF NAPLES, try local sweet liqueur called limoncello. Every family has its own secret recipe of the drink, so don’t expect it’s going to taste the same every time you try it. Find the one you like the most and buy a bottle as a gift (bottles always vary in sizes, you can buy a small bottle of limoncello for 3-5 euros). If we start talking about drinks, I would like to recommend another thing to try in Sicily – local chocolate liquor. In that area, they make this very specific type of chocolate that does not melt. It is called Cioccolato di Modica. And out of Modica, they make amazing chocolate liqueur.
NH: It all sounds very exciting, but having limited time, and visiting Italy for the first time, I can’t skip the city where all roads lead.
D: IF IT IS YOUR FIRST TRIP TO THE COUNTRY, ITS CENTRAL PART IS A GOOD PLACE TO START. Fly to Rome, spend a few days there, then rent a car and drive to Tuscany and Florence, and you will see Italy from the inside. Make a stop at San Gimignano – a small hill town that was nicknamed “medieval Manhattan” because of its incredible amount of towers. Its architecture remained untouched since 1400. There are a lot of small towns and villages that are absolutely worth seeing there: Cortona – the real Tuscan spirit lives here; Volterra is the center of the Etruscan style, and also the place to see is the current Roman excavation; Monteriggioni– is a typical medieval town with circular defensive walls and supervising towers that remained there since the beginning of 13th century.
FLORENCE ITSELF IS FULL OF CULTURE AND HISTORY. You will find plenty of information in different touristic guides – Uffizzi Gallery, Ponte Vecchio bridge, Cattedraledi Santa Maria del Fiore (it was built with the purpose to hold all city residents of that time), etc. They are all worth seeing.
But I want to share what I personally like to do the most in Florence. Around 4 pm (in winter time), I always go to the Piazzale Michelangelo – it is the highest point overlooking the city. Every day before the sunset all local musicians gather at the square and start jamming their music. People are sitting on the steps, drinking wine and watching how the setting sun starts coloring the Church of Santa Maria del Fiore into all shades of pink.
This view is so breathtaking and the whole experience is so heartwarming, that I never leave Florence until I see the sunset at Piazzale Michelangelo.
To finish the day in Firenze, go to a restaurant (I would recommend Osteria di Giovanni) and order Bistecca alla Fiorentina (if you are a meat eater, of course, and in Italy you better be one!) and a glass of Chianti. Chianti originates in Tuscany, and to find bad Chianti there would require a lot of effort.
NH: If we started talking about wines, what are the regional recommendations?
D: Every region has its own taste. If you go to the northern Italy, drink white wines there like Pinot Bianco, Gewurztraminer, Valle Venosta Traminer. Grapes that grow in that area absorb the sun in a very specific way, and it makes the wine taste very rich, deep or fermo as Italians would say. The most exquisite prosecco will be found in Trentino. It is an independent region and therefore guarantees the highest quality of their produce. I usually choose a bottle of Müller Thurgau.
The best red wines are from Tuscany. Seriously, it is almost impossible to find bad wine there. Chianti is my favorite – because of the tart flavor and amazing color. While in Florence, go to a nice Enoteca (Enoteca Pinchiorri is my favorite, the best place for wine and gourmet connoisseurs), take a little table outside (yes, even in winter the weather is pretty comfortable for outside sitting) and enjoy the beautiful street views, or a fashion show from the local trend-setters or visiting globe-trotters.
NH: While traveling, I love finding the most authentic gifts to bring back home for my family and friends. What should I look for in Italy?
D: I do think that the best gifts from Italy for your loved ones would be food. Italy is known for the most delicious cuisine. Buy a nice bottle of local wine, or truffle oil, or aged Pecorino cheese. Most products are usually produced by small family businesses with hundreds of years of history. Think about it before buying a magnet or other crappy souvenir made in China, that in reality has nothing to do with Italy. If you buy that bottle of wine, most likely it was grown and produced by some family’s seventh generation. You will experience some real Italian magic with every sip of it.
To be continued.
P.S. My own impression from the travel itself is currently being processed and will be shared in Part 2. “Exploration” very soon. Stay tuned!
INTERVIEWER – Nina Hazhala | Chicago, USA
PHOTOS – Daria Pereverzeva | Monza, Italy