I’ve always wanted to go to a real German Christmas market… gluhwein and pretzels, bratwurst and gluhwein, gingerbread and maybe some gluhwein. What I hadn’t banked on was that my first visit to a proper German Christmas market would be in the north of Italy, in fair Verona.
It’s not Verona’s busiest period. Opera season finished months ago. Vinitaly, the huge, boozy wine expo isn’t happening here until April. Juliet’s balcony is here all year round, of course… but forget star-crossed lovers, I’m here for star-topped trees. If you’re thinking about going, go. Verona in winter is fantastic.
To be fair, Verona anytime is fantastic. It’s like a kind of ‘Diet Rome‘; where history is written in the streets, and the sense you get of how the city has evolved through the ages is palpable – but compared to Rome’s magnificence, it’s cosy, small enough to navigate on foot, and you’ll feel like you’ve really got a handle on the place within two days. It’s quintessentially Italian, stylish, romantic as anything, and the food, shopping and nightlife is all brilliant. So what makes it great during winter in particular? Well…
Verona has teamed up with the Nuremberg Christmas Market, which is the original and most traditional of the Christmas markets, to bring a little taste of a traditional German Christmas Market to the streets and Piazzas of Verona. So as well as still having a full-on Italian experience, you get to buy beautiful German Christmas decorations and crafts while you gorge on proper bratwurst, freshly baked bretzen, and the spicy alcoholic tummy-hug that is good gluhwein. It’s magical. It’s even more magical after a few cups of gluhwein.
Pandoro is Verona’s very own special Christmas cake. Pandoro (Pan d’Oro, meaning ‘golden bread’) is a yummy, sweet, yeasty, cake thing, that comes dusted with sugar on top and is traditionally served with a fat dollop of something lovely like mascarpone, flavoured cream or melted chocolate. It’s Christmas, in Verona, on a plate. You can get them in the supermarket, but if you really want to treat yourself (it is Christmas after all), buy one from Perbellini. They cost more than the supermarket version, but good cake is worth paying for.
Verona is achingly pretty already. Its full of beautiful terracotta and yellow buildings – a little like Trastevere in Rome – some of whose walls bear the faded remains of the murals that once lent the Verona the nickname ‘The Painted City’. It’s got balconies that drip ivy, beautiful bustling Piazzas, narrow little alleyways that house curious wine bars and old-fashioned trattoria, and of course the palaces and the stunning arena. Add elegant Christmas lights into that mix (because of course the Christmas lights in Italy are elegant), and the ambience is elevated to a whole new level. The shooting star that flies over the side of the Arena and into Piazza Bra is beautiful at night, but Via Giuseppe Mazzini is my favourite; beautifully understated globes of fairy-light are suspended in the air, bathing you in a Christmassy glow while you rinse your overdraft along Verona’s best shopping street.
Ok, I know you get this in lots of cities at a certain time of year, and it’s always beautiful, but when the winter sun beats down, and the technicolour-blue winter sky frames those golden Verona buildings, the place just glows. “But surely it glows in Summer too!” I hear you cry. Well yeah, it does. I’m not saying Verona isn’t beautiful in the summer, it really is. But if you like those crisp, bright, see-your-breath-in-front-of-your-face winter days, you’ll REALLY like them in Verona. You also to spend hours upon end walking around a sun-drenched city without the discomfort of wilting in the summer heat. Just don’t forget your winter coat. OR your sunglasses.
I was incredibly lucky with the weather, and I got that glorious winter sunshine that takes the edge off an otherwise nippy temperature. But if you’re not quite so fortunate and you get rain, or even if you just want to get out of the cold for a while like I did, it’s a great excuse to go inside and see some of Verona’s indoor attractions that you might not otherwise see – in summer it’s just to difficult to leave the sun to spend time inside. I went to the Palazzo Della Gran Guardia on the Piazza Bra, to see a fantastic art exhibition that included loads of Van Gogh work. It runs right through winter until March and is well worth seeing, especially if you’ve never seen one of his cornfields or self portraits up close.
It’s winter, not an apocalypse. There is no reason whatsoever for you to not continue to pig out on gelato like you would on any warm and sunny day in Italy. In fact, there is even MORE reason to pig out on Gelato in winter time. For one thing, the body fat will provide you with vital extra insulation over the winter months, but apart from the obvious health advantages to eating lots and lots of ice cream, there’s the fact that it melts far more slowly in winter. If you get a cone, you can savour it that bit longer without having half of it run down your hand and drip onto your shoes. Gelateria Savoia on Via Roma is where I went. It’s sublime.
As much as you can easily enjoy gelato in the winter, the same can’t quite be said for hot chocolate in summer. It’s just too hot to really want it. But on a cold winter’s night in one of the most romantic cities in the world, with Christmas lights twinkling all around you and the smell of roasting chestnuts wafting through the air? On those nights in Verona, a hot chocolate is the icing on the amazing city break cake. Try Tosca Café or Café al Teatro, or get one from the mouth-wateringly good Springhetto chocolate stall at the Christmas market.
Flego is one of my favourite places. Not just in Verona, but in general. And they are clever in Flego. They make these teeny tiny perfect little pastries, which makes you feel less piggish for ordering multiple ones, which is something you should certainly do. Anyway, there are two branches of Flego in Verona, one on the Corsa Porta Borsari and one on Via Stella. They are always busy, and justifiably so. But in winter, you can easily get a table outside the one on Via Stella. Get an excellent cappuccino and whatever creamy little puffs of Italian loveliness you fancy, and sit there indulging without feeling rushed. I recommend the pistachio profiterole above all else.
The Flego point brings me to an overall huge advantage of going to Verona in winter time. It’s nowhere near as busy as it is in spring and Summer. It’s still busy of course – and Juliet’s courtyard and balcony is always crammed with romantics, so don’t expect any different – but it’s nothing compared to the crowds in the height of summer. You’ll have the chance to really see and feel the Arena’s history without big tour groups milling around you; the streets and shops aren’t overwhelmingly full; and getting a seat for aperitivo on Piazza Erbe is not an un-achievable goal. You have breathing space, and that’s a nice thing.
- Dee Murray