Passion for Italy Podcast #16: Italian Holiday

Ciao this is Allison Spiegel with Passion For Italy Travel in New York. Happy holidays! As we start to wrap up a year that has seen such significant change and heartbreak, we are reminded of how lucky we are to be healthy and safe, and we hope all of you are as well. While we have been unable to travel abroad this year, nothing can take away our ability to dream about our next travel destination. Vacation days and time away with family and friends are precious, and will feel even more special when the world opens its borders once again, and we can get back to exploring the places we love.

This holiday season, I have been reminiscing about a trip my family took to Italy last December. Usually during the holiday break, we travel somewhere warm; however, last year, Italy was calling. Perhaps she knew it would be a while until we would be able to return. We were looking forward to experiencing the joy of the season in Florence and Rome, Italian style!

Now if you are expecting a white Christmas, you should know that while you will likely find snow in Northern Italy such as in the Dolomites, a popular ski destination, central and Southern Italy often get little snow in December. In fact, the average daily temperatures in Rome and Florence were in the mid-50s, which is great weather for sightseeing.

The goal of our trip was to delve deeper into the two Italian cities we love and to eat, drink and just be merry! On Christmas Eve we took an evening walk to see the incredible light decorations around the city. One of Passion For Italy Travel’s favorite hotels in Florence is in a Medici palace on the famed Via Tornabuoni, which is known for its exclusive shopping. But, during the holidays, this street, along with many others, turns into a winter wonderland with elaborate lighting installations that are just magical. And as we sat down to a Tuscan dinner, we all agreed coming to Italy for the holidays was the best gift of all!

On Christmas Day the city was alive and buzzing! Florence is a small, easy to walk city and even though the museums were closed on Christmas Day, we were still able to see so much as Piazza Della Signora, which houses an open-air sculpture gallery with a replica of Michelangelo’s David. We visited the Duomo as we always do and admired the Christmas tree in the piazza. We visited the Great Synagogue of Florence Tempio Maggiore, which opened in 1882 after the emancipation of the Italian Jews.

Piazza Della Republica is a great place to take a break from sightseeing where kids can ride the carousel, and everyone can enjoy a gelato or cappuccino at one of the caffes. We then visited Santa Croce church, which in my opinion is a must visit when in Florence. Santa Croce houses famous frescoes by Giotto and works by Donatello as well as the tombs of Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Galileo, to name a few. There is even a tomb for the famous Italian poet Dante, however, insiders know it is just a memorial as Dante is really buried in Ravenna, where he died after he was exiled from Florence. And be sure to stop by the leather school right behind the church, where you can watch the artisans craft leather goods right before your eyes. This is a great place to buy holiday gifts because it is some of the highest quality leather to be found in Florence.

There are many holiday markets for gift purchases throughout Italy, which often begin in late November and last through December. One famous holiday market can be found in Piazza Santa Croce right in front of the church.

Since food was a priority on this trip, we made sure to visit some old favorites and we discovered some new local gems as well. My best advice about dining in Italy on a holiday is to plan. Many restaurants have set holiday menus, so it’s a good idea to check ahead and make a reservation. Italy has many traditional holiday foods to enjoy such as a meat free Christmas Eve dinner which usually consists of seafood known as the Feast of Seven Fishes. And be sure to eat lentils on New Year’s Eve as a sign of prosperity for the New Year.

And after a meal, we highly suggest taking in concerts or shows to really experience Italian culture and we can help identify great options for our clients. We went to a Christmas performance of Puccini’s La Boehme where each act was explained in English beforehand and there was a champagne toast during intermission.

And if you are a fan of Puccini, you can easily take a day trip to Lucca to see his birthplace, which also houses a museum. The medieval city of Lucca is surrounded by walls, which we recommend for a walk or a bike ride, which many people were doing the day we visited.

There are many other day trips one can do from Florence such as to Siena or Bologna, but we chose to head to one of Passion For Italy Travel’s favorite wineries, which Lindsay talked about in Passion For Italy Travel Podcast #15. We went on a truffle hunt with Moreno the truffle hunter and his dogs and learned about the different kinds of truffles found in Italy. Afterwards, we did a cooking class where we made pasta from scratch, with truffles of course, and then we feasted on our meal while enjoying a wine tasting. Afterwards, we took an afternoon stroll in San Gimignano, which is one of my favorite shopping destinations in Tuscany. There are tons of stores to purchase gifts like Tuscan made food, ceramics and linens and we really enjoyed a perfumery where you can sample the various fragrances.

But no matter where you choose for a day trip from Florence, be sure to make a pit stop at Piazza Michelangelo to admire the views over Florence. The morning we were there, the fog was just starting to lift over the city which made for a stunning backdrop for photos.

For those who love Florence as much as we do, it is always hard to say goodbye, but after a short train ride we arrived in Rome, which was just as festive with gorgeous holiday lights and the scent of roasted chestnuts filling the air.

Rome is a much larger city than Florence and it is important to choose a base that will be convenient for sightseeing. We can help you decide between a full-service hotel where you can have breakfast on a rooftop overlooking Rome, a charming bed and breakfast or a local gem that feels as if you are staying in someone’s luxury residence.

As soon as we dropped off our bags, we headed straight to our favorite spot in Rome, Piazza della Rotunda, where the Pantheon has stood for thousands of years. From here you can walk to many of Rome’s most famous sights such as the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and Piazza Navona where you can see Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers. Stop along the way for a caffe or meal, or both! The weather was warm enough most days we were in Rome that we were able to enjoy several lunches outdoors. And there are tons of opportunities for holiday shopping throughout these streets, especially along Via Condotti which is known as one of the most exclusive shopping streets in Rome. Or one can head to Piazza Navona, which hosts a popular holiday market.

The next day we booked a private tour of the Vatican, which is so worthwhile because the Vatican and its museums are massive. A guide will pare down the history so you see the highlights but so that you can also dig deeper into your own personal areas of interest. Holidays in Rome can be crowded and with the private tour, we are able to bypass the long lines that stretch all the way around the block!

And no trip to Rome is complete without marveling at the Colosseum and Roman Forum, but since we have done day and night tours in the past, we decided to take our own walk from the Piazza Venezia along the Via dei Fori Imperiale, past the Roman Forum and on to the Colosseum. This is a popular tourist destination, but the crowds were light as the sun began its descent, there was holiday music in the air and the sites, as always, take your breath away.

Another day, we visited the Trastevere neighborhood, across the Tiber, which is one of the most charming neighborhoods to explore with narrow streets, lively piazzas filled with caffes and several noteworthy churches, such as Basilica Santa Maria, one of Rome’s oldest churches. Another great way to explore this area is with a food tour where you will taste supplies, a typical Roman finger food made of risotto, and other street foods and pastries. Some of my favorite foods to eat in Rome are Roman artichokes and cacio e pepe pasta.

After a few days of sightseeing under picture perfect winter skies, our highly anticipated New Year’s Eve had arrived, and it did not disappoint. After a memorable meal in front of a roaring fire at an elegant restaurant, we retreated to our hotel’s rooftop where we watched the night sky put on the most beautiful fireworks show we’ve ever seen. We watched in wonder and knew how special a moment it was to be together, in Rome, at the turn of a new decade. While no one could anticipate what would become in 2020, that evening has taken on even greater meaning now.

And on our last day in Rome, we toured the Jewish Ghetto in the morning and then headed to the Appian Way to explore this famous ancient Roman road which stretches all the way across Italy to the Adriatic Coast. We learned about the history of the road, saw some incredible ruins and got a kick out of the fact that we were walking among the same stones that Julius Cesar once walked upon. After our tour, we had lunch at a restaurant which used to serve as an ancient post station for changing horses along the Appian way.

Spending the holidays in Italy exceeded all of our expectations and then some! Everything we love about Italy was elevated to a new level with the festive cheer of the season. With so much to see and do, and winter weather that is considered mild for many, Italy really does make the perfect holiday destination. And as we embark on a holiday season unlike any other, may the New Year bring a return to our way of life and a return to travel so that we may all continue to experience the world with the people we love most. Until then, I will hold on tight to the memories we made in Italy last December. Wishing our clients, friends and suppliers, Buone feste e felice anno nuovo. Happy Holidays and New Year.

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