From tradition to innovation in Florence and beyond
FLORENCE AND SURROUNDING AREA
The sacred and profane go hand in hand in Florence for the first few days of December as the piazzas host their traditional Christmas markets. On December 8, the whole of piazza della Santissima Annunziata is set up with stalls from the La Fierucola association, which promotes artisan and agricultural product markets, whereas piazza Santa Croce hosts a German market full of German products and trinkets until the end of the month. Every Sunday of the month there is also a Christmas market at the Cascine Park.
Tired of shopping? Great! A stop at Palazzo Medici and its Cappella dei Magi is just what you need. The museum is also hosting a Banksy exhibition showcasing his street art. What’s that got to do with Christmas? If you think about it, the frescoes found in tabernacles and churches could be seen as the long-distance relatives of modern-day street art.
Mechanical nativity scenes made of either antique or modern materials can be found in every Florentine church, but if you want to know more about their origins you can visit the Accademia, where you’ll find the most striking collection of gold leaf works that retrace and retell the life of Jesus.
If you want to see a unique nativity scene that covers a whole hillside, head over to Petroio, part of the municipality of Vinci, where the side of the hill is covered with a mechanical stone nativity scene. Even more unusual nativity scenes include the crocheted scene in Cerreto Guidi, 22 metres long by 1.5 metres wide with 20-centimetre-tall figures. More traditional is the nativity play in Pescia, set up along the river in a 14th-century style, or the one in San Miniato Basso which has 200 figurines. In San Miniato don’t miss the spectacular Tree of Life – created by the artist Roberta Cipriani and made with the help of the Maison Fratelli Piccini – that illuminates piazzale della Basilica for the whole Christmas period.
Stretch your legs by going to the Obihall in Florence where again this year you’ll find the Firenze Winter Park, with two big ice-skating rinks where you can even play Ice Stock, a game similar to curling. True ice-skating fans go to Cortona as it boasts the largest rink in central Italy, where you can also wonder the streets admiring the city-wide performances during Cortobuskers, the street performance festival (January 5 – 6). January 6 is Vintage Day in San Piero in Sieve which is also where the Befana train arrives: a festive convoy that departs from Santa Maria Novella at 9am and returns at 2pm.
SIENA AND SURROUNDING AREA
Piazza del Campo’s large Christmas market is perhaps the most striking attraction for market fans (December 6 – December 9) and is just as festive as the nativity scene, fully animated with an artistic set that moves along platform 1 at the city’s main train station. Nativity scenes made with both modern and historic materials, can be admired in Montepulciano where every year, in the castle transformed into Santa Claus Village, nativity scenes from all over the world are showcased (until January 6).
Not to be missed is the evocative torchlight procession in Monteriggioni, a parade of torches that moves down the Francigena to celebrate Christmas: the procession walks 4 kilometres through the woods (from 9pm onwards) to arrive at Badia a Isola, where at 11pm in the abbey a midnight mass is celebrated. A shuttle bus will then bring the participants back to Monteriggioni.
If you’ve never been to Abbadia San Salvatore, Christmas Eve is the opportunity to go! On the December 24, starting at 6pm, the Blessing of the Fire begins. This is a renewal of a thousand-year tradition that combines sacred and pagan rites by creating pyramid-shaped stacks of intertwined trunks, up to 7 meters high, which are then burnt on Christmas night and can be visited throughout the month of Advent. The ritual serves as a tribute to the fertile land in the Amiata area and its extinct volcano. A traditional game using panforte involves all of Pienza between Christmas and New Year; the typical Sienese dessert is thrown on a table and whoever touches the edge of the cake first gets the most points.
GARFAGNANA AND VERSILIA
Do not miss the large mechanical nativity scene and the over 40 representations and dioramas set up along via San Giovanni in Pieve Fosciana; really spectacular are the Natalecci, big bonfires that light up every year on Christmas Eve in Minucciano.
Who doesn’t want to witness a thrilling car race? The Ciocchetto Rally is a truly unique version of a typical competition. At Ciocco in Lucca, on December 22 and 23, modern and classic cars are put to the test over the course of two exhilarating days. Even in winter, the night in Versilia is young. In the renovated yet perfect Decò Caffè del Principe in Viareggio, Steve Norman, the multi-instrumentalist from Spandau Ballet, a popular band from the 80s, is holding a concert on December 15, starting at 8.30pm, alongside DJ Claudio Ciccone Bros performing Post-Romantic and Electro-Pop music.