You can’t wrap it up in shiny paper or squeeze it under the prickly arms of the Christmas tree, but it’s what millions of people give themselves for Christmas every year. It is, of course, a quick getaway. Just a few days somewhere shortly before The Big Day, to buy exotic gifts, admire the twinkly lights, and generally absorb lots of festive ambience. Nothing is more guaranteed to put you in the proper Christmas spirit.
The usual target is a lovely northern European city with a magical Christmas market. All that spicy gingerbread and steaming Glühwein! All those cute, hand-carved wooden trinkets! A session of carol-singing, a spot of ice-skating. Some travellers venture as far as Lapland, with its deep snow and Santa-kitsch. Others go all the way to New York, with its legendary department stores and cornucopian window displays.
But surprisingly few of us realize how lovely southern Europe can be in the run-up to December 25th. Especially Italy, a country that excels in so many of the things that Christmas is all about: gorgeous ornament, stunning food, and an almighty reverence for family. In December in Italy the lights are heart-meltingly pretty, the shops are stocked with glossy and mouthwatering goods, and the streets teeming with friendly people – genetically predisposed to stroll around town all evening, whatever the temperature. Not that the temperature ever gets too ruthless. Cold, clear days graced with cheering sunshine are the December norm across most of the country.
Some of Italy’s most well-loved places are arguably lovelier in the run-up to Christmas than they are in the height of summer. Sorrento is a perfect example. This unashamed tourist-town on a rocky cliff overlooking the magnificent Bay of Naples is crowded with foreign visitors all summer long. They don’t come for the beaches (Sorrento has none to speak of). They don’t come for the monuments or museums (Sorrento is too fun-oriented to boast many of these). They come for the sheer pleasure of wandering Sorrento’s buzzy lanes and piazzas. They come for the lively cafés and bars, the boisterous nighttime passeggiata (the communal stroll round town). In December all these pleasures are undiminished, but the town is full of high-spirited local people rather than foreign holidaymakers.
In December, Sorrento’s outdoor market stalls groan beneath the weight of sumptuous food hampers, or stand ablaze with shiny gift-wrapped boxes of delicious panettone (Italian Christmas cake). Nip into the town’s cute little churches and you’ll find enchanting presepi – elaborate nativity scenes wrought with antique figurines, a big tradition of the Campania region. Outside, delicate lights fizz up the trunks of the palm trees and stretch out to illuminate every arcing frond. Excited locals mill about, and the whole town hums with colour and life.
On Sorrento’s shopping streets, even in the winter, summer colour is everywhere – in the ubiquitous bright bottles of limoncello, in the cascades of vivid dried chillies, and in the massive citrus fruits that blaze undimmed by cool December. Sorrento is practically overwhelmed by its oranges and lemons – some so embarrassingly big and breast-like that you can’t help but look away abashed as they ripely poke toward you.
And fecundity isn’t just limited to the stuff in the shops. Sorrento is a hugely popular wedding venue for the young people of nearby Naples. On any Saturday in December, romantic love is likely to be reaching its colourful nuptial apex here. You’ll see crowds of well-wishers throwing rice at a busty bride and her bashful new spouse, and spot the newlyweds again and again throughout town posing for photos and video. The Italian style of wedding portraiture is quite racy, so expect plenty of public snogs and lascivious looks between the dolled-up couple. No cold-hearted winter chill here!
Naturally you’ll want to snap up some glossy gifts to placate the folks back home. The classic souvenir is limoncello – Sorrento’s sweet lemon liqueur. For novelty bottles in wacky shapes, check out the many specialist shops on Via Cesareo and Via Fuoro. You can watch limoncello being made, and sample different blends, at Limonoro (Via San Cesareo 51-53), at I Giardini di Cataldo (Corso Italia 267), andat Distillerie Correale (Via Tasso 20).
The other traditional Sorrento prezzie is anything decorated with inlaid wood or intarsia – a craft practiced here for centuries. Think gorgeous handmade chess sets, intricate little boxes, trays, pictures and so on. Sorrento’s best spots to buy – or just admire – intarsia are the workshops of Salvatore Gargiulo (Via Fuoro 33), Franc and Guglielmo Cuomo (Piazza Tasso 32) and of course Gargiulo & Jannuzzi (Viale Enrico Caruso 1).
Wandering Sorrento’s narrow lanes full of little shops is a delight, in the winter as in the summer. But in December cascades of tiny bulbs brighten every shopfront, and big, bold illuminated stars are strung against the narrow sky. As daylight fades to the pale eggshell blue of twilight, these stars seem to grow ever bigger and brighter. As darkness falls, so the air of excitement ratchets up. This is southern Italy, and siesta-straddling opening-hours are inviolable – regardless of the season. All the shops and all the traders will be bustling with activity till 8pm. And then, in various stages, the passeggiata will begin – the regular celebration of nighttime.
On a Saturday night in December, Sorrento’s streets are packed until well into the small hours. The whole population of the town is out, their numbers swelled by Neapolitans visiting for the weekend. Every age group is here – children, teenagers, the elderly, the middle-aged. All strolling, chatting, buzzing with the excitement of nothing in particular. They stop at cafés and ice cream shops, they hail friends and family, they wander on again. It’s ridiculously convivial, and points to one of the great blessings of a benign climate: you can wander the streets for fun on most nights of the year.
Strolling through your hometown en masse every night naturally fosters a tremendous sense of community. In the run-up to Christmas, Sorrento’s sense of community is at its height. On a summer’s night, the little town would be packed with happy – and welcome – foreign visitors. But in the heart of winter, the town secretly reclaims itself. Everyone you see is a Sorrentine or a Neapolitan, behaving with all the verve and style that that suggests, dressed to the nines and flirting outrageously. To watch them at their stylish best, be sure check out Sorrento’s very coolest bars: Insolito (Corso Italia 38e), Il Fauno (Piazza Tasso 13-15) with its disco next door, and Photo (Via Correde 19) with its arty wall projections and trendy winter DJs.
Wherever you wander in Sorrento, you can’t help but be dazzled by exuberant lights along the way. In Piazza Tasso, a conical Christmas tree is a blaze of white dots. On all the central streets, the contours of buildings – doorways, windows, ledges and roofs – are carefully outlined in strips of lights. Against the black sky, they turn Sorrento into a graphic cartoon, all its lines and curves drawn in electric white. It’s appropriate, that cartoon-feel. Because Sorrento is a place of fantasy – wholly dedicated to pleasure and recreation. It’s a pretty bauble whose sole objective is to shine and make people smile. And in the run-up to Christmas, Sorrento is shining its brightest of the year.
Glittering with Byzantine mosaics, Ravenna has Christmas atmosphere written all over it. Goggle at the gilded beauty inside San Vitale’s Basilica, marvel at the depth of winking colour in the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, then stroll this tiny city’s elegant lanes lined with pretty shops and lit with delicate lights.
Cold weather gives us all a bigger appetite, and where better to indulge it than in the gastronomic capital of Italy? Stroll Parma’s contented and prosperous streets, salivate at the window displays of fine foodstuffs, buy some prosciutto and parmesan to placate the folks back home, then settle down for the evening in one of the city’s peerless restaurants.
Super-chic places like Portofino and the Cinque Terre can be irritatingly crowded and expensive in the summertime. Admire their colourful buildings in the clear, bright (and crowd-free) days of December. Or walk the area’s stunning coastal paths in the invigoratingly cool winter air.