Any Italian will tell you that if you want to see real Christmas markets, you should head north to the mountainous region of Trentino Alto Adige. Having been under Austrian rule until 1919, this area is characterised by its Austrian and German influence, and in the most northern parts especially the population regard themselves as Austrian rather than Italian. This makes its claim to “German markets” far more authentic than those you find in the UK.
Trento is the capital of this region, and honestly an incredible place to visit all year round. Being nestled between intimidating mountains hasn’t stopped it developing into a cosmopolitan city, and yet the mix of the landscape and mediaeval architecture constantly remind you of its complete uniqueness to any normal city. Luckily it is also Michele’s old university town, so I promise I will be revisiting to get material for another post on its overflow of cultural must-sees. For now, let’s focus on its Christmas markets.
Held between mid November and January 6th in two of the old town’s main squares, Piazza Fiera and Piazza Cesare Battisti, they offer everything you could want in this festive period: delicately crafted decorations, unique gifts and plenty of mulled wine and hot chocolate to warm even the most Scrooge-like soul. Several of the stalls are not even over-priced as you would expect: I bought some original hand-made tree decorations and this novel nativity scene carved into a crafted wooden candle all for less than 10 euros.
If it’s all feeling rather general, or too much like the several other commercialised German markets across the world, just head to the food stalls for a true taste of its distinct identity. The menu generally consists of a mix between north Italian staples (such as polenta) and more Austrian and German influences, such as crauti or sauerkraut (a type of sour cabbage; crauti is the Italian translation) and wurstel sausage. Combine this with a pint of German beer or some mulled wine, take a wooden table between the action of the stalls, and soak up the wintry Christmas spirit. Or, if you’re already full of that hot chocolate you spotted on entering (guilty – see below), there are plenty of smaller stalls offering typical food to take away. Our choice was the canederli stall: Michele discovered I had never eaten them, and in his true Italian reaction to someone not knowing a food insisted I tried them. These large, dumpling like balls vary in their taste, since there are several different bases for the recipes. The most popular, and the ones we chose, are sausage meat, speck (a highly flavoured type of bacon), or spinach and ricotta cheese. Cooking them is then fairly easy: about six minutes in boiled, salted water, and your choice of sauce (though I would recommend a simple melted butter with sage, so as not to cover their rich flavour).
The main downside of Trento Christmas markets is the same as at every other Christmas market: there is no seating, even at the food and drink stalls. But don’t panic. If your fingers are starting to bite from the cold, or the crowd is getting too much, there are plenty of reasonably priced bars and restaurants throughout the city centre. My personal recommendation is the Birreria Pedavena: less than a minute’s walk from the markets, it’s unique, medieval turned steampunk interior design immediately attracted me. It also offers a range of stomach-warming Austrian and Italian cuisine, and although it may not be the most intense taste-bud experience of your life, it’s certainly more than satisfying for the price. Oh, and as a birreria, you can assume the beer will be to standard too!
The only other reason to put you off this trip is if you are travelling by car. Trento is a large city, so there are a few big car parks available, but not necessarily so close the markets – and in peak periods (ie any weekend or evening in December) even these will be full. The actual centre is off limits without a resident’s or worker’s permit, so parking there is a definite no. There will always be parking available somewhere, just be aware that you might have a few frustrating rounds of the city centre before finding it! If you don’t have much patience, it might be better to look into train or bus times: the stations are only a few minutes walk from the markets, and offer regular services to cities within the region.
Whether for Christmas shopping, filling an empty belly or simply for your own personal Christmas cheer, Trento’s Christmas markets should be on your list. And if you’ve seen it all in just a couple of hours (which is likely, with it focused entirely in the small city centre) but haven’t quite reached your full Christmas spirit, head for a road trip to what is known as the “five star route”, named for the five villages in the Trento Alto-Adige region, Bressanone, Brunico, Merano, Vipiteno and Bolzano, all of which hold similarly quaint mercatini di natale.