The best part about Italy during the holidays is that the Christmas spirit lasts until Epiphany. While the rest of Europe is shuttering their markets and taking down the lights, the tiny villages in South Tyrol are still glowing with candles and mulled wine, and trees still twinkle beneath the snowy peaks of the Dolomites.
Shop windows still display winter scenes full of mittens and reindeer, and everywhere is the scrumptious smell of cinnamon and baking bread. Italy is much less cheesy than Austria at this time of year. As much as I love cheese, I prefer the bakery smells to all those wafts of ripened funk…
I also like the graceful streets full of painted doors and bicycles, and the shouts of lively conversation floating through open windows. In this week before Epiphany, we found glass candle globes set out on all the doorsteps to welcome the magic of Light.
This was our hotel in the town of Brixen-Bressanone, tucked on a side street, with a soft and fluffy white cat to welcome the guests.
In downtown Brixen there are trees draped in lights and people draped in furs, all milling together over drinks and conversation, under the reassuring walls of a town that has survived centuries with grandeur and beauty intact. Italians are so good at beauty.
Breakfast every morning is in a cozy dining area that is half bar, half living room. I think what makes Italy beautiful is not being modern or fancy, but perfect somehow for being just what is needed. Mike banged his head on these lights most days….
….and each afternoon before dinner we played cards and had aperitivos. Campari, Lillet, and Prosecco are my favorites, and maybe it’s tacky, but I always eat the orange out of my glass. Mike likes to have beer, and we’ve both gotten too intolerant (or too old) for heavy microbrews so we drink light regional beer instead. There is a counter with little bowls of crackers shaped like fish, almost goldfish but not quite, and another snack that reminded me of Twigs. We humans are really not so different.
These days, even the older generation can’t stay off their screens!
At breakfast there were shots of apple ginger juice, and a machine for macchiatos and hot chocolate. The buffet had cheese, sliced sausages, smoked ham, muesli, tiny powdered doughnuts, apricot tarts, and heavy brown bread rolled in oats and pumpkin seeds. Mike threw down the breakfast challenge for Jake and Eli, with the promise of a Coke at lunch if they hit all the food groups including a vegetable. That was too easy, so he added a new grade for “presentation and style.” Eli and Mike always win that category because they like to bother with arranging their cucumbers and tomatoes around their bright yellow eggs. Jake and I like sweet things, and sweet things at breakfast are unfortunately mostly brown and don’t make a plate look pretty!
Outside twilight comes early, as the sun sinks behind the village crèche, perfect for kids who would rather play hide-and-seek under the cover of darkness.
It was freezing, but light from the stars hanging overhead made the bustle of town life feel warm.
For New Year’s Eve we bought a Yule Log because the boys thought it was cute. Me too! How many more years do I have to buy them yule logs?
Then, instead of dragging them to a 7-course menu in the hotel restaurant, we let Eli and Jake stay in the room and have sushi while Mike and I had dinner downstairs. Mozzarella, prosciutto, pesto, shrimp, lobster broth, zucchini souffle, lentil soup, schüttelbrot, parmesan, wild boar ravioli, the best piece of veal I’ve ever had, cheese with walnuts and wasabi jelly, and truffle cake with cinnamon knödels and raspberry sauce. Wow, were we full! And asleep by 11:30. And super glad that we did not bring the boys, because all the other kids in the dining room were running around and petting the cat and playing with iPhones, and I don’t think even one of them made it past the appetizer.
Our favorite restaurant in Brixen is Kutscherhof. We’ve been there three times, and every time the people are friendly, the pizza is crispy thin, the kid drinks are huge, and this time they put persimmons on the salad. There is also something inherently perfect about any restaurant that lines up dozens of Amaro over the bar.
Another night we had dinner at Fink, a Tyrolean place that’s more Austrian than Italian, and had fish fillets, tagliatelle, sauerkraut, fried potatoes, little dumplings made from beets, and a giant orb of bittersweet chocolate melted under a hot stream of raspberry jam. Walking home again we wonder how Italians can eat so much, and how our kids still feel like racing each other to a phone booth. Phone booth?
Things don’t seem to change as fast here, but maybe that’s because things are good the way they are, and change is not the point. I wish I could make things stop changing because I could live this version of my life forever. It is perfect, just like this.