How to Enjoy Winter in Italy
The summer-like weather lingered a bit longer this year in Rome, but now colder temps are just around the corner. This month, our group of COSI expats is collectively contemplating the upcoming change of seasons, and what we all can do to minimize the discomfort and enjoy winter in Italy.
Disclaimer: I’m from South Florida and NOT a fan of cold weather. In Miami, even in February you can wear shorts and go to the beach with Margarita in hand. Indeed, unlike in Italy, January and February is PEAK high-season in Florida, when frost-bitten Northerners fly down to thaw their frozen bodies for a week or even four months. “Snowbirds,” we call them, and they hail from every corner of the Northeastern US and Canada.
Still, Rome is probably warmer in the winter than where most people are from. This seems odd when you look at a map, because Rome lies on the same line of latitude as Albany, New York. Yet the average winter daytime high temperature in January in Rome is 54 degrees Fahrenheit versus 31 in Albany! Thanks to the Mediterranean waters, all of Italy is warmer in winter than it should be.
That’s not to say that the mercury doesn’t plummet once in a while. A few years ago I spent New Year’s Eve in Siracusa, Sicily. It was C-C-COLD!!! At midnight, the temperature was only about 40 degrees Fahrenheit (5 C) in the Piazza Duomo. And Syracuse is about as far south as you can go in Italy.
In Rome, it snowed in 2011, and again in 2012. That was kind of cool, though, seeing all the monuments covered in white. (We almost lost our white cat in a snowbank, however.)
A climate that you can’t control
Around this time of year, you might hear people in Rome lament, “When will they turn on the damn condo heat?!? Cheap bastards!”
Most apartment buildings have one central heating system in the bowels of the basement, and it doesn’t get turned on until the decision is made by the penny-pinching octogenarian in charge because—well, because their parents had been in charge, and their parents before them, all the way back to the Ancient Romans.
In the US, most buildings (at least in Florida) are equipped with a combination cooling/heating unit with a precise thermostat. In your home, your office, and your car—you have total control over your environment. If you begin to feel even the slightest discomfort, simply tweak the thermostat up or down, and all is cozy in your world.
As a result, many Americans have the habit of constantly adjusting the thermostat the way others constantly check their email or Facebook. If the temperature varies more than one degree, they start pushing buttons or turning knobs until the environment bends to their will.
It’s the need for control more than any physical discomfort; that American birthright of “self-determination” that we all treasure so much. It can be a difficult thing to concede to your landlord your first years as an expat in Italy.
Let there be light!
Eventually I’ve learned the benefits of a sciarpa (scarf), dressing like a cipolla (onion), and other ways to adapt to the chilly air. To be honest, the hardest part for me is the darkness. The sun never seems to get very high in the sky, making the entire day feel like twilight. You leave your home or a restaurant after lunch and the sun is already setting. It’s a bit depressing.
Some people like it. I often hear of the “winter mood,” especially in Venice, where the gray light and ghostly fog produce a tangible melancholy favored by artists and writers.
“Come back in November or December, in February or March, when the fog, la nebbia, settles upon the city like a marvelous monster.” —Erica Jong
If you’re not inclined to a gloomy temperament, well, that’s what grappa is for. Or better, Italy has a variety of warm spirits created exactly for this reason/season. (Check out my previous post about Drinking in Italy for the scoop on such tummy warmers as Vin Brulé and the Bombardino.)
How to enjoy winter in Italy
OK, let’s say you’re in Italy during the winter and you want to make the best of it. The beach clubs are closed, the ferries to Capri are suspended, and it’s too frigid to sit in the charming piazza to enjoy your lunch nell’aria aperta. So then, what are some of the positive things that you can take advantage of this time of year?
To start with, you’ll benefit from a much less crowded Italy than the fair-weather travelers will experience in May/June. This means shorter lines at the attractions, more interaction with the locals, and no need for reservations at the restaurants. You’ll also get a better price for your hotel room.
You can then choose to fully embrace the winter at one of the many world-class ski resorts. I recently interviewed a few companies offering vacations in The Alps, or if you’re in Rome, take the advice of my friend Liz Knight and head to Campo Felice or Roccaraso in nearby Abruzzo. She goes on to suggest, “The tiny medieval village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio is a breeze to get to. It looks like a fairy tale when blanketed in snow, and it’s been named one of the ‘The Prettiest Villages in Italy’ thanks to its cobblestones, archways, and views.”
If your visit coincides with the holiday season, make sure to check out the various Christmas markets and presepi (Nativity scenes) happening in most cities and villages. You won’t find as much “in your face” Christmas marketing in Italy as in the US (thank Christ for that…literally). Instead, there are some great traditional events that can really get you in the spirit. In Rome, there is the Museo del Presepio near the Forum and the Christmas Market in Piazza Navona.
Another option would be a visit to a natural spa (terme) where you can soak in the invigorating warm springs. Last year I visited The Spas of Montecatini Terme in Tuscany, but these types of resorts are scattered all over Italy, from North to South.
In fact, I met my friend, Susan Rosapepe, in Rome last month whose family owns one of these spa centers and she leads well-being retreats in Italy. Check out her site here: Rosapepe Retreats
Wastin’ Away Again…
All of that said, for this Floridian, there’s no place like home in the winter months. And to all the other shivering expats in Italy not accustomed to the cold, don’t forget that you can always take advantage of cheap off-season flights and fly to someplace warmer to thaw out for a week.
When I was at the TBEX (travel blogger) conference last month, I met the nice folks who have recently opened the Margaritaville Resort on Hollywood Beach in Florida. Yes, that mythical land that once existed only in our tequila-soaked fantasies is now a real place. Amen to that.
Like the song says, “I gotta fly to St. Somewhere; I gotta go where it’s warm!”
This post is part of our COSI Italy-blogger round-table ‘Winter’ theme for November, please follow our facebook page for more details and check out the posts of my fellow bloggers below.
Rochelle, Unwilling Expat – Winter in Sicily
Georgette, Girl In Florence — What To Expect When You Visit Florence In The Winter
Andrea, Sex, Lies And Nutella – Surviving the Italian Winter
Pete, EnglishMan In Italy – Bagna Cauda and Wine
Misty, Surviving in Italy – Italy In The Winter: Baby, It’s Cold Outside
Gina, The Florence Diaries – A Foreigner’s Guide to Surviving Winter in Italy
Maria – Married to Italy