November 16


How to Enjoy Winter in Italy

By Rick

November 16, 2015

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.

There was snow in Rome 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

steam-locomotive-63210_1280Around 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.fog in venice

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

Dreaming of the Amalfi Coast

Well, summer will be here soon enough. I can’t think of a better place to enjoy the warmer weather than the Amalfi Coast. Even better after peak season when the crowds have thinned and you have the space to move around at your leisure.

Join me at the end of September to experience the very best of this enchanting destination. Click on the banner below to learn more! Hope to see you there!

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About the author

Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

  • Great points all the way around. We were in Florence quite late in the season, and despite the chilly rainy weather, it was very enjoyable.

  • Growing up in Milwaukee I have had my share of cold, snowy, dark winter days…part of the reason why I am living in Phoenix now, but this makes me want to visit Italy in the winter…especially knowing I can come back to a tad warmer Arizona when I get too frozen.

  • Great ideas, Rick. Good points, too. I’m very good at handling extreme weather conditions but I do prefer winter to cold. What’s great about Rome is you can still eat outside about 10 months a year. It’s mid-November and I’m still eating lunch on my terrace. One thing I would add is Romans HATE winter. Look at how they dress. They don’t dress by the temperature. They dress by the calendar. As soon as Nov. 1 rolled around, out came the scarves and down jackets. It doesn’t matter that it’s still 70 degrees out. Romans dress as if they’re mushing dogs over one of the poles.

    John Henderson
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  • Coming from South Florida (or SoCal), any other climate is a shock to the system. But grappa certainly does help. I also discovered Vin Brulee, and when you’ve got the sniffles there’s nothing like it!

  • “If you’re not inclined to a gloomy temperament, well, that’s what grappa is for.’ you are so right! HA! I actually love Venice with the fog but I’ll take a nice glass of vin santo at the same time ;-). Great post as always Rick, I’ve never been to the Italian Alps but I think I need to put this on my list. Texans in cold places, could be a new series

    • Thanks Georgette! Yes, Venice in the fog is very “suggestivo,” isn’t it? I’ve been to the Dolomites once, but never for skiing. It’s on my list too!

    • We went some years ago to Rome in the winter for the simple reason that there were fewer tourists. We enjoyed it much and we do live in sunny CA and in the desert city of Palm Springs, but it was great to access so many things with much less hassle…..We also saw the ” befana”, not quite sure what that was but parents and kids in the streets… And then grappa ever so often helped.

      • Looking forward to my third Christmas in Rome! Ever since I could, I have traveled in the fall and winter. In Rome I have experienced temps near 70, but have also dashed to the Pantheon to see the snow coming in from the top. Since I am only going to Rome this time instead of traveling around, I will have the lining of my coat if needed plus the hat and scarf I bought in Florence three years ago when I was freezing!
        A presto,

        • That’s what makes planning a trip this time of year challenging, although you seem to have worked it out. I’ve seen the Pantheon after the snow, but never DURING….wow, that must have been lovely!!

      • Yes, I enjoy the cold as a “break,” but it’s stressful when it lasts for 5-6 months. The befana is the Christmas witch, and I’m quite sure she drinks her share of grappa! 😉

      • You used grappa to clean paint brushes???? I have to hide my grappa and spirits from Mrs S otherwise she uses them to cook with.

        I had a lovely old bottle of brandy that I would occasionally drink. Mrs S decided it would make fabulous meals and she had slowly used it over a six month period.. 🙁

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