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Episode #153: Christmas Markets in Northern Italy’s South Tyrol region

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Christmas markets in Italy might not be as well-known as those in Germany or Switzerland but with its snow-capped mountains, pretty chocolate box villages, and magical local markets –  it could not be more Christmassy. Plus you get the added bonus of it being the best of both worlds – with a mix of Italian and Germanic traditions, food, and fun in this winter wonderland.

Show notes

In this episode, we welcome back Kate and Vin, who run Throne and Vine – a fabulous resource for information on exploring the South Tyrol and Dolomites area (which can be pretty hard to find anywhere else on the internet!). We learn about some magical Christmas markets to visit and what you can find there as well as being chased by Krampus, a brewery Christmas wonderland and the winter warming tradition of Glühwein – the taste of Christmas. 

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. South Tyrol crowns the northern part of Italy, sitting on the border of Austria, next to Switzerland. It is about 80% mountains, and so an incredibly beautiful landscape in terms of natural scenery and an interesting mix of alpine and Meditteranean mixed together. One moment you can be looking at a snow-capped mountain and the next at a palm tree
  2. The other unique aspect of South Tyrol is that 70% of the people there speak German. You get a mix of Italian and German culture, which sounds like it might not work, but it really does – from cuisine to architecture, you really get the best of both worlds
  3. Kate and Vin have been going to South Tyrol for around ten years. On their first trip they had originally planned to go to Venice with a quick stopover in South Tyrol, but the second they got to the South Tyrol portion of our trip, they wanted to cancel the rest. They immediately fell in love with the beautiful surrounding, the culture, mix of both the Alpine and Mediterranean climates After a few more trips becoming totally enamored with the area, they started their Throne and Vine blog, where they now get to share a lot of what they love about it – as well as some incredibly useful info, which can be hard to find on the region
  4. There are actually more Christmas markets in South Tyrol than anywhere else in Italy. There are five big markets that take place, but also pretty much every town and village there has a Christmas market. The main ones are Bolzano, which is the capital of South Tyrol, then there is Merano, Brixen(Bressanone), Sterzing(Vipiteno), and Brunico(Bruneck)
  5. Each town is transformed into a fairy tale winter wonderland. You’ll often find from the beginning of each town to the end, you’re walking through a paradise of lights, garlands, Christmas trees, bows, and all sorts of delightful aromas. A fantastic place to visit and celebrate Christmas in the markets. Typically markets begin the last week of November and run through to the first week of January
  6. Kate’s favorite – Merano is Kate’s favorite – incredibly scenic as it’s set along the river. A real promenade, which it’s lovely to stroll through and really picturesque
  7. Vin’s favorite – Brixen is the oldest town in South Tyrol, so you’re surrounded by history. There’s lots of narrow alleys and walkways, so you kind of feel like you’re transported back in time. The Christmas market itself has about 40 stalls setup in the cathedral square, in the old town of Brixen. It’s right underneath one of the most beautiful cathedrals in South Tyrol and when it’s lit up at night – it looks like it’s pretty much made for Christmas. There are two giant, gorgeous bell towers. What makes thismarket special is the light and music show they do around the Bishop’s Palace – which is quite the production. It’s a multimedia projection that they cast on the outer walls of the palace and they pretty much come alive with a fairy tale story. The story changes from year to year. These light shows go on for quite a while and you can walk around the building as it’s happening. It’s usually a standing room only and you’re just kind of moving with the crowd and can see the whole building – some parts that you can get up close or others you can watch from a distance. It’s very immersive
  8. Sterzing is the smallest Christmas market but has a quite romantic feel. It takes place underneath the iconic Tower of Twelve –  a clock tower dating to the 1400s which looks straight out of Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones
  9. There are lots of tasty treats you can try which will only add to your experience. Spitzbuben are cookies that have a jam filling in them – often apricot. You have a little bit of fruit mixed with Christmassy flavors. And you can always get some of the Alpine classic apfelstrudel
  10. Glühwein is a spiced, mulled wine served warm and is utterly delicious. It has Christmassy flavors like cinnamon sticks, orange slices,  and cloves. It literally tastes like Christmas in a mug. When you’re walking through the markets, you can kind of smell it everywhere
  11. A family might have a particular ingredient that’s a secret ingredient, but they are most interested in the wine that they are using for it. 
  12. You can also get Glühwein more potent where it’s had brandy or rum added to it
  13. The great thing about Glühwein is that it’s really easy to make at home. Give it a go yourself with Throne and Vine’s recipe
  14. Another thing you will find at the markets are some stands that are distilleries. There are a lot of little distilleries throughout South Tryol, where they make all sorts of grappa and schnapps, but the one that you have to try during the holiday season is mountain pine schnapps. It’s very unique and taste likes Christmas in a shot – very aromatic and if you’re cold, it’s a great way to warm up
  15. There are generally more sweet treats than savory ones. It can feel like every other stand is filled with gingerbread
  16. On the savory side, however, are the cheeses. There are always lots of different cheeses that you can sample at different booths within the markets, so it’s a lot of fun to try the different types. One of Kate and Vin’s favorite cheeses is Stelvio cheese that you can get from Mila, a large local dairy
  17. The unique thing about a lot of the cheeses – is that they are made with hay milk. The cows there on the farms are eating hay,  rather than corn or other feed that you are likely to find in mass-produced milk. The flavor definitely comes through. It makes a richer milk and that’s then reflected in the cheeses
  18. Bolzano is the largest Christmas market in Italy. They have around 80 stands and is centered around Piazza Walther which is set around a giant marble statue of Walther von der Vogelweide, a composer, and performer from the Middle Ages who traveled around to different kingdoms and played music for royalty
  19. In terms of music at the markets, you can find street musicians just playing the flute or a trumpet, or they’ll have small bands playing at the market –  then sometimes they’ll have a concert as a special event that takes place. In Merano, they might bring out a whole orchestra – or along the river, there’s the Kurhaus, which is an event center where they hold concerts in the gorgeous hall there and is a great setting for catching some live music
  20. There are lots of local crafts and things that are made locally for sale at the markets. It’s a great spot to do all of your holiday shopping. There are so many unique things. You can find all sorts of wooden carvings and in fact, when you’re walking through, you might even come across an artist in the process of carving a statue or a figurine
  21. There are lots of stands selling fantastic and unique Christmas ornaments which adds to the festive magic
  22. They also sell a lot of clothing items. There are items that are made from wool that comes from Val di Funes, which is one of the most enchanting valleys in the Dolomites. The Val di Funes has a lot of sheep farms so a lot of the wool comes out of there. It’s all really comfortable and is great for taking things back home because you can pick up socks, hats, and gloves, which are light in your luggage
  23. The five main markets take place every day and it’s usually from 10:00 am to 07:00 pm. Sometimes on the weekends, they go a little bit later. Bolzano has a wine lounge and if you go in there you can try multiple different wines from all over Bolzano, so that stays open a little bit later on the weekends
  24. There are also boutique markets that take place throughout South Tyrol, for example, in Tyrol Castle, which is one of the oldest castles in the region, they do a small Christmas market which happens over a couple of weekends only – so you have to time it right if you want to visit that during your trip. You can take a horse carriage ride to the castle there and it’s almost like you’re transported back a couple of hundred years. There’s a special tunnel that you go through on the side of the mountain to get to the castle. It’s a really unique experience
  25. Another special market takes place in Lago di Carezza, a lake in the Dolomites which involves the Krampus – a popular part of Christmas events in the South Tyrol. When Vin and Kate were there, they got to experience the Krampus appearing. The Krampus are demonic creatures that are half human, half goat, that come out at Christmas time to remind children to be good and behave or they won’t get anything for Christmas and instead they’ll get hit with a stick
  26. There are many Krampus runs or parades. They take place throughout the holiday season, but the big night for the Krampus runs is December 5, which is the feast of St. Nick. A lot of the villages and towns will have a Krampus event and it’s such a big event, it’s like going to a concert. They have huge stage lighting that’s very elaborate and have pyrotechnics. You stand there and you’re basically looking down a dark alley waiting for something to happen. Everyone is merrily having a good time, then all of a sudden they flip the lights on and the crowd is kind of blinded by the lights. Then these giant flames rise up in the air and this high-energy music comes on and next thing you know, you see these giant creatures with horns emerging from the shadows. Despite knowing it was coming it still can scare you half to death. It was a tradition to make kids behave, and it certainly can make adults behave too! When they run at you with switches (the brooms made of stick bundles) and they’re not shy about hitting you
  27. The big evil wooden masks are very detailed with real horns – they are very expensive because they’re all custom-made and painted. The rest of the body is completely covered in goat – goat skin jacket, pants, and cowbells – so you can hear them walking down the street before you see them. The ringing of the bells feels very ominous when you know they’re coming and everybody is anticipating them emerging from the darkness 
  28. The oldest Krampus run, and possibly the largest, with over 600 Krampus takes place in Toblach, in the eastern part of the Dolomites. After they’re done terrifying everybody and punishing all the kids, they’ll take off the mask and everybody sits around and has a cup of Glühwein or a beer. So you get to make friends with the Krampus. Find out more about experiencing a Krampus run here
  29. The region has a lot of traditions revolving around some of the traditional dates related to the Catholic Church – celebrating different feast dinners that take place throughout the holiday season
  30. The Forst Brewery (the oldest in South Tyrol) creates a Christmas Forest at their brewery. They are a famous beer maker and if you go to any mountain hut in South Arrow, you’re going to see Forst on tap. They transform the entire brewery into a fairytale wonderland. They have a skating rink, and you can rent out different spaces to have a private dinner, and they really decorate the whole beer garden. You feel completely immersed in this Christmas world and they have little surprises throughout. If you’re going to the Merano Christmas market, it’s worth planning to also go to the Forst Brewery in Algund, as it’s about 15 minutes from Merano. 
  31. Dinner at the Christmas Forest would be a typical South Tyrolian affair – a little bit of a combination of the Italian and the German influence mixed together.  Pasta with venison, heavier meat than you maybe wouldn’t see as much of in the southern part of Italy. Some other traditional dishes that you will find are Speckknödel – a dumpling that you can serve it in soup or on a plate with some lettuce and you can get with cheese, spinach, or meat. It’s a very popular dish that’s been around since the Middle Ages. They also do a festive dinner, called their Felsenkeller, where they have a multi-course dinner within their cellar, you have with a large group of people. It’s in a cavern-like setting and you sit underneath a giant ornament chandelier. A truly unique, special and tasty experience
  32. They have great public transportation in South Tyrol, so you wouldn’t necessarily need to rely on a car to go to different markets. Vin and Kate always rent a car because they like to explore along the way. Driving there is really easy. You might occasionally get on a mountain road which can be more nerve-wracking – but there are usually plenty of places to pull over and let others pass
  33. To hit all the markets, we recommend getting a car. Bolzano and Merano are about a half-hour apart. From Bolzano to Brixen, you’re looking at about an hour’s drive. It might make sense to break it up and not try to do too much in one day. Maybe spend half a day visiting Merano and Bozano and then splitting up the other time visiting Brixen and Sterzing. If you’re there, there’s also likely a boutique market or two you’d like to see. A minimum of three days would work out best –  though a week would be perfect if you’re doing alongside a ski trip
  34. If you are a skier or winter sports lover, tying in a visit to South Tyrol during the holiday season with a ski trip is perfect. They have the biggest ski destination in the world. It’s called Dolomiti Superski, and you get one ski pass, and that covers 450 different lifts throughout the Dolomites. You could go there and never ski the same run twice. Even if you don’t like to ski, there are plenty of places to go as you can still hike in November and December. Alpe di Siusi, which is the largest alpine pasture land, you can hike that year-round – they maintain the trails and the huts are open for food
  35. Kate and Vin usually fly into Munich rather than an Italian airport. Just because it works out for them from an efficiency standpoint. Munich is generally reliable. After they get their rental car the drive down is about three and a half hours. Not necessarily the most fun after a 9-hour flight from the US, but they feel it’s worth it. Other convenient choices are Innsbruck, only an hour away from South Tyrol, or Verona in the south. 
  36. Skiing and staying in South Tyrol, in general, are thought to be great value compared to some of its neighbors, such as Switzerland. The challenge, if you do not live in Europe, is initially getting to South Tyrol or Italy, because that can be expensive but once you’re there for what you spend. You can stay at a five-star, expensive resort where you can experience all the Alpine wellness amenities, saunas, and pools, or you can stay in an Airbnb on a farm, and there you’re going to wake up next to cowbells and chickens. The value you get for what you spend is really good and the environment and landscape is amazing to experience
  37. Find more details on the markets in Throne and Vine’s South Tyrol Christmas markets Guide

About our guests – Kate and Vin

Kate and Vin, award-winning storytellers, run Throne & Vine, a website dedicated to helping explore the South Tyrol. The site is their way to reveal all of the beauty, adventure, history and culture South Tyrol offers travelers. They dive deep, sharing the best South Tyrol experiences from wine getaways, hiking excursions, wellness retreats, culinary discoveries and much more. 

Throne & Vine has become a go-to resource for travelers around the world looking to plan an adventure unlike any other in this region.

Kate and Vin were several days into their first Italian adventure – like most tourists, they were seeking to explore some of Italy’s most popular destinations and after consuming the wonders of Venice and Verona, they rented a car venturing north into what we then knew only as the “Italian Alps”. And then it happened. Almost instantly.

The splendor they encountered in South Tyrol shot an arrow straight through their wanderlust hearts. Travel would never be the same again. Their bucket list of countries to visit became meaningless clutter and the seed for Throne & Vine was planted on that first trip, as they felt like they had stumbled on Italy’s best-kept secret. When family and friends began questioning why they kept returning to the same place in Italy, they knew keeping the lid on South Tyrol forever was just not possible and Throne & Vine was born.

You can find Kate and Vin on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show

  • Bolzano – the capital city of South Tyrol and one of our 35 best cities to visit in Italy
  • Merano – city surrounded by mountains known for its spa resorts
  • Sterzing/Vipiteno – medieval town where the River Eisack flows through
  • Bruneck/Brunico – town in the heart of the Val Pusteria
  • Alpe di Siusi/Seiser Alm – a Dolomite plateau and the largest high-altitude Alpine meadow in Europe. Located in Italy’s South Tyrol province in the Dolomites mountain range, it is a major tourist attraction, notably for skiing and hiking.
  • Piazza Walther – huge square in Bolzano built in 1808 on a vineyard which was owned by the Bavarian royal family and named after Walther von der Vogelweide a composer in the 11-1200s
  • Kurhaus – events center in Merano
  • Castle Tyrol – was the ancestral seat of the Counts of Tyrol and gave the whole Tyrol region its name
  • Lago di Carezza/Karersee – a lake in the Dolomites with views of the Latemar mountain range
  • Forst Brewery Christmas Forest – the brewery becomes a Christmas destination in Algund/Lagundo
  • The Tower. of Twelve – otherwise known as Zwölferturm, is a 151 foot granite clock tower built in the 1400s
  • Val di Funes – Valley in the heart of the South Tyrol

Food & Drink

  • Spitzbuben – cookies with jam in the center
  • apfelstrudel – famous Germanic pastry dish
  • Glühwein – a traditional German warm mulled wine. The name translates as glow-wine
  • Speckknödel – bread dumplings made with Speck mountain ham
  • Stelvio cheese PDO – a semi-hard cheese comes from the Stelvio Valley and the province of Bolzano from Mila dairy

Resources

  • Dolomiti Superski – 15 ski resorts, 250 lifts, 1,200 km of top-quality slopes, long runs and gentle routes
  • Troubadour – a composer and performer of poetry during the High Middle Ages
  • Krampus – a half-goat, half-demon that punishes misbehaving children at Christmas time
  • Sky Alps – airline that flies to Bolzano directly

Resources from Untold Italy

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