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Episode #204: A sparkling Sorrento Christmas

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If you think of Sorrento, overlooking the Bay of Naples, in Southern Italy, chances are you’ll picture scenes of the summertime. Our guest Lee Trapani from Gourmet Girls Italy Food Tours shares why winter and especially Christmas is a magical time to visit Sorrento, enjoying steaming plates of pasta and sweet, fried goodies and the perfect time to explore the sites crowd-free. The town is decorated beautifully and is buzzing with festive vibes, with lots of local and traditional activities to behold. 

Show notes
We welcome back Lee Trapani, a Scot who long ago made Sorrento her home and whose passion for the food and wine of the area led to the fabulous food tour business she runs with partner Vanessa – Gourmet Girls Italy. Italians really know how to celebrate at this time of year and Sorrento enjoys festivities from the end of November, through December – culminating in some impressive and intriguing New Year’s Eve rituals. Lee fills us all in on the excitement of the Christmas festivities, food and fabulousness of this southern Italian city best known for its summer vibes. We talk giant trees, tasty fried treats, live nativity scenes and exploding donkeys.

Looking for Christmas gifts for the Italophile in your life? Check out our Italy-themed gift ideas

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Lee Trapani’s husband is from Sorrento and they first met when Lee, originally from Scotland, was on holiday when she was 13 and the hotel they were staying in was next door to her now mother-in-law’s house (where she still lives!). She has now lived in Sorrento for 28 years and they have a 19-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son
  2. Lee met her business partner Vanessa when they both worked together for a big British travel company. As the years passed, they decided that they wanted to do something for themselves. They wanted to find a better work and family time balance and do something for themselves that they were passionate about
  3. It took them a while to figure out – narrowing it down that their greatest love was eating and drinking! They honed into that and decided to share with people the real experience of life in Southern Italy – the joy of a long lunch or dinner (they host both)
  4. The Gourmet Girls is just an extension of their lives – letting people see what it is that we go out and do, whether with friends or families and to celebrate. They go to the same places, eat the same foods and drink the same wines. They felt strongly that they wanted to work with local, family-owned locations
  5. Sorrento is not a big town – with a population of only about 16,500, though it can feel busier in summer because of the holidaymakers. They tend to work in a more residential end of town than many people will visit – near where they both live. This is where the locals go to eat
  6. Showing people the way that is done locally can be a game-changer. Food all over Italy is phenomenal, but the food and wine in the south are phenomenal with the cuisine coming from the more agricultural and historically poorer region
  7. There’s not the money put into the wine industry down here that is put into the wine industry up north, so the wine is amazing but is not known about globally. Lee and Vanessa have spent many years making sure that they know the local wines inside and out
  8. Hosting is definitely a skill that not everyone has, but it tends to be something people expect to find in Southern Italy, and people can be quite disappointed if they don’t get it. Lee and Vanessa are incredible hosts and it is part of their business focus
  9. Summer in Sorrento has been incredibly busy. On the back of the pandemic, people and businesses had been struggling – economically and morale-wise. Then last year was extremely busy, with this year surpassing even that – with all restrictions removed. It’s nice to see a lot of the small businesses back on track. Gourmet Girls is a small business and they were pretty much booked out throughout the summer, which they were delighted about
  10. But there are certain things that people need to understand about that level of busyness. There are things that you can do to make sure that you have an easier trip – like booking well in advance, which has now become common practice for visiting somewhere like Sorrento
  11. Peak season has now really extended. It’s no longer just July, August and early September. It’s really going from the start of May to the end of October
  12. Tourism in Sorrento has changed dramatically in the last decade. It started to shift about 20 years ago and it’s been a gradual change. Up until around 10 years ago, the majority of people were still coming here on a very traditional form of tourism – on a package holiday. They would come for 7 or 14 nights to Sorrento on a half-board basis
  13. Online information and social media have a lot to do with this because people can find out so much more now and they don’t want to eat in a hotel for seven nights. They want to be out experiencing what the local people are doing and eating. People have become much more independent and making up their own itineraries. They might come for 3 nights a year and then move on to somewhere else for another 3 nights and then maybe finish in Rome for 2 nights
  14. The hotel industry has been impacted massively, but it also took away the very clear lines that were drawn in the sand of the season. There used to be a very definitive end-of-October finish which doesn’t happen now – that has been elongated. Sorrento can still be quite busy in November – you have the independent travelers there. Traditionally, there used to be a big lull at that time of year taking you up till a couple of weeks before Christmas
  15. In Italy, the Immacolata is a public holiday for the Immaculate Conception on the eighth of December. That is the start of the Christmas festivities and traditionally a lot of Italian tourists would visit. Bus-loads of Italians coming in from other parts of the country and spending time in Sorrento. That lull between the end of October and Immacolata is not as noticeable now
  16. There is also a definite shift in the climate. This year, the kids went back to school in mid-September as usual and they do not start having hot lunches at school until the beginning of October because it is too hot – so they come home for lunch. This year when they were having school lunches it was often still 27, 28 degrees. Lee and Vanessa for the first time ever, took themselves off to the pool for a bit of child-free sun lounging. Obviously, you can never guarantee the weather, but Sothern Italy is often experiencing lovely Octobers
  17. If you’re heading to the Sorrento area and aiming to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum, or if you want to do The Path of the Gods, it’s going to be way more pleasant when the temperatures are around 22-24C (early 70s F) rather than the height summer when it’s 38 degrees (100F) or more

The Holiday Season in Sorrento

  • Christmas is a wonderful time to head to Sorrento – when the whole place feels quite magical
  • They get a lot of Italian tourism at this time but it is also the period where somewhere like Sorrento comes back to the Sorrentini and everything that’s put on is for the Sorrentini. If anyone does visit this time of year they will see things that are put on for the locals so will have a charming and authentic feel
  • Lee believes the secret to it feeling so magical is that it doesn’t get so commercialized as you may find in countries like the US, UK and Australia. The atmosphere around Christmas is all about the traditions. You don’t have to be religious to come and enjoy it – the vibe in town is amazing and festive
  • Traditionally, the time to set up your Christmas tree and decorate your home is Immacolata on the 8th December. This is when families tend to come together and this was traditionally the date, up until about 15 years ago, when the town’s decorations and tree would go up. Now, the town of Sorrento has realized that if people are visiting, they want to experience that Christmas atmosphere, so they now turn on the lights on the 3rd week of November
  • The Sorrento lights are impressive. Their Christmas tree sings – belting out Christmas hits regularly throughout the evening. There are bars and restaurants around the square, with the giant trees right in the middle. The trees is around 5 stories high
  • The whole town is decorated and it is a really lovely time to visit. Climate-wise as well, the weather is usually pretty good – in January and February, the weather is at its worst. In November and December you can get some rain and it is cooler, but it is generally dry with blue sky days – maybe around 18 – 20 degrees (mid 60s F) during the day, with temperatures dropping at night. It’s generally very temperate
  • The town hall issues a full program of events that are on. A lot of it is things like carol concerts, recitals, musical recitals, and a lot of them in churches and things like that. That in itself is amazing. These things are free, there are things that you can pay for, but a lot of these things are free.
  • The Christmas tree is a tradition that was only adopted in the recent past. Before that, it was all about the Presepi – the Nativity scenes and figures. You can have Nativity scenes in churches, on the street or people can have them take over their entire front room. Everybody has one on a different scale
  • You can have the larger figurines at the front and then the smaller ones at the back and they often have working parts on them – water mills or light-up parts. Lee’s father-in-law loves making a little mechanical part to make something move. They are an art form and most of the churches in town will have large ones you can visit
  • They also do Presepi Viventi, which are live Nativity scenes with humans and animals. They normally run from after Immaculato and they’ll put them on in batches – so perhaps on the 14th, 15th, 16th and then they’ll have a break and return on the 20th and 21st. The main dates are for Santa Stefano on the  26th – 29th. These displays are massive and can be set up in multiple different rooms, usually outdoors. There is even a live baby, Jesus, but he obviously doesn’t appear until Christmas Day
  • There are women roasting chestnuts over a fire, an Ironmonger, a baker and a fishmonger. Everybody’s in costume and you walk around it. They are all volunteers – there’s nothing commercial about it. It’s just the people from that parish – young and old. They are an amazing sight
  • In Italy, they have a community spirit that even the teenagers get involved with. Something you won’t always see in other countries. It’s a lovely sense of tradition and community
  • People cling on to tradition in Italy, in a good way. They are really passionate about hanging on to the traditions of their parents and grandparents. Sorrento sometimes feels like it’s living decades in the past. There are certain things that where that is not a good thing. – like some of the painful bureaucracy because they’re still doing things the old way, but it is nice in terms of keeping old traditions and community spirit alive
  • Italy still has corner shops on most blocks. You know the person who runs your local corner shop, and the owner knows you. If Lee forgot her purse in her corner shop, it would be no big deal and they’d just say to pay the next day. She’s even had to remind them that she owed them money

Christmas Food

  • Sorrento has a chocolate festival that lasts about five days, where makers from all over the area sell lots of different types of artisan chocolate.  Perfect for Christmas goodies with amazing homemade liqueurs including a sumptuous pistachio cream
  • Different stalls appear selling all sorts of Christmassy things. The Christmas program can be quite varied and there is a definite build-up
  • In Italy, the big day of Christmas is Christmas Eve and when families get together. They have a huge fish-based meal (you traditionally don’t eat meat on Christmas Eve for religious regions). There are lots of courses and it all leads up to going to Midnight Mass. It really is a long event, so you’ve got to be careful and monitor how much you’re drinking so as not to upset the priest later on. It will be the quietest evening in Sorrento that you’ll get. Everything’s open that day, but as the day goes on things close so people can go home and spend time with their family
  • Something that has become a big thing more recently is people going out for aperitivo on Christmas Eve. Lee keeps missing out on this because she’s normally running around on Christmas Eve on errands – but definitely an experience for all our wishlists
  • From around the Immacolata on the 8th you start to get Montanara – a small, Neapolitan fried pizza, around town and in established restaurants. It is a disk of fried dough covered in mozzarella, with a little bit of tomato sauce, fresh basil and a sprinkling of Parmigiano – delicious
  • Around this time people start cooking at home as well and things can get quite competitive between family members and friends
  • Zeppole are balls of dough that are fried, dipped in honey and added to with candied fruit and things like that. Struffoli are even smaller dough balls that again you fry and put honey through and add candied fruit and hundreds and thousands. The completion with struffoli is how small you can make them – the smaller the better. It makes you look like a very lazy cook if you do them too big
  • Roccocò are Neapolten biscuits that are really hard so you need to be careful when eating them. They are thought because they are designed for dunking – in milk, coffee or even in a little bit of Vin Santo. A lot of the biscuits made there use a lot of really warming spices like ginger and cardamom which you don’t find in any of the dishes
  • The seafood feast on Christmas Eve that is had in all of Italy, is ideal for somewhere by the sea like Sorrento
  • Another type of seafood from further afield is baccalà (salt cod) which is a staple at Christmas – served fried in chunks. Lee’s husband Marco’s grandfather was a huge fan of eel which is popular at Christmas with the older generation more
  • On New Year’s Eve or Hogmanay, as Lee would say back home in Scotland they have zampone e lenticchia. Everybody is full from all the festive food they have had already and then at midnight, you bring out zampone e lenticchie which is a pork-based meat (pig’s trotters) and lentils. The idea is that the more lentils you eat, the more money you will come into in the new year. The lentils represent pennies and the pig’s trotter represents the bag that you would put half pennies in. That’s your way to ensure that you’re going to be wealthy in the coming year
  • The fishmongers are very busy over the Christmas period. Lee’s brother-in-law works for a wholesale fishmonger in Naples and on the night of the 20th and the 23rd into the 24th, he works all night. And he’s just the accountant!

Christmas Festivities

  • It is an amazing time to be down in Sorrento and just so different to the hustle and bustle you would find in summer – where you’re just passing people getting on and off ferries. People are really relaxed and enjoying the city
  • On New Year’s Eve, a rather interesting tradition is all around the idea of getting rid of the old and bringing in the new. People literally throw stuff off their balconies. You’ve got to be careful when you’re walking along the street and people have been known to throw pretty large things off their balconies. It’s best to be out and about either before midnight or wait until one o’clock in the morning – to avoid something being dropped on your head
  • There’s also a huge fireworks display on New Year’s Eve over the bay which is stunning. You also have a lot of people setting off fireworks themselves so wherever you look across the Bay of Naples and over to Naples, the view is amazing
  • There’s also a massive bonfire –  in the middle of the street. Sometimes they do the bonfire for a couple of days and there are normally stalls they’ll set up where you can get a delicious panini with sausage and Italian broccoli and a glass of wine which will only cost something like 50 cents per glass because it’s all organized via the church
  • There’s festive food and Christmas markets and the town is lit up and it’s all very family-friendly. There’s nothing you can’t take children to
  • Another New Year’s Eve tradition is called ‘Ciuccio di Fuoco’  which is setting alight a donkey (a fake donkey of course) The donkey is covered in fireworks and they set it alight in the middle of the square. Nobody has ever been able to tell Lee the original of it, but it’s just always been done like that and is a sight to see! 
  • At Untold Italy we have a not-so-secret agenda to get people thinking about traveling to Italy when it is a little bit quieter and the late fall and early winter months are a great way to experience Italy
  • The wintertime is a great time to visit Sorrento – when there are lots of things to do in the build-up to Christmas and getting around is nice and easy – especially with the public transport which is nice and quiet

Enjoy Sorrento with the Gourmet Girls

  • The Gourmet Girls have been lucky enough to have been booked up for the majority of the summer. It is generally people who’ve booked months in advance, because of the type of experiences they offer
  • Due to what people have been asking them about in the last year, they have now added something new to their offerings for next summer – and that’s cooking classes. They want their classes to be part demonstration, part hands-on, and be a unique experience
  • Lee has been to a lot of cooking classes and workshops over the years and knows it is easy to lose track of what is going on.  Sometimes it can be just down to communication style and even accents – someone Italian could speak brilliant English but the accent can throw some people off. Sometimes even native English speaker Lee with her Scottish accent can not be understood. So the gourmet girls wanted to put something together that they do in a special, fun and easy-to-understand way – and do it in the heart of Sorrento
  • If visiting in winter, the Gourmet Girls still run tours at this time, but upon request. They don’t have a full schedule as the majority of visitors are Italian – who are less inclined to go on an Italian food tour! 
  • Lee and Vanessa are very active on Instagram @gourmetgirlsfoodtourssorrento. They are active on Facebook and you can find them on Viator, and TripAdvisor where their lovely clients have left some amazing reviews. People book them up early, but it’s always worth reaching out to them as you never know and they also do private tours when they can fit them in

About your guest – Lee Trapani

Originally from Scotland, Lee Trapani has lived in Italy and made Sorrento her home for over 25 years. After a long career in tourism, she and business partner Vanessa Brown-Giglio founded Gourmet Girls Italy – a food tour company dedicated to authentic food experiences in Sorrento.

When she’s not enjoying the delights of Sorrento’s food and wine culture with visitors from around the world, Lee spends time with her family and tries to think of ways to use up huge bags of oranges and zucchini. She’s a keen cook who has learned many recipes by watching her mother-in-law and soaking up the traditions of the Sorrentine peninsula.

Food & Wine

  • Falanghina – white wine from Campania
  • montanara – small pizza dough deep-fried and topped like a pizza. A classic Neapolitan street food
  • zeppole – a deep-fried dough ball of varying size usually topped with powdered sugar, sometimes filled with custard, jam or cream
  • struffoli – a Neapolitan dish made of deep-fried balls of sweet dough. Also known as honey balls 
  • roccocò – Neapolitan Christmas cookies/biscuits, designed for dunking
  • baccalà – dried salt cod fish
  • zampone e lenticchie – pig’s trotter and lentils is a dish traditionally eaten new years eve

Resources

  • L’Immacolata Concezione – the feast of the Immaculate Conception is an Italian public holiday celebrated annually on December 8
  • presepi – nativity scenes with small-scale figures
  • presepi viventi – nativity scenes with real humans and animal
  • pescivendolo – fish shop
  • Ciuccio di Fuoco – fire donkey is a fabric, stuffed donkey that has fireworks inside, set alight on New Year’s Eve

Resources from Untold Italy

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