I have always lived abroad, but every Christmas, partly out of nostalgia and partly out of habit, I find myself coming to terms with the “fatal” Verona of Shakespearean memory and with its countless personalities.
In his book Viaggio in Italia, the Vicenza-based writer Guido Piovene described very well that “peasant elegance” that according to him distinguishes Verona from the other provinces of Veneto.
City of rivers, bridges, wide pavements in pink stone, squares, bell towers and walls, Verona is a multiform reality, multifaceted amethyst that – as Piovene explains – “for variety of styles, none of which prevails, has no equal between Italian cities with the exception of Rome”.
Mysterious and at the same time reassuring, sparing and hedonistic, Verona is a microcosm of light and shadow, jealous guardian of a hidden cultural heritage that can aspire to the universal.
Half a rich plain, thirty percent of hills and twenty percent of mountainous area, Verona is “a reflection of the peoples who crossed history” as Piovene always says.
Verona is so distinctly itself. Its multiple souls, like a two-faced giano bifronte (god of beginnings) prevents us from really grasping it and generating any definitive judgment on it. The vagueness that characterizes this Venetian city, however, does not generate suspicion but instead invites us all, including those like me who were born here, to discover it..
During the holiday season, the bitter cold of winter is combined with the warmth of the interiors, the scents, the sweets, the hot drinks and smiles that inevitably multiply in the month of December, as if they were an omen for the year that is to come. With the arrival of the first snowfalls, the expectation grows day by day, while the city is decorated as a beautiful woman ready to go to a grand gala, dotted with lights that fill our streets with magic.
In Verona, Christmas day is anticipated by an unmissable event: the night of Santa Lucia which falls between the 12th and 13th December. A typically Scandinavian holiday, Saint Lucia coincides with the day of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, which gives its name a highly spiritual connotation. Lucia, derives from the Latin “Lux” and means Light, also understood as the ability to see God.
Saint Lucia was a Christian martyr who was born and lived in Syracuse between 283 and 304 AD. At 21 she converted to Christianity and decided to donate all her wealth to the most needy. Saint Lucia’s future husband, pagan and rejected by the young woman, denounced her in revenge. At that time, under the Diocletian Empire, Christians were bitterly persecuted and the young woman died a martyr.
In addition to Syracuse, the feast of Santa Lucia is very much felt in some cities of Northern Italy, in particular Verona, where it represents the true focus of the December holidays. The cult of the Sicilian saint in Verona is combined with a local tradition that dates back to the 13th century. The children of the city were struck by a dangerous and contagious eye disease, probably due to poor nutrition and poor hygienic conditions.
To invoke the protection of the Saint, protector of sight because of her name, the parents organized a barefoot procession to the Church of Sante Lucia and Agnese, originally located in the central Piazza Bra. To convince the children to participate as well, the families promised them that when they returned home they would find sweets in abundance, a gift from the Saint for their commitment.
Since that time, tradition has it that on the night of December 12, children receive gifts and treats, to reward the best ones and remember the miracle. For this reason, the feast of Saint Lucia is particularly awaited in Verona. During wartime and in more modest times, the gifts were frugal: peanuts, mandarins and licorice were received. Today the gifts have a very different value, but the spirit of this holiday has remained unchanged.
The pilgrimage of Santa Lucia has become a real tradition for the Veronese. Given the influx of numerous families and children in Piazza Bra for religious reasons, traders began to set up toy and candy stalls, paving way for the market that exists there today, also called “I banchéti de Santa Lùssìa”. Still today the market represents an unmissable moment of the holiday season with hundreds of stalls that crowd the large basin of Piazza Bra for five days, a destination for Christmas shopping for young and old.
In each house on the evening of December 12 the same rite is celebrated to welcome the Santa Lucia’s delivery of gifts. In particular, milk and biscuits are left on the windowsill so that the Saint can refresh herself before resuming her journey, some carrots for her donkey, and a flask of wine for the assistant Gastaldo. The next day, upon awakening, the children, with renewed wonder, find the “plate” of Saint Lucia full of sweets and delicacies and the sparkling packages with the long-awaited gifts. For breakfast you cannot miss the shortbreads of Santa Lucia, very simple homemade butter and sugar biscuits usually in the shape of flowers, stars or animals.
A newer addition to the Christmas customs, for thirty years in the collective imagination the symbol of Christmas in Verona is a striking sculpture in the shape of a comet that extends into Piazza Bra from inside the Roman Arena. Designed in 1984 by the Veronese architect Rinaldo Olivieri the sculpture symbolizes the important international exhibition of nativity scenes hosted in the arches of Verona’s amphitheater. The steel star, over 70 meters high and 78 tons in weight, with its spectacular arch, has become the Queen of the Holidays, including New Year’s Eve.
We have all been consistently enchanted by this mammoth ray of light that lashes the sky; every child in Verona has tried at least once, as a test of courage, to climb the steel pylons of the sculpture.
For a Christmas walk through the streets of the center, an essential destination is the elegant Piazza delle Erbe, dressed up with luminous drops that create a suggestive rain effect, between dream and candor, and the adjacent Piazza Dante — a real living room which traditionally hosts the Nuremberg Christmas Markets. The Piazza is an ideal setting for sipping a glass of steaming, unmistakably spicy and aromatic mulled wine with a group of friends. This mulled wine is prepared at home in large pots, created by adding sugar, cloves, pieces of apple, cinnamon and lemon zest to wine, although sometimes we just add orange juice.
Still today, Christmas in Verona is a celebration to be experienced in the intimacy of family, where sharing and being together prevails over hedonism. The rites of tradition are perpetuated, when the family played bingo and the nativity scene was decorated with real moss collected in the woods.
On the festive table, Veronese cuisine confirms its simple but decisive flavors, which connote a peasant origin strongly linked to the territory. Among the first courses there is never a shortage of tortellini in Valeggio broth, which knotted like a handkerchief pay homage to the love story between Malco and the nymph Silvia. This is followed by tagliatelline in broth with chicken livers and then the classic boiled meat with pearà which is mixed boiled meat accompanied by a sauce made of grated bread, cheese, marrow, broth and black pepper.
Among the desserts, the first in line is certainly Pandoro, a typical sweet of the Veronese tradition whose soft consistency makes it one of the most popular products in the rest of Italy as well. Made from flour, sugar, eggs, butter, and yeast, Pandoro’s name derives from “pan de oro” (bread of gold) in Venetian dialect. This sweet was already present on the tables of Venetian nobles in the thirteenth century.
Pandoro as we know it now was officially born on October 14,1894, when Domenico Melegatti, founder of the historic pastry shop in Corso Portoni Borsari, filed the patent for a soft cake “with a truncated pyramid shape with eight lateral ribs”, characterized by a crust of gold and sprinkled with vanilla powdered sugar. The mold which creates the eight-pointed star shape of Pandoro is the work of the artist Dall’Oca Bianca, a local impressionist painter.
Pandoro is the child of another historical dessert from Verona: Nadalin, created in the 13th century to celebrate Verona’s first Christmas under the rule of the “della Scala”. Less leavened than Pandoro, Nadalin is also shaped like an eight-pointed star. By enriching the dough with butter and eggs, on 1 October 1891 the pastry chef Giovanni Battista Perbellini created a soft dessert, the Offella d’Oro, a niche delicacy still today produced by the heir of the Perbellini family’s pastry tradition, Giancarlo multi-starred chef.
Sobriety, family and sharing: these are the key words of the spirit of Christmas in Verona, from the table to the streets of the city. An atmosphere full of warmth pervades the romantic streets of the city which, as in a real Christmas village, enchants anyone who visits it.
WHERE TO EAT
WHERE TO GET A COFFEE OR A HOT CHOCOLATE
Bar Caffetteria Al Duomo
WHERE TO SHOP
Libreria Pagina 12
Libreria Il Gelso