Lifestyle & Culture

Carla Bastos: My ‘joyous and eye-opening’ first Christmas in Florence

After more than a week of nonstop rain and chilly temps in Tuscany, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer to visit the Christmas Market in Florence’s Piazza di Santa Croce. The forecast was still calling for rain for days to come, and the annual event would be ending soon, on 18 December.

As it was Sunday morning, I knew I’d be sacrificing the enchantment of the evening Christmas lights, but I was hoping a little sun might break through the gloomy skies. That just wasn’t happening, but I was glad to see the weather hadn’t dampened the spirits of early shoppers and tourists.

I arrived shortly after opening time, but the booths started to get busy pretty quickly. (The booths open at 10 a.m. daily and don’t close until 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 11 p.m. on the weekends.) And the market was still magical, with a holiday spirit that supplanted the overcast atmosphere.

This place is captivating even in the off-season, so a little weather made no real difference. After all, the Piazza di Santa Croce couldn’t occupy a more prominent place in Florentine history, with the likes of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli buried in the Basilica overlooking the market and the festivities taking place under the watchful eye of Dante Alighieri’s statue.

Originating in Germany more than 1,000 years ago, Christmas Markets across Europe are still something to behold. In keeping with tradition, Santa Croce’s market is still officially known by its original name, the Weihnachtsmarkt Santa Croce.

The largest market in Florence, the focus of its fare is northern Europe and northern Italy, with many of its booths offering German, Austrian and Dutch delicacies.

And, there is no shortage of local Italian treats, from cheeses to chocolates and every imaginable biscotto and pastry.

I ate until I could barely move – because someone has to put in the work.

Beyond the German bratwurst and Italian salami and all the other food and beer and mulled wine, of course I found all manner of holiday toys, ornaments and trinkets, metal works and miniature sculptures, as well as jewelry, hats and scarves and mittens.

Also impressive, and surprising to me, were the international spice booths where I was able to find seasonings I’d been missing and unable to find in local supermarkets. There were booths with aromatic soaps, incense and essential oils, something else that I hadn’t expected.

Even on a dreary Sunday morning, the Santa Croce Christmas Market turned out to be all it was cracked up to be, and more. The weather became an afterthought. Folks were in great spirits and, while Babbo Natale (Santa) wouldn’t be making rounds until later, children were already having a blast.

Weihnachtsmarkt Santa Croce continues through 18 December, but it’s only the beginning of the holiday celebrations in Florence. After the booths come down, the streets are still brightly lit and shops remain open into the late evening.

Experiencing my first Christmas season in Italy has been eye-opening and joyous. The vibe around Florence, from tourists to locals, is always lively, but now more than ever. And the Santa Croce Christmas Market was icing on the panettone.

Carla Bastos is a freelance writer and former journalist and newspaper editor. Having lived in developing countries and covered wars and natural disasters, she has written extensively on a variety of related topics. Her new book “Getting Out” chronicles her expat experience, offering suggestions and takeaways that will benefit other aspiring expats

Read more of Carla Bastos’ work for Dispatches here in our archives.

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Carla Bastos is an expat writer living in Italy.

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