December 2018: a Xmas weekend on the Magic Mountain in Tuscany

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Events in December:

Events in December:

A bridge in the sky: the longest ‘tibetan’ bridge in Europe, www.pontenelcielo.it.  One metre wide, nearly two hundred and fifty metres long and nearly one hundred fifty metres above the ground, the longest suspension footbridge in Europe was inaugurated last month crossing the Tartano Valley, between the tiny villages Campo Tartano and Frasnino.  The cost of 5 euros gives you a huge thrill and some spectacular views over the Alps to the northern tip of Lake Como.

The International Hub of Gastronomy and Culinary Arts, Via Romagnosi 3, Milano, www.identitagolosemilano.it.  Set in the spaces of the former Feltrinelli Foundation, just around the corner from La Scala, this new and very ambitious project is dedicated to not only present the finest in Italian cooking but is also a place of learning and training.  Each week, a different Italian and international chefs will present a menu of four courses at a fixed cost of 75 euro (not including drinks).  I lighter version will be available.  The centre will also host discussions, conventions and cooking courses.

Uffizi Galleries, Florence, www.uffizi.it.  Queues have been banished for the Uffizi Gallery under a new ticketing system, introduced in November.  From now on interactive vending machines in the arcade in front of the museum will give each visitor a specific entrance time.  Yeh!

Exhibitions in December:

Exhibitions in December:

Handhumans vs Handanimals, by Guido Daniele; Museum of Natural History and d’Albertis Castle; Genova; until January 13, http://www.visitgenoa.it/evento/handhumans-vs-handimals.  Contemporary Italian artist Guido Daniele presents fifty gigantic, hyper realistic images of hands, presented over two museums: the Museum of Natural History (for animals) and Castello d’Albertis (for people and monuments).

100% Italy:  One Hundred Years of Italian Masterpieces; Torino, Biella and Vercelli; until 10 Feb; http://www.museofico.it/100-italia/  Spread through nine centres in three cities in Piedmont, this marvellous exhibition examines the history of Italian art from the beginning of the 1900s to our times. 

Escher, Retrospective; Palazzo delle Arti, Napoli, Via del Mille 60; Naples; until 22 April; http://www.mostraescher.it/  This comprehensive retrospective presents over two hundred works by the wonderful Dutch master MC Escher and includes a section that looks at his enduring influence, from comics to record cover.

Hidden Italy weekend: Christmas on the Magic Mountain in southern Tuscany

Hidden Italy weekend:  Christmas on the Magic Mountain in southern Tuscany

Christmas Eve, midnight processions, medieval squares illuminated by flaming pyres and a snow-capped mountain - the ‘Night of the Torches’ in Abbadia San Salvatore is more Nordic fairy-tale than rural Tuscan, however, the ritual springs not from the pages of a Scandi kids’ book but from centuries-old Tuscan traditions, very close to the hearts of the people of this isolated little town.

The town of Abbadia sits under Mt Amiata, an extinct volcano whose looming blue profile dominates much of southern Tuscany.  Although the Etruscans and Romans extensively mined mercury and magnesium in the mountain in antiquity, it wasn’t until the 8th century that the first settlement took shape – a castle to shield a new abbey.  By the 1300’s the upper mountain was ringed with fortifications (which have turned into towns) to protect the abbey and its estates.  The Via Francigena, the main road to Rome, ran through the valley below.  The tradition of the Night of the Torches dates from this time: the flaming towers were ignited to invite the weary travellers (pilgrims, traders and soldiers) up the mountain to celebrate Midnight Mass and Christmas at the abbey. 

Festivities start on December 8 when teams from each quarter of the town (it is a competition after all) source the wood from the surrounding oak forests and begin building the pyres, intricately constructed stacks that reach over seven metres in height (thirty in total, spread throughout the squares of the town).  At 06.00 pm on Christmas Eve, the first pyre is ignited in front of the town hall.  The town band strikes up, leading a slow carol-singing procession winding through the lanes and squares of the town, lighting each of thirty oak towers along the way.  Christmas carols are sung around the fires in each quarter, with home-baked cakes, castagnaccio (chest nut pancakes) and mulled wine served to help against the cold, until mass is celebrated at midnight in the town’s churches. 

and the festivities carry on until January 7 (see below).  It is a tradition unique of its kind in Italy, a spectacular finale to a month of celebrations.  It is a fabulous excuse to visit this fascinating and little-touristed part of Tuscany.

How to get there:

Abbadia San Salvatore is 80 kilometres south of Siena.  By car:  Take the autostrada A1 that runs between Rome and Florence, taking the Chiusi-Chianciano exit.  From here you follow the provincial road 40 and then the Via Cassia towards Monte Amiata and Abbadia San Salvatore.  By train:  The nearest station is Chiusi-Chianciano, 44 kilometres away.  In bus:  Tiemme buses leave Siena twice in the afternoon from Porta Ovile (www.tiemmespa.it).  By air:  The closest airport if Rome Fiumicino, one hundred and eighty kilometres away.

Where to stay:

Relais San Lorenzo (Locality San Lorenzo).  A short drive from town, this beautiful 3-star hotel is set in 12th century convent, surrounded by gardens with a swimming pool.  It also has a very good restaurant.  Doubles from 120 euros per night.

Piccolo Hotel Aurora (Via Piscinello 51).  This is simple but very gracious family-run hotel.  It has fifteen rooms and a wellness centre.  Doubles with breakfast from 86 euro.

Hotel Fabbrini (Via Cavour 53).  In the centre of town, this comfortable hotel has thirty-five luminous rooms.  Double rooms start from 65 euros.

B&B Il Biancospino (Via Adua 33).  Six comfortable rooms a short walk from the centre offering a generous breakfast.  Doubles with breakfast from 65 euros per night.

Where to eat:

Osteria dei Ghiotti (Piazza della Republica 47).  An institution in town, this welcoming restaurant serves traditional dishes such as potato gnocchi with ragu (meat sauce); pici (traditional ribbon pasta); grilled meats and their signature dessert ‘Ricciolina’, a chocolate cake that is considered part of the town’s gastronomic patrimony.  Around 26 euros per person.

Il Gatto e La Volpe (Via della Pace 44).  From Rome to Abbadia, a young Roman couple are putting an interesting twist on traditional mountain food, combining it with southern flair in dishes such as sea bass rolls with chestnut cream.  Dinners around 30 euro.

Il Cantinone (Via Asmara 14).  Chef Antonio Contorni creates extraordinary dishes in this centrally located restaurant including ricotta and spinach tortelli; grilled mushrooms; tagliate (sliced grilled beef); chopped liver and a number of chestnut-based desserts.

Horto Sapiens (Piazza XX Settembre 32).  A very pleasant enoteca with an impressive range of southern Tuscany wines (and there are some great ones nearby including Brunello and Vino Nobile) that also serves tapas style dishes including Tuscan bruschetta and ‘taglieri’ (a selection of fine local cheeses and cold cuts).

What to do:

Explore the town:

The town of Abbadia San Salvatore grew up around the abbey of San Salvatore, which was founded by a Lombard king in the 8th century.  The old town is a tangle of lanes and squares that surround the abbey.  A newer quarter with wide tree lined streets and modern buildings surrounds this.

The place to start is, obviously, the ancient abbey.  In its day, it was one of the most powerful in Tuscany, controlling not only the mountain with all its resources but also much of the nieghbouring territory (including the Val d’Orcia, with the towns of Montalcino and Montepulciano) and the coastal flatlands of Grosseto.  The current façade dates from 1035.  The most striking feature of the abbey is the ancient crypt – an astonishing forest of Romanesque pillars, each different to the other.  There is a striking view of the Orcia River valley from the terrace.  It is worth then exploring the old town, with its lanes, shops and old buildings made from local volcanic stone.  The own’s history is inextricably linked to mining, mercury and magnesium being extracted until the beginning of the 1900s.  A very interesting museum has been created in one of the old mines on the edge of town where, apart from the exhibitions, it is possible to take a guided down into the underground galleries.

Enjoy the festivities:

The Night of the Torches starts at the Abbadia town hall at 06.00 pm on Christmas Eve, however, the are many other events during the Christmas period starting with the turning on December 8 when the Christmas lights are turned on on Viale Roma, the wide boulevard that hosts the Christmas markets, offering artisan and gastronomic specialities until January 7.  On December 22 there is a concert by the Formula Nuova Arcadia in the Cinema Theatre Amiata.  On December 31, there are New Year celebrations in Piazza Fratelli Cervi.  On the last evening, January 7, at the Cinema Teatro Amiata there is a prize giving for the best Christmas pyre as well as an award ceremony for the ‘City of Torches Literary Prize’ (with interviews with the authors).  Something for everyone!

Explore the mountain:

Go skiing:

Abbadia San Salvatore is the town closest to the peak of Mt Amiata (1,738 mts asl), most of which is covered in splendid beech and chestnut forests.  There twelve ski runs on the mountain with 8 chairlifts (and snow guns just in case).  The runs are easy and particularly suitable for families.  Day passes cost 25 euro per person.

Go snow-shoeing:

A large number of marked trails with a variety of grades start from the Primo Rifugio, a mountain lodge a ten minute drive from Abbadia.  Snow shoes can be hired from the Consorzio Terre di Toscana (www.terre-di-toscane.com) for 10 euro per day.  They also take guided walks through the snowy forest.

Soak in thermal springs:

An unmissable experience is a soak in the natural thermal springs of Bagni San Filippo at the foot of the mountain.  These springs have been used since antiquity – a magical setting of hot water (from 30 to 60 degrees) cascading down ripples of accumulated limestone into deep pools, all surrounded by beech forests.  Access is free.  There is also a lovely signed walk through the forest to the Bianca Balena waterfalls.  The Consorzio Terre di Toscan also organise guided visits to the springs.

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