December 2021: Jeff Koons, the opening of the ski season and a Christmas weekend in the DolomitesWednesday, 15 December 2021
Exhibitions in December:
Jeff Koons. Shine. (Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, www.palazzostrozzi.org; until 31 January). This extensive retrospective covers forty years of Koons career, presenting thirty-three works by the celebrated, and controversial, American artists, starting with ‘Balloon Monkey’, a glossy, six metres, five tonne sculpture that greets the visitor in the entrance courtyard.
Antonio Ligabue and his World. (Forte di Bard, Valle d’Aosta; www.fortedibard.it; until 9 January). This comprehensive exhibition presents ninety-five paintings and sculptures spanning the whole career of this self-taught artist (1899 – 1965). A vagabond who led a troubled life, Ligabue is considered one of the most important Naive artists of the 20th century.
Saul Steinberg. Milano New York. (La Triennale, Milano; https://triennale.org/eventi/saul-steinberg; until 13 March). Saul Steinberg was one of the greatest contemporary illustrators. His elegant, edgy works featured on the cover of numerus editions of the New Yorker. This celebrated his relationship with Italy and Milano, a city he studied in and loved deeply.
Events in Italy, December 2021:
Dolomites Superski (www.dolomitisuperski.com). The 2021/2022 ski season kicked off on 27 November with some excellent snow. One of the stars of the Italian scene is the Dolomites Superski, a network of interconnect ski zones that cover the whole of the Dolomite range, from Trento to Belluno, including the Val Gardena/Sella Ronda; Plan de Corones and Cortina d’Ampezzo, the ‘pearl of the Alps’.
Pieta Bandini (Museo dll’Opera del Duomo, Florence; www.duomo.firenze.it; until 31 March). The Pieta Bandini was one of the most intense and tormented works of Michelangelo. He started work on it aged 72. After 8 years he attempted to destroy it out of frustration and anger. He is believed to have included a self-portrait in the composition. Until the end of March, guided visits are available to see the sculpture at close quarters in the workshop.
A Taste of the Duomo. Together for the Symbol of Milan (www.duomoshop.it). In a scheme to raise funds for the restoration of the ‘Madonnina’, the gold sculpture of Mary that stands on top of Milan’s cathedral, three of the city’s most celebrated chefs (Carlo Cracco, Gianluca Fusto and Cesar Battisti) have reinvented three of the city’s most celebrated biscuits. The result can be bought via the cathedral’s online shop.
Hidden Italy weekend: Christmas Markets in Bolzano (Dolomites).
Bolzano/Bozen sits in a sunny, south-facing valley, bounded by two rivers, the Talvera/Talfer and the Isarco/Eisack, and surrounded by the Dolomites, the most beautiful mountains in the world. It is roughly halfway between Innsbruck and Verona, but walking through its bustling city centre, Bolzano feels far closer to the former than the latter: seven out of ten inhabitants speak German as their first language; the frescoed Gothic and Baroque facades of the palazzi that line its streets recall Vienna and Budapest rather than Verona or Rome; and the aroma of sizzling sausages and sauerkraut fill the narrow lanes and squares.
Bolzano was, in fact, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for eight hundred years. It was an important trading centre ruled by counts and bishops where traders and merchants from the German-speaking North and the Italian-speaking South met under the arcades of its main streets to do business. In 1919 Bolzano, and the rest of the South Tyrol, was handed over to Italy as booty for Italian support of the Allies in World War I. This problematic situation was only peacefully resolved in the early 2000s with increased autonomy and a system of ‘proportionality’ where public representation and access to public resources is guaranteed by proportional representation.
Although with less than one hundred thousand inhabitants, Bolzano remains a dynamic and cosmopolitan city, where you will run into a farmer with a Tyrolean hat; an Austrian who’s crossed the border to buy some Italian high fashion; an Italian tourist intent on buying a loden (the green felt overcoats, typical of the region) some speck and Christmas decorations; a vigneron with a bow-tie and walking stick; and lots of young people, students (Bolzano has an excellent university), smartly dressed young professionals (Bolzano has a thriving IT industry) and families.
Although a pleasant place to visit any time, Bolzano comes into its own at the end of the year when the surrounding mountains are covered with snow, stube warm the cosy bars, the streets are illuminated and the squares are crowded with the benches and stalls of its famous Christmas markets.
How to get there:
By car: Bolzano can be reached via the A22 autostrada, driving north towards Austria from Verona. By train: Bolzano is serviced by regional trains, Eurocity trains and the super-fast Frecciarossa, all with changes at Verona. By air: The closest airport is Verona Catullo, 150 kms south.
Where to stay:
Parkhotel Laurin (Via Laurin, 4). A gracious, old-school 4-star hotel set in a secluded park in the pedestrian centre of town. Some rooms have terraces, other have balconies and the fancier ones have saunas and/or jacuzzi. Doubles with breakfast from 220 euro.
Hotel Greif (Waltherplatz, 1). The hipper younger sister of the Laurin, this luxurious 4-star hotel has rooms designed by local artists and access to the park and swimming pool of its neighbour. Doubles from 240 euro.
Stadt Hotel Citta (Waltherplatz, 21). This comfortable, centrally located, 3-star hotel has its own ‘Viennese’ café and, as if this were not enough, it is next door to a branch of Vienna’s celebrated Sacher pastry shop.
Where to eat:
Vogele (Via Goethe, 3). This is the oldest restaurant in the city. It serves a sophisticated version of the traditional cuisine of the Sud Tirol using local organic produce. Their signature dishes include Erdapfelblattin della Nonna (tiny, deep-fried doughnuts made from potato batter); roast lamb cooked with asparagus and, for the lovers of baccala/salted-dried cod, Stockfischgerostel. From 35 euro per person
Zur Kaiserkron (Piazza della Mostra, 2). This is an elegant restaurant in Palazzo Plock in the centre of the city. The chef, Sebastian Kaiser, proposes traditional Alpine fare, with a twist, such as seafood or ingredients flown up from the south of Italy. For example pumpkin risotto with scallops or venison saddle with blueberries and a strawberry sorbet. From 50 euro per person.
Cavallino Bianco/Weisses Rossl (Via Bottai 6). A spacious, comfortable dining room near Via dei Portici is a dependable favourite with locals and visitors alike. A wide selection of Italian and German dishes are served to large tables of families enjoying their meals together. From 25 euro per person.
Friday and Saturday:
Check in to your hotel and go for a walk through the town and get a taste of modern Bolzano by visiting the Museion (Via Dante, 2), the museum of modern art overlooking the Talvera River, which opened in 2006. It has over four thousand, five hundred works of art in its collection and hosts temporary exhibitions (currently ‘Techno Humanities’, which is a group show of international artists that explore Techno music and its subculture). Have a traditional dinner in one of the classic restaurants of Bolzano (Vogele or the Cavallino Bianco).
Saturday morning: go sight-seeing
The centre of Bolzano is Piazza Walther, a large gardened square ringed by cafes and restaurants. There are several sights to see close by, including the cathedral (notable for its 14th century frescoes, its 16th century pulpit and its Baroque altar); the Gothic Dominican church (which dates from the 13th century and has a painting by Guercino) and the Franciscan convent (with it 14th century frescoes inspired by Giotto and its wooden altar which dates from the 1500s).
Take a load off your feet and have a coffee break at one of the town’s charming pasticcerie (pastry shop/cafes) such as Streitberger (Via Muse 15), Monika (Via Goethe 13) or Lintner (Via Leonardo da Vinci 8) where you will be able taste of zelten, the local Christmas cake made from dried figs, sultanas, almonds and much else.
After coffee, visit the town’s oldest inhabitant, the real, and unmissable star turn of Bolzano. The Archaeological Museum is dedicated to Otzi, the celebrated ‘Iceman’, a forty-year-old man who died over five thousand years ago. He was found by chance by two hikers when he his remains emerged from a glacier on the Austrian border at the end of the summer of 1991. His snap frozen body, complete with clothing, travelling accessories and soft organs, was virtually intact and has revealed an enormous amount of information to scientist and historians. This excellent and accessible museum provides fascinating insight into the man and his world.
Saturday afternoon: go shopping
After lunch, walk through the lanes to Via dei Portici, the narrow pedestrian street that bisects the medieval heart of the town. It is lined with buzzy arcades filled with shops and cafes. Traditionally, the German-speaking merchants and their families occupied the buildings on the south side of the street, while the Italian-speaking merchants and their families occupied the buildings on the north side. Some of the speciality shops where you buy traditional products include Oberrauch-Zitt (#58) for traditional loden (overcoats) or jackets made from boiled wool; Rizzolli (#60) for Tyrolean hats and felt slippers; Eccel (#26) for the celebrated Daunenstep doonas, made in nearby Renon. A bit further away on Waltherplatz is Thuniversum, a very large emporium which sells the famous Thun ceramics.
Bolzano is a tale of two cities. If you have time, explore the other half, the ‘rationalist city’, laid out a built under Mussolini’s Fascist regime. The town’s complex modern history is represented by the imposing Monument to Victory, which lies across the Talvera River from the old town. Built in the 1920’s, it celebrates Italy’s victory over Austria in 1919. A provocative statement, it has been defaced and blown up on numerous occasions. It remains a contested site. Beyond this is the ‘new town’, also built in the high rationalist style of the Fascist regime, which originally housed Italian-speaking migrants who moved here in the 1930s.
At the far end of the new town is a Benedictine convent, which dates from the 12th century. Its high walls enclose vineyards and there is a cellar door where it is possible to try and buy their wines Open during the week from 08.00 am to 06.00 pm). Beyond this Greis, in a pleasant residential area at the foot of the mountains, is the lovely former parish church, La Chiesa della Madonna. It was founded in the 10th century on the ruins of a Roman villa and rebuilt in the late 18th century. The old church contains two pieces of art of high value. One is a Romanesque crucifix, dating from circa 1200 and probably made in northern France. The other is a marvellous, late Gothic, carved wooden altarpiece made by Michael Pacher, made between 1471 and 1475. Working throughout the Tyrol, Pacher was one of the earliest artists to introduce the principles of Renaissance painting into Germany.
Saturday evening: visit the Christmas markets
Late afternoon is the best time to visit the markets, the lights are on and the worst of the crowds are gone. The markets are open from 09.00 am to 07.30 pm and they run until 23 December. One hundred and fifty stalls are spread through Waltherplatz, Via della Mostra and Piazza del Municipio selling everything Christmas, from decorations for the home and tree to blown-glass objects; from craft objects to wooden sculptures and ceramics. You wander through the streets and lanes enveloped in the smell of pastries, wurstel and black bread, accompanied by live Christmas music.
Sunday: visit the hinterland
Explore San Genesio:
Spend exploring the splendid hinterland of Bolzano. First stop is San Genesio, a gorgeous small village, perched on a bluff a four-kilometre drive north-west of Bolzano. A funicular connects the village to Bolzano. A number of easy, well-marked walking trails start from here, taking through the farmlands and forests of the Salto plateau, including the St Martins Trail (5 kms), the San Genesio Castle Trail (10 kms), the Legend Trail (14 kms). Maps and information is available from the San Genesio information centre (Via Schrann 7). There are a number of places on the platau where you can have lunch, including the Antica Locanda del Cervo, next to the church, where you where you can have a traditional meal of soup and dumplings or a more upmarket option at Hotel Schonblick/Belvedere, which has a panoramic terrace.
Back down in Bolzano, the Roncolo/Runkelstein Castle is a ten-minute walk from the funicular station. The castle was built in 1237. It passed into Habsburg family in the 16th century and was abandoned in the 18th century and fll into ruin. In the mid-19th century it was gifted to Emperor Franz Joseph, who had it completely restored and donated it to the city of Bolzano. It is particularly famous for its vast 14th century frescoes that record of courtly scenes, daily life outside and literary episodes. There is a small restaurant, the Osteria del Castello on the grounds. A free shuttle bus takes you back into town.
Go skiing at Obereggen:
You are in the Dolomites, after all. For those who can’t resist the temptation of the new season’s snow, there are plenty of options. There nearest ski fields are at Obereggen in the Ega Valley. It is also the most loved for the inhabitants of Bolzano, so chances are there will be queues at the lifts, particularly on a Sunday. Regular buses run between Bolzano (leaving from Via Perathoner) and Obereggen. Ski equipment can be hired at the ski fields. All info at https://obereggen.com.