Since we couldn’t go back to the States for Christmas this year (mandatory Civics class for our residency requirements) we decided to seek out some Christmas markets. It was important for us to find markets not filled with mass produced products from China. After a lot of research, I narrowed it down to 3 markets in Italy. The first was the Santa Maria Maggiore Christmas market. This market is a bit different as it only runs for 3 days, not the usual month or more. Santa Maria Maggiore Christmas market is also unique because it consists of only handcrafted items. The over 200 exhibitors offer only handmade or hand grown (is this the right way to describe salame & prosciutto?) items.
Arriving at the Santa Maria Maggiore Christmas market required a few trains, the last of which was a small line that climbs through the mountains to deliver us to the tiny village in the valley of the Alps. To say this was a spectacular ride is an understatement. The train runs through mountains, along steep cliffs and windy turns. It is 45 minutes of non-stop gawking at the many waterfalls, snowy mountain peaks, small picturesque villages, and ancient arched bridges. Oh, and reindeer!
Our 3-day visit in the Valle Vigezzo was a combination of mishaps, incredible kindness and adventure. It started with our arrival at the Santa Maria Maggiore station. Each train station along the way is quite small, I mean like tiny house small, so when we arrived in Santa Maria Maggiore there was the ticket master and us in the small station. J. had decided we could just take a taxi to our B&B which was located about 1.2 miles out of town. When we asked the ticket master if he could call a taxi for us, he smiled and said “No Taxi”.
Okay, well here we are, a huge suitcase and no way to make it up the mountain to the village of Toceno where we were staying. Reaching into the depths of all of my Italian studying I managed to ask him to please call the B&B for us to see if they could retrieve us from the station. Kindly he agreed, did a google search and found the number. After a bit of a long conversation he was told that in fact there was no reservation for us and they had never heard of this station. It took a few more minutes of discussion when much to the delight of the ticket master he realized he had called Sicily. This brought many giggles and joking. Finally, he got us sorted and our host at the Le Vie del Borgo B&B came to pick us up.
In case you don’t know J. has yet to start learning Italian. I however, spend a good bit of time studying so when we discovered quite quickly that no one spoke English, no menus were in English etc. it was up to me to get over my hesitancy to speak and to let it rip-no matter how jumbled my sentences. This proved to be quite a blessing as the Le Vie del Borgo B&B owner and her family became our chauffeurs for the week. For 3 days we talked, learned and shared with this wonderful family. Our trip truly wouldn’t have been the same without them.
The Christmas Market
The first day of the Santa Maria Maggiore Christmas market was everything we dreamed a European Christmas market would be. There were chainsaw wood carvers, people playing music in the streets, Santa Claus (Babbo Natale), red roofed stalls full of crafts, gifts and food items. Hot chocolate, hot wine and hot tea were for sale throughout the city. What I didn’t expect was that each incredibly quaint building would be decorated in such a perfect way. No detail was overlooked. I didn’t expect it to be quite so cold. (Turns out that for 2 ½ months a year the sun doesn’t shine on Santa Maria Maggiore.) I didn’t expect the feeling that overwhelmed me of how incredibly lucky I was to be standing in this perfect little village, a resident of the country I love, living my life exactly the way I had always dreamed it would be. So, as I choked back tears of joy J. found a lovely little fire to warm our freezing hands and feet.
The first day of the Santa Maria Maggiore Christmas Market is definitely the best, not so many people allows one to enjoy the atmosphere a little more. So, we wandered the many streets taking it all in. Along the way large white tents were set up as dining areas where we ate locally made polenta with mushrooms and fresh pasta. The crowded dining areas only added to the warmth of the event.
While the Santa Maria Maggiore Christmas market is filled with visitors over the 3 days of the market, we never heard English spoken once. This didn’t mean it was difficult. In fact, the locals were wonderful about accommodating my poor Italian and Jim’s lack of Italian.
Each day we found ourselves at the market for one reason or the other. We would stand by the logs that had been cut to serve as fire pits and watch the Italians and Swiss purchase the fantastic handmade offerings. There were quite a few chuckles over the Italian renditions of American Christmas Carols but it only made the atmosphere more delightful.
The food was honestly fantastic. While J. was disappointed there weren’t stalls selling freshly made sausages, we did enjoy the local bread Stinchéet (a thin crepe type item with butter and salt on top), the delicious pizzas, and pastas. J. also enjoyed the deer pasta served at most restaurants, while I as the vegetarian and lover of Christmas ordered pizza instead.
On our last day as we walked the cobblestone streets taking in every bit of the atmosphere, we noticed the metal Chimney sweeps installed on the chimneys (Santa Maria Maggiore is famous for Chimney Sweep manufacturing). The stone roofed buildings giving way to the massive mountains behind, each covered in frost from the night before. Our experience in the Valle Vigezzo was filled with wonderful experiences so another blog post will have to describe all of that. Stay tuned!
How we got there: We chose to take the scenic train from Domodossola (trains regularly run out of Milan to Domodossola). The train line is the Centovalle Vigezzina. An absolute gorgeous ride on nice trains!
Where we stayed: We stayed in the village above Santa Maria Maggiore called Toceno. While it wasn’t as convenient as staying in the historic center the service, views, owners, comfort, quality and excellence made it worth it. The family gave us rides to where ever we needed to go, and made reservations for us at local restaurants. I can’t imagine staying anywhere else when visiting. The B&B was the Le Vie del Borgo-when you are there ask if they can cook for you one night-it is worth it to have Federica’s delicious local food and conversation!
Specifics: The Santa Maria Maggiore Christmas Market is only 3 days long each year. It seems to generally be scheduled on the first weekend in December, but check each year for specific dates and times. The first day is the least crowded. If you are taking the train in book online early as the train is very full those three days!