31 Dec,2016 By Jagabond
“A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
I entered Verona by night, but I didn’t get as dramatic as Dickens clearly did. Maybe it’s because I’ve been here before, a couple years back. I came for Valentine’s Day, where tourists were flocking to see Juliet’s balcony. The other city in the title, Bolzano, I’d never been to. There was already the war between the Montagues and Capulets…so maybe there could be a war of Christmas markets?
Why these two cities? Well the Brenner line, of course. This is the railway system installed to connect Italy and Austria. My goal was Vienna, and though I’ve been there before I’ve never taken this scenic route through the mountains. It starts in Verona, and one of the last stops before Austria is Bolzano. Hence…the theme of this blog. I didn’t have a clean route getting here, as Alitalia delayed my flight and stranded me in Rome for six hours. I actually had a blog halfway written about the airline, entitled ‘Paradise Lost – Alitalia is the Airline from Hell’. I thought better of it after sleeping on it. Many thanks to Saleem, a great Londoner I met at the Naples airport who was sharing my Alitalia-induced fate. Our discussions kept me sane as we waited for our plane to board, which it finally did 150 minutes late.
I grew up with American football…a Pittsburgh Steelers fan bleeding black and gold. I always liked how sports commentators would compare teams prior to a game, and rate them on certain attributes. I thought I could apply this logic to Christmas markets. I came up with the SLEDS algorithm – Shopping, Location, Eating, Drinking, Spirit. No draws are allowed, as one market must win each category. So…let’s get on with the match!
SLEDS Algorithm – Verona vs. Bolzano
Shopping (winner – Bolzano)
It’s not that Verona didn’t have anything, in fact all the usual suspects were there – multiple booths selling ornaments, a vast array of cold weather gear for ill-prepared visitors from Southern Italy, and snoglobes for all, large, medium and small. They even had something unique, a booth specializing in English tea sets.
The market in Bolzano, however, had all this and more. There were too many ornament booths to count, along with separate stands selling toys, dolls, and woodcarving crafts (a practice that seems to be popular in this region). I considered buying a Tyrolean hat, but then remembered how freakishly large my head was.
Location (winner – Bolzano)
I’ve always preached, to those who would listen, that the placement of a Christmas market should be in the city’s best location. Verona swung and missed here, as they chose their fourth best, in my opinion. Why not inside the Roman arena? This is one of the hallmark sights in Verona, and has long since been the symbol of the city. If not inside, then the square outside, Piazza Bra, would’ve at least had the backdrop of the arena. Piazza Erbe presents a decent third option, with its chic cafes, picturesque fountain, and stunning medieval buildings towering from above. Instead, Verona selected Piazza Dei Signori, a hidden square currently under renovation, and thus your Christmas celebration was shared with cranes and scaffolding. I did, however, accomplish something I never realized I wanted to do…drink some hot wine under a statue of Dante Aligheri.
I can’t glow enough about the location of the Bolzano market. The gods blessed this city with heavenly mountain views that would make photography enthusiasts drool. The market consisting of over eighty booths was strategically placed in the main Piazza, which was also a five minute walk to the train station, allowing non-overnight visitors like myself easy access. The market gets extra points for having a skating rink set up in the adjacent park. I must reiterate about the views…never before have Christmas and mountains gone so well together.
Eating (winner – Bolzano)
Once again Verona failed to provide the ‘wow factor’ in this category, instead mostly playing it safe with the ordinary food options. Traditional German cuisine like sausages and kraut was plentiful, and there was even a wood-burning stove to make pretzels. Local products included truffle sauce, and a company called ‘Stringhetto’ that impressed me with their pleasant customer service, and the surprisingly tasty chocolate-pepper spread.
Bolzano provided multiple heated outdoor areas for restaurant options serving the local Tyrolean cuisine, which incorporated gastronomical elements from both Italy and neighboring Austria. I observed confectionery like chocolate covered fruit, chestnuts being roasted in plain view, and met a retailer that made sauce from the region’s hunting victims – deer, antelope, boar and rabbit. I was also happy to see a separate cheese stand selling all the local variants…perfect for one of my wine and cheese nights!
Drinking (winner – Bolzano)
I give Verona credit for having hot wine in both red and white, as white typically is more difficult to find. This, however, is where the credit ends. Their hot wine tasted a bit weak, likely the result of not adding brandy, which is an optional ingredient. Bolzano’s market did add brandy, which in my opinion leads to a much fuller and richer flavor. Bolzano also expanded beyond hot wine, with a variety of beer options, and individual booths selling wine and grappa.
Spirit (winner – Bolzano)
Unfortunately, Verona appeared to have more of a Christmas vibe outside the market. There was some kind of ‘Santa race’ going on, which required participants to dress in Santa costumes and running shoes, then do a Christmas jog through town.
Aside from this curiosity, Verona’s market was devoid of any spirit (Christmas music over the loudspeaker doesn’t count), and Bolzano once again scored an easy victory. There was a central stage in the Bolzano market that opened with four young girls reading passages from a Christmas poem in Italian.
A band was also present to provide live Christmas music and keep the spirit going.
Finally, there was a beautifully done nativity scene nearby the entrance. If you look closely at the picture below, you may see a dog getting a bit too curious about Baby Jesus.
The first use of the SLEDS algorithm identified Bolzano as the clear winner in this Christmas market death match. This was like David and Goliath, only with the expected result not the inspirational underdog story.