The Distinct Pleasures of Off-Season Italy & Croatia
The long, hot summer is coming to a close and, frankly, it can’t happen soon enough for me! This isn’t the hottest Italian summer in recent memory—that record is held by 2003, with summer 2017 in second place—but the mercury hit 102 degrees Fahrenheit in Florence on the 31st of July so the cooler temperatures to come will offer a welcome relief. And for travelers, low-season prices for airlines and hotels, blissfully crowd-free museums with no waiting in line and a crisp chill in the air that enhances the flavor of many Italian foods are just a few of the pleasures of a trip to Italy in the off-season. The Bel Paese reveals its best face after the masses of tourists have gone back home.
Low Season in Italy
Italy’s low season is November through March; some hotels drop their prices on November 1st, others on November 15th. From then until Easter, prices and crowds will be significantly reduced.Temperatures are not as cold as you might think: pack lots of sweaters and dress in layers and you’ll be fine. That’s because, especially in November, the days can be surprisingly sunny and mild. Indian summer, the Italian term for which is Estate di San Martino, coincides with the feast of St. Martin, the saint’s day celebrated on November 11th.
Venice & St. Martin
Speaking of St. Martin, Venice has a particular fondness for this medieval saint. Pastry shop windows will display cakes and cookies baked in his likeness on horseback, or golden images of him formed from quince. An autumn fruit that is a strange looking hybrid between a pear and an apple, quince (mele cotogne in Italian) is cooked with sugar to make a thick jam and then poured into molds to cool. The result is a natural fruit “candy” that is tart and sweet at the same time. You can see fresh versions of these knobby yellow fruits for sale in the Rialto market stalls, alongside piles of the season’s first chestnuts. When roasted, these chestnuts are a perfect accompaniment to vino novello, the year’s new wine that by law can’t be sold until November 6th.
Piedmont: A Foodie’s Delight
Moving over to the other side of the peninsula, the northwestern region of Piedmont is truly a gourmet’s dream destination, especially in late autumn when fragrant white truffles add the finishing touch to almost every dish on the Piedmont table. The best place to encounter them is at the 88th edition of the International Fair of the White Truffle of Alba. It runs every Saturday and Sunday from October 6th through November 25th, with Foodie Moments led by famous chefs and Wine Tasting Experiences (given in English on Saturdays at 5:30pm) as just two of the events that can be reserved in advance.
For much of the year, the snow-covered Alps provide a stunningly dramatic backdrop to this accessible landscape of vineyards and gently rolling green hills, each topped by a medieval castle. Granddaddy of them all is the Castello di Grinzane Cavour, inside whose imposing spaces is installed the Enoteca Regionale del Piemonte. Bottles of Barolo, Barberesco, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo wines from the region’s best producers crowd the shelves of the ground floor shop and wine bar. You can taste the various vintages by the glass or buy a couple of bottles to take with you; upstairs there’s also a gourmet restaurant.
The Langhe, Monferrato, and Roero wine country is just a little over an hour’s drive south of Turin and since the Alba Truffle Fair is only on weekends, a few days in Piedmont’s capital wouldn’t go amiss. This gracious city on the Po River has an almost French air of ordered calm that is enlivened in winter by a series of street decorations featuring theme lights designed by international artists.
The project is called “Luci d’Artista / Artist Lights” and all these artworks are spread throughout the streets and squares of the city’s historic center, as well as around the Mole Antonelliana building, whose spire is a symbol of Turin. From October 26th until January 13th, visitors can experience for themselves how this old manufacturing city has been transformed into the beating heart of Italy’s cinema and arts scene.
Get Festive in Milan
Milan in neighboring Lombardy bustles with holiday cheer during the feast of Sant’Ambrogio, the city’s patron saint, a uniquely Milanese tradition that shows a different side to Italy’s fashion capital. A special Mass is held at the venerable Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio on Friday, December 7th and that evening is opening night at La Scala. Tickets for this gala black tie event are almost impossible to get and prices are stratospheric, but entrance is free to the Fiera degli Oh Bej!, Oh Bej! that takes place from December 7-10th on the grounds of the Castello Sforzesco.
The Fiera, whose medieval origins date back to 1288, is a vast street market with hundreds of local arts and handicraft stalls and gastronomic delights. It’s a great chance to savor the Christmas atmosphere—and delicacies such as roast chestnuts, mulled wine, panettone—or take your pick from local mustards, hand-knitted sweaters, jewelry, toys and sweets.
Truffle Fairs in Tuscany & Umbria
Piedmont isn’t the only place in Italy where the precious (and pricey) white truffle grows: Tuscany and Umbria can more than hold their own with weekend truffle fairs being held in November in the Tuscan villages of San Giovanni d’Asso below Siena (November 10-11th and 17-18th) and in San Miniato near Pisa (November 10-11th, 17-18th, and 24-25th). The exact dates for the truffle fair in the charming historic center of Gubbio in Umbria haven’t been set yet, but it typically starts at the end October.
Of course both these central Italian regions are renowned for their extra virgin olive oil, the pressing of which takes place in November and December—don’t pass up the chance to taste the spicy, deep green olio nuovo (new oil) whenever it is offered to you!
Low Season in Croatia
The delicious duo of truffles and olive oil is one of the satisfactions of a late autumn trip to Croatia too, whose fame doesn’t rest on its 1,000+ islands alone. This Mediterranean country bordering the Adriatic Sea has been growing olives for centuries, but has only recently been gaining recognition as a small but significant producer of high-quality extra virgin olive oil.
At the 2018 edition of the New York International Olive Oil Competition, 38 extra virgin olive oils from Croatia won Gold and Silver Awards for an 89% success rate, compared to Italy’s success rate of 60%. Quality not quantity is the goal: the majority of Croatian olive oil producers are small family businesses that grow their own olives and produce limited quantities of oil from hand-picked olives that are pressed the same day they come off the tree.
Outstanding extra virgin olive oil comes from Istria, the Pelješac peninsula in southern Dalmatia and the islands of Cres, Krk, Korčula and Šolta, while Istria is Croatia’s truffle capital, especially in the Motovun Forest.
The table isn’t the only place where Croatia excels: Zagreb’s Advent Market was voted the best in Europe for the third year in a row. Think twinkling candlelight, colorful displays, ice skating rinks, festive food and drink, concerts, choirs and much more in an event-filled program that runs from December 2, 2018 to January 6, 2019. The city’s huge main square, Ban Josip Jelačić, boasts an open air stage for concerts and live music, as well as a cozy, heated, covered conservatory serving food and drinks, while European Square is the site of a buzzing souvenir and Christmas decorations market.
Fall and Winter are excellent times to avoid the crowds of tourists and experience Italy and Croatia from a more intimate, local perspective. It’s not too late to start planning a low season trip! Speak to a travel designer, submit a trip request, or contact us for more information.