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A Mid-Winter Holiday

What could be a better preventive measure against the mid-winter blahs than a quick trip to Italy! We'll visit six different regions . . . and this guarantees us stunning variety. Remember that even thought the culture and civilization are old, Italy has been a unified country only since 1871 . . . and before that it was a multiplicity of different states, each with its own history, social structure, and way of life.


Following the map (and not our wines), we begin in the northwest, in Liguria, whose capital Genoa was, at the time of the Crusades, in control of a vast empire that extended as far as Syria and the Crimea. Defeated in battle by Venice in 1380, the region subsequently fell victim to a raft of foreign masters; it endured occupation by Austria and was briefly a French province. Joined to Piedmont by the 1815 Treaty of Vienna, it quickly became a stronghold of the unification movement.

Northwest of Liguria lies the ancient principality of Piedmont. Neighboring France, the region has always had close ties to that country, and French was spoken at the court and parliament of Turin until the middle of the 19th century. It came to the House of Savoy by marriage in 1045 and remained there until the Napoleonic Wars. The Treaty of Vienna reinstated the Savoy kings and it was under one of these, Victor Emmanuel II, that Italy gained its independence by defeating Austria in 1859.

Now we head east, to Lombardy, which abuts Switzerland and Austria. A part of the Germanic empire until the 12th century, it was, for two centuries after that, controlled by local dynastic families. Invaded by France in the 16th century, it then became a dependency of the Spanish Hapsburgs, then of Austria. The Piedmontese defeat of Austria brought the region under the Italian flag in 1859.

Traveling farther east, we soon arrive in the Veneto. The region today still comprises the territory occupied by the Venetians in the 14th-15th centuries. For 300 years the Venetian dominions remained united, dismembered only by the Napoleonic invasion and then ceded to Austria. Not until the defeat of Austria by the Prussians in 1866 was it able, by vote, to unite with Piedmont.

Three subregions make up the Veneto; the most northerly, adjacent to what was Yugoslavia, is Friuli-Venezia Giulia, which was absorbed by the Venetian power in 1420. From 1815 to 1918 it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. When it became part of Italy (only at then end of the Second World War) it was granted special measures of autonomy.

We end by dipping south into Abruzzo, to the east of Rome. Here we find a mix of influences, including Neapolitan, Sicilian, Saracen, and Moorish. Under Spanish rule from 1503 to 1707, the region experienced a range of insurrections and suppressions until unification. Once thought of as part of the "poor" south, it has come into the mainstream since the opening of a major highway from Rome.

Always a Reason to Celebrate!

A few months ago, we thought we could get this all together in time for December, and so spend the holidays in Italy. Alas, such was not the case. Italy being Italy, however, there is always a "festa" on the calendar . . . so let's see what's coming up.

It might seem a bit premature to us, but Italians declare winter over on February 2, the feast of Candlemas (Candelora in Italian). The feast commemorates Mary's bringing Jesus to Jerusalem to enlighten the people, and Italians observe the day with processions of blazing candles.

The next day, February 3, is the Feast Day of Saint Blaise (San Biagio), patron saint of the throat. His feast is the excuse for widespread consumption of panettone, for some believe that eating a piece of it on this day will protect you from a sore throat (or worse). San Biagio is also the patron saint of wool-workers and, in the small town of Taranta Peligna in Abruzzo, the day is observed with the distribution after Mass of special sourdough breads; made in the shape of an open hand with four fingers, the breads symbolize the cooperation between dyer, spinner, weaver, and finisher.

As in all Latin countries, the days leading up to the start of Lent (Ash Wednesday, this year February 13) are Carnival time (in Italian, Carnevale, or "farewell to meat"). Italians call the seven days preceding Ash Wednesday "fat week" (la settimana grossa), and it is a week of elaborate parades, masked balls, elegant horse races, and gargantuan feasts.

Local traditions abound, none more fascinating than those of a little town called Ivrea in the far north of Piedmont. Ivreans celebrate Carnival with a three-day-long violent battle of oranges, in which squads of fighters hurl thousands of oranges at one another. And since oranges do not grow in Piedmont, an entire trainload of blood oranges has to be brought in from Sicily each year for the event. Anyone wishing to stay out of the path of the flying oranges wears a special conical knit red cap signifying "noncombatant" status.

Over in Verona, the last Friday of Carnival is observed in a unique fashion: it is called "Gnocchi Friday" (Venerd́ Gnoccolar) . . . and you can guess what that means! There is a two-hour procession, with floats and bands from many of the northern cities, at the head of which is the Pope of Gnocchi, dressed in a red and white suit (red for the sauce, white for the gnocchi), his scepter a giant fork. The event dates from 1530, when the city was caught in a war that was leaving thousands to starve; on the Friday before the start of Lent that year, a local doctor is said to have made enough gnocchi to feed the entire population of the city.

The most beautiful - and most famous - Carnival in Italy is of course the one in Venice, with its masked procession on the Grand Canal. Outlawed by Mussolini, the Carnival was reinstated in 1979 and was such a tremendous success that buses now have to be turned back after 8 a.m. and all the footbridges become one-way.

Throughout the country, Carnival banishes hunger in great style: tradition requires eating mountains of sausages and other meats, drinking great rivers of wine, and ending every meal with fritelle, fragile ribbons of fried dough dusted with vanilla-scented powdered sugar (in fact fare le fritelle is one Italian way of saying "have a good time"). And throughout the country, Carnival comes to an end on Shrove Tuesday; bonfires burn all over Italy, as a doll representing the King of Carnival is burned in the flames.

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