A guide to holidaying in Italy over the Christmas period

Christmas in Italy is not very commercialised or ostentatious. You will not see many decorated fir trees and green and red tinsel; instead there are nativity scenes all over, many of them live ones. One of the best can be seen in the little town of Barga in Tuscany, where more than 200 locals participate. The Italian Christmas festivities start from 8 December and continue to Epiphany on 6 January, which is the main day for gift giving. Most of the main cities have interesting festivities and rituals during this time; visit Naples for some of the best Nativity manger scenes and bagpipe and flute players in brightly coloured traditional costumes. Local churches also each have their own elaborate Nativity scene and visitors go from one to the next on Christmas Eve. A must is a visit to Saint Peter`s Square in the Vatican City for its famous Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, or even any small local church. Torino contains kilometres of beautiful lights in its streets and squares; Monte Ingino above Gubbio has the world`s tallest Christmas tree of 800 metres tall with a bright star visible for about 50 kilometres.

Italy`s Christmas markets are truly spectacular. The best ones are in the Trentino-Alto Adige region in Northern Italy; visit Trento, Bolzano, Trieste, Verona and Campo Santo Stefano in Venice for stalls selling beautiful handcrafted items such as gifts, toys and decorations. Experience regional food, drink and music at its best and explore the small alleys in these towns for a unique experience of Italy.

Milan`s famous antiques fair takes place from early December to just before Christmas; Palermo hosts its international marionette and puppet show at the same time and Erice draws musicians from all over the world for its Mediterranean Folk Music Festival. Merano`s Old Town is one whole outdoor Christmas market.

There are of course many wonderful places that any tourist in Italy simply has to visit. The capital city, Rome, has museums and piazzas steeped in history: the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon and the Coliseum are but three of the best-known landmarks. Florence has excellent food and Tuscan wines; Milan has beautifully stylish buildings, up market restaurants and world famous models prancing in the streets; the holiday island of Capri has world class resorts and stunning beaches; and a gondola ride in romantic Venice is a once in a lifetime experience.

For an even more memorable Italian experience, spend time off the beaten track by visiting unknown towns and just meandering around, meeting townspeople and discovering the local dishes and hidden plazas with magical cafes. Examples are the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region, with its beautifully painted house facades; Matera with its prehistoric caves; Elba Island for great sea views and a profusion of outdoor sports; the Frasassi Caves with its colourfully lit stalactite and stalagmite formations; and Viterbo and the thermal baths at Etruria are another option. Wherever you decide to go in Italy, will be well worth the time you spend there; and making use of Boots vouchers will save you a considerable amount in travel funds.

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