Visitors to Italy in winter may be treated to far fewer crowds in museums, but with ski resorts more crowded instead –- especially during February's "white week" or settimana bianca, when schoolkids get a mid-winter break to hit the slopes. In February, carnival is in the air with costumes being prepared, confetti strewn on city streets by young children, floats prepared for the parades and of course, pastry shoppes and coffee bars offering all sorts of traditional carnival treats...like scrumptious chiacchiere (fried dough) and tasty castagnole (donut holes)].
Although when thinking of hitting the slopes, the Dolomites and their alpine resort towns first come to mind, in Piedmont, Sestrière – the site of the 2006 Winter Olympics - doesn't disappoint. But even around Bologna you can head for the Appenines for some powder. Further south, in Lazio, Romans like to hit Terminillo or Campo Felice to get in some weekend skiing, or my favorite, snowshoeing. In Abruzzo, Roccaraso always promises terrific snow though it's harder to find lodgings in high season during the winter in Itaky. Even in Sicily, it's possible to ski around Mt Etna, offering a view of the sea below.
But what people don't think about is the cold. Without a lot of centralized heating, it may be cold in some lodgings. Or, you find your heat gets turned off in the middle of the night to save on energy. Apartments may take a while to heat up...but at least, with some sunny days in store, you can usually find that being out and about is not so bad, after all.
One of my favorite activities to do in the winter in Italy is to head for the Roman baths (Terme) - open air, it may be chilly when you come out, but being immersed in boiling temperatures with the crisp air above is nothing short of divine. Take it from the Emperors and Popes who would have done the same.
As for the temperatures in winter in Italy, Italian legends will have you believe that the end of January are the coldest days of the year. We can only hope it gets warmer from then on. Indeed, they're called the Three Days of the Blackbird. But what, you may ask, do blackbirds have to do with it? Turns out...once upon a time, typical wintery birds were white...But they got so cold this time of year that they built their nest atop of a chimney. When the daddy bird ventured out for food, by the time he came back to the nest, he no longer recognized his family -- before turning black himself. This legend, in some recounting, takes a nasty turn for the worse...whereby the daddy bird left them starving...and other such iterations.
Italians love to chirp about the weather. So you can swap stories around a fire if you happen to be at a ski resort, or find a wonderful Agriturismo for a 3 hour lunch and pull up a cozy chair by the fireplace. As for me? Winter is for the birds.