In recent years, Verona has become one of the main Italian destinations for tourists over the Christmas holidays. Two million people are expected to visit the city this year, with two hundred thousand of them spending at least one night there. As well as enjoying themselves in the splendidly decorated and illuminated city and losing themselves in shopping, they will be able to attend a series of events involving 1,200 people, including some on Lake Garda.
It wasn’t like this, until a little while ago. I have childhood memories of when Christmas in Verona was just for the Veronese and a few day-trippers. People used to stroll around Piazza Bra to admire the huge metal star of Bethlehem with its tail that described an arc into the Arena. Then, the unmissable visit to the traditional exhibition of nativity scenes from all over the world, also inside the Arena. Finally, we used to stop off for a ‘bombolone’, a giant, piping hot doughnut, at a street stall (until 13 December, Santa Lucia’s Day, the “Father Christmas” of the Veronese) and then we went home.
Christmas Eve has always been a really special day for me. It is an informal tradition for the Veronese to meet in the centre to exchange greetings with each other. The piazzas fill up late in the evening as people leave the restaurants after the big evening meal. The main meeting places are Piazza Erbe and Via Sottoriva, especially at the bar of the same name, where people arrange to meet to drink a toast before midnight.
All of this is still part of Christmas in Verona, but today the festive period has a lot more to offer. And not just the city: all of its institutions have joined together to promote “the Christmas district” in Verona, the now well-established attractions of which include the always very busy little markets in Piazza dei Signori in the city centre, the Veronese handicrafts exhibition at the Palazzo della Gran Guardia in Piazza Bra, the Christmas Village (in its twentieth year this year) at Flover di Bussolengo.
In addition to the commercial side, so to speak, Verona is seeking to link Christmas with more offerings of a cultural nature. That’s why the city is hosting two of the most important exhibitions in Italy during this period. The first is devoted to Mayan civilization which is also at the Palazzo della Gran Guardia: an immersion in an ancient culture via legends, astronomical calendars and art, with 250 exhibits originating from the most important museums in Mexico (the exhibition runs until 5 March 2017).
The other exhibition that is increasingly capturing the attention of the Veronese is devoted to Pablo Picasso’s portraits at Palazzo Forti (open until 21 March): 91 works by the celebrated Spanish artist shown for the first time in Italy, including paintings and sculptures, mostly from the Picasso Museum in Paris.
Perhaps the most interesting development in this Christmas period is not an event in the strict sense of the word, but a project that aims to help people rediscover a very beautiful and historically rich part of the city which today is a bit off the tourist trails. It is called Verona Minor Hierusalem, “Verona, little Jerusalem”. Tourists, visitors and the faithful will discover that, from the 9th century, Verona saw the founding of numerous churches in imitation of the shrines of Jerusalem, to create an alternative to the costly and dangerous pilgrimages to the Holy Land. A kind of religious tourism ahead of its time, that can be relived today by following the itinerary that starts from the Pietra bridge and covers five churches (exceptionally opened to the public thanks to the support of hundreds of volunteers) including the spectacular Santi Siro e Libera church located right on the slopes of the San Pietro hills.