Ground Hog Day in Italy?

February 13, 2024 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

February 2024 All Things Italy

A February afternoon’s bright sunshine, greenery, and shadows in Rome’s park of the Villa Doria Pamphili

Greetings, Friends! 

I hope you’re celebrating that February is upon us—if for no other reason than that it means we are closer to Ground Hog Day in the US & closer to spring. When Ground Hog Day rolls around, I fall back on folk beliefs and hope for a gray day. The other habit I have is dreaming of travel to somewhere warm and sunny. Italy? Usually. Assuming I’m not alone in either of these habits, this month I’m sharing a bit about February in Italy.  

This message topic arrives with thanks for your feedback on last month’s survey. If you’re a newer subscriber, or if you missed the survey for another reason, just send me a message letting me know what kinds of topics you’d most like to read here: history, women writers, food, travel, etc. The survey responses were equally split for travel tips, Italian culture past & present, and stories of women in Italy.  

So here’s a seasonal tidbit on culture past and present:  I learned this week that even Italians have their version of Ground Hog Day. Thanks to the latest issue of the newsletter Wanted in Rome, I learned about the giorni della merla –the “days of the blackbird.” The last three days in January, generally considered the coldest of the winter, are used by some to forecast spring’s arrival. If the end of January is gray and cold, it means that spring will arrive early. You can dig into the proverb and its history through the newsletter here.

February Weather: What to Expect 

Should you travel to Italy in February (or in January), what might you expect? Last year at this time I had just landed in Rome. I was greeted by bright sunshine and warm weather on the last day of January. I was quite happy that I had departed the gray winter of the Ozarks. But by my second morning, I was equally happy that I had packed hats and scarves. And I zipped up my lightweight down coat to brave the elements as I left my apartment. “There’s no bad weather, just bad gear,” two of my avid cycling friends often say.  

A sunseeker last February in Rome’s park of the Villa Doria Pamphili. He was warm enough to unzip his coat.

I recall that my first trip to Italy also began with an early February arrival. Then a young college student, often underdressed, I was unprepared for the chill that ran through my bones as I explored the streets of Florence. Damp days, stone and stucco buildings, and heating systems kept lower than I expected were all part of my education abroad.  Need I say that I also learned to love a hot caffè latte or a hot tea?  

Now I understand the importance of clothing. And I know the almost universal saying: “if you don’t like the weather in [insert location], just wait a while.” Italy is as varied in climate as in food cultures. Winter travelers can enjoy skiing on snow-covered mountains or sitting in the midday sun in a citrus grove or at an eatery. (I have enjoyed both). The pleasures are perhaps all relative to what you leave behind. If you are restless to get out of where you are in the winter, Italy might provide you what you need—depending on your expectations. 

End-of-January sunshine on residences in Rome, with the snow-capped peaks on the horizon to the north.

Off-Season Adventures  

Last week I sat down with a friend who traveled to Tuscany, Rome, and Sorrento in January. We met over coffee. (Well, she had a coffee and I had a San Pellegrino Limonata, to channel some Italian vibes). Our purpose was to share her adventures and her photos. Thank you, Debbie Corcoran, for letting me share some of the good stuff here! 

Debbie’s eight-day adventure was with a group of students and another professor from Missouri State University, the institution from which Debbie recently retired. Sponsored by the Department of Geography, Geology, and Planning, the group’s emphasis was on planned environments and sustainable agriculture. One of my foremost questions to her was how much of her trip itinerary would be of interest and accessible to other adults. Her answer: all of it. And, there wouldn’t be any course assignments or exams . . . .  

Beyond that question, I also asked, “how was the weather????”  

Debbie’s answer: Rainy. Gray. Overcast. “But I packed a raincoat,” she quickly added.  

And the group also saw some sunshine.  

Even with the winter weather, Debbie noted, the countryside was green and beautiful. 

Muted greenery of an olive grove in Tuscany under an overcast sky Credit: Debbie Corcoran
Evergreens (perhaps Italian cypress?) lining a road at Tivoli Credit: Debbie Corcoran

Debbie and I are not the only ones to have their first Italian experience in winter. Caroline Crane Marsh, one of the three women in my book, Engaging Italy, wrote of her winter arrival on the peninsula in 1850. Caroline was disappointed to not see Italy in its summer glory. But her husband George had a more optimistic opinion. They would “see the configuration of surface much better as it is – our geography and geology will be the stronger for the winter frosts,” he explained.  (from Life and Letters of George Perkins Marsh 1888) 

Many winter travelers won’t be looking for Italy’s topography and appreciative for the lack of summer vegetation in the way that George Marsh was. But the absence of summer crowds will certainly allow many more pleasant experiences. Debbie and her group had no crowds to contend with. The sites the group visited, while not completely “off the beaten path,” are less-visited than Venice, Florence, and Rome. In winter, the visitors were almost non-existent. Any one of these—Caserta, Tivoli, or Pienza, would contribute to an engaging itinerary any time of year. 

Caserta 

The group’s first stop related to planned environments was Caserta, between Rome and Naples. Caserta is known for the Belvedere Palace, comparable to the French Louis IV’s palace at Versailles. The palace served the Bourbon dynasty that ruled southern Italy from 1734 through 1861. The group’s itinerary intended to focus on the adjacent Royal Colony of San Leucio, established in 1778 and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. (Unfortunately, due to time constraints their tour was cut short.)  King Ferdinand IV established the Royal Colony to be self-sufficient, with a silk mill, homes, schools, and medical care provided for all who worked there. 

Gardens of the Palazzo Belvedere at Caserta, a late December photo by Marco Del Torchio 95, from Wikimedia Commons.

Tivoli 

Closer to Rome, the group stopped at the ruins of the second century Emperor Hadrian’s expansive estate at Tivoli and his Villa Adriana and Villa d’Este. There they learned of Hadrian’s plan to have a microcosm of his entire empire, which stretched from what is now Scotland in the north to Egypt in the east. He designed what would essentially be “a diorama of his entire empire,” Deborah explained. Constructed waterways and plantings of vegetation from elsewhere imitated his favorite scenes from places throughout his empire.  

Ruins at Tivoli, built during Hadrian’s reign as emperor. Note the solo visitor in the first photo and the constructed waterway in the second. Credit: Debbie Corcoran

Pienza 

Moving north of Rome to Tuscany, the group visited Pienza, what Debbie referred to as an “ideal city of the Renaissance.” The town was designed as such due to the leadership of Pope Pius II, Enea Silvio Piccolomini. Long before he was pope, Piccolomini was born in the town, then named Corsignano. The newly redesigned town was renamed to honor him (Pienza=the city of Pius). Many first-time Italian tourists flock to Siena, San Gimignano, and Cortona in Tuscany, or to Orvieto, Assisi, or Urbino. In these smaller cities they experience beautifully restored and maintained medieval and Renaissance environments. However, Pienza, a UNESCO site since 1996, is not yet so crowded but worthy of a visit.

An autumn view of Pienza Credit: Wikimedia Commons https://www.flickr.com/people/sherseydc/

Situated in the Val d’Orcia between Montalcino and Montepulciano, well-known for the famous wines produced, Pienza also offers visits to wineries in the area. These wineries were part of the sustainable farming visits that the group made—a topic I’ll share in a later issue with more of a food focus. 

Far from the Madding Crowd  

For now, bear in mind that the largest crowd Debbie’s group dealt with were the evening of January 6, which was also her favorite evening. In Italy many celebrate what some Christians refer to as the day of Epiphany. The evening of the feast day is devoted to the tradition of the Befana, a witch who rides a broom and delivers treats to children. That evening Debbie was in the seaside resort of Sorrento, where people strolled the stone streets under sparkling holiday lights. Music and a festive atmosphere filled the air. During the summer, Sorrento can be unpleasantly packed with crowds of tourists, poking through shops and searching for the best outdoor table for food and drink. During winter, according to Debbie’s experience, it might actually be the most magical. 

Sorrento’s holiday lights on January 6. Credit: Debbie Corcoran

Fun in February: Carnevale 

Another magical winter Italian festival is the period known in New Orleans as Mardi Gras, leading up to the start of the Lenten season. Several cities from north to south in Italy celebrate Carnevale in big ways: Venice in the Veneto, Ivrea in the Piedmont, Viareggio in Tuscany, and Acireale in Sicily are only a few. You can read in a past post what I’ve written about my Carnevale experiences in two of those locales here

And, if you want a virtual visit by video, consider tuning in to art historian Laura Morelli’s talk on mask-making in Venice here. (Morelli also writes historical fiction set in Italy, and she includes several links on Venetian masks in her latest newsletter).

On a related topic, if you want to read some nineteenth-century fiction set in Venice during the winter holiday season of costumes and masks, I highly recommend Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “A Christmas Party,in the collection, The Front Yard, and other Italian Stories. It will also give you a taste of Woolson’s style in writing about expatriate life.

Upcoming Events 

Constance Fenimore Woolson’s life and writings in Italy are the focus of a trip I’m leading in May with Woolson biographer Anne Boyd Rioux. Our small group journey in Woolson’s footsteps is already full, but if you’d like to be on the cancellation list, or if you’re interested in talking about another small group trip, let me know. Or perhaps you want some travel advice? I’m happy to be of help with that, too.  

Finally, as we approach Women’s History Month, you may be part of a group interested in a talk on women in Italy or another one of the women writers I speak about. Let me know if you’d like to plan for that. Sometime later in the year would be fine, too.  

Meanwhile, I hope you make it through February with smiles and hopes for spring. Should you want to follow up on any topics I’ve included here, I’m always happy to talk with you—whether it’s travel advice, suggestions about reading, or tips on an off-the-beaten-track spot in Italy. Your feedback keeps me going! Isn’t that what we all need in the winter months? Just a little nudge now and then to know that we’re not alone as we keep dreaming and reading about Italy. 

Saluti e buon Febbraio

Etta Madden