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Rome for the holidays

By Kate Appleton
updated February 21, 2017

One of our travel resolutions for 2010 is to go for the spontaneous trip—don't overthink it. Reader sleds posted a comment in support of that resolution and shared an inspiring story about a last-minute trip to Rome.

"It was three days after Christmas, a Tuesday. It was cold! I was sitting in my office in northern Minnesota with the temp hovering around -12 with a pretty good wind when the email came. A fare sale from Northwest Airlines! For that week! On December 31 we landed in Rome! For 11 glorious days we wandered the city…I doubt we will ever have such a memorable New Years—but who knows when the next fare sale may find us on the way to…"

This time of year is indeed glorious in Rome, and the temperatures stay mild enough for leisurely passeggiate (strolls) through the city's many decorated squares. In Piazza Venezia, a Christmas tree is up for the first time in four years (metro construction had gotten in the way), while an even taller tree—nearly 100 feet and donated by Belgium—is wowing the crowds at St. Peter's Square.

There's so much going on that the tourism board launched a special festival and website to organize it all: Rome Citta' Natale 2009. You can search for events, such as the free New Year's concert at the Colosseum and "Toccata e Fuga," which fills Piazza di Spagna with singers and ballet dancers at 6 p.m. on Dec. 21, 28, and Jan. 4.

Expect shops to be open every day, except December 25 and January 1. City museums that normally close on Mondays will stay open on Monday, December 28, and Monday, January 4; you can confirm the opening hours for your desired museum at museiicomuneroma.it.

Most restaurants present special fixed menus for Christmas Eve (traditionally seafood-based) and for New Year's Eve that range from about €50/$71 to over €250/$357 a head. (The NYT recommends dinner at Casa Bleve for €145/$207.) Rome is shuttered on Christmas Day, with the exception of the Jewish ghetto—then it's mostly back to business on The Feast of San Stefano, December 26. On New Year's Eve, meals wind down by 11:30 p.m., just in time to join the countdown in the closest piazza. DiningCity.com lists restaurants that still have holiday availability and denotes places that are special bargains or have Michelin star ratings.

Up next, local writer Barbie Latza Nadeau describes the Piazza Navona Christmas market, midnight masses, and other quintessential Roman festivities…

Piazza Navona Christmas Market It wouldn't be Christmas in Rome without this annual event, which centers around la Befana, the Christmas witch who, until recently, was more popular than Santa Claus. Piazza Navona, dominated by three fountains, is lined with stands selling everything from hot doughnuts (ciambelle) and cotton candy to Nativity scene figurines and Christmas tree decorations.

Zampognari and pifferai Through the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, traditional bagpipers (zampognari) and flutists (pifferai) descend on Rome from the regions of Abruzzo and Calabria to play traditional Christmas music for the masses. You'll find the musicians, recognizable by their leather-laced shoes and sheepskin attire, wandering around Rome's historical center, especially near Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, and at the gates of St. Peter's Square.

Natale all'Auditorium The Parco della Musica, designed by Renzo Piano, is getting in the holiday spirit with lots of fake snow and a festive lineup including dance recitals, chamber music concerts, child-friendly puppet shows, and a 2,000-square foot ice-skating rink. Auditorium Parco della Musica, Viale Pietro de Coubertin, auditorium.com.

100 Presepi Craftsmen painstakingly set up the expansive Nativity displays (presepi), which feature everything from running water and twinkling fires to hand-carved figurines and flying angels. Some of these famous traditional Neapolitan Nativity scenes date back to the 17th century. Sale del Bramante, Via Gabriele D'Annunzio (Piazza del Popolo), presepi.it.

Midnight Masses

Pope Benedict XVI may be celebrating Christmas Eve mass at 10 p.m. this year, but elsewhere in Rome, major basilicas will continue the midnight mass tradition. Rome dies down to an eerie silence from around 7 p.m. to just before midnight on Christmas Eve, when it comes to life with church bells and the opening of many coffee bars and street merchants to accommodate parishioners.

One of the more beautiful midnight masses is at the Pantheon. You don't need tickets, but you should be there by 10 p.m. to get a seat and hear the Gregorian chants. Santa Sabina on the Aventine hill is also popular with Romans for its stunning service in one of the city's oldest churches.

The church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, which straddles the Campidoglio on Piazza Venezia, is also a worthy choice. The 124 steps up to the church are lit with candles, and the traditional zampognari and pifferai give a concert at the basilica doors. This church features a wooden carving of the baby Jesus believed to be made of the wood of an olive tree from the Garden of Gethsemene. Local Romans bring their children here on Christmas Eve for a ritual blessing in front of the carving.


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