The 8th of December is a public holiday in Italy. It is St Ambrogio's Day (St Ambrogio is the saint of Milan) and also the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. (I read an interesting article in the newspaper about exactly what was and was not immaculate about the conception, but I'll save that for another post.)
My friend and I decided about 6 weeks ago that we wanted to take advantage of the long weekend to go to the Christmas markets in Austria or Bavaria. We initially wanted to go to Salzburg, as both of us have also had long and passionate relationships with The Sound of Music but we decided that was too far away and decided to aim for Innsbruck instead.
Our Innsbruck plans were thwarted by the lady at the train station being incapable of selling me the ticket that I wanted (and which I knew existed from the automatic ticket machines and the internet). In the course of half an hour, she sold me the wrong one twice and I eventually gave up.
Our next idea was to go to Trento, which is not far from the German speaking part of Italy and also apparently has a good market, but my friend was ill for three days and we decided it was too far away for a day trip and chose to go to Turin instead.
We assumed that the market would be near the centre of Turin and relatively easy to find, but when we arrived, there was no sign of it. We walked around the centre admiring the beautiful buildings, the river and the glimpses of the mountains at the end of every street and eventually asked somebody where it was. She told us that it was quite far out of town, too far to walk, and said that we would need to get a tram there. By this time, we were hungry, so we had lunch and then confirmed with the people at the restaurant where we needed to go.
It turned out to be only five stops on the tram and not very far away at all, but when we arrived at the square, all we could see was an ordinary market with a few stalls selling scruffy Christmas decorations in among the clothes pegs and multipacks of batteries. We asked one of the stall holders if this was actually the Christmas market and she said that it was.
A little disappointed, we headed back into town. As we were strolling among the shops, we stumbled upon the tourist office and went in to ask about the market. The woman told us that it was more or less exactly where we had just been. I was on the point of giving up, but my friend, an avid Christmas market shopper persuaded me to try one more time. We walked back to the original market and made our way past the scruffy ironmongery stalls. Then we saw a few scabby Christmas trees and a flea market that was thronged with people. Forcing our way through the crowds, in what seemed to be the back streets of the dodgy bit of Turin, we finally spotted wooden chalets and Christmas lights and smelled the perfume of mulled wine wafting towards us. We had found it!
The market was incredibly busy, despite being so well hidden, but we managed to find four Christmas presents between us, drink some mulled wine, taste grappa at the grappa stall, and get some free samples of incredibly delicious Turin chocolate called Gianduiotto, which is basically very, very nice praline.
I liked Turin a lot. It was like Milan in that it was a busy, cosmopolitan city but it was somehow just that little bit prettier. More than anything, Milan lacks hills, a river or a beach and you never really get a view or feel like you can see the edge of it. Turin has a river running through it and beautiful views and luckily is less than two hours away on the train!