Autumn is firmly entrenched here in the hills of Umbria, the smell of wood smoke dominates all other smells, and colder weather is just around the corner. Winter in Italy, especially when you reside in the rural countryside of central to north Italy, can be mild and it also can be harsh, therefore calling for a change in one’s day-to-day living strategies. You’d best be prepared…
Snow tires or chains are legally required in many parts of Italy.
I REALLY knew I had to get my act together when I realized, just days ago, that I had missed the legal deadline to have my tires switched out for winter tires. Yes, here in Umbria, you are legally required, by a published date in November, to either have winter tires on your car, or have snow chains always in your trunk. If you are stopped for a random check, which seems to happening with greater frequency these days, you could be checked to see if you are in compliance. And, if you’re not, you can be cited and fined. My appointment at the car dealership, where my winter tires have been “vacationing”, is Monday. Fingers crossed that I can dodge scrutiny until then.
We live on the side of a small mountain, and just above a rural village of maybe 200 people. The roads aren’t great, and many are not paved and have been ravaged by periods of unrelenting rain. A four-wheel drive vehicle probably is the wisest choice, if you’re planning to reside in such a rural location, but I opted for a Fiat Punto. It’s a great car, but if we get sideswiped by a major snow or ice storm, like the one that hit Umbria just a few years ago, we have to be prepared to hunker down and stay put. If we go anywhere, I have good hiking boots.
Having a good stockpile of firewood is essential.
Fuel costs are outrageously expensive here. Winter in Italy forces most people to adopt a “stay warm” strategy that artfully mixes using a fireplace or wood burning stove, selective use of gas heat, and bundling up while indoors (well, more than I’ve been used to). Most people take deliveries of their winter firewood in September, and in our neighborhood, you see people helping each other out, getting the firewood organized and stacked. I missed out on the action this year, but in previous years the best gym workout couldn’t compare to this. And, Advil became my best friend.
My house is pretty old, with walls that are at least two feet thick. Being unoccupied for almost twelve years, I believe we’re still “baking out” much of the moisture that built up in the walls over the years. For us, it is doubly important to keep the house adequately heated to avoid a built up of humidity.
We don’t have a fireplace, but we do have a wood burning stove that really rocks when it gets going. We can avoid turning on the radiators when we keep feeding the stove. Still we turn on the radiators, usually early in the morning, when the fire in the stove has gone out.
I’ve resigned myself to making at least two daily trips to our dungeon of a storage room (or as Simone calls it “Freddy Krueger’s room”) to load up the large metal can with firewood, while trying to minimize the insects and critters hitching a ride upstairs.
Like most people in rural locales we have a bombolone, an outdoor gas tank. And, we have to keep an eye on the gauge so as to not enter the red zone indicating we’ll soon be running on fumes. Disaster could be imminent if we ran out of gas, and a storm hit, making it impossible for the gas truck to refill the tank. We have friends who have a fairly large villa, and they spend 2,000 to 3,000 euro every couple of months in the winter. Our tank is much smaller, and we usually can make it through most of winter without a refill. But, it all depends on how harsh the winter is.
Be prepared, during winter, to freeze your butt off in some of the stores.
I haven’t experienced this in bigger cities, but in Umbria I learned a while back that many store owners are loath to turn on or turn up their heat during the winter. At our local hardware/everything store, I’m used to seeing the owners all bundled up in their down parkas and scarves. For me, I might as well be shopping in a meat locker. It’s something that just makes me laugh (to myself, of course) when I am inquiring about something and they are speaking with me while their breath hangs visibly in the air.
Become acquainted with the Italian holidays, when most businesses are shuttered.
While this doesn’t seem as mission-critical in warm weather, I believe one needs to pay heed to the days or periods when businesses are closed. This isn’t like the States where you can always find a grocery store open or a 7-Eleven (at least not here in Umbria) to replenish your essentials. If you have a cosmic convergence of bad weather, holiday closures, and poor planning on your part, you could find yourself in a heap of trouble. Learn from your Italian neighbors who, more often than not, are supreme examples of solidly planning and stocking their basements and cabinets for a long winter.
I’m still surprised by the number of holidays observed here in Italy – many of which are associated with the church. So, get a calendar and mark these dates, so you can plan accordingly.
Watch out for “i cacciatori” – the hunters.
Just yesterday, as I was driving to the bottom of the hill, I passed a cluster of hunters clad in their neon-orange vests, surely strategizing how to further flush out the cinghiale (wild boar) from the hills. When I reached the bottom of the hill and our favorite bar/cafe, I happened upon at least thirty more hunters. In other words, the Umbria hills seems to crawling with hunters right now.
The good news is, if you’re a meat eater, you’ll been indulging in many of the delicious recipes that include wild boar – a hearty ragu, roasted cinghiale, sausages and prosciutto, and much more.
Here’s where you need to be careful, however. With hunters almost everywhere here in the hills of Umbria, you have to think twice before heading out for a casual stroll or a vigorous hike. The last thing you’d want to happen is to be mistaken for “game” and be shot. Don’t laugh, it has happened. So, be sure to wear something in the neon family – or at least a color not readily found in nature.
Be prepared to encounter the wild game that has been flushed out of their normal habitats. In fall and early winter the “beating” of the bushes continues, and the confused cinghiale often spontaneously appear on the roads. Simone and I encountered a pretty sizeable one, which started to charge the car, but thankfully only glanced the left fender – due to Simone’s skill and agility in responding to the situation (small damage to the car). Just two weeks later my friend Nicole, visiting from the States, and I encountered two cinghiale on the same stretch of road – one on the outbound trip, and one on the way home. Geez.
We have good friends who had a more onerous encounter with a cinghiale – one that totalled their car.
If this doesn’t get your attention, here’s another real-life story. Just a few weeks ago, while I was out-of-town, three adult cinghiale sauntered up to our house. Oscar and Francesca, our cats, started going crazy. Simone freaked out a bit, and went to get our neighbors. Simone and Carlo grabbed shovels and cautiously followed them up the hill to Carlo’s sister’s house. They warned his sister and her husband, while the cinghiale continued their ascent towards the next house. Soon a “boom” was heard, and our neighbor had taken one out. No eyewitness account of the scene, but I’m certain our neighbor is happily swimming in a freezer full of cinghiale meat.
Don’t think cinghiale are cute and harmless. They have deadly tusks and they won’t hesitate to charge and gore you.
Enjoy entertaining and being entertained
Remember, Italy is a country where people congregate around the dinner table – not only to eat, but to commune and converse. Deep in the Umbrian countryside houses may look boarded up, but a rich life is going on inside, with roaring fires and incredible meals. Life in the cities may seem vastly different from the countryside, but communing as part of the meal is still an art that is well-practiced.
Many stranieri (foreigners) look at winter in Italy as a barren time of year to be endured until life begins to explode again with spring’s arrival, especially as it does so vigorously in Umbria. But, I’ve learned to appreciate the beauty and nakedness of winter. It just takes eyes that are willing to see and a heart that embraces the full experience of life. Yes, winter can have its challenges here, but it also can have its rewards. With foresight and planning, your winter experience can be a warm one.