When I think of one thing I will miss about Italy someday, I know it will be lounging in piazzas. By definition, a piazza is a public square or market place. From experience, it is so much more. It may be one square or a labyrinth of squares connected by pedestrianized streets that lead people effortlessly to each other. Every piazza has its own personality but they all have one thing in common. They provide a place to gather and connect, every day.
Christmas is a masterful time to truly experience the runic importance of the piazza in Italian life. People flock to their favorite piazzas from near and far and they linger. They shop, eat, play, meet, greet, and stay, sometimes all day. Because they are still the nucleus of Italian culture (although sprawling malls and suburbs are more of a reality than in days gone by), many piazzas are full of traditional events and decorations this time of year.
There is a Christmas Market every weekend in Tuscany, full of vendors selling handmade goods, food trucks, and pop-up cafes, in almost every town. Merchants decorate windows and, as many markets are open until almost midnight, the twinkling canopies of Christmas lights can be seen for blocks approaching the piazza. Christmas carols are often playing in the open air through some speaker perched on a rooftop. There are choir concerts in the churches performances in the square, and generations of families spending time engaged in various activities, or no activity at all, in any given square, every day.
Piazzas do not discriminate. Everyone is welcome, young and old, rich and poor, local and tourist. Going to a piazza for no other reason that to find a bench is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in Italian culture. Just yesterday, we were sitting on a bench in Manarola, one of the five villages of the Cinque Terra, when an American couple approached us and started chatting.
This couple asked if we were here to see the Church of San Lorenzo built in 1338 or the remains of the Bastion or the wine museum. They asked what trails we had hiked and what trains we had caught and what food we had tried. When we said we were here to simply sit in the piazza and watch the world go by, waiting for sunset, they looked a bit bewildered. They turned to see our kids playing tag with local children as their laughter echoed off the rocky cliffs, and they smiled.
After taking a deep breath, this couple settled in next to us on our marble bench. When our children approached, they taught the kids how to tell how much time there is until sunset using their fingers as minutes between the dropping sun and the horizon. We sat and talked about everything under the falling sun, as the church bells marked the passing of time.
That is the magic of the Italian Piazza. It is the gift of time and the best Christmas present I have ever received.