La Befana in Italy

Italy is home to many wonderful and exciting celebrations throughout the year, but a lesser known one involving La Befana, is one of my personal favorites and one I was lucky enough to experience. This tradition on January 6th marks both the end of Christmas and the day the magi reached Jesus to bring him gifts in Christian beliefs.

La Befana in Treviso

La Befana is actually a person who takes the form of an old woman who is ragged and poor, with a broom and warts, much as an American Halloween witch. Put simply, she arrives to visit the families on January 6th every year bringing candy for the good children and coal for the bad while the household is asleep. However, this tradition stemming from the 13th century comes from an old legend.

According to the story, when Christ was born, the three Magi came to visit the baby and bring their gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. They stopped at the house of an elderly woman and they passed the word onto her and asked for her to join, but she politely declined, saying that she had much work to do around her house.

My gifts from La Befana

However, after some time, she felt as though she hadn’t made the best decision and decided to follow the same star the magi were and set off on foot. Along the way, she left candy in socks on the doorsteps of children, hoping to find the baby Jesus. Now, with the combined ideas of this legend and Santa (who is a much more modern tradition), she will deliver coal to the poorly behave children as well. There is also a forewarning from parents that if you attempt to see La Befana in the night, she will whack you with her broom.

Just like with Santa in the United States, during this time of year, you will see many La Befanas walking around so you can take pictures with them, like the one in the photo above. Some are on stilts, some have warts, some are scary, and some have pointed hats, but all of them are super unique and awesome!

Later in the night after she has brought the candy, there are more celebrations. In fact, in some places La Befana is burned (a fake of course), at a huge bonfire and the whole town celebrates. Supposedly, if the ashes go up it will be a good harvest and a poor one if they go down.

The Lorregia fire

My experience with La Befana was fortunately very personal. Since I was staying with a family, I had the true local experience of having a Befana sock and attending the fire, but also an embarrassing one because I was a foreigner with little Italian skill. It went something like this:

We get there and there is a lot of people, fireworks, and in the middle of it all, a massive bonfire. Stacks of pallets high, this thing is huge, easily the biggest fire I had seen. I immediately start photographing with my Nikon. I am so in awe of this fire that when my host pokes my shoulder, I jumped.

“Hey, there is a La Befana here and if you talk to her she gives you another stocking. You can get cookies and hot chocolate too.”

Free hot chocolate? I’m down. One of her girls takes my arm and walks me to Befana and promptly tells her I am American.

This is about the time I realize La Befana has a microphone. And this audio is being played on loud speakers, meaning the whole population of Lorregia can hear our conversation.

Now is also a good time to reiterate that I hardly know any Italian.

Flames from where the witch was

Befana is immediately amused and starts laughing about my confusion as well as cliché American things, such as our then president elect Donald Trump. She asks me questions and I, of course, can not answer, and I desperately look around for my host to translate. She said they asked what state I was from and I responded. Then at this point, La Befana says she speaks English and talks to me. If I am correct, it sounded something like this:

“Ajkvbfjvisfjnvj fnvbksf njvj sj efbskjgijer sfjwb jfbkwurgbbgjw!!”

Also known as, gibberish.

To say the least, I hurried away from that microphone. But then I also realize that the entire town is staring at me. It was like I may have well just landed from Mars. Many were gawking at me even though I looked pretty similar and some even did cheers with their hot chocolate and clapped as I passed. It was mortifying and something I will cherish at the same time.

Fireworks

Of course not every town has traditions like this, some are bigger and smaller, but if you want to stay away from the main tourist season but still celebrate some Italian holidays, I would totally suggest seeing La Befana!

Vicenza, Italy

In the beginning of my trip to Italy, Vicenza was another gorgeous destination we traveled to on the numerous day trips we took from Padua. The family I was staying with decided to take a tour with another family so I got to not only experience the city, but also connect with more locals who even had a daughter my age. Luckily, they had an Australian exchange student so they could converse in English, which was much smoother than my broken Italian. They also travel a lot and had great experiences touring parts of the United States.

Us on our tour

Before we took our tour, we parked our car (luckily, Vicenza has lots of accessible parking!) and grabbed a bite to eat. I had margarita pizza, which is a definite must in Italy and even got to try a bit of cod, which is certainly not my favorite.

I feel like this a good time to note the significance of dinner in Italian culture. Here in the United States, many households don’t view dinner as an important part of their day, but in Italy I was amazed by the deep connection and social aspect of dinner. There, dinner can last four hours and becomes a time to relate and discuss and grow true human relationships. I absolutely loved it, even though it could be time consuming. Not to mention, the food is superb.

Waiting for our pizza

Anyway, back to Vicenza. If you are at all interested in architecture, Vicenza is the place to go. In fact, Andrea Palladio, who was born in Padua during the early sixteenth century and is considered one of the most influential architects of the western world, designed a very large part of the city. He is the one responsible for using the design of the iconic white pillars for in front of many government buildings- including our government. A large part of our tour was centered around this part of history and we were able to see many of his works.

Sketches from Palladio from the 1500s

Some of the most impressive sights we saw on our tour and others we did not. However, Luca, our guide, was very helpful in telling us the history of Vicenza in depth. Here’s a list of the main sights and their history:

  • Teatro Olimpico: this was the first indoor theater of Europe and was constructed by Palladio himself, which opened in the 1500s with its debut being Oedipus the King by Sophocles. Today, it is still in use (even though it can only hold 400 people) and is known as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, Palladio never saw it finished, but his son continued it for him. The architecture is amazing and this site was the start of our tour. You can purchase a ticket to see it for eight euros, which also allows you into the civics museums.
  • Basilica Palladiana: another work by Palladio, this building rests in the Piazza Dei Signori, the main plaza of Vicenza. This building also contains the Torre Bissara, the large clocktower that looms over the square. The exterior arches are beautiful, but also make sure to check out the ceilings as well!
Basilica Palladiana
  • Corso Palladio: this street runs straight through the town and highlights many of Palladio’s works, including Teatro Olimpico and many of his palaces. Today, there are lots of shops in the remaining buildings, but his architectural work is still there. There are a few cafés nearby that are great for tasting Italian espresso or hot chocolate, which is much richer and tastier than the ones we have here.
  • La Colonna di Galeazzo da Roma: this is random, but there is a little engraving at the end of Corso Palladio that reads:

“QUESTO E’ IL LUOGO DOVE ERA LA CASA DEL SCELERATISSIMO GALEAZZO DA ROMA , IL QUAL CUM ISEPPO ALMERCIO ET ALTRI SUI COMPLICI COMMISSERO ATROCISSIMI HOMICIDII IN QUESTA CITA’ . DELLO ANNO MDXLVIII DI III DI LUGLIO.”

La Colonna di Galeazzo

This memorial commemorates a dramatic event that happened in mid-sixteenth century, which were the murders of the Valmarana family. According to history (or legend), the sister of a wealthy man, Galeazzo da Roma, Isabetta, loved one of the Valmarana brothers who was named Alberto and refused to marry her, since he didn’t love her back. In anger, Galeazzo came in the home during midday with Leonardo da Roma and Issepo Almerico, and killed Alberto, two of his brothers, and two servants who came to Alberto’s assistance. Galeazzo also relocated and killed a friend of the Valmaranas. Afterwards, he fled to Como, where he could become noble. It is suspected that Leonardo committed more murders and became almost a serial killer, but there isn’t foolproof history to support it. Almerico was the only one who faced criminal charges and was soon hanged in Florence. The sign now hangs below the house of the Valmaranas, which is now part of a bookstore.

La Colonna di Galeazzo da Roma

Overall, Vicenza is a fantastic place to get a glimpse of Western architecture without the massive crowds of Venice or Rome. I wish we spent more time here because the atmosphere is phenomenal and I thoroughly enjoyed our tour and exploring independently. There are just so many great places to eat and shop, making for a more true Italian culture away from all the tourist attractions. I would totally suggest visiting here on your trip to Venice, Verona, or anywhere in the Veneto region!