“It’s the most wonderful time of the year”… and that means so many things! It means snow flakes and Christmas lights. It means cold weather and hot chocolate. It means Santa Claus and stockings stuffed with goodies. When you live in Europe, it also means tremendous Christmas markets and delicious vin brulè (cooked wine, usually sold on the streets). Over the past couple weeks, we have been taking advantage of it all! Because Christmas is only four days away – I will spend the next four days posting about our Christmas fun. In order to do that, I have to bend my “unbreakable rule” and publish blog posts out of order. I’ll fast-forward to Christmas and then flash back to some exciting posts that I have in the pipeline.
Oh bej! Oh bej! No, you don’t have to say “gesundheit”! I didn’t sneeze. That is the name of a festival held each year in Milan, spanning from December 7th through the following Sunday. How did it get that wonderful name, you ask? “Oh bej! Oh bej!” means, “oh so nice! Oh so nice!” in the Milanese dialect. It is by far, the most important Christmas festival held in Milan. December 7th is the day of the Patron Saint of Milano, Santo Ambrogio. The festival is said to date back all the way to 1510.
Vendors line the streets during Oh Bej! Oh Bej!
We arrived in Milan early and parked far outside of the central zone. You would think that living just outside of Milan for nearly a year would make me an expert driving in the city. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. I’m even more gun-shy now than I was when I first moved here. Driving through limited zones and parking in residential areas has cost me hundreds of euros in fines. So this time, I didn’t chance it – we parked in a garage outside the central zone and hoofed it just over a mile. The brisk winter weather was cold on our faces, but the fresh air and excitement of the day filled us with an energetic warmth.
Our first stop was the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, the basilica commissioned by and named after Milan’s Patron Saint. Construction of the basilica began in 379, making it among the oldest and most significant churches in Milan. Since we were in the city on the actual day of Sant’Ambrogio, there was a large service being held in the basilica.
Basilica Sant’Ambrogio named for Milan’s Patron Saint, Santo Ambrogio
There was a large church service being held, even though it was a Saturday
Next, it was time for us to see the festival and enjoy some of my favorite things – vendor food and vin brulè! In the center of the city stands the Sforza Castle, a medieval fortification built in the 15th century. Here in the 21st century, the fortification plays host to hundreds of vendors that encircle the great castle walls. Over 400 vendors vie for the attention of shoppers looking for food, crafts, Christmas ornaments, books and so much more. We got a couple wonderful pannini (sandwiches) and jockeyed for a spot to enjoy them. After lunch and some shopping, we walked through the gates of the castle and explored the courtyard.
Over 400 vendors flanked the ancient castle walls
The best roasted chestnuts come from the back of trucks
There were literally dozens of stands with delicious Sicilian treats
A stand full of artisanal goods
I picked us up a couple sandwiches – porchetta and salamelle
After her first bite, Julia decided she didn’t want to share – I couldn’t blame her
A fountain sprays in front of Sforza Castle
We went inside to explore the courtyard
Jen holds Julia tight in a crowd full of people
When we had our fill of the market, we strolled down Via dei Mercanti toward the Duomo. No trip to Milan would be complete without seeing one of the most amazing architectural examples of our age. The Duomo is particularly special during Christmas time. Ablaze with sparkling lights and framed behind a giant Christmas tree, you can’t help but become filled with Christmas spirit.
Duomo di Milano
The festival just whet our appetites for all the Christmas fun that we would enjoy. I hope that I’ve been able to do the same for you. We still have so much left to explore together, including the Christmas markets of Switzerland and a tour of some of Italy’s “best towns for Christmas.” Plus, I got an early present… I hope that you’ll help me unwrap it. I’ll give you a hint – it’s got four wheels, two doors and 572 horsepower! Grab a warm cup of vin brulè and get comfy (oh yeah, we’ll give you a recipe for that too) – we’ve still got a lot of exploring Christmas time in Europe left to do.