Surviving the Italian Winter

Winter in Italy

Have you ever worn a hat to bed?  I mean, you may have read stories or seen illustrations of people in days of yore, sleeping in night caps (as they were apparently called) – but have YOU ever physically slept with one on because it was that damn cold?  I have – and it wasn’t in the snow-blown, blizzard barren land I call home (Ohio), either.  Believe it or not, it was in Southern Italy, of all places.

When many think of “Sunny Italy,” thoughts of perpetual sun and sea come to mind.  This perception is greatly supported by the fact that most tourists visit the country in the summer months, so it makes sense.  What people don’t associate with Itay though, are those bone-chilling moments when you think, “Where am I?” It can actually get much more than merely freschetto (chilly) – in the winter months it’s downright freddo cane (literally, a dog’s cold – don’t ask me about the analogy).

The transition from the fall to winter months seems to be a genuinely tragic event for most Italians.  Although clearly experienced before, they tend to complain about it as if it was the first time it has ever happened.  They will whine and moan for weeks about the changing temperatures – and don’t get them started on the dreaded cambio di stagione at home.  Che palle!  That is the worst.  Since the majority of Italian homes are small apartments, the closets don’t have the space to house all four seasons’ worth of clothes at once.  Cue the cambio di stagione: the annoyingly necessary evil of switching out your spring/summer clothes with your stored fall/winter ones (often under their modernly functional beds, which lift up to reveal a mecca of storage space often crucial to existence).  What really burns about the cambio di stagione is you never think to do it until the weather’s already turned and you’ve already gotten sick from your lack of layers, which really adds to the likability factor of the whole process.

Then, there are the Italian homes themselves: structurally sound, no doubt – but built with materials one would classify as the opposite of cozy.  Constructed purely of cement and laid over concrete slabs, the builders are clearly convinced they live in the tropics rather than Western Europe.  The flooring is traditionally marble or tile (never have I seen a carpeted living area), and Italians are just not into textiles, meaning their homes can best be described as bare in respect to their American counterparts.  While I’m definitely into the modern minimalist thing and have been swayed by European style quite a bit, to me, a home still needs to be comfortable and inviting.  And being the americana I am, I was keen on adding wood flooring, multiple area rugs, hefty curtains, the oversize couch and an exorbitant amount of pillows to our apartment.  But I was well aware that my home decorating tendencies put me in a very small minority.  Style is subjective, but one thing is certain: when winter arrives in Italy, those undressed households surrounded by concrete walls become literal ice boxes, sealing in the cold, damp air and sending it straight down your spine and through your bones.

Of course, the remedy for this is one, simple gesture: turning the heat on!  Only problem is, most of the older homes don’t have central heating/air installed (like the one I wore a hat to sleep in), and their inhabitants are convinced it’s not that cold (all those years of freezing their culetti off has rendered them numb).  Alternatively, those who do have central heat don’t use it as much as they should.  I’ve walked into homes in the dead of winter that had their balcony doors open.  Don’t ask me why.  Better to stay freschi (fresh), they say.  As for me, better to shiver in silence.  Otherwise, not only am I the spoiled, exaggerating American – I’m the spoiled, exaggerating American who complains a lot.

Another important note: if you travel to Italy during the winter months, be prepared to witness the state of the country’s infrastructure literally crumbling around you.  Winter is the rainy season, and any significant rainfall is pretty much synonymous with the apocalypse.  Italy’s lack of emergency preparedness becomes painfully clear as inclement weather cripples cities and towns.  In the Northern areas, there are mudslides, lives lost, the whole shebang.  And in Rome, forget it: even a normal amount of rain wreaks total havoc on that city, flooding streets (and the Tiber river), and closing bus stops and the metro.  And god forbid it snows – in 2011 there was a freak snowstorm in Rome, and it was as close to a state of emergency as I’d ever lived through.  The day the storm hit, my usual commute of twenty minutes or so turned into four hours of treacherous driving, and when I finally arrived at our town one of the main roads was completely unpassable, leaving me no choice but to abandon my vehicle at a certain point and walk about a mile uphill to my house.  For the following three days, we were stranded at home (with my car still at the bottom of the hill), forced to walk another half mile or so hoping to find a store open with food and supplies.

Moral of the story: plan your trip to the Bel Paese in the spring/summer/early fall.  The rest of the world may have the same idea, but you’ll be better off and much happier with the experience.  Winter in Italy can be hazardous to your health, in more ways than one.

How do the rest of the COSI’ members take on winter in Italy?

Rick’s Rome:

Girl in Florence:

Surviving in Italy:

Unwilling Expat:

The Florence Diaries:

Englishman in Italy:

Married to Italy:

17 thoughts on “Surviving the Italian Winter

  1. No worse than the UK for unpreparedness!! Even we don’t have summer/winter closets though, could never understand that… November in Italy is normally quite nice, cool at night, but 20+ degrees during the day sometimes, like now… I always go at this time for three weeks before Christmas, to tidy the garden and shut the house up safe before January & February and any really cold & nasty weather. Whatever time of year, the weather is always better than the UK!

  2. Complaining about the cambia di stagione, but then leaving the balcony doors open and judging you for complaining? Something isn’t right here…
    To answer your question, YES I’ve worn a hat in bed before. In Italy, of course.

  3. I arrived January 3, 2009… and I wore a hat to bed that first night!! I woke up shivering (already wearing multiple layers) and suffering from jet-lag. I had never been so cold before. Now I’m just used to it and cuddle up to my hot water bottle. As far as cambia di stagione.. I was a bit furba this year and had everything cleaned and ready by the end of September.. it got cold and I was ready while everyone else was turning their stoves on to dry clothes. I may have had piles of laundry for weeks.. but it was worth it in the end.

  4. At home I had always big wardrobes and carpets. I saw big wardrobes in any house in the south I visited and there is enough room in there for summer and winter robes. It is just a matter of how to organizing it. About buildings. I lived with ease in homes built in 1960’s and 1970’s. The one built in sixties was my grandma home apartment I lived here when child. It has no heating but it becames hot just with turning on a stufetta. I lived in a 70’s apartment with central building heating and it was cold in summer and hot in winter. A very confortable building even with marble floors. In the eighties we moved to another apartment in a 1981 building and it was awful… Atrociously hot in summer, and abnormally cold in winter even if it has gas autonomous heating. So I feel confident to advice you to check carefully how it is made your apartments building and preferring those built in 19th century. Houses of 1800 were made if stones or solid bricks and very efficient thermically. Houses and buildings of 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940 unless if built by the original owner should be checkef carefully as buolding methods changed quickly in those years, and often contsins also asbest in the roofs (mainly 1940). Houses and buildings of 1950, 1960 and 1970 were nearly to perfection, built for confort, well made, good materials. Rooms are large in these apartments and rich in receiving daylight. Ceilings are at 4 meters of high and allow you to keep room for high wardrobes. Remember also that medium size of apartments in Italy is 90 square meters that it is more than the average european apartment size. My eighties apartment is a penthouse and it is 90 square meters plus 80 meters of cover terrace. My 1970 apartment was 110 square meters and had four rooms, two bathrooms, entrance, living kitchen, a store room and an extra mini room thst you can use for kids playing or extra bedroom for the colf. My grandma house is 120 square meters. I doubt you can find easily and a reasonable prices apartments so big in great european cities or american ones where average number of room is limited to two rooms and very few spaces for robes and clothes. Houses and buildings after 1980 have usually 3 rooms only (75/80 square meters usually), few windows or balcony doors (so lesser daylight enters) and ceiling is very low 3,50 meters that limits enormously headroom and space for wardrobes. The switch lira/euro was a disaster. My family bought our penthouse just at 130.000.000 lire in 1981 that is barely 65.000 euro. In the end of 2000 it was priced 300.000.000 circa that is 150.000 euro. After euro was introduced Italy suffered a big speculaton that doubled prices of ANYTHING. To make an example a can of soda that was priced 500 lire, 25 eurocents is nowadays priced 60 cents 25+25+10 cents of inflation. If you buy it in bars it is priced 1 euro and the price is even more expensive heading to north Italy. 1 Kg of bread was priced 1000 lire, 52 eurocents. Nowadays it costs 2 euro, and in Bologna prices of 1 Kg of bread could cost even 4 euro. This fact halved the buying capabilities of us italians who suffered this terrible speculation upon euro currency. Prices doubled and salaries were always the same. So then italians drastically reduced their expenses and prices of houses had a crazy rampage as we see our houses. Nowadays my apartment has a medium exteem price of 350,000 Euro.
    So in the end if you want to spend winters in Italy and you are an expat check carefully buildings if you want to rent or buy a house or an apartment.

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  7. I flew to Sunny Sicily in the winter to visit my wife’s family, I was traveling light because we were going to use my return luggage allowance to bring some of her clothes back to the UK. I think on the first day I wore all of the clothes I had brought, all at the same time… Three pairs of socks and 4 t shirts and I was still cold…

  8. It always amazes me that so many people are surprised the winter weather in Italy isn’t subtropical! I always get asked why I don’t go in winter and when I explain that my little stone house has no heating I get these blank looks. ‘What! You mean it snows?’ 750 meters up, yes it snows! One of these days I’ll buy a space heater and go for the Nov 1st festivities, but I’ll probably have to wear everything in my valigia, all at the same time-alla cipolla! Brrrrr😁😁😁

  9. May I ? It is not ” cold as a dog ” wich would be ” freddo COME un cane ” , being come = as , but we say “freddo cane ” that could be translated ” dog cold ” . So we say ” fa un freddo cane ” = ” it’s dog cold “and apparently it derives from a Sami proverb , indicating that dogs are allowed inside when the temperature plunges, to help humans keep warm 🙂

    • Hai ragione, Barbara! It just seemed to translate better to English that way – although it doesn’t really make sense either way. Thanks for the clarification though. I like your way better, and will update it!

  10. Same here… I wear ton of clothes and a hat… Those stone floors caused me chonical cistytis… Nothing warm and cozy about Italian winters :(((

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