In Italy’s North (Veneto and Friuli) Christmas and New Year festivities are “all wrapped up” (to quote a much-used advertising slogan at this time of year) on January 6, The Epiphany. This is when the 3 Wise Men (the magi) were said to have travelled to Bethlehem to bring gifts to baby Jesus. So, to commemorate this event more gifts (usually lollies/chocolates) are given out to the kiddies on the night of January 5. By the 3 Wise Men, which would make perfect sense? No. By a spooky looking witch called La Befana.
La Befana vien di notte,
Con le scarpe tutte rotte,
Con le toppe alla sottana,
Viva, viva, La Befana!La Befana comes at night,
With her shoes all broken,
With patches on her petticoat,
Long live La Befana!
Befana was everywhere when we arrived in Treviso, my dad’s home town. We caught up with my second cousins, and I asked what in the world an old woman had to do with the 3 wise men, and their struggle to come up with a connection reminded me of the time I had to explain to a Japanese exchange student why a giant rabbit gives chocolate eggs to children on Easter Sunday. The links are too complex/tenuous that we just all accept it without every really knowing the answers.
After a bit of googling however, I found out that ONE explanation is that the 3 Wise Men asked an old woman for directions to where baby Jesus was as they had seen his star in the sky, but she didn’t know. She provided them with shelter for a night, the magi invited her to join them on the journey, she declined, regretted it, couldn’t find them, and is STILL getting about searching for baby Jesus (in the wrong country), and leaving lollies for the good kids, coal for the bad.
Our time in Treviso was a fabulous opportunity to catch up with our cousins as part of a tight schedule organised by my cousin Giovanni.
We haven’t had the chance to see these guys for 7 years. My grandparents, like many other in the 50’s, left Europe for Australia carrying only their children and suitcases with hopes for work after 40 days at sea. My Nonno left his two sisters in Italy, and I stayed with one of the those sisters, Zia Bianca, for a few months when I was 18.
We had a fabulous dinner with Zia and her kids and grandkids, which included loads of Northern Italain specialties…sopressa, treviso (the vegetable) fresh and in oil, musetto (a slow cooked sausage) with puree, spiced lentils, and a fregolatta almond cake/cookie all with sparkling prosecco. Plus tiramisu and pandoro for Cam’s birthday, with “Happy Birthday” sung for him in English and Italian. So special!
We explored the city with gorgeous Aurora and Enrico. I guess I’m their great aunt?
Treviso is such a beautiful, accessible, non-touristy city. I worked here when I was 18 and don’t know that I appreciated its beauty fully back then. Rivers race through the town. Look up, and you’ll often spot a frescoe that’s been there for hundreds of years. People are immaculately dressed. Older women have permanently perfect set hair and can be seen riding push bikes in their fur coats. SO many fur coats! Last time I saw a fur coat in real life was in the back of an op shop! Polite little dogs trot alongside owners on street, in clothes shops and at cafes.
We all went out for a Napoli-style pizza dinner and to a nail biting game of Basket (aka basketball) at PalaVerde stadium. It was a tight match, and the fans went nuts at every point and foul either chanting songs of victory, or wildly shaking their hands and swearing at questionable calls. Stars of the match were New Zealander Issac Fotu and David Logan for Treviso. Unfortunately we lost by just a couple of points.
So as well as the lolly witch La Befana there are other ancient traditions across the North of Italy that mix history, agriculture and superstitions. And smoke. Huge bonfires are lit on the night of January 5 for “Panevin” (some with La Befana on the top) and the direction the embers fly predicts the quality of crops for the next year. If they fly East, it’s bad, and West, crops with be plentiful. The smell of smoke, and ash raining down on us reminded me of the weeks before we left Australia, where bushfires are still raging.
Traditional foods of Panevin are “pinza”, a boiled fruit cake, and “vin brule”, a thick warm mulled wine. The girls opted for “frittelle calde”, huge hot pastries dipped in sugar and nutella
Our house in Treviso was a rambling place overlooking the town walls. Books, posters and artwork around the house gave us hints as to who once lived there…and the fact that the park across the road is named after him. Guiseppe “Bepi” Mazzotti was a famous writer, artist and photographer, and his house is peppered with artwork from various Trevigiani artists.
Only a couple of days left in Italy as we make our way East to Trieste via Aquileia.