Black wool stockings, or Winter travel in Italy

We arrived in Sorrento in mid-February to begin two weeks of Italian language school at Sorrento Lingue. We’d packed for a month in a mild winter climate.

Too mild, it turned out.

Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio in the snow.

Our host family’s apartment, with its icy marble floors, was not heated to the level we Americans are accustomed to. My first purchase in Sorrento was a pair of black wool tights, which I wore almost every day, with my other clothes. With additional socks, and a sweater under my warm coat.

It’s one thing to bundle up when you go outside–after all, I grew up in Alaska, and I know what winter cold is like. But it seemed nearly as cold inside as out, and we were bundled up inside and out.

Granted, it was mid-winter. We had several very windy days in Sorrento, and a few with rain. We walked several blocks every day to our class, and on our free afternoons we walked all over the city. We walked a couple of miles each way to see the ruined villa at Capo di Sorrento, and took trips to Pompeii and Positano.

Clouds hanging low over Positano.

Umbrellas were the order of the day in Pompeii.

But I’m afraid in all my planning, in spite of knowing that we were traveling in winter, my brain retained the images of sunny Italy, warm Italy, cappuccino on the terrace Italy.

After two weeks in Sorrento–two weeks in those wool tights–we picked up a rental car and headed to L’Aquila. It’s farther north, yes, and a higher elevation, in the central Apennines. A beautiful, historic city (until April 6, 2009), one I was very eager to visit. Weathermen in military regalia on TV had forecast possible snow, so we insisted on getting chains with the rental car, and sure enough, snow began to fall by mid-afternoon as we climbed into the mountains.

But we Alaskans were not daunted by a little snow, and we carried on. As the snow accumulated to three, then four inches, with no sign of letting up, we pulled to the side of the road under an overpass to put on the chains while there was still some daylight.

The chains did not fit.

The thought of another couple of hours in failing light on curving mountain roads gave us pause. We had a lovely hotel room waiting in L’Aquila, and were eager to be in it. But how long would it take us if the snow continued?

As we pondered this question, the rumble of a large vehicle on the overpass caught our attention. It slowed, and then appeared on the ramp and pulled onto the highway in front of us. A snowplow! As we folded our maps and prepared to pull out behind him, another plow came down the ramp. And another!

Following our caravan of snowplows.

With high hopes that one of them would go to L’Aquila, we pulled out into the thin slush in their wake, and followed them at about 40 mph all the way to our destination. Other cars passed us, but we simply followed. It was our first day of driving in Italy, and a memorable experience!

So for anyone planning a winter visit to Italy, I will say: By all means, go, see the sights, the pasta and wine are just as wonderful in winter, but take your black wool stockings! You are likely to need them.