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ENVIRONMENT

What is it with Italians and bottled water?

Have you ever had trouble ordering tap water in Italy or been dismayed by the plastic bottles everywhere? Here's a look at what that's all about.

What is it with Italians and bottled water?
Bottled water in an Italian supermarket. Photo: DepositPhotos

One thing that really bothered me when I first moved to Italy was all the plastic water bottles I saw on tables up and down the country.

I couldn’t stop noticing them in every home and restaurant – or worse, discarded in the street and on beaches.

READ ALSO: What is Italy doing about the shocking level of plastic pollution on its coastline?

Since then I’ve seen that, thankfully, Italy does seem to be weaning itself off its plastic bottle addiction. But filtered water is here to stay, and now, I think it’s for a pretty good reason.

While both water and wine are essentials on any Italian table, many visitors to Italy complain about not being able to order tap water in restaurants. In fact, you’ll usually be asked if you want frizzante or naturale (sparkling or still) as soon as you sit down, which will of course usually be branded, bottled mineral water.

Just know that the insistence on bottled water isn’t one of Italy’s infamous restaurant scams – unless you’re later overcharged for it, of course.

A water bottling plant in central Italy. Photo: AFP

The water is perfectly safe to drink all over Italy, and you can ask for tap water if you want – it’s just that no one usually does, and your waiter might not want to bring it to you.

Their reluctance probably has more to do with the unpleasant taste of the local tap water than them wanting to upsell you an expensive bottle of mineral water (especially as upselling in restaurants doesn’t really happen in Italy – at least, not outside of the most touristy areas.)

Of course the water quality isn’t the same everywhere. As in most countries, the further you get from big cities (and particularly when you get into the mountains) the better the tap water is. It might even be brought directly from mountain springs into homes without processing, and restaurants in these regions are rightly proud of their delicious local spring water.

But visitors arriving in cities or coastal regions will no doubt find the taste of the water a lot less pleasant.

Hence waiters’ concerned expressions, warnings, and insistance on bringing bottled water in many areas of the country. Even at the simplest cafe or motorway service station, if you ask for a glass of water (which is common, and should be free) with your coffee, they’ll pour it from a bottle and not the tap. Usually into a plastic cup.

Ripped off: Italy’s worst tourist scams and how to avoid them

And in a country so obsessed with hygiene, drinking tap water is seen as potentially dirty or even dangerous by some. This view is especially prevalent among older Italians, many of whom have little faith in the country’s water purification and sanitation services – or perhaps the safety of the water pipes in older buildings.

And these concerns are not totally unfounded. Just last year, the city of Matera warned that its drinking water had become contaminated, while an outbreak of legionella in northern Italy was blamed on contaminated water in industrial cooling towers. Such incidents are rare, but they do nothing to reassure extra-cautious Italian nonni.

You might notice that as well as advertising the various supposed health-giving properties of the bafflingly wide range of bottled mineral waters on sale, advertisements here also boast of the water’s cleanliness. In fact, if you’ve watched many Italian TV ads, you’ll know that all kinds of foodstuffs are promoted as being “clean”.

Small plastic bottles of water are ubiquitous in Italy in summer. Photo: AFP

As well as the potential taste and purity issues, another problem is that water in Italy tends to be very hard, or full of calcium.

This is something every British person learns immediately after moving here: making a cup of tea requires using filtered water, otherwise your tea tastes chalky and your precious kettle quickly gets all furred up with calcium deposits.

When you see the state of the inside of that kettle after a few weeks in Italy, you might also wonder how good it is for you to be processing that stuff through your body.

Meanwhile, American friends lament the lack of water-softening systems apparently found in many homes in the US (I’m told the technology is available here in Italy should you want to install it).

Many people – myself included – complain that the hard water doesn’t do your hair or skin any favours, and can leave it dry and dull. After moving here, the idea of washing your face with mineral water no longer sounds that eccentric, although I haven’t resorted to doing this myself – yet.

There’s also the fact that, with environmental concerns not exactly top of the agenda here in Italy, drinking bottled water is still seen as fashionable and “modern” by many.

READ ALSO: ‘The end of the world’: fashion blogger’s €8 a pop bottled water sparks controversy

But the good news is that Italian restaurants and households are now increasingly ditching the plastic bottles I was once so disturbed by.

My Italian husband’s family used to stock up on six-packs of 1.5 litre plastic bottles of water from the supermarket several times a week, much to my dismay.

But after a filtered water station was set up on a nearby street, costing five euro cents per litre of filtered water, my mother-in-law now takes her six refillable glass bottles down there instead. She’s still pretty excited about doing it every time as, she likes to inform me, “it’s very clean and modern”.

(In case you haven’t noticed, “clean and modern” is the ultimate seal of approval from any Italian mother-in-law.)

And the even better news is that more and more restaurants across Italy are now installing water filtration systems and using refillable glass bottles to serve both naturale and frizzante.

It’s been a few months now since I’ve seen a plastic bottle lurking on a restaurant table. Let’s hope the trend continues.

Refilling bottles at a filtration station in Italy. Photo: AFP

READ ALSO:

Member comments

  1. A water softener is an “addolcitore”. They are common here in Umbria where the water is very hard indeed.

  2. We have wonderful mountain water in Turin, but plastic bottles dominate. And one might also think about the fact that your water is in plastic which may not be good for you. But you don’t put water softeners on your drinking and cooking line ever. The rest, yes. Water filter on drinking line, yes. But all those minerals are good for you. We have at least as much calcium in Madison, Wisconsin. Ever see this great Roz Chast cartoon? https://condenaststore.com/featured/the-devils-workshop-roz-chast.html We have the mugs here in Torino.

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CHRISTMAS

Seven of Italy’s most enchanting Christmas markets in 2022

Here are some of the most magical Christmas markets taking place in Italy this year.

Seven of Italy's most enchanting Christmas markets in 2022

After two years of pandemic cancellations and restrictions, Italy’s Christmas markets will be back in full swing this festive season.

While the energy crisis means some towns are cutting back on lighting and limiting the hours of operation, there’s still plenty of magic to be found.

Whether your focus is on sipping mulled wine surrounded by snow-topped mountains, riding a ferris wheel, sampling German sausages or marvelling at light displays, Italy has something for everyone.

Without further ado, here are some of the country’s best Christmas markets in 2022.

Bolzano

One of Italy’s longest-running Christmas markets, the festive extravaganza in Bolzano’s Piazza Walther is also said to be the country’s largest, with around 80 stalls selling a variety of traditional handicrafts and local treats.

Resting at the foot of the snow-capped Dolomites, Bolzano’s pre-WWI history and proximity to the Austrian border means the city is steeped in Germanic influences, with a number of citizens speaking German as their first language.

This gives Bolzano’s Christmas market a German twist; expect to be offered candied fruit, apple strudel, cinnamon-spiced mulled wine and other alpine delights as you browse its chalet huts.

When? Until January 6th

Christmas balls on display in Bolzano's Christmas market.

Christmas balls on display in Bolzano’s Christmas market. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP.

Trento

While it hasn’t been running for quite as long as neighbouring Bolzano’s, Trento’s Christmas market has become almost as popular, with new stalls added every year.

Just like Bolzano, Trento is surrounded by maintains, which means you can take in views of stunning white peaks as you wander the old town’s cobbled streets warming your hands on a cup of vin brulè.

As usual, the market will be spread across Piazza Battisti and Piazza Fiera; the Trento city council has also published a calendar of key events happening every day as part of the city’s festive offering.

This year Trento’s Christmas market will have a ‘green’ focus – the use of clean energy, edible bread plates and recycled paper are all part of the concerted effort to limit the event’s environmental impact.

When? Until January 8th

Trento's Christmas market has grown rapidly in recent years.

Trento’s Christmas market has grown rapidly in recent years. Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP.

Milan

Throughout the month of December and into January, Milan’s Piazza del Duomo plays host to the city’s Christmas market, with almost 80 wooden huts popping up all over the main square.

Those who want to see Milan at its most Christmassy, however, will want to wait for the “Oh Bej! Oh Bej!” (“How beautiful! How beautiful!” in local dialect) festive fair held in the area surrounding the city’s castle, Castello Sforzesco.

This sprawling, centuries-old market is held to coincide with the Feast of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan’s patron saint, and is expected to take place as usual from December 7th-10th.

As a result of the energy crisis, Milan will turn on its Christmas lights two weeks later than usual this year, on December 7th – so you might want to time your visit accordingly if you want to witness the city’s illumination.

When? December 1st until January 6th (Piazza del Duomo market)

People walk across a Christmas market in downtown Milan as snow falls on December 8, 2021.

People walk across a Christmas market in downtown Milan as snow falls on December 8, 2021. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP.

Cernobbio, Como

Lake Como’s roving ‘Città dei balocchi‘ or ‘Toytown’ Christmas fair this year moves to Cernobbio, where visitors can expect to find the town’s Villa Erba park transformed into a winter wonderland.

Fairytale characters, singing trees and a talking tower will greet adults and children who enter the park, with admission free to all.

Festivities are due to kick off at 5pm on December 7th with the opening of Magic Light festival, a mesmerising light display with projections of moving images.

On December 8th – Italy’s Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which for many in Italy signals the start of the festive period – light displays on Cernobbio’s tree and in the old town will be switched on, heralding the arrival of Christmas.

When? December 7th until January 8th

Florence

Florence has a range of Christmas markets, but the largest and best-known is the one on Piazza Santa Croce in front of the beautiful Santa Croce Basilica.

It’s run by the organisers of the Heidelberger Weihnachtsmarkt in Germany, which means you can expect authentic bratwurst, stollen, Glühwein, lebkuchen biscuits and German beer, as well as Austrian, Dutch, Hungarian, Polish, French and Italian treats.

This one closes a full week before Christmas, so if you’re planning an Italy Christmas markets tour you might want to make Florence your first stop.

When? Until December 18th

Florence's Christmas market is German-themed.

Florence’s Christmas market is German-themed. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP.

Verona

Like Florence, Verona’s Christmas market is a collaboration with that of a German city; in this case, Nuremberg’s Christkindlmarkt.

At the main market on Piazza dei Signori you can expect to find sauerkraut, potatoes and German sausage, as well as fried donuts made with ricotta and coated in chocolate.

In addition to those on main square, the market stalls – which this year number some 100 huts – will fill Cortile del Mercato Vecchio and stretch intro surrounding squares and streets.

This year’s festive offering includes a Santa Claus house, a children’s train, two skating rinks, and a range of musical events.

Be sure to look out for the city’s famous 70m-high, 82m-long illuminated shooting star sculpture in Piazza Bra – installed in November and dismantled in January every year since 1984, the sight has become central to the Veronese Christmas experience.

When? Until December 26th

Salerno

Ensuring that Italy’s northern and central regions don’t get all of the glory, the Luci d’artista (Artist’s Lights) display in Salerno draws visitors from all over the world to this small city just east of the Amalfi coast.

This illuminated open-air exhibition runs the length of the main shopping street, up to the Christmas tree on Piazza Portanova, through the medieval city centre and up to the Villa Comunale public gardens.

Salerno’s Christmas market stalls occupy a stretch of the seafront, and this year will run from December 3rd-25th.

Accompanying the event will be a 55m-high ferris wheel, two jazz concerts, and a Santa Claus house (from December 10th to January 7th).

When? December 2nd until January 31st; Christmas market stalls December 3rd-25th.

The Luci d’artista lights display in Salerno attracts visitors from all over the world.

The Luci d’artista lights display in Salerno attracts visitors from all over the world. Photo by MARIO LAPORTA / AFP.
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