To love beauty is to see light.Victor Hugo
During the Christmas holiday, you always expect to see Christmas trees, ornaments, Santa, reindeer, and the nativity scene. However, for me, the lights are the one element that really highlight the holiday season and magnify a Christmas tree or a house. Victor Hugo really says it best: “To love beauty is to see light.” At Christmas time, it’s the lights that heighten our visual senses and put a smile on our faces. Both Adam and I have great childhood memories of driving around different neighborhoods with our families just to see the lights on the houses. When we heard about the annual Christmas light festival in Salerno, Italy (a whole town decked out in lights!), we knew we had to see them.
Thanks to the United Services Organization (USO), we were able to go! Among other things, the USO helps put together trips for military families to enjoy the local activities without the hassle of driving, organizing, or coordinating on their own. This was the first activity we did through USO and they made it so seamless and enjoyable.
As our tour began on the highway to Salerno, a port city to the southeast of Naples, the tour guide started telling us about the history of Naples and pointing out the various places we saw in the distance, including Capri (Fun Fact: Capri was once part of the Sorrento Peninsula, but is now its own island), Sorrento (Fun Fact: limoncello originates from there), and Mt. Vesuvius (Not-So Fun Fact: the volcano famously erupted in A.D. 79, devastating the surrounding towns, most famously Pompeii). Adam and I quickly realized that our tour guide’s favorite topic was Mt. Vesuvius. She went into excruciating detail about what life was like in the final moments for people in Ercolano (also known as Herculaneum to Americans) and Pompeii. As she was discussing some particularly gruesome details, I looked over at Adam and he tried to cover my ears. We had a lot of young kids on the bus too and saw some very horrified faces. I don’t think many of the children slept well that night. For our family reading this, be aware that Mt. Vesuvius is one of the most-watched volcanoes in the world and is constantly monitored for any sign of a potential eruption. We have been told by many people that live here that there will (probably) be at least a few days of warning if anything were to happen, so everyone will (hopefully) have plenty of time to make their way to somewhere safer (so, no need to worry parents and grandparents!).
After about an hour drive through some gorgeous valleys and little towns, we stepped off of the bus in Salerno and the tour guide led us through a series of cute, small alleyways filled with people coming to see the lights. I am not going to lie, it got a bit crowded and we were told by a local that it wasn’t even the busiest time of the festival to go see the lights. Tell that to all the buses we saw coming in and the people that we squeezed passed! Glad we went in November instead of December! ☺ We were very impressed the tour guide knew where she was going and lead us down alternative pathways that were less busy (thank you for that!). That being said, she moved so fast that later, when Adam and I were walking on our own, it got a little confusing. It’s all part of the adventure though!
The Salerno Christmas Light Show (or, Luci d’Artista in Italian) is a relatively new attraction, but has already had a huge impact. It started in Turin in the year 1998. The idea was to bring together a diverse group of artists to create a visual effect with Christmas lights, following a common theme. Like Naples, Salerno is known mostly for its busy port and was often overlooked by tourists. Salerno decided to adopt the Luci d’Artista tradition in 2006 and now every Christmas hundreds of tourists and locals come to the city between November and January to look at each year’s masterpiece. Salerno now has one of the best Luci d’Artista events in Italy, and many other towns in Southern Italy have copied their example.
This year, the theme was marine life and the artists created a citywide illusion that you were under the sea. Strung above the cobbled streets and alleyways, we saw shells, reefs, jellyfish, seahorses, and fish of all kinds made of dazzling lights. One of the central squares of the city, Piazza Flavio Gioia, featured an enormous temple made of lights, including a Santa/Poseidon figure on a chariot led by several seahorse unicorns (the best way I can describe it). However, the people of Salerno didn’t forget the reason for the Christmas season and the square next to the historic Salerno Cathedral was filled with beautiful angels serenely floating above the heads of the crowd. Although it didn’t fit with the aquatic theme, you can’t have Christmas without the angels! We also really enjoyed finding incredible religious shrines tucked away down side streets and secluded alleys throughout the city.
After our tour guide released us, we began to explore on our own and promptly got very lost. We tried to find the giant Ferris wheel our tour guide had told us about, but had no luck! It was alright though because the path we took was beautifully lit up and we did find a place selling Dutch-style fries with a curry ketchup (if you haven’t had curry ketchup, then you must try it along with their peanut sauce). We still wanted to find a place to sit down and eat after that — looking at glowing displays of floating seafood really makes you hungry. We quickly found out that most of the restaurants wouldn’t open until 7:30 PM. In Italy, it is common for locals to eat dinner around 8 PM at the earliest. We were lucky to find a seat at a lovely restaurant, Osteria Angolo Masuccio, right when they opened and didn’t get stuck in the line that soon formed outside.
For dinner, we shared a bottle of wine, two appetizers, salad, entrée, and a dessert. The wine was from a local winery in Campania, Giovanni Molettieri, and featured the black Aglianico grape that the region is known for (the full name of the wine was Vinea Campania Aglianico). Both Adam and I gave this local wine our seal of approval and it paired well with the food. The first appetizer was three different mare (or, seafood) selections: fish on a bed of onions (needless to say I did not eat the onions, but that is what makes Adam and I such a good food team), fried squid on a patch of sautéed spinach (the fried squid was so good and seasoned very well), and a fried fish ball with a lemon drizzle. The next appetizer was beans (fagioli) with greens and croutons. It had a great blend of crunch and softness.
The next course was salad and it was so savory. It had a big block of smoked mozzarella, covered in arugula and cherry tomatoes with just a little bit of herbs and olive oil. It was so simple in its ingredients and the smoked mozzarella was the star of that dish! Then we moved along to an entrée of grilled squid on a bed of lettuce topped with olive oil. Now I will confess that when we got the three mare sampler we did not realize that it included a squid option, but honestly we loved that one the most, so we were excited to have a bigger portion of it!
We ended the meal with a decadent dessert that sounded amazing on paper and looked simple in reality with not a lot of color, but had such a bold flavor. It was exactly what we wanted it to taste like when reading the description: a ricotta and blackberry dessert with biscotti cookie. At the end of the meal they usually give you limoncello, but this restaurant gave us these tiny pellets that we were told tasted like licorice and would help us eat more (little chance of that happening though, because we were so full). The best way to describe them is that they looked and tasted a lot like what they give to you after a meal at Indian restaurants, which are candy-coated fennel seeds.
As we looked down at the time, we realized that we were about to be late for the bus ride back! We thought the dinner would take one hour, but in typical Italian tradition, it ended up taking more than two hours! We quickly paid, ate the little candy pellets and literally started running down those crowded small alleyways to where the bus was. We were five minutes late, but thankfully it was still there. Who knew we’d got a meal AND a workout? I also ended up sleeping well on the bus ride back, while Adam enjoyed looking at the little towns and mountainsides with the houses all lit up for Christmas.
Since the dinner took longer than expected, there were some things we did miss. Adam and I will have to go back to Salerno to visit the Christmas light festival again to see what the next masterpiece will be and explore the city’s beautiful gardens. We also want to visit Salerno maybe during the summer, so we see more of what this little seaside city has to offer. Thank you Victor Hugo for reminding me that seeing light is loving beauty.