Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Verona - history and hysteria

Italy is very mountainous, but the northern provinces of Veneto and Lombardia are flat. Our Eurostar train powered across the plains and in only an hour we were in Verona. I am a fan of Tim Parkes and one of his books is set in Verona, so I almost felt like I knew the place. However, what Tim describes in his books is normal life in suburban Verona and what we discovered there was an eye opening window into an ancient old town.

Firstly, there is Piazza Bra the largest Piazza in Verona, named not after women's underwear but local dialect for "open space". And a lovely open space it is, with vehicles banned from a lovely area where the local Veronese can perfect the art of the "passeggiata" or "social stroll". This is something so special about life in Italy, walking (slowly), smiling, greeting, chatting to all the other people you know who are doing the same. Couples arm in arm, children in strollers, children running around and dogs, well just being dogs.

Adjoining Piazza Bra is the best preserved Roman Arena in the world. As a mini Colosseum it is today a fantastic venue for opera and music concerts in general. Super Tramp were playing there the night we were in town. The acoustics are apparently very good. I explored inside the arena while Kathy went window shopping. The seating inside on the stone seats would be very hard after a while and each step or level is quite high to scale. I bounded up to the top and paid for it dearly with very sore thighs for about three days!

The other surprising thing about Verona was the level of classy sophistication and style everywhere. In the back streets as we explored we found a striking contrast of ancient Roman or Medieval reliefs on the old stone house walls mixed with high fashion boutique stores like Gucci etc. In addition the locals all had "the look" as they call it in Italy. Most of them just look stunning. Verona is a miniature Milan!

Verona has been an important trading town for over 2,000 years and you can tell. It is oozing history at every turn, from the Roman toll gate to the Medieval devotional column in an old market place. All of this leads to an amazing Roman market place in Piazza Erbe. It is still full of market life today, with stalls and umbrellas packed into the piazza, but still surrounded by the same ancient houses, with their fresco finish as they were hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. The thing that is different however, is the throngs of tourists that come to see the fabled balcony of Romeo and Juliet fame just down the road from the piazza. The fact that Romeo and Juliet were fictional characters seems to be completely lost in the frenzied homage paid to this spot. History does indicate that there were feuding families in Verona (as indeed in many medieval towns), but the tradition of touching the left breast of the statue of Juliet to bring love to a loveless life is just too much for me! Romance with no reality! Ok, let's not go any further down that road!

The tombs of the once powerful Medieval families in Verona are impressive. Huge tall marble carved structures, with ornate marble statues and reliefs. The sombre statue of Dante Alighieri also has prominence in a piazza due to the fact that the inventor of the unified Italian language was given refuge here at some stage.

We then wandered on looking for a spot with the right ambience for our evening Campari ritual. We were debating a bar that backed onto the river right next to an ancient Roman bridge when the barman walked through the door with a bottle of Campari! We took it as a sign, and sat down to a nice aperitif with the sound of the river rapids right beside us. The bridge we were looking at was built by the Romans to provide access to a theatre below the castle. During World War II the bridge was bombed and after the war the locals fished the original white marble stones from the river and used these in the reconstructed bridge to the maximum extent they could.

From there we wandered on to the Duomo, which we could not really see as a mass was in progress. The mass seemed to be being played on a tape with the voice of a young woman. For us it was a combination of entrancingly monotonous and somehow melodic, but it clearly had some deep meaning for the locals who were in attendance.

For our evening meal we sought out an enoteca recommended in the Rick Steves guide. We often avoid these places, as they are usually full of tourists clutching Rick Steves guide books. After hiding our guide book carefully, we selected a table and when it came time to order the charming owner of this place pulled up a chair and sat down with us to go through the menu and answer our questions. We were impressed- lovely wine, great food and good feel. We recommend Osteria le Veccete, 32A Via Pellicini. It is a little tricky to find, but well worth the effort.

As we left Verona we were amazed to find a ceramic decoration on the floor of one of the platform waiting rooms made by one of our ceramic suppliers from Vietri sul Mare, a long way south.

We settled in to the train ride to Milan, wondering what the next few days of our trip would bring.

Location:Verona, Italy

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