8 days, 7 cities. It was always going to be a hectic, headlong rush around the northern part of a beautiful country, only having time to touch the surface. We acepted that as the price to pay for the chance to see a range of different places, to find the ones we’d like to return to spend more time in.
We left on Sunday from Cardiff airport for the two our flight to Bergamo, near Milan and set off for our first hotel, La Perla in Riva del Garda, which we reached at just after 12.30 am. Tired and numbed by travel, we collapsed into bed.
Our first city was Verona. We had an easy morning, leaving on the coach at 11am for the 90 minute journey on the autostrada south. It was raining and this dampened our spirits a bit and there was the inevitable thoughts that this rain might persist. We pulled in to the coach park and were led by our tour rep the short distance to the piazza Bra.
This was our first experience of crossing Italian roads. There were black and white painted markings on the roads similar to zebra crossings, but the priority was all different. As far as I can tell (and this is from experience gathered over 7 days), traffic has priority unless you are brave enough to step on to the crossing, when the priority shifts to the pedestrian, unless the pedestrian hesitates, when it returns to the traffic. Thus the priority can shift several times during the several seconds of a crossing experience. It’s the new extreme sport.
The piazza Bra is dominated by the giant Roman amphitheatre (or ‘ampy theatre’ as our tour rep kept calling it). It’s the third largest in the world and it should have impressed straight away but the rain, the extensive metal fencing around it and the large chunks of stage scenery piled up outside took much of the impact away. The amp… sorry, amphitheatre is now used to stage operas and one was being prepared for that morning. An interesting comment on the times is that when in use for its original purpose, the amphitheatre could hold the entire population of Verona – 30,000 people. Now, thanks to health and safety, it can only hold 15,000 despite it’s actual capacity not having changed. For a schoolboy giggle style fact, the entrances to amphitheatres are called are called Vomitoria.
We were set free from the tour rep to explore for ourselves with a small photocopied map annotated with handwritten notes, crossings out and a large ring around the meeting place for the journey back to the hotel. We set off in the rain to walk the main shopping street. the pavement was polished stone and quite slippery in the damp. The street was busy and it was hard to get any sense of where we were or what we were seeing.
But then I looked up, above the eye line and over the heads of the tourists and there was something special. The architecture, hidden at ground level by the need to sell, was present above the shops. Tall, narrow windows with wooden slatted shutters, tiny balconies with colourful flowers in pots, the yellow plaster that I had seen in pictures, crumbling and cracked in places. For me, it changed they way I was feeling and the rain, still unwelcome, wasn’t quite so bad.
We carried on, heading towards Casa di Guilietta, where Juliet’s balcony (‘wherefore art thou, Juliet..’) can be found. Except Shakespeare’s story, based on earlier stories by Luigi da Porto and others, is fictional. Nevertheless, the balcony has attracted a connection to the story (only the most cynical would say it was a clever tourist-related ploy) and in its own way, is worshipped by young lovers who come here to scrawl their undying affection in marker pen on the walls of the alley way into the courtyard. There is also a tradition, fairly recent, of attaching padlocks adorned with the lovers names to anything suitable. We saw hundreds attached to railings there and in other places in the city.
From there, we decided to find somewhere to eat. Further along the street, we came to a small market place and there was a street cafe with large awnings and we decided to eat there. Carefully choosing seats to avoid the drips from the awning, we ordered coffee and food. I had an Americano and a cheese and ham pannini. Sat down and with no pressure to do anything, the atmosphere changed for me and I began to enjoy, despite the rain. It felt good sitting sipping coffee without having to rush.
By the time we’d finished, the rain had stopped. I felt my spirits lift. We spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering, with no definite plan of where to go. It was by far the best way to do things and suddenly we were away from the tourists and the crowds and we could enjoy the narrow streets and some sense of history.
We went over to the Castelvecchio, built in 1347; a red brick fortress that didn’t look capable of defending against even a half determined attack. Indeed, it was built originally as a home rather than a defensive structure. Then we walked back through the back streets, eventually emerging behind the amphitheatre where all the staging for the opera was being stored. There were huge sculptures of lions and columns which were totally out of place against the magnificent ruins they obscured.
We got back to the coach after putting in our newly practised road crossing skills and headed back up the autostrada for dinner in the hotel. Then we sat out on the balcony of our room, enjoying the warm evening, the views of Monte Camplone (1,977m) and Monte Cadria (2,254m), the white walled ‘bastione’ on the mountain side and a fine bottle of red wine. As the darkness fell, we watched the stars come out and spotted a shrine, lit up on the side of the mountain. It was a lovely end to the day.