‘In fair Verona’, to use Shakespeare’s description of this enchanting city in northern Italy, we had a a short but wonderful stay. Having previously visited in 2007, we did not plan to return, and had already seen and done the important things, like kissing on the balcony and rubbing the brass statue of Juliet on the breast, as you do.
When we saw that our trip from Germany to the south would involve a change in Verona, we decided to stay a few nights. And then we discovered, to our joy, that the opera season this year had been extended as a 100 seasons celebration: we immediately booked tickets to ‘Tosca’ in the Roman arena.
Our departure from Munich was very smooth, using the underground like locals. With lots of time to spare, we met an Uzbekhi man in the waiting area who was struggling with no German or English. Peter was able to configure his phone with Google Translate and bring up his language in Cyrillic script. He seemed alone and destitute but was so grateful.
Another young guy asked us to watch his bike while he bought tickets. We must have that mature, trustworthy look…
This was a longer trip across the border and through the alps and not altogether relaxing as the argy bargy went on with people who had not reserved seats trying to find spots the whole journey. The strange booking system means that you can book a ticket without reserving a seat.
Peter managed to meet a fellow artist, a lady from Russia. A published writer and artist, she was on her way to present at a conference. They enjoyed looking at each other’s art and discussing everything, including the war.
We had arrived in Italy! With a 250 streak with Duo Lingo Italian up my sleeve, I managed to ask for bus tickets for two people, where to catch the bus and to pay. Our place is a great little room right on the piazza with the Roman arena – the centre of all action (as we were to discover later!) Lots of things have changed since we were here – we were furnished with a USB at the hotel with some money loaded so that we could insert it in the coffee machine whenever we liked! Everything is digital and wifi rules.
Back to hot days and bright sun, hats and sunscreen and water bottles as we walked the old city. Every street is picturesque and there is some sort of colour coding so that all the buildings are painted in warm colours. Everywhere there are remnants of old city gates, stones, walls, towers, castles and fortresses. The pavements are marble and even the zebra crossings are made with marble cobblestones.
In the balmy evenings, thousands of cafes have full tables in every street, lane and piazza. We noted that those with tablecloths and fancy wine glasses were the most expensive, while the wooden table tops with rustic decor often had great food for much less.
We returned to our 2007 hotel which now has a fancy ristorante and splurged on a no expense spared special meal as a continuation for Peter’s birthday. It was an enchanted evening and such a change from cheese sandwiches.
And then it was time for the opera! I pulled out my best jewellery and we did the best we could with our travel clothes and sallied forth into the piazza to find Gate 61 of the massive arena. I always knew that the night would be a physical challenge, but somehow I made it up steps and stairs, huge marble wedges and then more vertiginous steps without a rail to our tiny, narrow seats. We had chosen to be on the side so that we were close to the stage.
An unforgettable night. Full orchestra in dramatic mode, brilliant solo voices filling the arena, a bold and large scale set, colour, smoke, guns, death and tragedy, the classic lovers’ triangle. it had it all and, while I am not quite the opera fan that Peter is, I was enthralled and transported to another world. The super moon was shining over the glowing arena and we just merged in with the glitterati. It felt a long way from our little house in Hastings.
The biggest buzz for us was that while we appreciated the English words on the screen, we could actually read much of the Italian. Thank you Duo Lingo!
I was ready for bed, but the party was just beginning in the piazza. Every table full, wine flowing, laughter and loud talking – so Italian. The next morning the bottle truck started at 5.30am, with the pouring and crashing of many thousands of empty bottles, clearing the way to start the celebrations all over again. There is a vibe in fair Verona and we just wandered around soaking it up (with very little alcohol).
Verona has four ancient basilicas, so we visited Romanesque San Veno (8th century African bishop), the earliest existing parts of which were built in the 12th century. After a long walk in the heat (mitigated by the river views and bridges and a couple of bottles of water) we found it closed for a wedding 😟.
As often happens, little delays help us meet people and as we recovered from the heat under a tree, we had a delightful conversation with Milena, who came from Bulgaria for the opera experience. She was dismissive about her own country and told us not to bother going there!
When in doubt, eat somewhere that has a loo! So we did while waiting for the church to open. A little bar cafe with simple but tasty food; Peter’s turned out to be fiery hot, which apparently a local would have known. Ever bold, he asked the waitress if he could draw her on the placemat, and the boss let her sit for five minutes. It turned out well and they were all thrilled.
The doors to the church opened while the bride proceeded with photos. The basilica is vast and beautiful; striped columns and walls contrast with the coloured frescoes which remain, some from the ninth century. The huge bronze doors are a feature too. Attached to it is an ancient cloister; why is it so peaceful to walk around a set of stone arches?
I was quite affected by the heat so we looked for easier ways to get home. Not knowing all the bus routes, we took a stab and ended up taking two buses that went to the outskirts of Verona and then some! It was a very cheap and very long tour; we just watched the blue dot on our phones and disembarked when it looked close to home.
It was only a short stay on our way south, but so glad we did it. We then had to prepare ourselves for the southward trek, which meant only accessing our small bags for the next 48 hours. We had the usual Italian dramas getting to the station (buses here are ‘only an idea’, especially on a Sunday with roadworks!) but we made it and sat on the station chatting with a couple from Adelaide who wondered how we cope with Dan Andrews as a premier. It seemed appropriate to talk politics in Verona.
Once in Milan, we felt the rising heat and abandoned any idea of quick sightseeing for the day. As we had ongoing tickets that night we were able to buy early lounge passes (Peter may have alluded to his wife being a little heat struck) where we spent the hours in the AC with some facilities. The highlight for me was a pistachio paddle pop. Interesting!
Adrenalin spike again as we raced to the platform and half a kilometre along to find our sleeping car. We had seen videos of the cabin, but I must admit that it felt very cramped with us and two cases. Our beds were made up and the steward came along and sort of tossed supplies through the door for us: many towels, water, snacks. It took us all evening to settle in and get into bed – Peter’s climb to the upper level was a sight to behold.
Fighting claustrophobia and heat, I eventually gave in to the rockin’ and rollin’ of the Frecciarossa treno and we both had some sleep on and off. Trying to shower in the tiny compartment while the train was moving would have made a great video but will spare you that…it was cold too but we didn’t mind.
It’s a classic scenic trip from the north to the south, and once it is daylight, very beautiful. The line hugs the coast for a long way and it felt refreshing to look out at the sea. Small towns, vineyards turning colour, olive trees, corn going brown and some planting already.
Eventually we sighted Sicily and the train prepared to board the ferry. We were able to climb down from the train and be up on the deck very briefly, time to grab some food.
I realised that we had to reverse and clamber back up on to the train. I thought I had made it, and then we realised we were on the wrong train! Down and up yet again and we were off to Messina Centrale.
I know Peter had felt tense all morning about the transaction we hoped we had made for the little Panda car, to say nothing of the challenge of driving out of Messina. Somehow it all worked out, we had videos the car as suggested, pulled up three devices for the navigator and we lurched into the traffic.
We only got lost three times in the three hour drive, and somehow accidentally ended up on the Autostrada, negotiated the ticket and pay system for tolls, stopped once for comfort and parked right in front of our accommodation in Siracusa. Someone was looking after us I reckon.
We have had a very soft landing in a fabulous apartment equipped with everything and we slept deeply. We have nine days here, which was a good decision, so can relax into holiday mode.