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Things to do in Verona : A Stroll Through Ancient Italy
Things to do in Verona : A Stroll Through Ancient Italy
A Rough-Guide to an Ancient City
For lovers of Italy and all things Italian I would highly recommend a trip to the ancient city of Verona in the north of the country.
A marvellous spectacle of architecture and history imbued with beauty and culture.
I was there one summer on a meandering stroll through the streets and alleys of one of the finest cities in Italy.
Let me talk you through the day I had there on a slightly alternative and idiosyncratic look at the attractions, history and places to visit in Verona.
I exited the main railway station and had a look around deciding how to find the city centre without a map. I was naturally looking for old buildings, something Roman, something classical.
One of the first buildings I saw was a splendid old church which I later found out was the 'Basilica di San Zeno', a Romanesque building that looked like it had been altered or renovated at one time as the stonework looked different between the front and the back.
I assumed the alterations were modern but it turns out there had been an earthquake in 1117 which required re-building of the structure so even those changes took place as far back as the 12th century. The nucleus actually dates from the 4th or 5th century. This is an ancient city, no doubt about it.
The Piazza Erbe
Where art become landscape
As I walked towards the centre of the city the buildings began to look more historic and more elegant. I wasn't expecting to see a 'Blockbuster' video store though, how incongruous does that look?
But in the centre there were fantastic old buildings of classical architecture, it resembled Venice during a drought.
TOP 5 PLACES TO SEE & THINGS TO DO IN VERONA
1. Visit the ancient Arena where Grand Opera takes place in summer.
2. Climb to Castello San Pietro. Enjoy the view over terracotta rooftops.
3. Pay a visit Juliet's House and leave a love note on the wall.
4. Visit the spectacular Cathedral and the San Zeno Church
5. Stroll around Piazze delle Erbe market and sample the aperitivo
Verona is a truly ancient city with 2,000 years of history behind it. I'd read in a brochure that a man called Guido Povene, a writer and journalist described it fifty years ago as where "Art becomes landscape" which seems a fitting tribute to the surroundings. While I marvelled at one particular building I pondered on what it was and what was inside.
Was it a museum? Was it the stately premises of some local oligarch? No! it's a house, just a house or a block of flats as people actually live in these wonderful buildings. You walk past a fine building and see an old Italian grandmother standing at an ornately designed balcony looking down at the passers-by below.
Verona has a Roman and Estrucan past and in the 12th Century it was a city state.
It was dominated by feudal families until the Venetian Republic took control from 1402 till 1797.
It was these feuds between rich families that inspired William Shakespeare to write 'Romeo and Juliet'.
Of course the most famous of the rulers was not Capulets or Montagues but 'Della Scala' or in other words 'Scaligeri' who gave the name to the famous 'La Scala' Milan Opera House.
Throughout the generations of the Scaligeri their names were prefixed with "can" and this means "dog" with one of them, Mastinoe della Scala having a name which means 'mastiff' in English.
Another one called 'Cangrande' protected Dante who in return dedicated the 3rd section of the Divine Comedy to him. My personal favourite though, was intriguingly called 'Canrabbiaso' which means the 'Mad Dog', making him sound like an interesting character.
Romeo O' Romeo
Along my walk I passed an entrance thronged with tourists, many following on behind tour-guides who were carrying umbrellas in case anyone got lost. The walls around the entry were covered in a plethora of colourful hand-written scribbles.
Graffiti, of course, a great Italian word that's commonplace in English. I was immediately reminded of the walls of the Pére Lachaise in Paris that I had passed one day several years ago. They were covered in graffiti too, obviously because Jim Morrison is buried in there.
So, I figured this alleyway must have the same cult status among the young. Next door was a shop selling specially embroidered crimson heart-shaped cushions on which romantic couples could have their names stitched as a souvenir.
I'd just came upon the part of town where they commemorate the famous Shakespearean tale of 'Romeo and Juliet', a tale of 'star-crossed lovers in fair Verona' as the quote goes I believe.
The Juliet Statue
I went to the Juliet Museum, allegedly the home of the famous Juliet and said to be the official property of the Dal Capello family, or Capulet, since the 1200's.
As the Italian word 'Capello' means a 'hat', the coat of arms of the family depicts a hat.
A friend recommended that I should go and see the statue of Juliet at the museum. The principal reason being to see her "shiny right breast" as it were.
The statue was commissioned in 1972 and designed by an artist called Nereo Constantini.
Therefore it's perhaps no surprise that after almost 40 years of fondling, verily and forsooth, Juliet's right mammary substance is remarkably shiny.
You can even see it on the publicity photos as it's so obvious.
And sure enough on my visit an English guy was weighing up her fulsome fun-bag for the benefit of the cameras. Is this some strange fetish that I haven't heard of? Is there a legion of perverts out there who skulk around the monuments of our major cities fondling unsuspecting statues and objets d'art under the cover of darkness?
I would recommend that you all scrutinise your local monuments for obvious signs of gloss, wear and tear, excessive shiny surfaces in erogenous zones, or serious erosion in pedestrian precincts. I fear there may be degenerates loose among us. When they're on holiday of course their inhibitions fall away and they unashamedly flaunt their disgusting tendencies.
But back home they're more furtive, grabbing a quick grope when the opportunity arises. Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square in London, however, is relatively safe as he's about 200 feet up in the air but I fear for the equestrian statues as I'm sure they interfere with horses too.
A plague on all their houses I say.
The Juliet balcony
Love notes in the museum
Above the statue of Juliet a young couple appeared cuddling on the famous balcony which served as a nice moment for the crowds below.
It's all nonsense of course.
No matter how much of a tenuous link they may contrive there's very little confirmed basis in fact that this was the real residence of Juliet.
If she ever even existed of course.
One rough guide to the city called it a "phoney love balcony" serving as a magnet for tourists to come and leave love-notes on the walls of the entrance arch and bank-notes in the souvenir shop.
There were many of the former, little pieces of paper attached to the walls with blu-tak, professing love and goodwill to someone special or anyone in particular.
On the other hand if you defaced the walls themselves you could get hit with a fine of €1,039, which seemes a remarkably specific figure to me.
If it was €1,000 I could understand but where does the extra 39 euros come from? Is it for bad spelling?
But anyway, it's all a fantasy, all a contrived, commercial myth-making money machine. Excuse the overuse of alliteration there but to be perfectly honest I thought 'so what?' if it spreads some love around then who am I to complain.
I draw the line at paying cash to enter the Juliet Museum but it was a nice atmosphere in the courtyard, so I suppose that can't be so bad. If it makes people feel good about themselves and more importantly, good about each other than who am I to quibble? I'll give it pass marks, with distinction at the 'Juliet Capulet' School of Brass Rubbing.
But soon after that I saw a real balcony that knocked seven bells out of Juliet's falsy overhang. It is situated in a courtyard near the famous Piazza delle Erbe and is a marvellous gothic construction.
It was suspended about 40 feet in the air and linked to the ground by an impressive staircase that rises up to meet it. Now! That was a magnificent protruberance worthy of Shakespeare's finest writings and should be the real draw for star-crossed lovers the world over.
Stumbling across the Amphitheatre
Then I saw ruins up ahead that looked reminiscent of the Colisseum in Rome and I assumed it was some ancient, crumbling edifice of Roman times.
But as I got up close I noticed modern barriers and signs with staff moving around busy at work. This place was an active monument.
It was actually the Opera House, or to be more exact an Opera stadium as it was very large and open-air.
I was walking around the perimeter of the 'Arena di Verona' an Amphitheatre built in the 1st Century A.D. and which hosts the famous Opera Festival every summer as it has done for over 80 years.
It begins in June and includes popular productions such as 'Carmen, 'Aida' ,'The Barber of Seville' and in August this year Placido Domingo appeared in 'Tosca' to a huge audience no doubt.
The performances actually take place from around 10pm at night I'm told, since the stone seats surrounding the stage are too hot to sit on earlier in the evening after the searing heat of the day.
The nearby River Adige that runs through the city was a major trans-Alpine route between Austria and Central Italy. From 1797 to 1859 Verona was actually ruled by Austria then split the city with the French after 1796 with the Austrians on one side of the fast-flowing River Adige and the French on the other.
This meant you could belch and break wind as you imbibed great froth-filled tankards of beer on the eastern side then head over the bridge for some excellent garlic-flavoured food served by wonderfully rude waiters on the west. But in 1866 the country was unified so the Italians took charge again, the food got even better and the beer was as good as ever.
Outside the Amphitheatre
The Teatro Romano and the Castello di Pietro
The tourist information leaflets and books all recommend crossing over the river and taking a walk up the hill behind the 'Teatro Romano'.
It was certainly worth the climb up the stairs as the view is fantastic.
The theatre is still in use and they were advertising a 30-year tribute show to Pink Floyds album 'The Wall' in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The old ruins themselves in the theatre were remarkable as they had become so eroded they looked like they had melted in the hot Italian sunshine.
My thoughts on organic architecture seem to have come full circle as the original man-made structures looked like they were slowly returning to nature and blending effortlessly into their natural environment. Structure becomes landscape.
Castello San Pietro
On the right was an attractive hillside with buildings and cypress trees and a grand rotunda up at the top which you could view from a picnic area just above the open theatre.
But up at the summit of the hill in front of the Austrian Castello de San Pietro there was a panoramic view all over the city and beyond. This was 'Terracotta Town' as every building seemed to be covered in those distinctive rust-coloured tiles.
You could see for miles down the river as the area is very flat across the miles and miles of the Venetian Plain towards the Adriatic.
It was very quiet up there with the calm serenity only interrupted by the gentle clinking sounds of a waiter setting the table down to the right on a hillside restaurant.
Plus the noise from a nearby house renovation as a couple of brickies chucked gravel down a chute. The spectacular and the prosaic sit side by side.
The rooftops of Verona
From the pinnacle of the Castle overlooking Verona and the Teatro Romano below, I descended down the stairs and back over the river and was disappointed to see some graffiti on the river bank which slightly marred the surroundings.
I had seen some in Venice too which I couldn't believe but I suppose vandals don't appreciate the unsullied beauty of the magnificent towns and cities in which they dwell.
I went over the Roman bridge which was built in the late 1940s. That may seem a strange, anachronistic statement but what happened was those nasty Nazis destroyed the bridge during their retreat in 1945.
What a shower of hooligans!
Imagine blasting a centuries old masterpiece of civil engineering. Why couldn't they blow up something worth destroying. What did they think the Allies would do? Stop on the other side because they couldn't swim?
The Ponte Pietro
Despite that outrageous desecration of the retreating Nazi hordes the good Italians, who had changed sides now anyway, rebuilt the bridge using the original materials.
Unfortunately, they built it back to front so now it faces the wrong way. I told you they changed sides didn't I?
I am of course joking as I'm sure those plucky Italian bridge builders remade the structure exactly as it had been in ancient times complete with Christian slaves and hungry lions awaiting any slackers.
The Verona Duomo
The Ancient and the Modern
Anyway! back to the tourist trail.
I went and saw the Duomo which was bedecked in red and cream hoops which was distinctive of many buildings in the region
Although I don't know what football team the priests support because local soccer teams Hellas and Chievo both play in blue and yellow.
A most impressive building it was from the outside but I can't vouch for the inside as they were charging an admission price. It's a sign of the times I think, God must be losing a lot of business to the aetheists and agnostics not to mention the humanists.
On the trail I witnessed scooters everywhere in Fair Verona, all the ways you turn they're shooting around the streets and lanes. Why can't they build them a speedway track that they can go round and around all day to keep them amused.
The Arena is the right shape, they could build it there and incorporate it into the opera with Placido Domingo singing along to 'Born to be Wild' as two hundred Italian speed-fiends roar around the stadium. It would be like a cross between 'Starlight Express', 'Quadrophenia' and 'The Barber of Seville'. The possibilities are endless.
The Porta Borsari
Heading along the road away from the centre I came to the archway called the 'Porta Borsari' which dates from the 1st century A.D.
Built in the local white limestone it has two arches framed by Corinthian pillars. As it was the main entrance to ancient Verona it was highly decorative.
Nearby I had a look at the Scavi, the Roman ruins excavated under the streets of Verona. This time I noticed lots of coins scattered around the ruins underneath.
Probably tourists wishing themselves good fortune and if it wasn't so busy it would have been good fortune for yours truly as I would have been down there like a flash.
There must have been enough cash down there to buy a case of beer. What good is it to the Romans? They're all dead anyway and I could perhaps see why as there was a cigarette packet down there too. A twenty-pack of Philip Morris.
Is that why the Romans became extinct?
Before I left Verona I decided to buy an Italian dictionary to help me learn some of the language.
It cost me €20 which wasn't bad for a hardback edition.
A nice old lady worked behind the counter of an empty bookshop and as I couldn't see any dictionaries apart little pocket-sized ones I had to go up and try to ask for a large one;
"Buongiorno" I greeted her,
"Buongiorno" she replied.
Wow! I've got a conversation going on here.
"Non parlo italiano" I said though, meaning of course "I don't speak Italian" as I like to set my stall out right away and confirm my linguistic shortcomings, "Vorrei, una dishionarie?.....dizzionarie?" I had no idea how to pronounce it,
"Dizionario, si" she replied,
"Una dizionario grande, per favore, italiano-inglesi" I ventured in what was probably a mixture of Italian, Spanish and downright gibberish,
"Si signor" she said.
She got the drift and climbed up a small ladder to grasp the biggest dictionary I've ever seen. I think if she had pulled that one out she would have come down the fast way.
"Ohh! molto grande" I said,
"Troppo grande" she corrected.
Who needs a dictionary with her around, she was teaching me fast. Another new word learned and €20 later; "Grazie" "Prego" and 'Ciao'
I reckon I could've got it cheaper if I'd shopped around.
But I couldn't be bothered traipsing through the streets.
Besides I couldn't see any other book shops.
Once I'd bought it of course, I passed at least three bookshops within 5 minutes.
But I resisted the temptation to go in and compare prices.
I'd rather not know if I've been ripped off.
I had a couple of beers outside a street cafe and sat people-watching for an hour or so. A relaxing activity after all my walking.
I thought I'd try my Italian when it came to leaving, "Il Conto, per favore!" I said meaning "The bill, please" but was told you pay at the counter. Well that didn't go according to plan but you learn from your mistakes.
I had brought my laptop with me and was hoping to use the internet somewhere. I had been advised that McDonalds would be a good bet and it would probably be free too. There was one of their restaurants near the Piazza Bra so I took a stroll along to find out.
"Buongiorno" I greeted the girl behind the counter,
"Buongiorno" she replied. Another good start,
"Ah nuts! Give us a Big Mac and Coke then"
The staff at McDonalds did tell me that there was Wi-fi in the nearby park and sure enough it had a sign up indicating this. But I hadn't a clue how it worked as there was no information on how you pay for it and there didn't appear to be anywhere that was selling tokens.
Maybe it was free, I had not a clue. But after several attempts with the laptop in various parts of the little park I gave up and went on a wander again.
Before I left I saw some kids having a carry on, jumping around in their typical happy go lucky fashion. Then their dad shouted "Basta! Basta!" at them. But don't worry folks he wasn't being nasty or anything, it's just the Italian expression for "enough!" but I'm sure it's got some English speaker into a fight somewhere in Italy at some point.
The Piazza Bra
Heading back to the Station
After that I got a bit lost, or so I thought. I headed back roughly in the direction where I thought the station was and after a kilometre or so I reckoned I was going the wrong way.
I got the feeling I was heading away from the centre and towards the suburbs so I turned back. It was almost 8pm, getting late so I gave in and decided to ask for directions. I spoke to a girl;
"Scusi! Dov'é stazione, per favore"
"Sempre dritto" she replied, pointing that it was straight back in the direction I had just come. I had been going the right way after all, what a complete idiot.
"Are you English?" she asked,
"No! Scottish" I replied with a nationalistic chuckle.
She spoke good English and said the railway station was about 2 km away. She recommended I take a bus but I was fine walking it. I had been doing it all day and was getting really good at it. I thanked her and wished her 'buonanotte' before retracing my steps back the way I came.
After a 20 minute walk I recognised where I was, the surroundings were familiar, especially when the Basilica di San Zeno came into view looking resplendent in the evening. I could see the station a short distance away. It was then I saw the sign 'La Stazione' and it struck me that it seems that in Italy they only put up signs when you're almost at your destination.
Nowhere on my 2 kilometre walk back did I see a sign anywhere pointing out where the station was. I find that road signs are at their most useful the further away they are from what's written on them, 'La Stazione 2km' with a helpful arrow pointing the way, that kind of thing.
But not when you're almost on top of it because signage becomes a little bit redundant then. Not until you're actually there or at least know where you're going do you see a sign stating the blindingly obvious.
I went up the stairs at the station, the train was due in 20 minutes but on the platform were two guys worse the wear for drink.
One was pacing around stamping his feet and waving his arms around shouting.
Time to walk away down the other end of the platform, better safe than sorry.
The Milan train came but just for added assurance, in case I ended up in Zurich or Frankfurt, I asked a railway employee, "Il treno a ferma á Peschiera?" and he confirmed it did stop there.
He also corrected my pronunciation as I had called the town "Pescara" which is actually a town on the Adriatic Coast. So now I know how to say it properly, phonetically it's something like 'PeskYERa' in terms of proper pronounciation.
"Bing Bong!! , Attention!!, "The next train at platform 4 will be the 9.45 to Milan, preceeded by elementary Italian pronunciation. Please have your phrase books ready for inspection."
They do say that when you travel the journey back always seems quicker than the outward trip. Not this time. It seemed a lot longer to me and I started scanning the pitch darkness outside to reassure myself I was going the right way and not on the wrong train after all.
I kept checking the time, but after 20 mins the train pulled into Peschiera. I wasn't on my way to Zurich after all.
View over the River Adige and the Cathedral
Other tours in Northern Italy by Shinkicker
- A Rough Guide to Italy : Things to do in Lake Garda
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- A Rough Guide to Venice : Queen of the Adriatic
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- A Rough Guide to Bergamo : A Short Break in a Medieval Town
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- Battlefields of Europe : The Ossuary at Solferino
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