Its now close to the end of September and we’ve enjoyed the most wonderful summer here in the UK. So searching for some sunshine to warm the bones has certainly not been a priority but we do live only a stones throw from these fascinating countries so feel incredibly silly not to take advantage of it. We’ve planned to meet David and Judy in Milan in October as we head for Sicily. So if we need to be in Italy next weekend and there’s a week in a diary which is clear ... why not go early and and get up to speed with the Italian ways??
Our place of choice is Verona, a northern Italian city based on the river Adige , pretty much half way between Venice and Milan with a population of about 265,000. So as you can imagine its a lot slower paced and far more relaxed that the larger cities - small, compact and reasonably easy to navigate. Only got lost a couple of times and usually ended up somewhere fun.
No trouble finding a glass of wine and a pizza for dinner on our first night and lovely evening to stroll and get our bearings.
Next morning we were totally spoilt by our host who produced a stack of the most delicious freshly cooked pancakes along with fresh fruit, yogurt, jams, toast and coffee. And here I was thinking they just do a sweet roll like a croissant and coffee. We carbo loaded and were ready for a full day of exploring. We did laugh though as had envisioned this lovely Italian host who was going to be able to give us all sorts of hints and tips as how to make the most of our week here. But alas she could understand next to no English and and speaks even less!!!
Verona claims to have more Roman ruins than any other Italian city, other than Rome, and also has its fair share of medieval, Renaissance art and culture. But surprisingly underrated despite this claim and not heaving with tourists like the other bigger cities.
The picturesque centre of cobblestone streets lined with medieval pink hued buildings is a delight to wander through. Coffee is excellent and a great excuse to sit in the sunshine and people watch.
History tells us Verona was once an old Roman trade centre and The Piazza delle Erbe, the city’s most famous square which is actually oblong, was the centre of this affluent trading area. Its worth admiring the merchants houses, towers and statues but sadly the market’s pretty tacky these days.
Of course the romantic image I had of Verona was all founded on Shakespeare’s famous play of the star crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet. Funnily enough he based two other plays here in Verona but its still unknown as to whether he even set foot in this fair city. Regardless of this we made the pilgrimage to Cast di Giulietta or better known as the House of Juliet. Where you can see the famous balcony, bronze statue of Juliet and if very keen rub her breast for good luck ??
Probably the most well known landmark here is the vast Roman Arena. This amphitheatre is the third largest in in Italy, not far behind the huge Roman Colosseum. Built in the 1st century just outside the city walls, it could accommodate 25,000 spectators. Nowadays instead of watching gladiators from all over the Roman Empire, its opera lovers who line the stone benches. Its one of Europes best preserved amphitheatres and since 1913 its drawn thousands of opera and music lovers and entertained with numerous theatrical performances. Even empty mid afternoon on a weekday its pretty awe-inspiring to wander around!!
Northern Italy means the lakes so we thought we’d head north to Lake Garda. Admittedly it is the largest lake in Italy, probably the most popular with locals and tourists but easily accessible to the likes of us using public transport. A little bit of confusion with our next hostess meant our trip took a few hours longer than planned but we did get to see more of the surrounding countryside and enjoyed our new found friends!!
We were staying close to Desenzano which is at the southern end of the lake and soon discovered the further up the lake you go the prettier it gets. Sadly most of the time we were there heavy fog covered the lake and the views which we were envisaging were pretty non existent. But in fairness to that we did enjoy our time with the loveliest of hosts. She was Russian but had lived in Italy for six years and was now a passionate advocate of the country and this area in particular. And the best part was her Italian boyfriend who was a delight, full of stories of his escapades in NZ and the women he met, history of the local area and even took us all out for guided tour.
Desenzano is a picturesque lakeside town which combines both resort and a thriving community. With a medieval castle overlooking the town and a historic centre it also offers holiday makers two harbours and two public beaches with ferry and hydrofoil services departing regularly.
We spent one day out on the peninsula wandering through the ancient fortified town of Sirmione. The 13th century Scaliger castle and bridge are at the entrance to the old town. Thankfully the town is car free as the peninsula gets very narrow and its a popular spot so you can imagine the bottleneck. But after all that hustle and bustle it opens up to a peaceful landscape of olive trees, cypresses, laurels and magnolias. The sulphur springs at the tip of the peninsula have a reputation for healing so we noticed the odd scantily clad bather, while further around the corner are the ruins of an old Roman Palace, Grotto di Catullo.
The onwards train trip to Milan was again eventful as we found ourselves on the wrong train - this time of our own volition. But who should come to our defence but an Australian, a very elderly Italian women who couldn’t understand a word we said and a teenager who she roped in to translate. All in all we got it sussed with their help and made it to Milan for the weekend.
Sunday morning was slow and quiet, but by the afternoon the city was buzzing with tourists and beautifully dressed locals. Milan is known as the industrial and design centre of Italy with a population of 1.3 million people. It draws designers, artists, photographers and models from all over the world wanting to be part of the glamour and the fashion lovers paradise. So people watching was even better than ever.
But you can’t help admiring the very grand Gothic Cathedral, Duomo, that dominates the heart of the city. It's one of the worlds largest Gothic cathedrals and took over six centuries to complete. The ancient city centre is also home to the famous la Scala Opera house with its opulent interior, Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece The Last Supper, which we discovered must have tickets booked well in advance , the Sforza Castle and what must be one of the prettiest shopping malls in the world, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Where we also found ourselves spinning on the bulls balls!!!! An odd tradition I guess but its supposed to bring you good luck. Even the locals seems to jump in and do a twirl while still deep in conversation. But that seems like a talent of the Italians, communicating with passion regardless of anything and anybody else around them.