Going Pink in Verona
I had heard a lot about Italy during the eight, painful years that people waxed on and on and on about what I had missed by choosing to stay for comprehensive tours of Spain, rather than zipping over for a taste of Italy. In that time, Italy became somewhat of a mythical place for me. The amazing cathedrals, the indescribable food, the irresistible gelato. All that time, no one ever mentioned Verona. It was always Rome, Venice and of course Florence, which by all passionate accounts was the greatest place on Earth. So I was a little surprised when the Lonely Planet reported that Verona was “one of Italy’s most beautiful cities.” On the strength of this sentence alone I made plans to stop in Verona and that one recommendation made the effort I had been putting into hauling that five pound book around totally worth the exertion.
Verona is out of a fairly tale, mostly due to the flabbergasting efforts that the city has put into preserving its historical treasures. There are very few places in Verona where you can’t look up and see an amazing, 800-year-old or older edifice that is so beautiful and steeped in history that it short circuits your brain and makes your ears smoke just thinking about it.
Aside from a very cursory tour of the edge of the city that I received on the bus ride from the train station, my first real impression of Verona was as I trudged up a moderately nasty hill to get to the hostel. It felt as if I had been bused into the Middle Ages. The streets were cobblestone and the property walls were aging brick and stone. The only things that kept me in the present were the frightening encounters with passing cars. The streets were so narrow in many places that I had to flatten against the wall every time a car came by. At the speeds that some of those lunatics were negotiating the tight streets, a well placed whack by a side view mirror or antenna could have probably severed an extremity. The bus that I rode was modified to be about half the length of a normal bus so that it could navigate the tight turns in Verona. During the ride to the hostel, we went down a street that from my angle did not seem wide enough to accommodate the bus. The bus driver careened through the turn and zipped down the street casually with what appeared to be about three inches of clearance beyond each side view mirror. I noticed that the locals knew better than to walk down that particular street.
Early the next morning, I set out to see Verona with a wonderfully informative self-tour brochure I found in the hostel reception area. First stop was the center of town in Piazza (Plaza) Brà, home of the incredibly well preserved Roman Arena, circa the 1st century A.D., the third largest of its kind in the world, and still stages operas every summer for audiences of 22,000 people.
From the Piazza Brà, I decided to stray from the self tour just for fun and started following the massive city wall for several blocks. As expected, the wall is as solid and functional as the day it was completed over a thousand years ago. In many places the wall has been integrated into functioning as one side of public buildings, so every now and then as you walk along, you come across a window in the wall that exposes people working in modern offices.
I back-tracked and picked up the self-tour on the Via Mazzini, a busy street known for its snobby stores and boutiques. By this time it was impossible not to notice that pretty much everything in the city was either partly or completely constructed with a strange, but colorful, pinkish marble. Now I’m not usually a big fan of the color pink, but the effect that this marble had on the city was very, very gnarly. As I moved through the city over the next 48 hours, I was agog with the total volume of marble that had been incorporated into the Verona streets, sidewalks, walls, buildings, churches, squares, fountains…well, you get the idea. I could only imagine the size of the marble quarry that had to be cut in order to supply the city with such an unbelievable amount of material. I envisioned a massive hole in the ground, that was shaped in such a way that if you took the city and turned the whole thing upside-down, it would fit in the hole perfectly.
Diligently following my self-tour, I made my way to Casa di Giulietta (Juliet’s House) at 23 Via Cappello. This was supposedly the residence of the real life inspiration to Shakespeare’s Juliet, including the balcony where she delivered her speech and a statue of the tragic character in the courtyard. The doors and walls surrounding the courtyard were completely covered with several layers of amorous graffiti, slips of paper and gum that people had left behind in tribute. I meticulously took several pictures of the famous balcony, the bronze statue of Juliet and the walls, trying to capture the size and quantity of love notes coating the walls like a thick stucco.
After a minute of studying the Juliet statue, I couldn’t help but notice that her right arm and breast were much shinier than the rest of her. I didn’t have to ponder this mystery for long. An English Rube Tour came through and the guide explained that Juliet’s right arm was shiny because that’s what kids hung onto when they climbed up to pose with her for pictures. Upon hearing this, I immediately knew what was coming next. The guide confirmed my suspicions as he went on to describe how it’s considered good luck to make a romantic wish while rubbing Juliet’s right breast and then he demonstrated the ritual to the squeals of his geriatric Rube Tour group, who followed suit, taking turns feeling up Juliet. Isn’t it funny how in Italy fondling a 14 year old girl’s boobs brings good luck and doing the same in the States brings jail time? I love those wacky cultural differences!
From Juliet’s residence, I moved onto Piazza delle Erbe which contains a very busy market featuring Rube Tourist priced snacks, soft drinks and souvenirs. Piazza delle Erbe is one of numerous areas in the city where everything surrounding the plaza is at least 700 years old. The Piazza features buildings that had served as provincial administration centers, courts and royal residences, highlighted by the Madonna Verona fountain in the center of the square, which is one of Verona’s best known symbols.
The neighboring Piazza dei Signori was similarly awe inspiring and it was where I was introduced to the Italian practice of covering a building going through renovation with a scaffolding shield that perfectly reproduced what the building would have looked like if it were uncovered. I couldn’t decide what was more annoying, the scaffolding covering my sight or the fiendish lengths that the Italians went to so you could see exactly what you were missing.
Just outside Piazza dei Signori is the less pleasing, but still popular, supposed location of Romeo’s residence. All that there was to mark the spot was a plaque outside the door of the property, which appeared to be a privately owned home. I dutifully took a picture of the plaque and moved on.
The next highlight and royal mind-f*ck was the Roman Theatre, which dates back to the 1st century B.C!!! B effing C!!! Sweet merciful crap! I happily paid the three euro entry fee and was thrust out onto what used to be the stage of the theatre. The sense of over 2,000 years worth of times past was killing me. I took several pictures and moved on into the interior part of the museum that displayed a wide range of relics found in the area. My lone entrance into the otherwise deserted museum broke up what appeared to be a social gathering that the seven security guards were enjoying. They shot me a collective stink-eye, ended their little party and dutifully took turns following me around, step-for-step, through the entire exhibit. Sometimes they would casually wander about 10 yards away from me, trying no doubt not be too over-bearing, but they never really got more than three long paces from me on the off chance that I might start licking the dozens of marble relics, many of which were inexplicably displayed outdoors, exposed to the elements. If they were that concerned about the welfare of the artifacts, one would have hoped that they’d make room for them somewhere inside. They finally stopped trailing me when I headed back down into the theatre area to take a dramatic bow in front of the two people sitting high in the seats eating lunch and exited the theatre.
As I staggered, shell-shocked, across the Ponte Pietra (Stone Bridge), parts of which are over 1900 years old, I slowly started to appreciate that leaving my visit to Italy for near the end of my six month journey was more ingenious than I could have ever realized. Aside from the added advantage of it being November, reliving me of the annoyance caused by dodging the horrific crowds of high season and the unbearable heat-wave of the previous summer, if I had toured all of these amazing sights at the beginning of my journey, it may have diminished my appreciation of subsequent sights throughout Europe.
I ended the day by wandering around the city, more to just soak up the early evening crowd than to see anything specific. Central Verona gets very busy with the after-work adults and post-homework kids filling the streets in the same spirit of Spain’s nightly, low-key street party, where friends and family meet up to cling to each other and stroll aimlessly through the city. I found a restaurant named, appropriately enough, “Romeo and Juliet’s” that had what seemed to be a very respectable fixed price menu for 15 euros. I was not disappointed. The staff were very friendly and accommodating of my pathetic attempts to speak Italian. My starter was penne with pesto, zucchini, tomatoes and mozzarella, which was absolutely fantastic. My main course was veal with sautéed mushrooms which was less satisfying, but still very good. The best part of the meal was the house white wine, that had my preferred level of fruity tang to it, served in what appeared to be a comically large brandy snifter. My albeit basic knowledge of wine consumption had taught me that white wine was to be served in smaller glasses, but the thing I had in front of me made the red wine glasses that I could see around the room look like shot glasses. I started to wonder if these were the glasses that they served to the obvious tourists, so they could point and snicker at us from the kitchen. The wine was so good that I swiftly forgot that I was drinking out of a modest sized fish bowl. I chose the classic tiramisu for dessert, which was superb.
Pink Marble Staircase
The next day was lazily easy as I finished off the last bit of the self-tour itinerary, picking up the trail at Saint Zeno’s Church, a place so beautiful and stunning that it would probably make a less jaded man find religion within its walls. Again, as expected, they didn’t skimp on the pinkish marble when they constructed St. Zeno’s. There was enough marble in that place to sink an aircraft carrier. Unlike most incredibly old things in Europe, there were no signs or barriers to keep one from fingering the cold, pink marble and pondering how people chiseled, or whatever they do to marble, the intricate detail into the stairs, railings and trim within the church. Or even more amazing was the perfect, round smoothness of the columns. I walked along running my fingers over all the marble that I could get my hands on.
Having completed the Verona self-tour, I spent the rest of the afternoon taking pictures of yet more pink marble sights and visiting Verona Castle and the Castle Bridge, which were mysteriously absent from the self-tour.
Having only toured Milan – the place that food forgot – before this point, Verona was my first serious taste of Italy and I was nearly falling over myself to absorb it all. Everything I saw made me even more deliriously happy and awed. The food, art, history, architecture and never-ending beauty were overwhelming and unforgettable. Verona was quite possibly the most fantastic city I had ever seen and I was briefly frightened that there was no way that any other city was going to impress me more. Then I went to Venice.