I’m spoilt. I know I am, but does it stop me from being a little Diva and demanding more? [Sigh] No, of course it doesn’t. I’m not stupid!
For the last couple of decades, whenever the question of ‘big birthday’ celebrations have come up my one and only desire has been ‘to attend an opera at the Arena in Verona’. My lovely, wonderful, adorable husband listened (okay, I may have written it all over his whiteboard and planner and sent him emails and FB links ‘Ooh’ing over pictures of the Arena, but some men need the odd hint written on sledge-hammers).
Last week, my little family and I returned from a fabulous uber long weekend to…you guessed it. Verona! Bella Italia: the land of heady wine and pasta; pizza and parmigiano; sinfully glorious landscapes and one of the sexiest languages to grace the human tongue.
The trip was everything I wished for and more. ‘More?’ You ask, ‘what other wonderous delights did your fabuloso husband pull out of his hat?’ Well, let me tell you the tale from the beginning.
First, let’s start with the accommodation. It was a B&B within spitting distance (dependent on a strong wind) of the Pizza Bra’ where the Arena sits, on a quaint little side road in a lovely old building. Now, the word ‘old’ may cause you to wince but let me assure you the owners of Veronantica B&B, 9 Via Tazzoli, have spent a few Euros and modernised the top floor of this delightful building. When you enter there is a cute courtyard with some stone planters (alas, all the flowers had been removed) and you turn left to climb several flights of broad stone stairs (no lift!). It really is a wonderful looking building. You enter straight into a lovely fitted out kitchen area (where breakfast is served). All the rooms are en-suite with TVs and A/C. Our children had the first room which was twin-bedded and ‘snug’ but boasted a balcony with lovely trailing flowers. Our room was much larger with a double bed and sofa which we found pulled-out into a bed, but no balcony. Breakfast: with such a lovely kitchen I would have expected more than a croissant, fruit, cereal and brioche (unlimited supply of tea/coffee), but it was filling and, the best bit, they didn’t stop serving until 11. ‘Wow,’ I thought on hearing that…but it makes sense (tell you later). 5 out of 5 stars for the B&B. I have no idea how much it costs.
Tip 1: DO NOT eat at the restaurants on Liston – the broad stretch going from the Arena towards the old city wall. The buildings will make your heart melt and it is undeniably everything you want in a busy piazza. However, if you must spend a pleasant evening people-watching from the pretty little tables, then sit and have a mellow bottle of Soave, a punchy Valpolicella or a hearty Bardolino, but do not eat there. These guys are busier than rabbits at Easter and, because the majority of their customers are one-offs, their food is plastic and mediocre (they really don’t care if you don’t go back). There’ll always be another starry-eyed tourist waiting for a table. BTW we tried four of these restaurants and were disappointed with all of them. The only thing I will say is that Mamma Mia will let you sit and drink until 2am, at which magical hour they will whip away the tablecloths, substitute your stemmed glasses for plastic cups and switch off the lights. Still, as long as you order another bottle or two before they do that you can giggle away for another couple of hours in splendid solitude with a few other insomniacs under the mellow street lights, watched over by the local Police.
Our first night in Verona we, thankfully, avoided Liston – because it was seriously busy – and finally found a restaurant down a side road that had a free table (yes, it was that busy!). I cannot remember the name of the restaurant (somewhere just past Via Teatro Filarmonico), but the food was good; overall it was a lovely welcome to Veronese cuisine and service.
The next morning we decided we would go to see Juliet’s Balcony, which brings me to….
Tip 2: Juliet’s Balcony is so busy that if you suffer from claustrophobia or crowds then either avoid it or go so early in the morning that the rest of Verona is asleep. Also, if you must add your own love story to the already plastered walls I would suggest that you come armed with a plaster (yes, that’s what I said, a plaster such as one you would wrap round a papercut) you’ve already scribbled your message on and, on your way through the tunnel (it feels like that although in reality it’s just a little arch) slap it on the wall as you squeeze past all the camera-snapping enthusiasts.
Anyway, back to our day. After the bustle of the balcony we tripped into Piazza Erbe which has a lovely bustling market selling souvenirs, fresh fruit and veg (great if you’re self-catering as supermarkets seem to be non-existant). They also sell little pots of freshly cut fruit just in case you cannot decide between the blooming peaches, swollen strawberries or juicy melons. In the middle of the market there is a weird stone fountain/altar/pergola with manacles hanging off some of the columns. Apparently, in days gone by, the council would sit and pass local judgments – the manacles were obviously used frequently. There are lots of tourists snapping their girlfriends, wives and children hanging from the manacles. It made me blink.
The market flows right through the main part of the square – lots of cafes, again residing within more glorious buildings – stopping at a pretty fountain (there was something historically important about the fountain but I can only recall the cute sight of children splashing about to cool off). From there we wandered to wards the river and over Ponte Pietra with a view to climbing up to Teatro Romano. Please let me say at this point how deeply disappointed I am that the very first cafe that you see, the only one directly facing the bridge, sells the most basic fare (they microwave the hamburgers, for goodness’ sakes). Again, it was a real case of ‘don’t need to do more because there’s nowhere else to go’, and we fell for it because we were hungry. I wish we’d bought some bread, plump tomatoes and cheese from the market instead. After our disappointing meal, the children and I wandered to the right and climbed our way up, up , up and up towards the Teatro only to encounter scaffolding and barriers. Stunning views, but no visible way to get into the old roman theatre, so we continued round and back down again, consoling ourselves with our first gelatos. We strolled along the river back to the B&B.
While the children went inside (to play on their phones and skype), hubby and I wandered along, over the main road and espied a covered table and two chairs at the end of Via Tito Speri, a dead-end road (many of the other out-lying cafes were closed for the afternoon). We wandered over and found ourselves directed into their garden which was overflowing with beautiful plants and crowded with tables and parasols – no two tables were the same. A higgledy-piggledy mash of old and new which was cosy and soporific. Only one other couple has decided not to snooze away the hot afternoon and were partaking of a meal with some very bizarre dishes – we thoroughly enjoyed trying to work out what they were eating. We sank into our armchairs and ordered two beers. The waiter duly arrived with a bucket of ice, two beer bottles and two huge stemmed beer glasses. He filled each glass with ice and my husband and I looked at each other in confusion – neither of us wanted ice in our beer! By this time the waiter was popping the caps off the bottles, strategically placing coasters and napkins on the tables and removing plates, etc. He then began to swirl the ice in the glasses. Swirl, swirl, swirl. I felt like a panting dog: the beer was so close and yet so far away! With a flourish and a flick the ice was dumped back into the bucket and the beer began to flow – finally! He deposited the first glass, one fifth full of beer in front of me and the rest of the bottle just within reach before pouring my husband’s. ‘Grazie, Signor,’ was as much as we could mutter before we grabbed our glasses.
The waiter was extremely attentive and brought us (gratis) a plate of bread with some sort of vegetable chutney. It was delicious. We ordered another two bottles before we left. No idea what the name of the restaurant was but I recommend it for entertainment value alone.
After those beers and all the fresh air and walking, we managed to sleep quite soundly for an hour or two. My husband had booked La Lanterna, a vegan restaurant – what a love! – for that evening. I was so touched. Before we left my daughter asked repeatedly if I was sure I didn’t want to dress up a little more, perhaps put on some jewellery and make-up? Bless her, she did try and I would remember her encouragement later.
We had to take a taxi as the restaurant was all the way over on the other side of Verona…or so my husband said… When we arrived there I let my husband speak to the lady at the desk while I peered around at the decor. OMG! There was a table full of Elvis enthusiasts! Did he know? Is that why we were here? I was so excited. How did I know they were Elvis fans? Because they all wore Elvis masks. Wow. From the corner of my eye (because I couldn’t take my eyes off the Elvis table) I saw the lady point to my left and I noticed an empty table for four. Slowly I hedged round – all the while ogling the Elvisians and wondering why they were so quiet; yet so desperate to talk to them – and began to sit (facing the other table). There was a cute little boy at the end of the table who didn’t have a mask on. I vaguely thought he looked somewhat familiar, but I didn’t have my glasses on and ignored my fanciful thinking. But before I could position my bottom on the seat, the lady was urging my husband towards the end of the Elvis table. There? She wanted us to sit with them? Holy Shit – he’d arranged for us to sit with the Elvis contingent? We were here for a special Elvis thingy? Oh, I was seriously excited now and loved him so, so, so much – my meat-loving husband was putting himself through a vegan meal and Elvis (he’s not a fan) and opera (hates regular musicals with a passion so opera was his version of hell), for me! (BTW I am a huge Elvis fan). But the Elvisians were all looking at us; staring; and still not talking… I couldn’t tell you how it happened but it began to dawn on me, especially once the masks began to be removed, that we weren’t here to dine with the local Elvis fan club. I first got confused (God, I am sooooo stupid!) as the scene before me just didn’t make sense. The people behind the masks were family and friends who had flown all the way over to help me celebrate my birthday! I was stunned speechless – or almost speechless – as each face was revealed. Way, way better than Elvis! Not only had they come over to Verona but they were all booked to watch Aida as well. My heart was so full I thought it would explode.
No wonder my daughter wanted me to ‘dress up’!
By the way, La Lanterna is not miles away from our B&B! It is near the river in the Castel Vecchio area. After our meal (interesting and worth the visit) we wandered along the river to Signor Vino (or something like that) for a couple of bottles. When they said they were closing we found Mamma Mia and, as you’ve guessed, ordered a few more and left way past two in the morning. That evening, we were on whites – Soave and Prosecco.
Wine: You must try the wines. You really must. So many of the best Italian wines are grown in the surrounding area that it would be sacrilegious not to. If you can fit in a vineyard visit, even better.
Lake Garda: We didn’t go but everyone who did say it’s a must.
The next day we woke up late, but still in time for breakfast. The Opera doesn’t finish until after midnight, which means many people sleep in the next morning, hence the late breakfast closing. We were very grateful for it, and the extra paracetamols I’d packed.
We met up with friends (friends! In Verona!) for coffee – at a cafe on Liston (lousy food) – and went on the bus-train before having lunch at a Pizza Tratorria which was at the end of Via Tre Marchetti. Delicious food, wine and company, then returned to the B&B to recover for that evening’s performance of Aida. It was truly magical.
We all met again that evening, before the performance, and dined at Liston (Mamma Mia). The food was mediocre.
Opera: We had all booked our tickets via websites but one of our friends had chosen a website that wasn’t recognised by the Arena and their tickets were not waiting for them (as had been promised). So, beware! Please, if you have seats in the middles of the area or along the bottom few tiers, wear something nice. There were some lovely evening gowns (I wore a two piece bronze embroidered set). We winced at the t-shirt jeans combo. Also, take water (it is extortionate in there) and a blanket (the temperature can seriously drop). Our B&B lent out seat pads and I would take advantage of your hosts’ generosity if it is offered; alternatively, buy a padded seat from one of the vendors outside (also makes a nice souvenir). If you are on the stone seating further up it can get cramped so don’t get in too early or you’ll be squished up in the middle of a row. Also, our question of why the flower hawkers along Liston were selling lighters was answered: they are for the little candles (handed out only to those on the tiered seating). A lovely little tradition where the opera is started by everyone holding up lit candles. Magical! A huge ‘Aah!’ went up when the candles were lit and the lights went out. But be careful as, once the opera starts, your attention is completely caught up and you are at risk of either burning your fingers or – Heaven forbid! – dropping it onto the person sat in front of you. People are flammable, especially if they are clothed!
Also, please don’t use the flash on your camera during the performance – the plonker behind me kept doing that it annoyed the hell out of me.
We were lucky that this summer they went back to the original set design (for almost a decade or so, apparently, they have been using a contemporary set design that is more reminiscent of Star Trek…or did he say Star Wars?).
Little touristy bus-train thing: At 5Euros/person it should have offered more. Seriously. It isn’t a HOHO (Hop On Hop Off) and the piped information, what there is of it, is almost drowned by the sound of the bus-train rumbling over the roads. And the ride – my teeth, head, and bum hurt by the end because all those cute little stones that make up the roads is crap for the bus which jostles and jolts constantly. If you have bad hips or a headache just use the HOHO.
Buses: These roam all over the place and our hostess kindly explained how to use them. Once you get on, go to the yellow box, press the red button and insert 1Euro 50. This gives you an hour of travel. Brilliant!
Trains: The train station is not far. You could walk, but at 1Euro 50 you’d be mad not to take the bus. A train to Venice takes about 1.5 hours which is perfect for a day trip – which had been my plan originally – and costs about 20Euros return. Pisa, Rome and Florence take longer, obviously, but are worth considering if you have a yearning for leaning towers, the Vatican, the Colosseum or David.
Locanda della Secunda Balena: A little out of the way tratorria we had lunch at one day. Well worth a visit – quaint, unusual decor; wonderful wines; freshly cooked food and great service. Vicolo Balena, off Via Quattro Spade which is off Via Mazzini (the main thoroughfare from the Arena to Juliet’s Balcony. In fact, whenever you can, eat at out of the way little family-run trattorias that serve fresh food. I think that has ot be a general rule in Italy.
The Arena: Something I found very bizarre is that the sets for the various performances are lying about outside the arena – great photo opportunities. I don’t understand why – they are constantly changing the sets because they mix up the performances. From a time/labour-sensitive point it would make more sense to have a couple of weeks of Aida, followed by a couple of weeks of Carmen, etc. Fabulous building, so if you aren’t going to see a performance then take a tour.
I won’t say much more about our trip except it was everything I hoped for and more. So very much more. If you ever get the chance to go to Verona then do it. Don’t think twice about it.