With the nice motorway between Newry and Dublin, it now takes only about 90 minutes to drive from Belfast to Dublin airport. Maybe one day the Northern part of the route will be upgraded too. We parked the car in the long-stay car park and got the shuttle bus to the terminal.
Air travel is tedious, the security pantomime is stupid, and fellow passengers are gormless. Nevertheless, we arrived safely in Verona, and I spotted Giulia and Niccolò waiting for us. We were driven the short distance into the city and introduced to the apartment. Charmingly, they had set up a Christmas tree and illuminated nativity scene.
One of the things our hosts had to show us was the “cave”. Each apartment in the block has one of a series of underground storage rooms, like a concrete bunker, acessed from stairs in the courtyard. Let me put it this way: it would be a good location for a modern horror movie. The reason we needed to know was that our departing flight was in the evening, but we had to clear out of the apartment at ten in the morning for the next guests. We’d be able to leave our luggage in the cave.
It was nearly ten by the time our hosts left, but I’d identified a nearby pizzeria from internet research and we had a late dinner.
Neither of us being early risers, we didn’t leave the apartment until about midday. It was a soft, foggy day. There was a choice of two directions from the apartment into the old part of Verona, both about 20 minutes’ walk. On this first foray, we arrived first at the old castle with its swallowtail crenellations, and went inside to the courtyards.
From Castelvecchio, the 1355 Ponte Scaligero crosses the river in three unequal arches. We crossed over, but then followed the river embankment round to the more modern Ponte Vittoria and came back to the South bank. It was a sort walk to one of the Roman gates, the Porta Borsari. From there, we meandered and ended up in Piazza Erbe with its market in full swing.
Up above the Roman theatre (not the amphitheatre), up a LOT of steps, there’s a restaurant which was recommended in the airline’s magazine for its good food and great views over the city. We climbed up and checked it out for Christmas lunch, but no; they weren’t open on Christmas day. But, anyway, the top of the hill was a good place to look out over Verona and take some photos.
Coming back down, we saw the famous amphitheatre — known as the Arena — and the open space of Piazza Bra for the first time. Doing the whole tourist thing, we entered the Arena and climbed up through one of the access tunnels to the great ring of seats. As Grace pointed out, the open, unbroken ring of terraces gives a more atmospheric feel than the Colosseum in Rome, even though the latter is larger. For Christmas, the Veronese attach a huge iron shooting star to the side of the Arena, with its spiky head touching down in the piazza.
More internet research: I’d found a supermarket which was open on a Sunday. It’s a Spar store which has been tastefully inserted into a stylish art deco building right in the city centre, originally built as a Fiat showroom. We bought some essential supplies — pasta, wine and tea — and went home to have our first self-made dinner and a night in.
After an even later rise than the day before, we took the alternate walking route towards old Verona. This one featured a rather pedestrian-unfriendly set of crossings to negotiate a major intersection near the station. Given that it’s legal to turn right on a red light (as it is in America, but the equivalent left turn isn’t allowed in the UK or Ireland) it was definitely a requirement to be alert at all times.
We arrived at Piazza Bra by the big double gate, the Portone della Bra, built in the 14th century, and navigated to “Juliet’s House”. It has to be conceded that Verona does exploit tourist credulity by associating real places with the entirely fictional Romeo and Juliet, but there’s no real harm in it. Juliet’s balcony is a particular example though: it was built in 1936.
The courtyard used to be plastered with lovers’ grafitti, but it’s been cleaned up in recent years, with the scribblings now restricted to the entrance arch. You can still buy a little lock, write your names on it and attach it to the iron grille to signify eternal love. There’s no way that the city authorities can really let them accumulate though. There must be some behind-the-scenes process of regular removal. A (modern) bronze statue of Juliet is is the courtyard, and for some reason it has become traditional to pose for photographs with a hand on her right breast, which is very shiny as a result.
At the town hall, or Palazzo della Ragione, we chanced upon an exhibition of nativity scenes (“presepi” in Italian) made by children, mostly of primary-school age. But these weren’t the little figures and animals that you might expect. They were all recycled materials, with odd items substituting for the holy family and the rest of the cast. For example, one baby Jesus was a prosecco cork, there was one nativity star made from cod liver oil capsules, and one scene was set entirely inside an old television chassis.
We had a (very) late lunch and set out for the distant Giusti gardens, but thought better of it and aborted the mission after a long trek. We had a rest in the church dedicated to St. Thomas Beckett and returned home, again via the supermarket. We had decided that our Christmas lunch would be DIY, and it was necessary to buy the ingredients, most importantly brussels sprouts.
Since we’d walked so much during the day, in the evening we went to the taxi rank at the railway station and got a taxi into town. During the day we’d located the trattoria “Pane e Vino”, which was recommended in the guide book for its food, service and moderate prices, so we made that the destination. It wasn’t actually all that cheap, but the food was absolutely excellent. Grace ate a horse. (http://www.trattoriapanevino.it/)
The other reason for choosing Pane e Vino was that it was a short walk from the cathedral, the Duomo, where Christmas mass was to run from eleven to midnight. Heathens as we were, tipsy from the copious wine with dinner, and not understanding much of what was said, we still felt perfectly happy to stand at the back and take in the proceedings. The singing by the choir was top class, as you’d expect in an important cathedral.
Spiritually and gastronomically refreshed, we walked all the way home, hand in hand. For some reason it took about twice as long as normal.
We exchanged presents, pulled crackers and opened a bottle of prosecco. Grace, looking exceptionally glamorous in a sparkly black dress, took to the kitchen and began to organise the menu. We decoded the unfamiliar oven controls and loaded in the joint. It hadn’t occurred to us to buy foil, but an improvised arrangement with one roasting dish inverted over the other proved to be entirely successful.
With a fairly late start and a leisurely approach to cooking (and a few drinks), it was actually around four before we had “lunch”, but it was a one hundred percent successful meal. We make a good cooking team. In the evening, leftovers and rice were magicked into a delicious risotto, and we finished off all the wine.
For Boxing day, a good long walk would restore us after the previous day’s overindulgence. I wanted to see the other large church, San Zeno, second to the cathedral. Zeno, first bishop of Verona, died in 380, but he’s still there, lying in state wearing a silver mask.
An invented tradition is that the crypt of this particular church is where Romeo and Juliet were secretly married. Since they didn’t exist, that’s impossible, but who am I to argue. The crypt is suitably atmospheric anyway. The church’s bronze doors are interesting, with individual plaques from different periods all mixed together. The style is simple and rustic and reminded me strongly of medieval African bronzes.
As well as the actual body of San Zeno, there is a larger-than-lfe statue, where the old bishop is grinning and has caught a fish on a line dangling from his crozier. In the adjoining cloister (originally part of a 9th century abbey) there was a half-scale nativity scene, with sheep, shepherds and the baby Jesus, lying in a manger.
Our target for the evening was another restaurant which had had a positive write-up, this time in the Guardian newspaper. I persuaded Grace that we should take the bus to save walking, and we went to the bus stop outside the apartment and carefully checked the times. Then, just before the bus arrived, I suddenly realised that we were on the wrong side of the road! Buses in Italy drive on the right, of course. We crossed the road and because of some dithering on my part, just managed to miss the one coming in the correct direction.
There was nothing for it but to walk, and bad planning was further exposed when we found that our target restaurant inexplicably wasn’t open. Fortunately, I had prepared a Plan B. One of the readers’ comments on the Guardian item had recommended San Matteo Church, a pizzeria and restaurant in a deconsecrated church. (http://www.smatteo.it/)
It’s a large and busy place, with a mezzanine floor inserted into the body of the church. Although it seemed crowded, we were instantly directed to a free table upstairs, where we could look at the diners below on the ground floor, as well as having a panorama of the place in the huge mirrors on the walls. The service was efficient and the meals were excellent. Good house wine too, and we got complimentary little lemon sorbet glasses to end the meal.
I hadn’t realised before arriving, but on the Saturday night, our host Giulia had mentioned that Milan was only 90 minutes away by rail. Well, actually a check on the internet showed that the cheaper train (at €11.30 or half the price of the express) took all of 115 minutes, but that seemed pretty good as well.
Not being early risers, we picked the slow and cheap afternoon train, arriving in Milan at half-past three. One of the stops was Peschiera Del Garda, giving us a brief view of the lake.
I blame myself for what happened on arrival. With the trip being an on-the-spot decision, I hadn’t made a proper plan for visiting Milan. I’d checked the maps and worked out the right direction to the Cathedral, in one of the main historic areas, but had no idea how far it was. So we walked and walked, managing to lose our bearings in the process. Eventually, we saw a bookshop and bought a laminated tourist map. With its help, we found the Duomo, some 90 minutes after leaving the station.
Although it was getting dark, there was a cheerful Christmas market around the Cathedral, and ample luxury shops to keep any woman happy. Grace cruised the shoe shops and spotted a pair she liked. Having tried them on and selected the correct size, she was pleased to discover that they were even cheaper than the price in the window. A bargain!
Near La Scala theatre, we found a cafe and had a pleasant pasta dinner, before taking the Metro directly back to the central railway station. In retrospect, of course, we should have taken the Metro on arrival and saved a lot of aimless wandering. A tip for our next visit.
In the opposite direction to Milan is Venice, at about the same distance, some 150 km. Again, there was a choice of fast, expensive trains or slow, cheap ones. In fact, the “regional” trains are fully a third of the cost of the express, at only €7.40 each way.
Compare that with the €6 for a single vaporetto ticket in Venice, but still, learning from the previous day’s experience, it seemed worth it to sail pleasantly down the Grand Canal to St. Mark’s Square. The weather was fine and blue-skied, and by the time we spied St. Mark’s, the sun was getting low enough to tint the stones with pink.
We’d both been in Venice before, but hadn’t been into the Doge’s palace, the Palazzo Ducale. The entry fee is very expensive (although it includes other museums in the vicinity) but we took the hit. For me, the best bit was to cross the Bridge of Sighs and look out at the canals through the tiny windows.
Leaving St. Marks, we explored some of the tiny winding streets (many full of shops with loads of touristy junk) and spotted a pizzeria which claimed to be a genuine Neapolitan one. Very good pizzas and a couple of beers. You can’t beat it.
Following the chain of prominent yellow pedestrian signs to “Ferrovia”, the railway, through the maze of streets and bridges, we easily found the station in good time for a late train back home, a double-decker. It was even slower than the other one, taking over two hours, with a stop at every one-horse platform, but it was only a short walk home from Verona station to bed.
Just before bed, it occurred me to check my e-mail, just on the off chance there was some information from the apartment owners. And indeed there was: the next guests weren’t due until late in the evening, so we could leave our bags in the apartment all day, rather than going underground.
The cleaning lady was still due to do the apartment at ten however, so for the first time, we were bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and out on the streets of Verona at ten. Well, ten past. We walked into town to say farewell. Piazza Erbe, still with a busy market. The river. Piazza Bra and the Arena.
At a chic place on Piazza Erbe, we stopped for coffee. Or at least, I had a coffee while Grace decided to try the classic “spritz” which was being enjoyed by a group of German tourists at the next table. She liked it, so we ordered one each. Then, a little later, with the day still being sunny and warm enough to sit outside, we took a table overlooking Piazza Bra and ordered “torta della nonna”, granny’s tart, a classic Italain cake; and a coffee or spritz according to preference. (Hint: I had the coffee.)
On the way, we’d checked out the Guardian-recommended restaurant and found it was open until three. Good for a late lunch to tide us over until we were at the mercies of airport and airline. The restaurant, Enocibus, had a mere paragraph in the newspaper’s “Top 10 Budget Eats In Verona”, but the owners were very proud of it, even bringing a print-out of the web version for us to read. (It was exactly like the one I’d printed before leaving home…)
After the lunch, we walked back to our apartment, no longer ours, and collected our bags. It was a short walk to the station, where we took our places on the airport shuttle bus. Our flight departed more or less on time, unlike the one at the adjacent gate where unfortunate Moldovans had been waiting for four hours and seemed doomed to wait longer.
Air travel is tedious, but you just have to sit it out. At Dublin airport, while the shuttle bus delivers you directly to the terminal door on the way in, to catch it for the reverse journey you have to trek across a long distance of bleak concrete walkways. But we took the bus, got back to the car, which started reliably and carried us the 90 minute drive back to Belfast. It was after one in the morning. End of an adventure.