It felt like a very long day – leaving from NYC at 8pm on Saturday, arriving in Milan at 11am, seeing the sights there, then heading into Verona. From Milan to Verona is a 2-hour train trip, so to recharge for the rest of this 48-hour “day” (neither Alex nor I slept much on the plane), we took a quick nap on the train.
Outside the train, the northern Italian scenery was beautiful. In one area, the hillsides were scarred and chewed away; I think these were granite mines. Later, we zoomed past Lake Garda, the largest lake in Italy. But mostly, we slept.
Verona is a surprisingly large city (250,000 people – it feels smaller), but not one of the A-list tourist cities. Mostly, it’s known as the legendary home of Romeo and Juliet. You can see a modern balcony that an enterprising local named “Juliet’s Balcony;” there’s a museum nearby. A lot of tour groups visit this on the trip between Milan and Venice, and skip the rest of the town. We saw the rest of town and skipped the balcony. Curiously, one of Verona’s sister cities is Albany, NY and seeing the Albany coat of arms plastered on a government building near the center was jarring.
There’s some other nice attractions though – notably a mostly intact Roman arena and two nice piazzas.
We woke up as the train pulled into the city. Or rather, pulled nearby the city. We had to traverse an off-map gap between the railway station and city center, but luckily we were able to find the right direction by guesswork, and it was nearly a straight shot along a main street into the charming Piazza Bra.
Rain was just letting up as we pulled in, and as we walked up the main street, a rainbow came out above the old city gates as if to thank us for visiting. The weather held out the rest of the night, too.
A custom we saw in many of these Italian cities is the passagiata, when townspeople head out and walk the town, and they were all headed to the Piazza Bra. A large square (technically, a triangle), the Piazza is shut to traffic. In the center is a small park filled with diverse trees and statues; along one border are civic buildings and along the other are restaurants with open awnings and gas-torch heating. The third side of the square is formed by the arena.
The Verona Arena was built in 30 AD, and was a precursor to the Colosseum. It’s much better preserved than the Colosseum, due in large part to the simplicity of its construction (and I suppose, because the Vatican wasn’t mining it for marble). It’s still used these days for public concerts, and there’s a nice view of nearby Piazza Bra from the top. The Arena was mostly empty, with just a few tourists wandering around, in sharp contrast to the crowds milling around outside. We could see people walking their dogs, families strolling with baby carriages, and people grabbing dinner. From the time we set foot in the Arena, to when we left about half an hour later, the sky went from dusk to dark.
Leaving the Arena, we had an appointment for our first AirBnB reservation, on the far side the Adige, the river that encircles much of the old town. On the way, we passed some sort of party or business grand opening – it was hard to tell. We stepped inside and snacked on some free dried kiwi and hard cider. I like the way in which Italian bars and drinking spills out on the streets, as if including everyone in the festivities. It felt much more communal than in the US, oftentimes near more popular nightlife, we’d see crowds spread halfway across the street.
Passing by this, and crossing the river, we walked a few blocks to the reservation. This was a ‘full apartment,’ though really it ended up being a tiny studio. That was fine, it was cute, warm, and had plenty of amenities. The only downside was a very weak shower that barely reached lukewarm. Dropping off our bags and unpacking a little, we drank some water, had some snacks, and then headed back out to explore the town.
Mostly, we wanted to eat. There was a pizzeria nearby, recommended by both our host and Rick Steves. But here we were faced with another reality of Italy – that we were ready to eat dinner a lot earlier than the Italians. In fact, most restaurants were closed from 3:30 to 7:30, so we were often the very first customers. In this case, though, we were too early and the pizzeria wasn’t open yet.
So, we headed out to do a loop around town. We started by crossing back to the old town, then headed north along the Adige – a treacherously fast-running river. We dipped in towards town, wandered partway across a footbridge and through a charming little medieval area. We passed by the Duomo, a moderately large 850-year old church, where Sunday evening mass was in session. We stood in the back and silently watched mass until it let out; some older guy came up and shook our hands. I think we were the youngest people there. Afterwards, we wandered in the direction of the old town, and another nearby church was letting out, so we followed the crowd past nearby shops, and then continued onwards to check out the city’s castle (nice enough). We were getting pretty hungry by that point, so we made a beeline back towards pizza.
But – we stumbled on a road where the entire center was cut out, revealing Roman foundations underneath; this was near a roman gate embedded in a nearby building, the Porta Leoni, so called because it’s decorated with two lions. After that, it was straight for pizza.
But – there was a half-hour wait for the pizza. Luckily, the pizza place was next to a bar, so we grabbed two glasses of mediocre wine. The pizzeria waitress somehow figured out where we were and grabbed us (“oh yes, the foreigners”), as our reservation was ready a bit early. I ordered an egg & asparagus pizza; Alex had Buffalo Mozzarella. The pizza was good – crusts were uniformly excellent in Italy – and the wine was cheap (usually $5 for half a liter, $10 for a liter). The place was packed with locals, and we had bizarre plexiglass tables filled with bent up silverware. It was a great start to the trip. Bloated with tasty food and wine, we headed back to the apartment for some long over-due sleep. We’d get up early the following morning to head to our next destination: Venice.