Ernie goes to Verona (Dec 2013)

Alps+Italy 2013-14-184

During the planning of this trip, Ashley and I had talked about stealing away for a few days on our own, somewhere else in Europe. We considered Spain for a while, and we seriously thought about Istanbul as well, but I think what sealed the deal for northern Italy was its relative proximity to Switzerland and the limited amount time we had available. After doing a bit of research, we settled on Verona as our home base, with planned day trips to Lake Garda and Venice, and booked an Airbnb by the University of Verona on the right bank of the Adige River. On the evening of Dec 28, our train from Schaffhausen, via Milan, pulled into the Porta Nuova railway station.

After checking into our apartment and meeting Francesco, our Airbnb host, we crossed the Ponte Navi into the old town. Verona became a Roman colony in 89 BC, occupying an important position at the crossroads of four main Roman arteries that connected the lands of northern Italy and southern Germany. This push and pull between Italy and Germany, and between the lands to the south and north of the Alps, would define Verona for over a millennia, from the invasion of the Visigoths in 403 AD, to the medieval and Renaissance squabbles between the Holy Roman Empire and the semi-independent northern Italian city states. As much conflict as its favourable location engendered, it also generated incredible wealth for its noble classes, and the city’s recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is a testament to the beautiful palaces, churches, bridges, and aqueducts constructed throughout various times in its illustrious history.

Ashley and I grabbed dinner at a small restaurant by the Ponte Pietra, a Roman-era bridge constructed in 100 BC, before taking a quick stroll through the Piazza Bra, the largest piazza in the city, and around the Arena, an impressive Roman amphitheatre completed in 30 AD. We took a rain check on any further exploration though, as we needed to get up early the next morning to catch a bus to Lake Garda. In fact, we’d have to wait another two days until we had a full day set aside in Verona.

The Casa di Giulietta is an early 14th-century domicile which claims to be the familial home of the Capulets, of Romeo and Juliet fame. It’s not a very serious claim, though that hasn’t stopped it from becoming one of the most popular attractions in the city. The site itself is a small courtyard with a stone balcony overlooking the public area, from where Juliet purportedly wondered aloud regarding the whereabouts of young Romeo. It’s not a very impressive thing to behold, though there’s a bronze statue of Juliet in the corner where tradition states that rubbing the right breast will ensure greater success in love. The metal on the breast is noticeably bare.

From the Casa di Giulietta, we walked down to the Piazza Bra, the main piazza in Verona. The Arena dominates the northeast quadrant of the famous piazza, a nearly 2000-year old Roman ruin that once hosted crowds upwards of 30,000. By the Middle Ages, it had fallen into disrepair, though, even then, it was an object of wonder to visitors to the city. Starting in the Renaissance, Verona began reclaiming the Arena as a civic performance space, and it now regularly hosts operas, theatre performances, and pop concerts in its majestic ruins. From the Piazza Bra, we turned northwards and strolled through its neighbourhoods by the Adige River, crossing it at the ancient Ponte Pietra. This Roman-era bridge is the oldest bridge in Verona, already over a century old when the foundations of the Arena were being set. The bridge was rebuilt several times in the Middle Ages, and, prior to the 20th century, the most recent construction was completed in the early 1500s. Sadly, German troops destroyed all but a single arch in World War 2, and much of the bridge is a reconstruction from the 1950s, though using the original materials.

Across the Adige River, just on the other side of the Ponte Pietra, lie the ruins of the Roman theatre in Verona. In the centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the theatre was abandoned and, at some point, was buried and covered in cheap housing. A wealthy Veronese named Andrea Monga bought out all the houses in the early 19th century, however, and he started the long process of recovering the ancient theatre. You can almost imagine the public spectacle of ancient days, and the hazy views across the river at the Roman city, sitting on the tiers of stone seats that steadily rise up the hillside. As an added note, there is a short climb from the top of the theatre tiers to a narrow balcony that provides a beautiful view of Verona.

Almost directly to the north of the Roman theatre lies the Castel San Pietro, a 19th century Austrian fortress built on a hill overlooking the city. The current structure occupies a space that has seen the rise and fall of Roman and medieval fortresses, castles, and churches, and the cycle of ruin and decay has continued with this one as well. Fortunately, the wide esplanade situated at the front of the fortress is open to the public, with its sweeping view of medieval Verona.

After lunch, we went back through the city and under the gates of the Porta Borsari, the ancient limestone arches that formed the main entrance to Roman Verona. From here, the Via Postumia ran across northern Italy to the Roman city of Genua, modern Genoa, on the Ligurian coast. We walked along the Corso Cavour and Corso Castelvecchio to reach the red brick battlements of Castelvecchio, a medieval castle built by the ruling Scaliger dynasty. Finding themselves at odds with the local populace, the Scaligeri allied themselves with the Holy Roman Empire in the north, and, as a way of escape in case things turned south, built the Ponte Scaligero northwards across the Adige River. At the time of its construction, it was the largest bridge of its kind in the world, though, in the same destructive campaign that took down the Ponte Pietro, German soldiers completely demolished the original Ponte Scaligero, and what stands is a faithful reconstruction dating from the early 1950s.

Our last stop was the Arena, Verona’s most striking landmark. In the days of the Pax Romana, it was the third largest amphitheatre in the empire, after the famous Colosseum in Rome and the amphitheatre in Capua. Gladiatorial games and entertainment held vast crowds captive for centuries, until the troubled reign of Emperor Honorius in the early 5th century. From that point onwards, the culture of gladiators faded into non-existence, and the Arena was abandoned to the elements. As Ashley and I walked through the tunnels and up the steep steps onto the arena floor, our thoughts were full of the frenzied, Hollywood-ified combat scenes from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. From the top of the Arena, we watched the sun set on Verona, a modern-day construction crane sharing the skyline with the distant Roman arches.

Our Verona holiday hit a bit of a snag that evening, as we hadn’t thought ahead to how difficult it would be to find a table for dinner on New Year’s Eve. We wandered throughout the city, hoping to find a place to rest our weary bodies and fill our empty stomachs, but our spirits fell with each curt shake of the head. Finally, just around the corner from where we had dinner on our first night in Verona, they took pity on the mournful Asian tourists and gave us a spare table in the back. I don’t remember what we ate that night, but I do remember just being thankful that we could eat out at all. Early the next morning, we checked out of our apartment and caught the train back to Schaffhausen, and back to familiar company.

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