Posted on 11/23/03
I had heard a lot about Italy during the countless, painful
years that people waxed on and on and on about what I had missed
out on by staying in Spain for all of that time 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.
Eventually I would find myself day dreaming about Italy as I sat at my desk
at the Bank, while eating Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups that I could have
sworn had wax as one of the main ingredients.
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.
The only downside was that, unless I wanted to pay upwards of
45 euros a night, I had no choice but to stay at the Hosteling International
affiliate in Verona. According to the Lonely Planet, my only other option
would have been to dress up as a woman, “Bosom Buddies” style,
and try to check in at the girls-only hostel being run out of the local nunnery.
I sighed heavily and began the journey to the hostel which was, in typical
HI fashion, located on the outskirts of the city.
Verona was like 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 to the hostel, 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 Middle Ages. The streets were cobblestone
and the property walls were aging brick and stone. The only thing that kept
you in the present was the frightening encounters with passing cars. The streets
were so narrow in many places that a person 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 arm or leg. 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
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.
As I struggled, panting into the hostel, I became aware of the
property. The hostel was housed in what looked like a very old villa. I inquired
about this in the reception area after I caught my breath. The main hostel
building and its surrounding property were over 400 years old, with a few
other structures bordering the villa that were only 200 years old
or so. The desk clerk said this in a very matter-of-fact way, like it couldn’t
have been any other way. And he was totally justified. Unlike the relative
newness and modernity of Milan, a remarkable amount of buildings, houses,
walls and gutters in Verona are the original Roman-era stuff. In fact, with
the hostel being on the outskirts of town, at 400 years old, it was considered
to be fairly new.
The novelty of my accommodations evaporated when I was handed
the usual 8 and ½ by 11 piece of paper with all of the rules bullet
pointed in all their innumerableness. This particular hostel had the longest
lock-out period I had seen in my travels. They kicked us out at the crack
of 9:00AM, before most businesses and tourist sights were open, and didn’t
reopened their doors until 5:00PM. There would be no siestas in Verona. The
11:30PM curfew was also notably restricting. Finally there was a strictly
enforced lights out rule at midnight. I felt like I was 10 years old at summer
camp. To further the sensation of having lost 23 years of maturity and freedom,
the rooms somehow had that woodsy summer camp smell. All I needed was a permanent
layer of mosquito repellent on me, my Kangaroo Velcro strap-on shoes and a
kid on the bunk above me who peed himself every night and the vision would
have been complete.
Despite my urgency to get out and see Verona, my renewed work
ethic exerted itself on me and forced me to sit my ass down for the entirety
of that first afternoon and early evening to bang out an acceptable amount
of work for Milan. I was generously allowed to sit in the dinning room during
lockout and work, though this may have only been after I offhandedly mentioning
that I was writing for “Let’s Go Italy” (Hey, I have to
milk this travel writing thing as far as it will go. God knows that I’m
not going to be paid much for it, so I might as well treat myself to a few
itty bitty kick backs.). This convenience lost its attractiveness when I went
for my first sugar inspiration of the day in the hostel “bar”
(a corner of the lower level that had three vending machines.). I was stunned
to find that the Coke machine was selling 12 ounce cans for only 60 cents.
Other than out-of-the-way super markets, cans of Coke were going for anywhere
from one euro to 1.50 euros in most of Europe. I found out immediately why
it was such a bargain. The machine kicked out a can of Coke that was barely
room temperature. Little did I know that the European tendency to serve beverages
at room temperature went beyond red wine and British lager. My 55 cent Twix
Bar also seemed like the deal of the century until I stuffed my money in and
the machine did absolutely nothing. Where I come from, 55 cents for nothing
is a little on the pricey side. Through exhaustive pantomiming, I was eventually
able to persuade the only mono-lingual hostel clerk I have ever met into opening
the machine and giving me my chocolate.
That night I enjoyed a surprisingly tasty dinner at the hostel
for only 7.50 euros that, to my surprise, featured a complimentary glass of
white wine. It had been four days since any alcohol had passed my lips. A
very long time by European standards. Being dry in southern Europe is like
being a priest at Hedonism. In fact, sometimes you are ruthlessly punished
for being dry in Europe by being charged two euros for a 17 ounce bottle of
water at Trattoria la Baita, the worst restaurant in Milan, four blocks east
of the train station, on Via Vitruvio. My hand shook as I reached for the
glass, withdrew, then reached for it again. A little red devil appeared on
my left shoulder in a puff of smoke. “What do you have to lose? Its
white wine! Completely different from red! They’re not alike
at all! Everything will be fine! Just take a taste!” I looked to my
right shoulder for help, but apparently angels don’t work after 7:00PM
in Italy. I drank the wine. It was fruity and yummy and I only had one glass
(Because that cruel, shit-eating cook refused to give me more even after I
threatened to cook all of her children and feed them to her one by one…
No that didn’t really happen. She didn’t have any children.).
After dinner I got a quick and nasty lesson about the delicate
nature of Italy’s telecommunications infrastructure which appears to
be about as reliable as a Ford Tempo. Someone somewhere cut a line or flipped
a switch that had knocked out all internet access and the ATM network in Verona.
(The next day I could access the internet, but for some reason access to Minnesota
servers was blocked. I couldn’t get to my email host, my bank or the
Star Tribune web sites.) It was after 8:00 on a Sunday night and the streets
of Verona were bare, so I trudged back to the hostel, cranked out a little
more work and started to devour “The Lost Continent,” by Bill
Bryson until the counselor came in and told us to shut up and turn off the
light or we wouldn’t get free-swim the next day. Asshole.
About 15 minutes after the lights were turned off and people
were slipping into deep sleep, the roommate from hell arrived. This guy unloaded
the entire arsenal of bad hostel etiquette like a pro. He walked into the
room of seven people who were in various states of unconsciousness and indelicately
flipped on the lights. The man seemed to be incapable of doing anything quietly.
The few people who weren’t disturbed by the initial blast of light were
soon rolling toward the wall and hiding under their pillows to escape the
commotion of his preparations for bed. The man’s act climaxed when he
unleashed two remarkably long and melodious farts, flipped the lights back
off and climbed into bed. In a final move to seal his claim to Worst Roommate
Ever, just as the rest of us were finding ourselves in an unpleasant state
of wide-awake alertness, the man fell asleep and was snoring loudly within
about 12 seconds. One guy actually said “You have got to be
kidding me!” out loud. I followed with a general inquiry as to if anyone
knew how we might get our hands on a bowl of warm water at that hour, but
we were all clearly too defeated and savagely outmatched by this man’s
inconsideration to counter with the same level of wickedness. We pathetically
too refuge under our blankets and tried to get back to sleep.
Very early the next morning, I set out to see Verona
with a 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. It came as no surprise
to learn that this ancient structure was still in regular use to this day,
staging 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 that exposes people working in modern
offices. It was weird.
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 this marble
that had been incorporated into the streets, sidewalks, walls, buildings,
churches, squares, fountains (well you get the idea) in Verona. I could only
imagine the size of the marble quarry that had to be cut in order to supply
the city with this 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. There
was 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
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 (pictured).
A huge picture of the building that's behind the scaffolding. Gee, thanks!
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 they 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 (pictured) and moved
The next highlight and royal mind-f*uck was the Roman Theatre,
which dates back to the 1st Century B.C!!! B. effing C!!! Holy 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 followed
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 display 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
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 journey was more ingenious
than I could have ever realized. Aside from 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.
It was at about this time that my camera battery, whose battery
life was starting to become frustratingly short, died on me suddenly. Up until
this point, I was starting to get it into my head that I might get through
the entire self-tour in one day and shave another day off my delayed schedule,
but with no pictures of the last two sights, I wasn’t going anywhere.
I returned to the hostel and begged them to let me into my room, so I could
retrieve the Office and recharge the battery while doing a little work.
Verona Castle Bridge
That one hour killed any lingering hope I may have had about
bagging Verona in one day. When I hit the streets again, even though sunset
was an hour away, the natural light was already starting to fade into the
hazy sky, making decent pictures pretty much impossible. I consoled myself
that staying an extra day in a city that I really loved wouldn’t be
so bad and maybe I could make up the time in a city that I was bound to hate,
which by all reports, was going to be Athens.
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 spirit of Spain’s nightly, low-key street party, where friends
and family meet up to cling to each other and stroll through the city. I had
made the decision during the day to eat dinner away from the hostel. After
all, I was in Italy and I hadn’t come all that way to eat tasty, affordable
hostel food. I found a restaurant named, appropriately enough, Romeo and Juliet’s.
They 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.
As I headed back to the hostel full and happy, I knew that,
despite the chilly weather, Verona was going to score like a Xena look-a-like
at a Star Trek convention on my winter retreat rating table.
After a full day of seeing beautiful and romantic sites on my
own, I was feeling the sting of having done the entire thing on my own. As
I quickly prepared myself for lights-out so I wouldn’t get on counselor
Fabrizio’s bad side, I became a little melancholy while I entertained
how wonderful it must be to wander through all this attractive history with
a romantic partner. Then, while taking my before-bed pee, God decided strike
me with a figurative blow to the groin, as I suddenly became aware of the
unmistakable sounds of two pair of pants being hastily unzipped and the accompanying
slurping noises of people preparing to have a quickie in the stall next to
mine. Nothing makes you feel more starved for romance than a day of touring
dreamy sights and then having it capped it off by listening to two people
getting lucky six inches away from you.
The next day was lazily easy. I dilly dallied around the hostel
until about noon, writing and processing pictures until the overcast conditions
of the morning burned off and the sun shined brightly on the city. I finished
my self-tour which wound up 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.
This went on long enough that the guys manning the entrance desk started to
give me strange looks. Being suddenly obsessed with the marble work, I started
to make my way around the church for the second time to take pictures of the
various marble decorations, which involved using various solid objects to
keep the camera steady for long exposure shots, hanging off the banister of
the stairs for better angles and laying on the floor. An uneasy member of
the clergy came out from his hiding place and kept tabs on my actions from
a safe distance. Although I never did anything too outrageous, I must have
looked like a possible risk for doing something objectionable like undressing
and climbing into one of the giant marble holy water tubs for a wash.
Once the self-tour was finished, I still had half the afternoon
at my disposal so I made another pass through Piazza Brà for more pictures
of the same stuff, from different angles, with the help of a more desirable
position of the sun.
After a brief stab at more productivity back at the hostel,
I headed for Romeo and Juliet’s for the second night to indulge in two
more jug-glasses of their white wine, a succulent gnocchi in duck sauce for
a starter and a very disappointing entrée that was composed of cheese,
salami, mushrooms and polenta, which for some reason I thought was a type
of pasta, but it turned out to be something with the taste and consistency
of farina. Number one, I have never been able to get down farina. It was forced
on me at least once a summer at camp and it induced dry heaves every time.
As if fighting back dry heaves wasn’t enough, I proved once and for
all that I without a doubt, no question, whole heartedly hated salami. I gagged
this thing down and tried to kill the salami/polenta aftertaste with a block
of chocolate ice cream with chocolate sauce dribbled all over it, but the
salami, fought its way back into my mouth through a series of deep burps later
in the evening.
Despite this poorly chosen meal, I practically fell over myself
to get back to the hostel so I could rave about Verona for as long as possible
before plunging into the one of the most notorious tourist ridden cities in
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