Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Vernoa, Italy

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 cultural differences!

Here's a close-up of the notes

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 on.

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 the theatre.


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.

Vernoa Cathedral

Verona Castle

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 Europe, Venice.

Go to Venice

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©Leif Pettersen 2012