The Lunatic's Ball

A Pair of Star-Cross'd Lovers
25th March 2019

Today's plans were in the balance.

Which way we would go depended on when and how we woke up, and by some miracle we surfaced really early considering we crawled into bed at 1:30am!  Miraculously we even felt refreshed.

So we bounded out of bed and with our pre-paid train tickets to Verona in our pockets, made our way down to Riva degli Schiavoni from where the boats left. They were the quickest and cheapest way to get to the train station.

Our train tickets weren't valid until 11:15am so were over an hour early when we came to the San Zaccaria vaparetto stop (C and D) from which either the number 4 or number 5 waterbus would ferry us to Stazione Santa Lucia.  With a bit of time on our side we decided a bit of breakfast wouldn't go amiss.  

We sat outside Hotel Savoia & Jolanda and ordered some toasted sandwich, Julie a cheese and ham and I had a cheese with roasted veg. We really enjoyed dipping our toasties into a small bowl of Thousand Island sauce, the stuff with which you make prawn cocktails. It worked so well.

Feeling a little dehydrated for some reason we shared a bottle of water and relaxed.

Fed and watered we moved on, buying tickets for the vaporetto, paying 7.50 each for a one-way ticket to the train station. There was an option to buy a day pass but you would need to use the boats for at least three journeys for it to be worth it.

We got onboard the 4.1 waterbus and set out into the lagoon, catching a glimpse of St.Mark's square for the very first time on this trip.

Julie sat down inside whilst I stood outside to see some of the amazing sights as we cruised past.

We sailed away towards the spectacular Basillica di Santa Maria della Salute situated at the entrance to the Grand Canal. Our route didn't take us up the famous waterway but instead we slowly made our way between the district of Dorsoduro and the isalnd of Guidecca, where we made several stops.  

We then turned up what could be described as the arse end of Venice, the less salubrious side, the docks, the place that looks like anywhere else in the world, before taking a right turn back into the more familiar theme park of palazzos and churches at the start of the Grand Canal.

Eventually we reached the train station, a large modern contrcrete structure reminiscent of the type of simple yet strong armed fascist architecture championed during Mussolini's time. It looked badly out of place in the middle of all the beautiful architecture. In fact the Church of Santa Lucia was sacfificed to make way for this modernity. 

The time had passed our scheduled departure but the tickets were apparently valid for any subsequent trains (for up to 4 hours). However I wasn't too sure if this was true because they cost less than if I had pre-booked those subsequent trains. Surely I couldn't ride those on a half-price ticket?

We found the TrenItalia office where sure enough a kind member of staff told us we could take either the 12:08 or the 12:15 to Verona. She advised us to take the later train as it saved half an hour on the journey time!

With time to kill we walked around the station, trying to find somewhere to sit. We stopped at a cafe where we had the worst coffee we ever had an Italy, if not anywhere in the world.  It was perculated coffee, the type that sits in a glass bowl on the heat for hours. It was truy awful, we couldn't even finish them. 

It wasn't long before the train was ready and waiting at the platform so we decided to sit onboard and wait. Exactly on 12:15pm we rolled out of Stazione Santa Lucia.

Within minutes the conductor came around checking tickets. I was still a little anxious that our tickets were valid or not. Thankfully everything was in order. There was no need to pay a supplement or worse get fined 50 like what happened to us once travelling from Pisa airport to Florence.

A female passenger opposite us wasn't so lucky. Her ticket had lapsed 4 days ago, not four hours!

We travelled through familiar sounding cities of Padua and Vincenza. The scenery in between was mostly nondescript which was fine by us as it justified falling asleep. The hour and a half journey was pretty much spent with our eyes shut. Also Verona was the end of the line so we could sleep safe in the kowledge that we wouldn't end up in Milan or somewhere. We arrived at Porta Nuova train station exactly on time. 

According to Google maps it was a 10 minute walk into the city centre or we could have taken a bus. Outside the station was a massive transport hub with what felt like hundreds of buses. It would have taken us more than 10 minutes to have found the right bus, so we decided to walk!

We were glad we did, as walking down Corso Porta Nuova towards the city gates with the snow capped mountains of the Dolomites in the distance was a sight to remember. Although I almost got run over because the view literally stopped me in my tracks and Julie had to remind me that I was stood in the middle of the road!

In no time we had reached I portoni della BrÓ, the pretty 16th century entrance gates into the old walled city.  It seemed too delicate to be part of a serious fortified wall, more style over substance. It's not surprising to read that Verona's history is dominated by others, so often never a power in its own right.

We entered the citadel and immediately came to Piazza BrÓ with its lovely park complete with an inspirational horseback statue of Vittorio Emanuele II (the first King of an unified Italy). I'm sure every city in Italy must have one of these! It still amazes me that before unification in 1861  Italy was still as it was in the medieval times, a collection of city states. The same was true of Germany.

At the point where the road veered off to the right and the square began a couple of armed soldiers were standing guard. It was a sad reflection of the world we live in today when such high security had to be so visible.

Beyond the park the piazza then opened out into a large trafffic-free square dominated by Italy's second most famous amphitheatre, the Arena di Verona.

The fact there weren't any cars hurtling around the place made it a far more pleasurable experience. We stood for an age looking at it.  

It was a lovely square, not only because of the impressive Roman amphitheare, the lack of traffic and the lovely green space but also the wonderful cobblestones. Now I must be getting old when I begin to appreciate the intricate layout of cobblestones!

Our brunch was now a dim and distant memory so it was time for some proper lunch. To the left there was a row of colourful palazzos, most of them were now restaurants. Outside each one they had their tourist friendly menus with pictures and a friendly waiter trying to lure you in.

For no reason other than it was where we stopped, we chose Bar Liston 12 to have something to eat. I don't think it mattered which one as they all had a fabulous view.

I went for pasta pomodoro, plain and simple. Something they couldn't get wrong and thankfully they didn't. It was made with quartered cherry tomatoes rather than a sauce and tasted wonderfully light and fresh.

Unfortunately Julie's dish really disappointed. She went for the Pollo Cacciotore, chicken in a tomato and red pepper sauce. Whist the sauce was delicious the chicken were legs and were just big clunky bones with hardly any meat on them.

Despite the disappointment, the prices were reasonable and we spent plenty of free time soaking up the lovely atmosphere of Piazza BrÓ.

After lunch we decided to have a closer look at the arena. It wasn't anywhere near as large or as complete as the Coliseum in Rome, all but a small fragement of the external shell had been destroyed. 

 Inside was a different story. It was totally restored and looked pretty close to what it would have done in the 1st Century.  The only thing missing were the arches of the surviving external wall rising above the seats.

I strutted through the entrance arch like a gladiator, stepping out into the centre of the arena feeling like Maximus Decimus Meridus, ready to do battle. It wasn't a massive structure but with all the seats in perfect condition it wasn't difficult to imagine a 20,000 capacity crowd cheering and baying for blood.

It is still used today as an arena for musical entertainment, such as opera and pop concerts. I wonder if any boxing or cage fighting has been held here? The modern equivalent of a gladiatoral sport.    

Whilst I went off exploring the amphitheatre Julie found a warm spot in the sun, sat down, kicked off her shoes and brought out her knitting. 

 I headed to the top row for the best view of the whole arena but it also gave me a great view overlooking Piazza Bra and the row of restaurants where we had lunch earlier.

From there I circumnavigated the arena along the vertigo inducing top row. Looking down at the concentric seats was enough make anyone feel dizzy.

It was unbelievable to think that it was built in 30AD, during the reign of Roman Emperor Tiberius, around the same time as a certain Jesus of Nazareth was kicking up a fuss in a dusty corner of the Roman Empire.

It didn't take me long to complete a full circle and despite having one eye on the clock we didn't rush. Instead we sat together on the stone seats and watched people as they came and went. Of course, eventually we left, we had somewhere else to see.

Casa di Guilietta, Verona's other most famous attraction isn't even real! It is a 13th century palazzo with a balcony which once belonged to the Capelli family, which sounds a bit like the fictional Capulet family from Shakespeare's famous play Romeo & Juliet, set once upon a time in this "fair city".

So we left the arena and followed Verona's main pedestriansied shopping street up Via Giuseppe Mazzini where you would find all the high end brands.

At the end of the posh street we turned right and a few yards further along was the narrow entrance to Casa di Guilietta. It was obvious we were at the right place for the thousands and thousands of love notes posted onto the wall.

In the past this had become such a nuisance as star cross'd young lovers would stick their notes onto the stone walls of the palazzo with chewing gum in return for the promise of good luck in their relationship, which when mutiplied a thousand times and the gum became as hard as concrete was damaging the surface. Now the walls of the entrance are lined with removable wooden panels which get replaced when needed. 

We continued into a large courtyard.

It was a pretty building. Most of the red brickwork was exposed and the original intricate window frames were a lovely feature. Then up to the left above the main door was Juliet's balcony. Of course it looked like a recent addition bolted onto an old building but it didn't matter.

We were here to celebrate this city's connection to the greatest love story in the world and what better than to recreated its most famous scene.  

At least they put some effort into the place. They could have simply erected a statue and left it at that.

Of course, there was one of them as well. A bronze statue of a young woman who regularly gets accosted by everyone who vists.

A selfie with Juliet whilst gropping her breast seems to have become the custom. Tourists can sometimes be such a scourge.

There was some intellectualness for those who wanted it. A museum inside the palazzo painstakingly recreated 13th century Verona. We chose not to bother, which at the same time meant turning down the opportunity to stand on THE balcony.

Instead we watched others step onto it, grab a few photographs of themselves, and leave.

I was a little disappointed that no one attempted to recreate Act II Scene 2 "O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?"

For Julie and I, we also associate Rome & Juliet with a Dire Straits song. It's probably Julie's all time favourite and it has some classic lines.  It goes like this ....

A lovestruck Romeo sang the streets of serenade, laying everybody low with a love song that he made. He finds a streetlight, steps out of the shade and says something like "You and me babe, how about it?"

 Juliet says "Hey, it's Romeo, you nearly gave me a heart attack." He's underneath the window, she's singing "Hey, la, my boyfriend's back. You shouldn't come around here  singing up at people like that. Anyway, what you gonna do about it?"

Of course it's a million miles away from Shakespeare but in it's own way it's equally poetic.

Whilst we hung around I had a quick Wikipedia read of Shakespeare's connection to the city and discovered that one of his earliest plays was called "The Two Gentlemen of Verona". I probably knew that in the past, but it was long forgotten.  

We also had a good chuckle to ourselves when we remembered (many many years ago) coming home after watching another of Shakespeare's plays, "Midsummer Night's Dream" (but as a film) and how we spent the remainder of the evening talking in rhyming couplets!

Anyway, we moved on.

We didn't get very far before stopping for a gelato. I went in first, and came out with a strawberry cheesecake ice cream cone. I was enjoying it so much that Julie decided to have one. She came out with a Raspberry flavoured gelato in a tub.

Surely only in Italy would you be walking around eating ice cream in February!

We continued walking and ended up in Piazza delle Erbe or Market Square. Of course, as the name suggested there was a large flea market in the centre of the square, full of artisan traders and a few not so artisan. During the Roman era it was the location of the forum.

It's main feature was Torre dei Lamberti, the huge clocktower of the City Hall.  It stood 84m tall, head and shoulders above everything else in the old town.

Direcly opposite, in the portico of this lovely old building known as Domus Mercatorum, we finally found a proper bank (Banca Populare di Verona). After the other day we were reluctant to take any money out of an ATM but we needed some cash in our pockets, so I withdrew 50 and they only charged our account the actual €50!  Not being ripped off put a spring back into our step.

Near to the hole-in-the-wall (ATM) there was this incredibly dramatic statue of a bare chested woman holding up a sword. From what I could translate of the inscription it was a monument to the Italian civilisation. It was placed on high pedestal, I assume to discourage any statue fondling tourists. 

I later learned that the statue was also in rememberance of 29 victims of an attack by Austria during the First World War.  On the 14th November 1915 Austrian planes bombed Verona and the busy market place of Piazza delle Erbe took a direct hit.

We continued our self-guided mystery walking tour and ended up in another large square, Piazza dei Signori. The palace ringed square was more or less empty but for a statue of Dante Alighieri in the centre. The famous 14th century Florentine poet is best known for The Divine Comedy where he writes about the afterlife of hell, purgatory and paradise. 

I didn't know there was a connection between Dante and Verona but I read he found a home here after being exciled from Florence for being on the wrong side of a political divide between different faction of Papalists.

It's believed he lived in Verona for about 6 years, during which time they say he wrote much of  his masterpiece Divina Comedia. Whilst in town he would have quite probably stayed right here in Piazza dei Signori at the Palazzo Cangrande (also known as Palazzo del Podesta) as a guest of Bartolomeo i della Scala, Lord of Verona.(both Cangrande and Podesta were titles given to the city's governor.)  

The palace's impressive portal, designed to look like a Roman triumphal arch, was a 16th century addition. As was the winged lion, the symbol of the Republic of Venice. 

We took some time out and sat down on the steps of the Loggia del Consiglio, a lovely building annexed to the Palace del Podesta to contemplate our next move.

We looked around and spotted this random statue above a small arch tucked away in the corner,  almost out of sight. It was of a dandy gentleman robed in the finest 15th century fashion. The detail of his costume was expertly carved. It seemed a shame that such a work of art should be so obscurely positioned. (I never did find out who he was but assumed he may have been someone from the wealthy Mazzanti family as the nearby street and collection of houses bear that name.)

We originally thought about continuing on through the strets of Verona until we reached the river Adige and the Ponte Pietra a reconstructed Roman bridge but we changed our minds. Instead we decided to make our way back slowly.

So we left the square through one of its many arches. Theone we chose opened out into the courtyard of the Palazzo della Ragione which had a very unusal stripey facade. It was constructed in layers of red brick and white marble. Then this incredible marble staircase swooped down from a large fortified doorway on the second floor.

During the Venitian rule it was used as the City Hall, today all the doors were closed. So we moved on.

Back into Piazza della Erbe we sat outside a Caffe Barbarani and enjoyed a glass of wine whilst the world revolved. Drinks came with a "complimentary" glass full of peanuts and another filled with crisps. There was a ridiculous amount of nuts but we managed somehow to eat the whole lot. 

This appetiser only whetted our appetite and we went in search of our main course. We loved the location where we ate lunch, in Piazza Bra, overlooking the Arena , but the gnarly chicken was still upsetting Julie , so we tried a different restaurant.

We stopped at a restaurant (slash) pizzeria called La Costa, one of the nearest the Arena. The sun was now low in the sky and the temperature had dropped considerably. Despite this we still sat outside to soak in the stunning view.

I ordered their signature pizza, Pizza alla Costa, described in their Inglese menu as "homemade pizza with mozzarella cheese, porcini mushrooms, sautéed cherry tomato and after baking stracciatella cheese, arugula and saffron".  It all sounded mouthwatering and to be fair it more than lived up to my high expectations. It was absolutely delicious. If I were to be critical the base was a little too thin & crispy for my liking but the flavours were amazing.

Poor Julie wasn't having much luck today. She went for the T-Bone steak which sadly was very thinly cut and woefully overcooked which made it very like the tongue of an old leather boot.

She consoled herself by marvelling at the view of the Arena, now aglow, warmed by the setting sun. 

Once the sun had fallen behind Verona's walls, we were cast into the shadows, and the temperature plumetted. It was time for us to leave and head for the train station.

As we left through the arches of I portoni della BrÓ, we noticed a bust of William Shakespeare with a quote from Romeo & Juliet "There is no world without Verona walls but purgatory, torture, hell itself. Hence banishŔd is banished from the world, and world’s exile is death."   Act 3 Scene 3

It did make me wonder why Verona didn't have a local hero of their own they could celebrate. I searched the internet for any notable Veronians and the only one I recognised was a tennuous  connection to Leonardo di Caprio, who appaerntly had a house in the city!

Back at the train station the Express to Venice was waiting at platform 7. There was plenty of time before it was scheduled to leave but we hopped onboard nevertheless. Safe in our seats and Venice bound we settled down for the 90 minute journey back. 

With nothing to see out of the window but our own reflections so we spent most of the way asleep. Before we knew it, we rolled into Venice' Stazione Santa Lucia around 9pm.

The quickest way across town was of course a vaporetto, and especially as the route was down the Grand Canal. It would have be daft not to have taken advantage of seeing the palazzos from the water.

The ticket booths were just outside the station and we waited breifely for the No.2 line to arrive. On board we made our way to the front of the boat, for the views.

When we got there this odd looking old woman, wearing a surgical face mask (the like popular with Chinese tourists) was verbally beratting a young girl, who had also just got on board before us. She then turned her attention in my direction.

"What are you doing here?" she asked, adding "it's cold outside, you should sit inside".

She really didn't want us to sit next to her but we weren't moving. I made that quite clear that we were happy with the fresh air. She huffed, muttered some Italian profanity and left, inside at first then back outside but on the opposite side.

The young girl looked at us with the wide-eyed stare of the real-face emoji for "WTF?"  I suspected the eccentric old woman was petrified of catching Bird Flu or something. But anyway, we enjoyed the rest of the ride down, past the very grand Casino di Venezia where we attended the ball last night.

 The vaporetto continued around the bend to the Ponte de Rialto. It was such a beautiful sight, its white marble appearing like a ghost in the dark . We sailed beneath it and pulled into a bus stop a short distance away. We decided to get off here to take a closer look at the Venetian icon.  

It was incredbile to believe it has stood here for over four hundred years, (since 1591). I also find it quite funny that the architect was known as Antonio da Ponte, it's like calling him, Tony the Bridge. That's such a Welsh way of doing things!

We set off with Google maps guiding us through the warren of unfamiliar alleyways back towards our hotel.  If it wasn't for the technology in the palm of my hand we would have wandered the darkness for hours. Instead we were tucked up in bed 30 minutes later.

I remember the first time we visited Venice, agreeing with the "getting lost is part of the charm" school of thought. How things have changed.

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