In Fair Verona

Our last stop on this Italy train, before we return to German programming next week, is Verona, an old, richly historical city most of us English speakers know through Shakespeare, or more precisely, Romeo and Juliet. (Of course while it’s the latter’s balcony that is one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, we would be remiss to forget The Taming of the Shrew and Two Gentlemen of Verona.)

We were Verona-bound due to a birthday gift of two tickets to Eros Ramazzotti’s concert at the Arena, courtesy of SG’s father. Eros Ramazzotti, you ask? Only one of Europe’s top-selling love ballad crooners ever. Ask Nicole Scherzinger. No, I hadn’t heard of him either until SG’s father, wide eyed in disbelief, extolled his virtues. The day before we left for our drive down south, a CD arrived in the mail – a compilation of Eros’s greatest hits, according to Papa SG. It was on repeat the whole week. What a smoothie.

The city of Verona is about a 30 minute drive from Lago di Garda, the lake itself a part of the province of Verona. SG took the wheel and guided us through some uncomfortable traffic moments – I mean what do they do at roundabouts? It’s madness! – depositing us safely in a public car park a short stroll from the old centre. From there we sauntered in through the stone arch, and bäm, the two-thousand-year-old Arena. Just like that.

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But we had nine hours until Eros would take the stage in that very arena, so we strolled on. Past Vespas and expensive boutiques, suave Italians and overweight tourists, cameras dangling from necks. Past markets and overpriced restaurants serving only lunch, please leave if it is a mere drink you are after. Down slim, stoney alleys, past tiny shops selling strange homewares. Into an atmosphere-less cafe that served The World’s Worst Bruschetta. Past a cafe, metres away, that served pizza, atmosphere and free wifi. Didn’t want to throw a tantrum at all, the bitter taste of dried basil and unripe tomato on thin, white sliced bread, still on my tongue.

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Back up to a cafe that served good coffee and had both splendid waitstaff (faith restored) and people-watching capabilities. Back into the winding fray, en route to find Juliet’s Balcony, black and white mode truly on.

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We found the balcony, the little post box that ferries your letters to the tragic lover, the ghastly souvenir shops that revel in their ghastliness, the wall covered in messages. We also found half the world’s tourists snapping pictures of people posing on the famous stone. I bought Nana a postcard of the balcony – she loved Letters to Juliet.

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Down to the river and into a wine bar for a couple of glasses of red wine and reading. Up onto the bridge for numerous photos. We were drawing it out as much as possible, the hours passing slowly. Into a restaurant by the river for another Aperol Spritz and, after a while, dinner. A slow walk back to the Arena, which was already beginning to buzz.

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Then it was time; we bought cushions for our bottoms (the old stone gets hard) and found seats in an ancient arena full of screaming fans, the men as loud as the women … indeed the men in our row singing along to every single song. There was a woman in front of us who couldn’t, for the life of her, figure out why her iPhone kept photographing a big, thumb-like obstruction, instead of Eros. There were flashing headbands, Eros bandanas, parent/child outings, Eros to these kids presumably what Cat Stevens was to me.

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And there was Eros.

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And then were was me, losing my shoe, as we shuffled out, and a row of people not understanding SG in German or English as he yelled out, ‘shoe! shoe! Schuh! Schuh!’ Finally, after a lot of fossicking, it was found and ferried along the row, back onto my foot.

Then we drove home, Eros still ringing in our ears.

Food + Wine

Let’s talk about food. Not too much, because you know, Italy + Food = it has all been said before. But I thought a brief chat about cheese and pesto and pizza wouldn’t go astray. Oh and wine! Always wine. Red wine, this time, because we were in a sea of Bardolino Classico and Valpolicella, bathing in the stuff.

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Vineyards!

Pizza and pasta were, of course, abundant, to feed the masses of tourists clamouring for their authentic Italian food. Despite being in a part of Italy not necessarily famous for either. But, hey, it’s Italy, one would be utterly remiss not to eat pizza. Not in any danger of being remiss, we ate plenty of it, awarding our final pizza of the week the highest rating of 9/10. Zucchini, marscapone cheese … I mean. I was too busy eating it to photograph it, which is a good thing.

This one was given an 8.2 out of 10.
This one was given an 8.2 out of 10.

There was one evening we went off course and had a risotto, purely because the restaurant didn’t serve pizza (SG couldn’t hide his disappointment.) Not that it wasn’t a creamy, peppery delight.

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Pizza aside, for a good portion of the week, we did our own thing. After a breakfast of, essentially, a cheese and ham toastie at a cafe on our first morning, we discovered what the hordes of Germans were beelining for every morning – the bakery on the campsite. So we did the same. We beelined every morning and picked up fresh bread and this sensational butter for every breakfast, which we topped with the spoils of our supermarket hunts (I love supermarket hunting in other countries) – cheeses, meats, olives, sun dried tomatoes, sweet treats like Nutella filled pastry cigars, and pesto. I went crazy on the pesto. Two pots in one week. These supermarket hunts also formed the basis for most lunches and a couple of dinners, the only difference being that coffee was replaced with wine. And strawberries were added at one point, because I saw them at a food market and everyone knows you should buy things at food markets in Italy because it feels and sounds great to do so.

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There were trip ups and slip ups, namely The Worst Bruschetta in the World which was consumed at a cafe in Verona. Two slices of toasted white bread, a sliced red-green tomato, a sprinkling of dried basil. I still can’t talk about it. An unimpressive sort of sandwich also eaten in Verona, but that was my fault for going off pizza-book. There were olives ordered that came as fries (I mean, not a mistake one can really resent). But you can’t win ’em all and such slips make the triumphs that much sweeter.

As well as our enthusiastic engagement with wine, we really got into the Aperol Spritz groove, surrounded by Aperol Spritz loving Germans and Austrians. SG savoured his Italian beers. We brought back four bottles of wine from the region, oils, and, of course, pesto.

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Ah yes, and there was gelato, obviously, shop after shop of tub after tub of soft, colourful gelato that was scooped out and tucked into waffles and cups and attacked by gelato-covered mouths.

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The pants are a little tighter this week.

Tomorrow, the final Italy post, phew: Verona

Villages in Pictures: Malcesine & Sirmione

We drove up to Malcesine, an old and extremely – and here I hesitate to use such a contrived adjective – picturesque municipality that lies by the northern part of the lake (the … phallus …). It was a 33km drive that took us about an hour and twenty minutes. But why, I hear you ask. There is one main road that goes around the whole lake. Remember all those Germans and Dutch we shared the roads with, down to Lake Garda? They were on that road too. All of us together, inching forward, a veritable glut of round-about uncertainty and flagrant disregard for road rules (actually, that was more the Italians.) Scooters swerving in and out of one long, jostling line of big shiny German cars, tiny shiny Fiats, and caravans that could probably fly to the moon or sail to Australia. But we got to Malcesine, eventually, and triumphantly snagged a park in among some olive groves.

Worth it? Why, natürlich. Was für eine dumme Frage! Malcesine, one of the more well known, popular and indeed bigger villages by the lake, is set against those massive mountains, the town seemingly designed to either lead you down stony paths to the water’s edge, or up skinny alleys to the remains of an old castle.

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Which leaves us with Sirmione. Once a favourite with wealthy families from Verona, it sits at the very bottom of the lake, dividing the area in half.

Below is a handy map borrowed from Wikipedia – you can see Malcesine on it, as well as the previously-discussed shape of the lake:

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Having seen the traffic heading south to Sirmione on a previous day’s trip, SG came up with the brilliant idea of catching the boat from Lazise to Sirmione, thus avoiding a good two hours in the car and the horror of finding a park. Plus, seeing any sort of waterside town, village or city from the water itself, always affords such a lovely perspective.

Of course, we caught the boat with most of Bavaria and Austria (and their dogs – literally, not figuratively) and shared the day in Sirmione with the other half, who had travelled by car. Sirmione was the busiest of all the towns we’d visited and by the end of all the hustle and bustle, we were, truth be told, rather fed up with humanity.

But. Again. Worth it? Ja sicher. It always is. This is, after all, where Maria Callas had a villa, James Joyce met Ezra Pound, and about which poet Alfred Tennyson wrote “There to me through all the groves of olive in the summer glow, There beneath the Roman ruin where the purple flowers grow”

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The Scaliger Castle, a 'rare example of Medieval port fortification'
The Scaliger Castle, a ‘rare example of Medieval port fortification’

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 Coming up tomorrow in this ongoing week of Lago di Garda: Food & Wine

Villages in Pictures: Bardolino & Lazise

We stayed in Cisano, a little village in the municipality of Bardolino (think wine, so much glorious wine) somewhere around halfway down the belly of the lake. (Lago di Garda is shaped a bit like a phallus, to be perfectly candid, which is apparently typical of a moraine valley – so belly or balls. I prefer the less gauche ‘belly’.) There isn’t a great deal happening in Cisano itself, save for a little boat pick-up and drop-off point, those occupying the campingplatz and handful of hotels, and a few bars – one with a spectacularly grumpy waiter.

But the spectacularly grumpy waiter was but an easily brushed-aside mosquito when our Aperol Spritzes (German style) came with this:

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We spent most of our time in the village of Lazise, also a part of the municipality of Bardolino, because it was the closest village by foot that had the biggest array of restaurants, including what came to be our favourite, Rustico. Plus, the walk to Lazise which we did at least once a day, looks a little something like this:

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Lazise teemed with (mostly) German, Austrian and Italian tourists, and there are seemingly three hundred pizzerias to cater to the hordes. The first night we went central but after that, stuck to a side street restaurant that you could slide into without entering the melee in the middle. And the pizza was superb. But even the tourists couldn’t stamp out the quaint beauty of Lazise’s tiny harbour, gelato buildings or old church. Or block the view of that sunset.

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Bardolino as a region is famous for producing ruby red, highly drinkable wine, which we quaffed by the litre caraffe. More on that to come. The centre of Bardolino itself is, as most of the lakeside villages are, all stony laneways and colourful restaurants. We found a strange little wine bar away from the hordes of tourists filing through the narrows streets, and listened to an old Italian man with a thinning white bob and several drinks under his belt, entertain whoever happened to pass the bar. After a while he paid his tab and wobbled away on his bicycle and we went in search of lunch.

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Coming up tomorrow: Malcesine and Sirmione.

The Lake

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For as long as I have known him, whenever conversation has drifted to childhood memories, SG has spoken fondly, so fondly, of a big lake in Italy. His Mum and Dad, in true German style, used to drive a caravan down from Kiel, park it by the lake, and set small SG free upon the water, the boats, and the ice cream.

Last Christmas, I got a card in which was the gift of a week down by Lake Garda, staying in a little bungalow in a huge campingplatz (observations about which, and the German camping culture, will get their own blog post) metres from the shore of the fondly remembered lake. Lake Garda to the English, Gardasee to the Germans and, in its mellifluous mother tongue … Lago di Garda.

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You’ll find Lago di Garda, the largest lake in Italy and cloistered by mountains from the Gruppo del Bardo, up north, a couple of hours from the Austrian border and a short drive from Verona. It runs for around 51.6km and dotted down its length are ancient villages, olive groves, vineyards, fortifications, and an obscene amount of accommodation options for the tourists. But let’s forget about the tourists for now. Tourists (and there are, to be honest, a lot of them in this pocket of the world) spoil everything.

Without the tourists, Lago di Garda is a beautiful, peaceful collision of the best Mother Nature has to offer – blue water, enormous mountains, bursts of pink and red flowers, thousands of olive trees and the type of climate and ground conducive to producing large quantities of extremely drinkable wine. It is old stony, lane ways and terracotta houses, wrought iron-lace balconies and crumbling forts, pebbly alcoves and long, spindly wooden piers.

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The six hour drive down from Weiden bloated into a 9 hour drive from hell, the roads choked with kilometre-long traffic-jams. Every ten minutes, there’d be a tri-lingual sign warning of ‘traffic danger!’ or the sat-nav would give it’s little ‘traffic jam ahead’ signal. A couple of accidents stopped up the roads and gave SG carte blanche to use his word of the trip, ‘rubbernecking.’ Half of Germany and a good portion of the Netherlands, with their huge caravans, banked things up from the Italy-Austria border on, and we crawled our way down through the tolls and into Lake Garda.

But what a drive.

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Checking in was chaotic, involved visiting two different reception locations, and seemed to occur alongside the millions of people we shared the roads with. We were both snappy and hungry and sweaty, having been woefully unprepared in the snacks and drinks department of our road trip. In fact, we were generally woefully unprepared compared to the surrounding serious campers, like, for example, our neighbour, who had packed a vacuum cleaner …

The only thing to do, once our little trailer had been located, was to avail ourselves of what Italy does best; food and wine. Nothing like a litre of Bardolino table wine to scrub away the snappiness.

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This week will be an Italy week on the blog – words and (plenty of) pictures on the lake’s villages, wine, food, and the beautiful city of Verona. I suggest you consume each post with a glass of red wine and some good cheese.

As for the German camping culture and all I learnt about it … I’ll leave that for next week.