Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

“In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…”

I just can’t seem to stay home too long these days without getting those itchy traveling feet. After Morocco in late January, I weathered the weather in Budapest, keeping warm in the pubs by watching rugby, quaffing Guinness, doing some karaoke now and then, dining out with friends (who ever dines out with enemies?), attending the Rembrandt exhibit in the Museum of Fine Art and all the other usual things one does in the winter in Hungary.
But it was time to hit the road again, to yet one more famous place I haven’t visited. This time it was Verona, Italy, setting for Shakespeare’s saga of Romeo and Juliet. Even though Old Will himself never visited Verona, I had no doubts the Veronese have made extensive tourist capital out of their relationship to one of The Bard’s best-known plays. I only needed a long weekend to see the sights in this small northern Italian city, located between Milan and Venice and easily reached by one large and one small airplane flight. I booked my flights and hotel and was once again ready to travel.
The best connecting flights I could find had me leaving Budapest at 7:00 AM on Thursday, March 19, which meant I had to be up at 4 AM for my trip to the airport. Yucchh. But, one does what one must, so I made it in time for my short flight to Rome, where I had a five-hour layover, then a jump on a small airplane, arriving in Verona around 3:30 in the afternoon. A bus to the central bus station and a brief, but exhilarating, 20-minute walk to B&B Verona 23 and I was ready to see the evening sights.
I found the B&B just about 20 meters from Juliet’s Tomb, on a side street of Verona named Via Pontiere. It was a clean, neat, well-maintained small B&B on the second floor of a newish apartment building. I was happy with my choice, even though there were two shared bathrooms (I rarely even saw anyone else in the place and never had a problem with the baths being occupied). The price seemed reasonable when I booked it: $36 a night for the first two nights, but $108 per night for the weekend; turned out there was a huge wine fest in town that weekend, which was why the prices changed for the worse. But still, it was Verona.
My B&B was only a ten-minute walk from the main square, Piazza Bra, one side of which is the Verona Arena (amphitheater). It’s surrounded by restaurants, bars, an uncountable number of pizzerias and more than a few gift shops.
So, around 5 PM I ventured forth into what I hoped would be another weekend adventure. The weather was sunny but cool, temps in the mid-50s (about 13 Celsius). I was ready for a Happy Hour, so I stopped at one of the outdoor restaurants along the Liston, Verona’s promenade along one side of the Piazza Bra. The chill evening air was cut by the heat lamps overlooking the tables, and I enjoyed my Nastro Azzuro beer while watching the locals and tourists walk by between me and the gigantic Roman amphitheater, called in Verona the Arena.
That one beer hit the spot and I ambled off up the main shopping street, Via Mazzini, to the Piazza del Erbe, which turned out to be the main action square in town, with souvenir vendors, more outdoor restaurants (with heat lamps), beautiful Roman statues, medieval building facades and so much charm and picturesque-ness you just wanted to shout out, “ENOUGH! NO MORE CHARM!”
OK, Verona really is amazing; it reminded me of Venice in that I couldn’t stop taking pictures. In fact, I took 230 snaps, and those were just of the things worth memorializing. Naturally, the souvenir booths had all of the stuff one finds in such places around the world, the exact same stuff – t-shirts, fake jewelry, shot glasses, fridge magnets, scarves, tourist crap – only this time with the word Verona emblazoned on everything.
And if you were wondering, Yes, Verona does milk the Romeo and Juliet story for all it’s worth – and more. There are Romeo and Juliet restaurants, Juliet Gelato stands, Romeo mens stores, the actual houses lived in by the Montagues and Capulets, Romeo baseball caps, Juliet (actually, Giulietta) aprons…and the tourists were eating it up with gigantic spoons. Brutal.
I needed another beer by this time, so a local brew was just the thing, a pretty good Italian amber beer, which I imbibed while resting at yet another terrace table in the Piazza Erbe. A snack of something sounded good, but the menus were mostly in Italian, so I had to guess at what I was ordering. I chose a piadina, which the waiter assured me I would enjoy, and I did; it was sort of like quesadillas and went down well with my beer.
Since I’d been up at 4 AM to catch my flight, I figured an early night was in order, as tomorrow would be a big walking day, so I hiked back to my B&B and turned.
Up at the crack of eight, a nice continental breakfast in the B&B, where I met some young Russian men on tour. I greeted them with my smattering of Russian, with which they were obviously impressed. We chatted awhile about travel; turned out they were from St. Petersburg, one of my all-time favorite cities in the world, so we had something in common. Then I was ready to tackle Verona.
The city of Verona straddles a dog-leg curve in the Adige (“Ah–DEE–jay”) River in northern Italy, lying generally between Milan and Venice. It’s a compact little city, and easily walkable in a few hours, which is what I set out to do on Friday morning. First stop, just half a block from my B&B: Giulietta’s Tomba (Yep, Juliet’s tomb).
Juliet’s tomb is actually in the Abbey of San Francesco, but Juliet is buried elsewhere. This is one of the few secrets of the city, as no one could (or would) tell me where she was. So the “tomb” consists of an empty sarcophagus in an old abbey; i.e., nothing special – but they still charge you to go in and look. Naturally.
Let the Milking Begin!
I cut over to the river and walked up its inner-city embankment. It was a beautiful early spring day, the sun was shining brightly (although beginning to go into its eclipse) and the weather was brisk and inviting. It was the beginning of another brief adventure, and all was right with the world.
I strolled along the riverside, taking some photos and just enjoying the morning. I turned left into what would become the Via Cappello, which leads to the Piazza Erbe, and which also happens to be the street on which Juliet’s family home is located. Since it was still early, the tourists weren’t yet out in force, so I decided to check out the Capulet’s house, which turned out to be a beautifully-preserved example of a 13th Century Italian house. And, of course, out in the courtyard is - The Balcony. Yep, that famous balcony.
Apparently, the power of Shakespeare’s vision still affects many people around the world. Every year hundreds of thousands of incurable romantics trek to Verona to see the balcony where Juliet stood while Romeo declared his love. Although originally characters in a poem by a local Italian author, it seems the Romeo and Juliet we know today were really were only figments of Shakespeare's imagination. This is the most powerful love story in western culture and we all want to live a little part of its dream - although not its tragic ending.
Juliet's house was owned by the family dell Capello (rather close to ‘Capulet,’ right?). Of course, there is a slight problem with the balcony itself; it was added in the 20th century. Not important to the hundreds of girls who visit it every year and step out onto it and gaze sighingly below, seeking their Romeo among the herd of tourists. The power of this place, taken in context with the story, is apparent for everyone to feel.
In the courtyard is a bronze sculpture of Juliet; local legend has it that it’s lucky to rub her right breast. Of course, everyone does, and the bronze patina has long been worn off to the shiny metal underneath. And, yes, naturally, I had to add my rubbing to the generations before me.
In addition, the city fathers (or whoever set up this extremely popular romantic tourist attraction), have allowed – nay, encouraged – visitors to leave love notes to Juliet; these notes are stuck on walls and doors in the entrance to the courtyard. Feel that milking motion getting faster? Oh, Wherefore art thou Romeo?
I continued on my way through the ever-increasing throngs of tourists, exiting the courtyard and turning right toward the Piazza Erbe. I headed right again toward the river, through the Piazza San Anastasia (another church), and over to the Ponte Pietra (Stone Bridge). I crossed over to see the old Roman amphitheater, the Teatro Roman, which was, of course, closed to visitors due to renovations. You’d think they would do the renovation outside of tourist season. Sigh.
OK, back across the river, around the river’s dogleg and down to the Duomo, yet another old cathedral, from where I continued down through more picturesque side streets and back into the Piazza Bra; time for lunch. Of the many restaurants and cafes along the Liston, I chose the one with the most welcoming and smiling and friendly waitress, the Café Emanuel.
I ate on the terrace in the shadow of the Arena, Verona’s amphitheater, not in as good a shape as the one in Rome, but not bad for all that. Plus, this one is actually used for various performances during the summer months; in fact, it was being prepped for the first show, due in April, during my visit.
The sun was still shining, albeit somewhat subdued, due to the ever-encroaching eclipse, as I enjoyed my Soave Bolla wine and entrecote steak with veggies; I really am trying to stick with my Paleo diet. But then I had to have one of the justly-famous Veronese desserts; this time it was a panna cotta al caramello. I’ll leave it to your imagination to wonder about this afternoon delight.
After lunch I took the unescorted tour of the Arena. Actually, it was just walk inside and up and down the steps and watch the workmen prepare for the upcoming season; a wooden floor was being laid, chairs were being set up and the entire Arena was being made ready for the summer’s shows. Maybe someday I’ll come back and see a live performance here; one never knows, do one?
Afterwards, I walked around behind the Arena and looked for the Scottish pub I was told was there, but it didn’t exist. Hmmm. What I found out soon enough was that there is virtually no exciting nightlife in Verona: no pubs, no real bars, no music clubs, nothing but sitting around at the restaurants and “wine bars” (which are really just small cafes selling only specialty wines) and chatting until the wee hours.
So, as I strolled the streets I had time to think about what I was experiencing. Verona really is a picturesque, quaint, charming little city. It’s been designated a World Heritage Site, with its cobblestone streets and its links to Shakespeare’s plays. Lots of designer clothing stores and very touristy, but, amazingly enough, I didn’t spot a single internet café. The locals apparently take great pains to make themselves look casually elegant. The Veronese men are seemingly all tall and thin, with a four-day growth of heavy black stubble, short razor-cut hair, and dressed in the classic Italian style that makes so many female tourists check them out with an appraising eye.
And the women! Well, talk about studiedly casual elegance! Damn! Slender bodies, perfect hairdos, perfectly-fitting clothes that accentuate all of that feminine pulchritude, these women don’t merely walk down the street; they strut, they prance, they preen, they sashay. “Where others satisfy, they most make hungry.” Even carrying their veggies home from the market, they give new meaning to “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” I could watch them all day and night – and often did.
After such a heavy lunch, I decided dinner would be snacks, so I settled in at the Ippopotamo Café on the Liston with my Peroni Red beer and my Italian tapas plates of various goodies, the better to enjoy the passing scenery. When I sat down at my table, I went to move the stack of menus already there, only to be surprised to realize that it was just one huge menu; damn thing must have been two inches thick and weighed five pounds. Biggest menu I’ve ever seen. Anyway, it was Friday evening around 8 o’clock, and I was surprised to see all of the restaurants along the Liston were fairly empty – unlike the ones on the Piazza Erbe, which were packing them in by 6 PM. Interesting; people seemed to go for the smaller, busier, more action-filled square rather than the main tourist plaza.
And on to Saturday, March 21.
My second big day of exploring and walking Verona took me early on over to the Castelvecchio, a 14th Century castle located on the west side of Verona, overlooking the Adige River.
It was the home of the Scaligeri family, who also commissioned the baroque Arche Scaligeri, a major tomb of the lords of Verona, obviously, an important and wealthy lot. The day was cloudy and cool, but not crowded, at least for the moment. After checking out the inner courtyard of the Castel, I crossed the Ponte (bridge) Scaligeri and walked up the embankment to the next upriver bridge. Crossing back, I wended my way to the nearby San Zeno church, another interesting piece of 8th-9th Century architecture, which was closed off due to refurbishing. No chance to see the guidebook-touted triptych altarpiece, then. Another sigh.
Back again around the Castelvecchio, I chose at random a small café and had a pannicotte picante, which turned out to be a meat-and-cheese-filled pastry, sort of like a Cornish Pasty. Yummy. I still hadn’t been able to find Romeo’s house; apparently, it wasn’t as important as Juliet’s, at least not as a tourist attraction. But it was shown on my local city map and I was determined to give Romeo his due, so find it I would! (Interesting how writing about such a romantic city causes me to wax poetic).
Verona has signs posted discreetly for every other sight and site in town, but nothing for Romeo’s house. How could they give the other half of the famous pair such short shrift? Sexist pigs! Anyway, I wended and twisted and turned and watched for clues and finally – finally! – found one small sign that read, “Casa de Cagnolo Nogarola detto Romeo” – whatever the heck that means. I figured the translation was “Romeo lived here,” so, like it or not, that was the place I designated as Romeo’s humble abode. There was a large arched doorway next to the sign, and, on the opposite side, a stone plaque, covered – literally covered – with graffiti, which, although quite hard to read, seemed to be another quote from Shakespeare about our hero, Romeo. This was his house, I do so declare it to be! Found the little sucker!!
Evening found me again back at the Piazza Erbe, where there was an orchestra playing the Big Band sounds, to the delight of the nearby drinkers and diners. I listened for awhile, enjoying the evening air and the music, which I realized was sadly lacking around the city. They could have used more music to add to the ambience.
Dinner was at the Lady Verona restaurant, just a few steps away and smack in the middle of the Piazza Erbe. I had a scintillating white wine (two carafes, mind you!), the seafood fry and veggies. The terrace party was in full swing, the heat lamps were doing their job keeping out the evening chill and the diners kept rotating in and out of all the places along the square’s Restaurant Row. I was definitely in the mood for a limoncello, but thought I’d have it at the Ippopotamo Café on the Liston, where I hoped my favorite young waitress was on duty, but she had Saturday night off so I passed it by. I tried several other places on my way back to the B&B, but they either had no tables available (Hey! I just wanted a drink and a small dessert!) or they didn’t have any limoncello. What a disappointment! I thought it was an Italian law that every restaurant and bar in the entire country had to serve limoncello, which, after wine, must be the country’s national drink. Can you hear me sighing yet again?
Anyway, I found a small cafe next to my B&B where I chatted with some young ladies on vacation from the Canary Islands and managed to have a gratifyingly-tasty Sambuca (albeit without the coffee bean). The lack of a rousing nightlife left me without an evening anchor for my revelries, but at least it got me to bed early. Damn!
So – Sunday, March 22. My third day in Verona, which, I had discovered the previous night, was really only a two-day city. Hmm, what’s left to do? Well, not much, that’s what. Unless I wanted to visit each of the museums in town (which I didn’t), it was pretty much of an open day. The clouds continued to hang over the city and there was even some (very) light rain, so I ambled around haphazardly, exploring parts of the city previously unseen, taking random side streets and happening upon small, beautiful squares and statues and medieval doorways. It was a touch colder and somewhat windy, but still evocative for all that. One could almost feel Thibeault lurking around the next corner.
Lunchtime found me walking by a Chinese restaurant, and the day seemed to call for some spiciness, so in I went. Hot and sour soup, Szechuan Beef, rice and jasmine tea, just the thing to ward off the chill of a late spring afternoon in Verona. As I walked back across the Piazza Bra, I noticed the little town tourist train was in its station, ready to convey tourists around the city for a small fee. What the heck, I was tired of walking everywhere, so I took the half-hour journey in style (in this case, ‘style’ being relative, of course).
Those quaint, atmospheric cobblestone streets I had admired weren’t quite so wonderful when bouncing over them in a carriage apparently without shock absorbers, but it was still a nice ride and I enjoyed watching the buildings flow by and seeing the exhausted tourists trudging across the bridges and through the squares.
The Last Supper in Verona. All that walking really had worn me down, and I just didn’t feel like another trek of ten whole minutes back to the main square, so luckily I found a Mexican restaurant just up the street from my B&B. Mexicali, and it looked great. And on a Sunday evening, how crowded could it be? I walked in around 6:30 and was the only customer in the place; by 7 PM it was heaving! Heaving, I tell you! They served a Happy Hour buffet assortment of tapas and it seemed like every local in the city knew about it and flocked to the Sunday evening treat.
The place was packed! I was astonished. Even on Friday and Saturday evenings in the Piazza Erbe the restaurants weren’t this crowded. The ambience was warm and cozy, the prices reasonable, the munchies fun and the margaritas made me smile. They had 14 different kinds of margaritas, of which I sampled the Basil (hey, don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it; it was highly recommended by my Brazilian waiter), the Tommy’s (named after a San Francisco bar’s specialty) and the Classic (just because I wanted one more). I was tempted to go for one (or more) of the 38 different kinds of rum on the menu, but wisely passed in favor of the margaritas. Accompanied by an order of fresh, chunky guacamole, they were just the thing to kick off a Sunday evening in Verona.
Dinner was the carne asada, which I hadn’t had in way too long, with a small salad, in an oddly-shaped bowl; I wondered where I would rest my knife and fork between bites, but it turned out OK; I’ll leave you to wonder how. Dessert was the copa de reyes, sort of a chocolate pudding with whipped cream; Paleo diet be damned, I’m in Italy! And after all was eaten and drunk and enjoyed, I even got my limoncello – finally!
And so, faithful readers, that was my Weekend in Verona. Another fun time was had by all; well, anyway, at least by me. Monday morning I walked back to the main train/bus station and caught the aerobus back to the airport; a short flight to Rome, then 80 minutes back to Budapest and I was home by 6 PM. Another adventure safely tucked under my belt. If you have the chance, do a weekend in Verona – you’ll love it!