Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Two Gentlemen in Verona

Illustrations. The first part is Verona. Don't peak at Milan until tomorrow!

I got back from the field, showered and immediately started packing again. This time I would need a different tool kit. I surrendered my field pants and replaced them with shorts. My hiking boots were set aside and my sandals seized. My hammer abandoned and my Italian…well couldn’t pack that since I didn’t have any to bring. I then went to the train station and started my journey through three countries before getting off the train in Milan after a rough night spent searching for decent sleeping positions on the ridged train seats. Every two hours or so I would switch trains and begin the ritual of dozing and reawakening various limbs all over again.

But it was all worth it after I rolled into the station (a few minutes late, per my expectations of the Italian rail system) and found Josh near the gleaming tourist information desk (literally, it was covered in brass and neon). We were both bleary-eyed after respective bouts of pseudo-sleep on uncomfortable mass-transit vehicles, but very happy to find each other on the boot.

We found our hotel – The Best Hotel – near the train station. I wouldn’t say it fully lives up to its name, but with our own bathroom and free breakfast every morning, I told Josh to live it up while we had it. The bunk beds were coming. We dropped our backpacks and returned to the station where we ate Italian panini sandwiches, the taste of Italian street food, and started the two-week long process of catching up while we waited for our train to Verona.

The Northern Italian city of Verona is famous as the setting of Billy Shakes’s famous story of star-crossed lovers. It’s also the setting for his lesser known but more obvious “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” I don’t know the plot of the latter play, but I know we were two gentlemen ready to experience Verona.

The train station was a bit of a hike from the old center of town. Our maps offered little guidance, so we started following students who seemed ready for a meal at a quaint street café. They led us right into town via our first Italian gelato stand. Everyone who has been to Italy raves about the gelato. And they should. The flavors are potent (“I ordered kiwi.” “How does it taste?” “Like a kiwi.”) and the ice a perfect consistency for licking from a cone. One of the best things to do in an Italian town is to simply stroll around the town square. This amble is significantly improved with a scoop or two of the world’s favorite Italian desert.

In the town square squatted a massive stone edifice, a Roman amphitheater that once housed gladiatorial combat and now hosts opera festivals. Along the edge of the square were a couple thousand chairs for the dozen cafés that want to edge in on some historical authenticity. We continued our walking tour through town guided by Mr. Rick Steves, a name I once uttered with distain, but now thoroughly rely on for all my Euro-traveling needs. I expect my kick-backs in cash Mr. Steves.

We wandered down colorful alleys walled with muted colors of pumpkin, terra cotta, and rose. Small designer shops with no shoppers indicated a swanky shopping district. Then we rolled into the market square where we learned the towers were built by the ruling families as a way to one-up each other. Finally one took over and had all the other families cut their towers down to size.

We popped into a few churches along our route where I had the weird realization that I was seeing something new. If you had plunked me down in a Veronese church a year ago I would have said, “Gothic.” Now I can say “Italian Gothic.” Who says that? The thing sprawls, making the building more square than rectangular. The alters are slapped flush with the wall instead of getting their own nook. There also isn’t a lot of light. The design of the building only allows a few small, clear windows along the roof-line. I think the openness of the floor plan is necessary to combat the limited light. The ceilings were frescoed with vines and coats of arms, creating an aerial Magic Eye.

We reached the river and learned the bridge spanning the Adige River was constructed in 100 BC by Roman hands. It stood for two millennia until retreating German soldiers blew up four of the bridge's arches. The blocks were dredged from the river and in 1957, the refurbished bridge was unveiled. We had to cross, following the ancient Roman route to the Veronese amphitheatre (under construction, of course). Past sculpted pines and up brick stairs we wandered until we found a castle overlooking town. We sat on the wall and took in the terra cotta landscape of Verona. The bell towers and domes punctuated the romantic skyline. This was Italy.

Josh and I sat and chatted, mostly about how every Italian vision we had ever dreamed up, aided by too much television and opera (in his case), was being confirmed by Verona. But finally, we had to climb down and cross the bridge again. It was time for food. The clouds started rolling in and we had a find a place with a good umbrella or awning quickly. But we were also on a budget, quickly discovering the price you pay for a seat on the square. We wandered a little off the beaten track and found a pizza place with cheap house wine. More Italian must-dos (not that we wouldn’t get plenty of both by the end of our adventure) checked off the list.

Josh discovered the European love of corn as a topping and I was reminded that fresh spinach rarely goes on top of pizza in these parts. After our meal, we visited the final icon of Verona: Casa Guliette or “Juliet’s House.” The authentic Renaissance house near the market square, like so many Veronese homes, is decked out with a balcony. You can take a tour of the house with a few artifacts discussing how Romeo and Juliet would have lived for their brief, angsty tenure on this earth. We didn’t. Instead we watched the statue.

Under the balcony is a bronze statue of Juliet coyly looks away from the hundreds of tourists polishing her right breast for luck and long-lasting love. Wives goaded their husbands into the ritual and Japanese tour groups swarmed for the opportunity. After laughing and watching for a few minutes, Josh and I finally decided that we should probably follow suit, just in case the tradition is more than a tourist trap. I now confirm this fact: It is awkward to feel up a statue, even if it’s a tradition.

Before leaving the Casa, I inscribed mine and Carolyn's names in a slightly open spot on the wall of the entrance to the balcony courtyard. The graffiti is part of the ritual and I think Carolyn's and my love will last at least as long as our names on that wall, which have probably already been obscured by other pining Romeos.

As the sun set over the mini-Coleseum, we caught the train back to Milan, ready to get the next day started early in the fashion capital of Europe (not that we really had any idea what that meant).


Photo Album of terra cotta roofs and other Veronese things.

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