If you are planning a vacation in Italy this summer, consider the pleasures of Verona and vicinity, as we did last summer (2003) with Milan as our jumping off point. (See Comfort and Culture in Milan). Not only is the Romeo and Juliet fabled Verona a fascinating city to explore, but it boasts as a prime attraction the Verona Opera in the open-air Arena, a draw to people from throughout the world. There is also the advantage of it being a short drive from Lake Garda, where my wife Lillian and I also stayed, and near Padua, where we visited the restored Giotto frescoes.
The drive from Milan to Verona is short and easy. We had heard about the Due Torri Hotel Baglioni as being one of the best in Verona and booked there, although the availability of nights was limited because of the great popularity of the famous opera festival. Sign postings for the hotel helped, but we also had to ask directions. Parking is a problem, but the hotel had arranged for facilities that we paid for separately. Once in Verona, there is no need for a car, as the major places are within walking distance, and indeed, exploring the city by foot is one of the pleasures.
The Due Torri, at the Piazza S. Anastasia, turned out to be comfortable, air conditioned (a must in the summer) and very well situated. A buffet breakfast is served every morning and the staff is friendly and cooperative. A talented pianist provided music in the bar area during cocktail hour. It was only a short walk to the colorful shopping streets, which in addition to the local boutiques, are populated by name stores familiar in major Italian cities and elsewhere in Europe.
A popular touristy attraction is the house where Juliet, who with Romeo inspired the Shakespeare play, was supposed to have lived. Families crowd there and smart-alecks pose for photos with a statue of Juliet, sometimes with hands where they shouldn't be. Naturally, there's the balcony, a lure to those going inside the building. Another draw in a different part of Verona is Juliet's tomb, located in the cloisters of the Church of San Francesco al Corso. We skipped that--there is just so much of the Romeo and Juliet kitsch one can stand.
The opera that we saw was a sumptuous production of Giuseppe Verdi's "Aida" and the experience was thrilling. The staging had been conceived by Franco Zeffirelli on a grand scale befitting the surroundings and with an enormous cast of extras. As is traditional, many in the audience lit candles, the glow creating a lovely effect in the darkening evening hours. I wasn't familiar with the singers, but the leads were impressive.
The effect of the performance was magical. It was quite hot that night, but it became somewhat cooler further into the evening. The Arena, a Roman amphitheater that dates to the late 1st century and is one of the largest in the world, provides a wonderful setting. Apart from the quality of the opera performance, just being there is an attraction in itself, a must for visiting Verona, and you might want to time a trip to coincide with the opera of your choice. Programs scheduled for July and August in 2004, the 82nd Festival dell' Opera, include "Aida," "Il Travatore," "La Traviata," "Rigoletto" and a Placido Domingo concert. You can check out the schedule on the internet at www.arena.it.
Verona boasts several special restaurants. Our favorite turned out to be Il Desco, 7 Via Dietro S. Sabastino. (Phone: 045-595-358) It is upscale in décor, air conditioned, and the hosts, Anna and Elia Rizzo, are welcoming and attentive. The cuisine is sophisticated, the presentation inviting. There is also an excellent choice of wines.
Another leading restaurant is 12 Apostoli at 3 Vicolo Corticella S. Marco. The food there is hearty, and the atmosphere congenial. But it was to Il Desco that we returned. The concierge at the Due Torri directed us to other recommended restaurants, as well as to various local sights, including the Piazza dei Signori, the Piazza delle Erbe, the Lamberti Tower, the Palazzo dei Tribunali and the Castelvecchio e Ponte Scaligero, a castle that houses a noted art museum.
We coupled our trip to Verona with a side visit to charming Sirmione on Lake Garda, and booked into the four-star Hotel Sirmione, which we found to be an ideal location. It is very close to where one can catch ferries that ply the lake and which stop at various points of interest. One can enjoy a pleasant day just by using the normal ferry schedule. Of course, there are also small private boats that can take one on more expensive tours.
Parking can be a problem, but the Hotel Sirmione has a free parking service available a short distance away. As this is a spa area, one can arrange for beauty treatments. The hotel has a pool filled with thermal waters. The rooms are air-conditioned, comfortable and, most helpful for those who need to stay in touch with the world beyond, there is a computer in the lobby that provides free internet access. One can stand there--a seat might invite longer sessions--and check one's e-mail.
Another side trip that is a must was a drive to Padua primarily to see the renowned frescoes by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel. We did that excursion from Verona, and although advised to book in advance, we were told by the hotel concierge, who had telephoned the day before, to just show up. Sure enough, there was no appreciable wait to join the groups that are admitted gradually. But I would still recommend advance reservations.
The frescoes have been beautifully restored and seeing them was a highlight of the entire trip. One isn't allowed to linger as long as one might wish, but enough time is provided for each group to view and contemplate the work of this great artist. There is more to see in Padua, but on this particular journey, our schedule unfortunately did not allow for much further exploration.
Note: when you have driven as far as Padua, it is not much farther to Venice. One can have that in mind when planning an itinerary. But we had to head back to Milan for a flight home so we will have to leave a return to Venice for another trip.