Piedi, in bicicletta e shopping a Verona

We are loving Verona and our little hotel. Before jumping out of bed early this morning I checked the temperatures predicted for Arabba for the next couple of days….-9C top temperature …”Brrrr good decision to disappear south for a couple of days”.   It will be a tropical and sunny  -1C in Verona today and we might even get above zero tomorrow :-))

Hotel Accademia is owned by the famous Zenatello opera family.  Giovanni Zenatello (1876 – 1949) was a renowned opera singer and tutor but his great claim to fame was convincing the Verona city to renovate the magnificent Arena and allow regular operatic performances to be held there.   As the hotel website says:

Thus, the Arena was transformed into the greatest open-air opera theater in the world. Since then until now, for the exception of the two World War periods, the incredible magic of the opera season at the Arena recurs every summer, bringing to Verona some 500,000 opera enthusiasts, who are always fascinated by the marvelous and majestic stage sets.

As we made our way down to breakfast, we saw that the walls were adorned with incredible historical photos of hotel functions, famous opera singers and performances from the last century.   All along the way, any staff we met greeted us with a friendly “Buongiorno” and this set the tone for every interaction with the staff during our stay.  It’s a small thing for a big hotel, and obviously they are trained to do this, but even when we pass a girl vacuuming in the hall, she makes eye contact and says hello.  It makes a big hotel seem a lot smaller and friendlier.

I don’t think I’ll ever get used to being offered alcohol and at any time of the day.  This morning it was a medicinal Prosecco on offer to “cleanse your palette” before your muesli and yoghurt???    Actually when I come to think of it, Sir James Hardy’s mum, Eileen was famous for starting the morning with a champagne…maybe there’s something to it?

Enough about “colazione senza prosecco”…..Inspired by our friends Mike & Leanne who had done a terrific bike tour of Paris during one of their trips, I had contacted a local company who, despite not having any bookings during this notoriously quiet time of the year, graciously agreed to put on a trip just for us.  We were to meet our guide at 2pm, so we had plenty of time this morning to explore the city further.

None of the shops were open on Monday morning.  This was the same in Lyon.  Because the shopkeepers were open for most of Sunday…except between (12 – 3pm!) they of course need to have a bit of sleep-in on Monday morning.  It is hard to imagine in our Anzac world of almost 24/7 day trading how we would cope with Latin shopping hours.  Would people buy less?

I guess the answer is yes….for us, window shopping this morning is preventing us from blowing the holiday budget.  I have fallen in love with a pair of Italian made ankle boots in a shoe store just near our hotel.     I’ve pointed them out to Graeme and he’s promised to take me back to the store when it’s open, but for now we are continuing our route north to the river Adige which sweeps around the historical city in an ox-bow.  Fast flowing, it’s a fairly clear mountain river with a couple of small rapid sections.   You can see why cities develop in certain locations.  With the protection of a swift river on all sides except to the south, the founding people and the Romans after them only had to defend their southern border.

Our aim this morning was the Castel San Pietro – a fortification high on a hill on the other side of the Adige.  It’s a ruin but the terraces also have the remains of a very large Roman Theatre and great views back over the old part of the city.   As we have to climb up a steep network of steps to reach the top of the hill, we figure it will be unlikely that we’ll visit here on our tour this afternoon.

On our way back to our hotel to change clothes for our bike tour we found a fantastic eclectic coffee and tea shop.   As we found in Corvara, tea drinking seems to be all the rage in Italy.  They had pages of different teas on offer….I ordered Lapsang Souchong which is guaranteed to have Graeme exclaim … “How can you drink that stuff?  It smells like bitumen!”  To recover from my odoriferous tea, he ordered his first Tiramisu…after all it is cold out there and we’ll be cycling all afternoon!

G's first tiramisu!
G’s first tiramisu!

We met our guide – Archangel….(seriously this was his name) at a little bike store near the Adige to the SW of our hotel.   He suggests that we call him Angelo.   I was so tempted to ask him why he was christened Archangel?  Graeme had read my thoughts and elbowed me in the ribs to subtly suggest that I hold back on the personal questions this early on in the tour. Angelo loved biking, history and animation.  He was excited to learn we were from NZ as he was a big fan of Weta Studios and Sir Peter Jackson.   The bike he was using he’d built himself and he explained that in addition to being a tour guide, he was a bike repair/constructor, teacher and computer animator.   We liked him right off.

We headed off into the city.  No helmets. No clue about road rules…”no problemo!”  For the first part of the tour we were skirting the historic centre so we were dealing with traffic. It was a little freaky at first – here’s the clip without traffic.  I had to seriously concentrate when we were riding on the centre line or squeezing up beside buses!   Angelo was super confidant…he just held out his hand in a “policeman stop gesture” to cars and confidently rode right in front of them….nothing to do but just try and keep up before the mesmerising affect of Angelo’s hand signals wore off on the drivers!

As you always hope when you do a tour, we learnt a lot.  Aside from the Romans who laid out the city and built the monuments like the Arena and huge theatre complex, the next largest influencers were the Scaligeri family who built a number of fortifications, towers and walls to protect the city.   We visited the Castelvecchio – one of the best preserved fortifications from the Scaligeri time and climbed high up on the wall to overlook the river.

After the demise of the Scaligeri, pretty much the whole of Europe had a piece of Verona at one time or another – the Germans, Spanish, French, Austrians and finally after WWI, Verona came back to Italy.  Every occupation left its mark on the city.   But as Angelo explained the Veronese got heartily sick of occupiers destroying their historic structures, in particular the roman monuments, so they took the initiative and disassembled quite a few of them and hid the pieces throughout the city.  They were then reassembled after WWII.

We looked over a few churches but by which time I will confess to getting seriously cold.  I suggested that we stop for a coffee to which Angelo agreed.  “I know a fantastic place…they do great coffee and tea!” and hilariously we ended up at the place we’d had lunch.  A cheeky waitress asked G if he wanted another tiramasu?   Angelo was very confused until we explained that we’d already been here for lunch.  “Well” he said, “Congratulations! You found the best place in town!”.

And finally to the legend of Romeo and Juliet.  We had purposely not visited these locations this morning because we knew that it would be part of the bike tour.  But strangely enough Angelo was a little cynical about it all.  Of course, the story of Romeo & Juliet is fictitious. There was never a family of Montague or Capulet living in Verona and Shakespeare had never visited the city.  But ever since the Brits have been making their grand tours to Europe, tourists have been trying to find the locations made famous by the Bard.  So, like any opportunistic tourist operator, the Veronese quickly decided to create Juliet’s balcony and Romeo’s houses.   Who knows, maybe after a few more centuries, the NZ LOR locations will become equally as famous?

The house of Romeo
The house of Romeo
And the doors opened...
And the doors opened…to reveal….people’s homes…sigh.

Angelo conceded and took us to Romeo’s house which was a little harder to find and is actually just a private residence with a sign posted on the wall outside.  We were fortunate that the gate to the walled courtyard opened and we were able to see inside for a brief moment.  Not that inspiring.  We agreed to visit Juliet’s balcony on our own tomorrow.   As evening fell, (Angelo had gone way over time), we said a fond farewell and headed back to our hotel to soak in our tub and thaw out.  We love it so much here, we decided to stay another night.

The Arena, shoe shopping and Juliet’s balcony tomorrow.




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