Verona – Courtesans, Hermits and Grappa

Occasionally, I will suggest we return to a place we have visited before, to relive that good time and explore the things we missed previously, or if it was a super affordable destination.  “The world is so big. I’d rather go someplace new,” is often Donna’s response, said with a sweet smile.  But “the rule” doesn’t apply to Italy! – the land of her people.  I’ve lost count of the number of times Donna has been there, but I maintain I’ve followed along often enough to receive honorary citizenship. Let’s face it, Italy is a great place to explore, which led us to Verona, again, for a night. Anyway, it was sort of on our roundabout way to Milan.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at the budget friendly Accommodation Verona, (yes, that is the correct name) on the edge of the historic district. We double parked while the proprietor took our bags upstairs. He then hopped in the passenger seat to show the way to the underground car park and the hotel’s newly purchased garage spaces, with overhead doors to totally secure your wheels, which he was immensely proud of. It was a bit of a hike from the hotel, but the car was safe in the parking garage equivalent of Fort Knox.

The sun was brilliant on Verona’s ancient colosseum while we sipped Aperol spritzes and shared a pizza at an outdoor restaurant on Piazza Bra, as shoppers strolled amidst the nearby Christmas market. Gone were the fake gladiators and other street entertainers who left when the weather turned colder.

It was a vastly different dining experience compared to our first dinner in Verona years ago.  Travel novices then, we were constantly referencing a travel guide by an American, that recommended sights, hotels and restaurants. With book in hand that suggested the restauranteur would treat us well and offer special prices to loyal readers of said guide, we found a delightful place on a quiet lane lined with outdoor tables and twinkling lights.  “Who?” was the response when we mentioned the guidebook. A large antipasto, charcuterie board, wine and “special price” were all agreed upon. Or so we thought.

It was one of those long, delightful European dining experiences, where the table was ours for the evening. The dinner and ambiance were great! Eventually our amiable host, carrying the largest bottle of grappa we’ve ever seen, presented a small wooden box containing the bill. “Please enjoy as much of the grappa as you like.” Drink this to ease the shock of the bill, would have been a more accurate invitation.  Grappa is a regional pomace brandy, distilled from the seeds, stems and skins left over from the winemaking process. Production is centered nearby around the aptly named village of Bassano del Grappa. This is strong stuff that, in a pinch, Italian farmers have used to fuel their tractors. A good dent was put into that bottle of grappa, as we were eventually the last to leave. Fortunately, our hotel was a short, though not very straight, giggly walk away.  Sleep was unjustly cut short the next morning when at sunrise, the glass recycling truck in the alley under our hotel window loudly emptied a dumpster of wine bottles to haul away.  The brash rattling sound of glass bottles crashing was excruciating and reverberated off the narrow alleyway’s walls for what seemed an eternity.  Thank God for espresso and Saint Drogo, the patron saint of coffee baristas. (I do not make these things up!)    

Normally hidden in deep shadows, Renaissance era wall paintings decorating ancient buildings were now revealed in the last of the afternoon’s light. Likewise, the lowering sun highlighted the fine relief sculptures adorning many of the city’s ancient buildings.

By dusk we were standing along the Adige riverfront watching the last rays of the day’s sun color the sky above the arched 14th century Castelvecchio Bridge.  Attached to the Castelvecchio fortress, the bridge was intended as an escape route for the feudal lords to flee across in case of a popular uprising or coup d’état to seek safety in the Tyrol mountains, north of the city, and for the prince’s courtesans to discreetly exit the castle.

The lights of the city’s Christmas tree shined brightly through the twin arches of the Porta Borsari; built by the Romans in the 1st century AD, it was the main entrance to this once walled city. Nearby, Caffè Borsari beckoned, with its extensive list of creative coffee beverages. Maestros of the espresso machine, the baristas here are artists.

The next morning was overcast as we drove across the Adige River and made our way up a serpentine road through a forested hillside, to the esplanade in front of Castel San Pietro for the panoramic view of Verona, and its iconic Ponte Pietra bridge below.  A wonderful feat of ancient engineering first crossed in 100 BC, it has had a troubled existence, with multiple collapses caused by flooding over the centuries, and intentional destruction by the retreating Germany army in WWII. Through the various reconstructions, the builders have remained faithful to the original Roman design of five different sized arches with apertures above the pilings. The present castle on the hill was built by the Austrians in 1851 as a barracks, replacing a 400-year-old fortress blown up by Napoleon’s army in 1801. For the hearty, there are stairs from the bridge that lead to the mirador, or the Funicolare di Castel San Pietro that will whisk you to the top of the hill, should you wish to avoid the muscle aches.

The dull sun barely broke through the clouds, but the filtered light created a serene scene reminiscent of an impressionist painter’s pastel hued landscape, soft and atmospheric.

Rounding a curve on the SS12, as we headed north, we caught our first glimpse of a snow-capped Mt. Baldo, brilliantly white against a clear blue sky. Our destination was the remote and isolated Santuario Madonna della Corona.  A pilgrimage site since 1522, legend holds that on the eve of the Ottoman invasion of Rhodes, with 400 warships and 100,00 troops, the sanctuary’s statue of the Madonna was carried miraculously by an angel from the Mediterranean island to a shallow cave on a Mount Baldo cliff edge, home to a hermitage for holy men, for safe keeping.

Spiazzi, the village above the sanctuary, was nearly a ghost town when we arrived mid-week in November. We found the empty parking lot for the church and high-season shuttle bus that was not running, but aside from that there was no other signage pointing the way. Taking a guess, we turned down a very narrow country lane and headed down hill, stopping when we reached a farm stand where a stoic woman, bundled up against the cold, was selling alpaca wool, sheared and spun from her flock which was corralled nearby.  Stopping, we asked if we were headed the right way and how long she would be open. A little farther on we came to the first Passion of Christ station on the Sentiero del Pellegrino, the Pilgrim’s Path.  The series of life-sized bronze sculptures depicting the stations of the cross took the devoted Italian sculptor Raffaele Bonente thirty years to create.  Whether you walk along or drive the paved road or hike the steep staired path, the stations are positioned where the routes intersect. 

In the off-season, without any other vehicles on the road, it was easy to stop and take photos of the church that tenaciously clings to the cliffside, between heaven and earth, 2539ft above the Adige Valley. In high season the turn-around at the church is reserved for the shuttle bus, but off season we parked next to one other visitor.

The original dangerous path along the cliff edge has been obscured over time through multiple improvements and the approach to the terrace in front of the church is now through a rough-hewn tunnel carved into the cliff. Tranquility reigns here. The views across the valley were phenomenal and accompanied only by the sound of a gentle wind rustling through the forest below.  The spiritual devotion and shear physical effort to build a church in such a difficult spot attests to the deep faith and dedication of the builders. For hikers, the Sentiero del Pellegrino continues down the slope, through the valley to the village of Brentino.

Following the same route back to Spiazzi, we stopped at the alpaca farm and purchased some much-needed heavy weight alpaca wool socks, to help keep our feet warm.  Early on in our two-year journey Donna decided to start crocheting in the evenings. Wool has been purchased for various projects, mostly gifts, in Ecuador, Guatemala, Portugal, South Africa and now Italy, from an off-the beaten-path farm stand on a remote mountainside.  It was late afternoon now, but fortunately the Albergo Trattoria Speranza, located at the crossroads of Spiazzi was still serving food and has rooms if you want to stay overnight in the hamlet.  A good meal restored us for the drive to Lake Garda.

With night drawing in earlier now we reached the lakeside village of Garda at twilight.  Sunset colors lingered in the sky as we walked along the marina. A few fishermen were still casting, hoping for that last bite, and small boats gently rocked on the ripples of Lake Garda. 

The lights of a Christmas market set up along the lakefront drew us further down the promenade.  Wonderful aromas drifted from the various food stalls, making what to choose for dinner even more difficult. Mulled wine and porchetta sandwiches capped the evening.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Vicenza – Grand Architecture, Parks & Waterscapes

Our mishaps of driving in Italy are still memorable. But they were far more forgivable and less costly before the advent of the remote video surveillance systems that Italian towns use today. Years ago, we had briefly visited Vicenza, home to one of the world’s most influential Renaissance era architects, Palladio. After a long day on the road, navigating down from the Dolomites, we drove through the old city gate under the Tower of Porta Castello, the last remaining tower of a 12th century fortress and wall that once enclosed the Renaissance city.  Today it houses an art gallery, and you can climb to the top for views of Vicenza.

The directions to the hotel were confusing and our GPS at the time was no help.  We had already stopped twice to ask the local polizia for directions, but of the four officers asked, each had a different opinion about where our obscure lane was located, which only befuddled us further.  A few moments later we realized Corso Palladio was a pedestrian-only street and we were intruding on its charming ambience. The hotel assured us they had parking, so we continued along slowly through a thickening crowd that didn’t think anything of us.  It didn’t help that the street signs were impossible to see from the car. Traveling the whole length of the street, we ended at a piazza in front of the Teatro Olimpico, designed in 1580; it’s the oldest indoor theatre in the world, with its unique original stage set still in use. It was Palladio’s last creation before his death.

Across the way two police officers with submachine guns stood by their patrol car in front of the Museo Civico di Palazzo Chiericati, known for its eclectic collection of donated art, antique furnishings and toy soldiers from the Veneto region. There was no mention of the “BIG FINES,” we had momentarily anticipated.  Instead, the gracious officers gave us a police escort to the hotel.  Parking was in the narrow lane, in front of reception.  

Our visit was long enough for dinner and a stroll, the next morning, around the Piazza dei Signori with its massive civic building, the Basilica Palladiana, redesigned to its present form in 1546 by the young, as-yet unknown hometown architect Andrea Palladio.  His architecture can be characterized as a refined rethinking of classical Greek and Roman temples with domed and columned buildings favoring a “harmonic Renaissance aesthetic.” The style was popular with many wealthy Italian families across the Veneto region, who commissioned him to design their palazzos. This grand style continued to be extensively influential into the 19th and 20th centuries where it was favored for municipal and government buildings, i.e., the United States Capitol Building and British Museum, among others.

Our original visit was enough time to realize the city was vastly interesting and that we had mis-planned.  Now we stay a minimum of two nights wherever we go to compensate for time lost traveling between destinations.

We figured seven nights this time should be enough to relax, enjoy the city and sample its livability.

Raised in the suburbs of New Jersey, we always shunned living in a city until we retired and sold most everything, including our cars, to finance this two-year adventure around the world.  To our surprise we now enjoy city life. Especially the walkability of smaller historic cities with their pedestrian only centers, a concept not found in the sprawl associated with urban planning in the United States.

As we neared Vicenza our shuttle driver, Fabrizio, from the Venice Airport, detoured slightly to show us two points of interest on the outskirts of the city that he thought we might enjoy, and were afraid we would otherwise miss. Parco Querini, a semi-formal large open green space with sculpture lined paths and a domed pergola, looked stunning on a late autumn afternoon. It was once the private retreat of a wealthy family and was opened to the public in the 1970s. 

Nearer our apartment, Fabrizio took us past the red and white brickwork of the Chiesa de Santa Croce ai Carmini, with its architecturally distinctive facade. We found both sights interesting and vowed to return.

While walking to the park for a return visit, we found the Boutique Del Pane Vicenza, a delightful small bakery at the very end of Corso Antonio Fogazzaro, past the 14th century Church of San Lorenzo with its intricately carved roped portal and guarding lions that have slowly eroded with time.  Years ago in Italy, the concept of “coffee to go” or “take away” as we have in the states was unheard of. Tradition was you stood at the counter for a quick morning espresso or lingered at a table.  Attitudes have evolved and we are not sure if we agree, but this visit, with coffees and pastries in hand, we snacked in the park.

Nearby the twice-weekly artisanal farmers market, Il Mercato Campagna Amica di Vicenza, brought locally produced cheeses, wines, fruit and vegetables to new meaning with a “zero food miles” philosophy.  The artisanal baker was very popular with folks queued three deep at her counter for a chance to buy a wedge of bread from her huge country loafs.  Around the corner from the market, we found the best vegetarian restaurant we’ve ever been to, NaturaSì Silene Bio Bottega E Cucina. With truly the most flavorful and memorable vegetables.

From our apartment on Contra Motton San Lorenzo we explored the historic center of this delightfully compact, Renaissance city, where we were less than a ten-minute walk from everything. As we strolled past intriguing architectural details, we took note of what to do and where to go later in the week.  Discovering pastelería is our superpower and we put it to good use finding tasty creations to enjoy for the next morning.  Walk a little then café – repeat was a well-paced yet caloric approach that we fully enjoyed in our explorations of the city.  Though some days longer walks between cafes were needed when our belts were too tight. Donna says the solution is simply to wear elastic waist pants.

During the time of the Romans the main street in Vicenza was Via Postumia, a military road that connected outposts across Northern Italy. Later during the Renaissance, noblemen competed in Palios, horse races, on the religious festival days for Sacra Thorn and Corpus Domini, when the main street, now lined with arcaded sidewalks, was used as a racecourse. After the Second World War the street was renamed Corso Andrea Palladio, to honor the great architect for his contributions to the city, and an electric street-trolley coursed down the avenue. The Corso and the historic center of Vicenza have been pedestrian only since 1983. It remains a vital artery, with upscale shopping and restaurants connecting either end of the town and the historic sites in between. It’s the perfect street for La Passeggiata, the early evening stroll locals still enjoy. If you are looking for a traditional Italian bar along the Corso, the Gran Caffe’ with its old-world charm is the perfect place for an espresso or spritz. It attracts a diverse following, and is popular with students, professionals and a cadre of finely dressed older women who seem to be as much of an institution as the café itself.

Vicenza’s relic from Christ’s Crown of Thorns is treasured in the Sanctuary of Santa Corona, which was built by the Dominicans in the late 1200s to safekeep the extraordinary gift from the French King Louis IX to the Bishop of Vicenza. 

The centerpiece of the church is a beautiful altar embellished with pearls, corals, lapis lazuli and polychrome marble. Interestingly, outside hanging on the wall of the cloister is a plaque featuring a Cinta senese, an ancient Italian pig breed that is famous for its flavorful meat.

Palladio has definitely left his mark on the city with buildings of his design on almost every street – at least, it seems that way. A tour of the city wouldn’t be complete without stopping at the Palazzo Barbaran da Porto, a Palladio design built in 1570, that is now a museum with interactive exhibits and video displays as well as three dimensional models dedicated to the architect’s work.  Recognized by UNESCO in 1994 for his influential architectural aesthetic, called Palladian, twenty-four of his Palazzo designs and the city itself have been designated a World Heritage Site.

The city also has a wonderful ambience aside from his architectural masterpieces.  Waterscapes from the Ponte S. Paolo and the Ponte S. Michele over the Fiume Retrone reflect a quaint village vibe unexpected in comparison to the grand Piazza dei Signori just two blocks away.  

Pasticceria Venezia – a Vicenza dal 1964, just up from the bicycle parking on S. Paolo and near the Palladian Basilica, is a terrific place for café and a bite to eat.

On the other end of town just outside the Porta Castello, the Giardini Salvi, a treed greenspace with fountains, has been on the city map since 1580. It was the private park to the Palazzo Valmarana and in a brief moment of 16th century civic mindedness, was open to the public for a few years before being closed again for several centuries.  It wasn’t until the 20th century that the park was permanently reopened for public use.

The district south of the Corso Palladio is also worth exploring with the Duomo di Vicenza, the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Announcement, as its centerpiece.  Heavily damaged by allied bombing during the Second World War, only the original 1482 Gothic entrance façade remained, while the rest of the church had to be reconstructed.

Diagonally across the street, in the ancient Bishop’s Palace, the Museo Diocesano di Vicenza has a unique collection of Vicentine religious artifacts. Interestingly there is a large collection of fine marble spheres, some the size of bowling balls, given to a former Bishop of Vicenza as gifts.  Discovered on the other side of the piazza during reconstruction after WWII the Criptoportico Romano was the subterranean storage area of a 1st century Roman domus. As interesting as that sounds, if you’ve been in an empty, damp dark basement before, you can skip this.

Around the corner is Righetti’s, a self-service restaurant and another Vicenza institution for over thirty years, that should be experienced. Customers find their own tables and set the cutlery themselves before walking to the back of the restaurant and placing their orders, from the daily changing menu on chalk boards, directly with the cooks in the kitchen.  After dinner, the cashier counts your glasses and plates, then bills accordingly. They are open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, cash only.

Although the weather was noticeably cooler, we enjoyed our November off-season visit to this visually pleasing and gentle city. If you are an admirer of historic architecture, Vicenza is akin to finding a lost treasure. The bonus was the lack of large tourist groups, which we imagine could be quite smothering in this quaint city during peak travel months.

Till next time, Craig & Donna