Walking the streets of Verona

Arthur Rubinstein once famously stated that he couldn’t imagine a world without Beethoven. I, if I may be so bold as to paraphrase him, cannot imagine a world without Italy.

I don’t know if it’s the climate, the colours of the streets, the perfected carelessness of the locals’ attitude or just the drop of ancestral Roman blood in me, but I love everything about this place. And Verona couldn’t be more representative of all the good things in Italy.

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Back to Arena di Verona

I am back in Verona. It is my third time here, so I think it’s fair to say that by now, Verona is the Italian city I know the best. The old city feels like home: I know the streets, the restaurants, the shops and the supermarket and require no map to find my bearings. What a beautiful city this is, so charming and full of life.

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Every summer, the city hosts the Arena di Verona Opera Festival in the old Roman amphitheatre, the Arena….it’s been doing so for 101 years!

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Verona is also home to the hottest summers in Italy, and today was no exception: 32 degrees at 7 pm! Tonight I went to see Turandot. The specificity of this festival is that, unless you book premium tickets for the armchairs set up in the middle of the Arena for the event, you get to play Roman for the evening and sit on the ancient stone steps. There is also no seating arrangement for the steps, which get filled on a first come, first sat basis. In practice, this means that if you want a good location on the lower steps, you pack a mini-picnic, bring drinks (but not in glass bottles) and come in early. The doors open at 7 and the good seats are taken by 7:30! The performance usually begins at 9! So, by the time the performance starts, you’ve already been simmering under the hot sun for close to 2 hours.

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It was the ‘prima’ for this production of Turandot tonight, and Franco Zeffirelli, who is the director, was also attending. At 91 years of age, he bravely managed to survive the 3 hour performance in the heat and also came up on stage at the end. What a life this man has had! Have you seen the movie “Tea with Mussolini”? It’s a biographical account of his early years. It is also one of my favourite films, and not just because it is set in Tuscany.

Anyway, the opera itself was very good, and the stage production, as it is always the case at Arena, was over the top and impressive.

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Afterwards, Piazza Bra is brimming with people, many of whom get ready for a proper dinner…at midnight. All restaurants are open, even some shops. The cheer only subsides around 2!

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Tomorrow, I plan on enjoying the old sights, walking around, doing nothing. Then, in the evening, back to fighting for the steps and Verdi with Domingo.

Peaced out in Verbania

… And a little peaced off, to be honest. Sorry, couldn’t resist the opportunity of clever expletives 🙂
Tomorrow I am leaving Verbania to go to Verona. So tonight, I thought “let me give this town a chance” and set out to explore it on foot, shortly after dinner. Never in my life and my many travels have I come across a more dead Italian town. The streets were deserted!?! A few idle youth, beyond frustrated with their location, I imagine, were feebly attempting the classic passeggiata, but, frankly, when I encountered them again within 10 minutes I turned on my heel and dashed back to my equally happening retirement home :))

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I don’t know what’s happening, but this place really astonishes me. Italy has never before failed to entice me to be alive, to live life, to enjoy life! However, Verbania has a strange deserted feeling that I cannot shake. I walked the shopping streets, the squares, the waterfront and beyond in search of some sign of life, but was met with nothing but emptiness. Is this Italy? Am I in Switzerland already!? And then I remembered how once I had read how even in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland people are a bit reserved, lacking the usual warmth and joy of the Italian spirit. At the time I did not believe it, putting it down to the subjective feeling of a bitter and frustrated expat. Now, however, I am inclined to give credence to that statement and even take it further: I think the Swiss spirit made it over the mountains. The signs were all around me: the ferries did leave on the dot, the cashier shouted to get me back to the window for my change when I mistakenly gave him two 10 Euro notes instead on one, and the bar lady last night gave me credit in the country with no such banking notion. Could it be true? Do the influences on one nation spread over neighbouring regions of one very different nation!?

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I don’t know, and, no, I don’t get that fuzzy feeling from the Swiss, in case you’re still wondering.

All I know is that, when I reached the waterfront tonight, one poor duck, alone in the water, was crying its heart out again and again. Maybe it was a lost duckling, separated from its parents, I couldn’t really see that far out well enough to be certain. But maybe it was a Neapolitan duck, lamenting its estrangement and wondering, as was I, whether this is still Italy!

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Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore

Back in the 1600s, a few successive members of the House of Borromeo, an old noble Milanese family, built summer houses on two of the small islands on southern Lake Maggiore – Isola Madre and Isola Bella. Today I spent the afternoon on Isola Bella, one of the three Borromean islands (the third, fyi, is called Isola Superiore).
Initially, I had planned to visit all of the islands, but my morning got side-tracked on the phone to Covent Garden, trying to get tickets only to have the call drop after close to two hours on hold. But, anyway, back to Isolla Bella.

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This island is small and unremarkable but for the beautiful Palazzo and the even more impressive gardens. I spent my time leisurely walking through the house, complete with a “basement” decorated to emulate coral reefs, then strolling through the majestic gardens, where, in 30 degree weather, even the white peacocks were seeking shade.

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The one thing that impressed me the most, beyond the grandeur of the house or the ostentatiousness of the gardens, was a beautiful statue of Venus portrayed asleep by a sculptor whose name, unfortunately I cannot recall. [UPDATE:the sculptor is Vincenzo Monti]

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It never ceases to amaze me how stone can be made into a fabric so sensuous and warm under the expert hand of a talented sculptor. Unlike painting, which can be retouched, sculpture is an art-form that is truly four dimensional: a spatial representation frozen in time, for a second’s mistake can ruin everything. For this reason, in my opinion, among all arts, sculpture is only akin to music, in that both capture a moment in time, freeze it, and allow this moment to continue into perpetuity and to also be experienced by others. I’m not sure I can articulate this clearly… I guess what I mean is that both music and sculpture succeed, though in very different ways, to encode, and thus stop, time.

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Time to rest in Verbania

I am now in Verbania, on Lake Maggiore, the second largest lake in Italy. I arrived here today at 5 pm, after taking two local trains: from Varenna to Milano and then on from Milano to Verbania. The train system in Italy is quite strange. On the one hand you have the Trenitalia Frecciabianca and Frecciarossa, fast, modern and efficient, better, though not faster, than the French TGV; on the other hand, the local trains are terribly shabby, slow, unreliable and look like they used to transport Mussolini’s troops. Surviving not one, but two local train rides a day takes a toll on your mind and body – and that’s what I did today. But then, no travel can be completely hassle free and I take such things in my stride rather well. Anyway, after arriving in Verbania and a long taxi drive I finally got to my hotel.
I chose my hotel, Il Chiostro, in Verbania for two very good reasons:
1) it is cheap – 50 Euro per night, to be precise…a bargain everywhere in July, and more so on expensive Lake Maggiore.
2) it is a former monastery (Chiostro = Cloisters) revamped, which worked well with my theme of peace and relaxation for this trip.
Most of the time, if not all of the time, cheap hotels come with a catch, and I was expecting some type of surprise.
To my astonishment, however, the taxi deposited me in front of a rather modern facade. Could it be the wrong hotel? I came in sheepishly expecting the receptionist to turn me away…but he didn’t.

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I got my keys, passed through some very chic furnished corridors, went up to my room, closed my eyes, open the door: a perfectly clean, modern, nice little room lay before me. I went to the window and opened the venetian blinds…would it be opening into a brick wall? No, in front of me I had the charming cloister garden, well-kept and serene, just as I had hoped. With a big sight of relief I quickly unburdened myself of my luggage, plugged in my dead iPhone and, while waiting for it to recharge, decided to go downstairs and take photos around the garden…

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…As I entered the charming cloisters, not a soul was disturbing the peace. Two elderly ladies were chatting on a sofa but otherwise, all serene and quiet. I strolled around taking photos, admiring the architecture, when the two ladies were joined by another elderly couple. Three minutes later an old man, walking with the help of a walker and carrying a big white bag marked with the green cross lovingly signifying Farmacia came in, and the conversation among all got quite animated! I suppose bringing a full bag of drugs to an octogenarian gathering is the equivalent of bringing sample sale designer bargains to a young women’s lunch. The excitement can barely be contained!!! And so, it dawned on me that this was, indeed, the catch. Il Chiostro is beautiful, clean and priced adequately to entice the well into retirement group. How fun for me. I did want a place conducive of rest but didn’t exactly foresee one that my well be the last place before the Final rest…

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I have nothing against old people, God knows, should we be so lucky as to survive all that life mockingly throws at us, we all get to be old! But, I have to admit, in fear of my own mortality I ran fast up to my room and gathered my things and half charged phone and ran out of the hotel, heading to the equally serene and sedate waterfront, populated, as it is, by not one barer of other than grey hair.
I then headed quickly for the nearest bar, got a beer, munched on the aperitivo offerings and called my parents to share the irony of my location…. And then I noticed that the ferry to Laveno across the lake is still operating. So you know what I did? I got on it, late in the evening, had dinner in the much younger spirited Laveno and came back to sleep.

However, as I walked into my hotel I noticed the bar was open and vibrant: my neighbours were now living it up, drinking Limoncello spritzers and playing cards….but the one thing they didn’t do is use the wifi so I have now descended into the empty gardens to write this post. I also stopped by the bar on my way here to get the latest trendy drink and ended up with a big glass of tap-poured red wine, poured generously and on credit (no coins in the till, pagare domani) at the pension-friendly price of 1 Euro by a bar lady who didn’t seem concerned with my leaving this place before settling the bill. I suppose most people don’t!!!

Why I don’t like Bellagio

To come to Lake Como is often identified with visiting Bellagio.
Who has not dreamed of wandering this lovely town, quintessentially Italian, beautiful, charming, worthy of many a traveller’s mention and a Las Vegas Casino by the same name?
Poetically minded and bursting with excitement I got on the ferry from Varenna fully intent on spending a whole day wandering the streets of this Lake Como celebrity town.

Only, upon descending, I was taken aback by the sight that lay before me. Bellagio certainly deserves the first part of its name: it is, indeed una bella piccola citta!

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However, it equally deserves its Las Vegas counterpart…. It is soooo touristic, so remarkably inauthentic it just hurts. All the restaurants in Bellagio have English signposts, English menus, waiters addressing you directly in English and English quality food!

I love coming to Italy to practise my little and diminishing Italian, leftover from 3 years’ unserious study while at university and a youth spent dreaming of going to Florence and discovering life like Helena Bonham Carter’s Lucy in “A Room with a View”…

When I come to Italy I want my waiters to be bemused at my turn of phrase, I want them to try and match me in broken English, with heavy helpings from a plethora of hand gestures. That is fun! Having a waitress address me with ‘hiya’ and continuing her enquiries in vaguely accented British English is unacceptable.

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So I had my inauthentic pizza, drank my Swiss beer and ran to the port to catch the next ferry to a much more welcoming and so much more Italian Menaggio, across the lake.
But not before buying a bunch of hand sewn silk scarves, just so I have something truly Italian from this otherwise Disneyland-Italy town…

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Pace mio Dio

I came to Lake Como hoping to get away from the world. My first day, the weather is dreadful: rain, a dark sky and an impending storm. But…
From my modest little room on the topmost floor of the topmost hotel in Varenna, I am looking at God’s version of perfection in beauty. Rows of uneven mountain peaks line up into the horizon, reflecting their imposing shadows on the surface of the lake. From my left to my right and all around, there is nothing but shades of blue and green the eye can feast on, and not a man-made sound can be heard.
The view is truly spectacular and humbling at the same time. It reminds me of this one scene in the film “the Agony and the Ecstasy”, when the fictitious Michelangelo goes into the mountains to draw inspiration for his painting of the Sistine Chapel and finds his outline of God and the banished Adam in the shapes of random clouds.
In this hotel that used to be a monastery, with the mountainous scenery lavishing its beauty all around me, I can finally understand why religious piety can be heightened by peace and solitude in nature: I came here to temporarily get away from the world, but, strangely enough, I feel more connected to the world around me here. And organized religion has nothing to do with it.

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