Ciao, bella Italia! (Part 2: Verona)

Verona – the city of Romeo and Juliet…

I fell in love with Verona the minute I stepped foot in that delightful old town. The old coliseum, the cobblestone streets, the street-side cafes in the main piazza instantly charmed me. The city reminded me a lot of my own home-town, Brasov and it felt like home – or like I could definitely live there.

Verona’s orderly but laid-back feel came as a surprise. When we arrived in the train station, people were queuing and waiting for the next taxi to come along and pick them up – no fights, no skipping of lines. Our taxi took us to the place where we thought we were staying. He pulled over and then accompanied us to the large and elegant door of the apartment building. He wanted to be sure that he delivered us at the correct address… how nice! We had the right landlord but not the right location – we found out that there was a second location for our B&B, closer to downtown: B&B Ad Centrum di Fraccaroli Fabio. The apartment was simple and the pillows could have used some more feathers but, all-in-all, it was O.K. The breakfast was included and it was simple but good. The best part about the B&B was its location: right around the corner from Arena di Verona, famous for its elaborate opera shows and the Piazza Bra, enticing passers-by with lovely cafes and store-fronts. We caught a glimpse at the sophisticated décor used in the opera shows and learned that only select artists get to perform inside this special venue.

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However, if you didn’t get the chance to get a ticket to the show, you could enjoy the music from across the street, while sipping the popular sweet orange spritzers the locals consumed on the restaurant patios in the piazza. I chatted with our waiter and found out that the lovely Italian singer we were overhearing was Pino Daniele – our waiter’s favorite artist and fellow Napolitano! The waiter disappeared for a moment across the street, in the direction of the coliseum, and returned proudly with a ticket stub as a memento for me. Such as sweetheart! Sadly, Pino Daniele passed away not long after we heard him, in January of 2015…

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One evening, the rain surprised the opera-attending crowd with a solid downpour during the first act. Luckily, we were already comfortably seated on a terrace, under cover. As the rain started pouring down, the crowds started pouring out of the arena and people ran for cover to the restaurants, which filled up quickly. We had two extra spots at our table, so we invited a German couple to join us. The gentleman spoke some English and told us about his other passion, football, for which he enthusiastically traveled all over the world to watch – as far as Japan and Brazil.

At some point during the downpour, the opportunity to sell ponchos and umbrellas to the in-dire-need spectators created a fist-fight among the Asian and African street merchant groups operating in Piazza Bra. One of them grabbed a chair from the patio and tried to thrust it towards the enemy. Luckily, except for a black eye, no other damage was done and the commercial activities resumed as per usual.

We toured the city in one of the double-decker busses leaving from Piazza Bra. We wanted to quickly get an idea of places we would want to later on see in more detail. After that, we walked a lot and simply enjoyed the quiet and quaint city.

Our next stop, Venice!

Ciao, bella Italia! (Part 1: Rome, Orvieto, Florence)

Everyone should go to Italy at least once. I have always heard people singing its praises but until recently, I didn’t get around to visit and see for myself. So, in the fall of 2014, after a long and difficult year at work, my husband and I decided to take this long-awaited and well-deserved Italian vacation. We wanted to take a sample of the country, a bit of both the north and the south, scoping out places where we’d like to return and spend some more time.

A Taste of Italy: August 28-September 4, 2014

We flew from Knoxville to Atlanta and then to Rome at the end of August, which is the end of the high season in Europe. The weather is still great but the crowds are thinning out, as everyone is going home and getting ready to go back to work or get the kids back to school.

ROMA (ROME) – arrival

From the Fiumicino airport, we took a bus to go to the train station. The magnificent Coliseum appeared out of nowhere as our bus zoomed around the roundabout and sped along towards the Termini.

We followed our plan of leaving our two large suitcases at the station and retrieving them on our way out, and quickly repacked our bags. David, my husband, had read that it was € 6 per day, so one week would have been reasonable. However, the reality was: for each piece of baggage it was € 6 for the first 5 hours, and then € 0.90/hour for the next 7 hours, and € 0.40 for every additional hour after that…no, grazie.

The train station reminded me a lot of the Bucharest North Station but that certainly didn’t help me getting around…. We were completely lost when it came to what train to catch and where to find information. I blamed it on the lack of sleep – crying baby on the plane, super-tight and uncomfortable seats – funny how planes now have all the electronic bells and whistles, including Wi-Fi connection above 10,000 feet but you can’t really recline your seat and you have to pay $ 65 to get a Preferred seat (gaining you a whopping 4 additional inches of space…) – ridiculous. But I digress. We bought tickets and then ran around the station, trying to find the correct line only to get back to where we started and wave our train good bye…. We spent somewhere between one and two more hours trying to switch our tickets. Then we made sure we read the panels located at the end of the platforms for the correct line.

While we were waiting, a group of Italian policemen asked us a favor; there was a woman who needed to get on our train and she needed help. The three policemen kept explaining to her how to get to her destination but she kept forgetting and asking over and over again. My husband seized the occasion and asked one of them to help us call the B&B in Orvieto and let them know we were arriving late. One of the policemen was kind enough to let David use his cell phone (we couldn’t figure out the calling card situation) and chatted a while with David, expressing his desire to someday visit Philadelphia and watch a WWE fight. Meanwhile, a group of seemingly intoxicated men came by, drinking from a large bottle of wine or some other lightly colored liquid. One of the policemen thought about approaching the group but decided against it. The group walked anyway. The policemen seemed very nice and a bit laid back.

ORVIETO

In Orvieto, we dragged our luggage up the street, loudly, on the cobblestone street to our lovely and quiet B&B. Sant’Angelo 42 (bborvieto.com) was as advertised: charming, quiet, and welcoming. Giulia, our host, prepared a delicious breakfast for us, complete with home-made marmalade and wonderful coffee. It was interesting to see the Etruscan ruins beneath the B&B’s floor, right at the entrance, as a welcome from history.

So, after a long trip and a rough beginning, we adjusted to being on vacation and to Italy. We enjoyed the hill-top small town and the beautiful yet still very hot late August weather. We walked around a lot and struggled to adjust to the time difference. I loved hearing (and understanding) the languages around me, including Italian. As bad as my Italian was, the locals still understood it better than they did English. Some waiters seemed intimidated if approached in English and some avoided us. They didn’t seem as accommodating as in Greece or Spain but maybe it was just an outlier event.

We learned the natural way of things in Orvieto: breakfast, walking/shopping, a nice siesta between 1 and 3 p.m., more walking and shopping between 3 and 8 p.m., followed by dinner between 8 and 10 p.m. dinner (people dress up for dinner), and a late night gelato, socializing, and strolling along the cobblestone streets, under the moonlight.

I had to give in and shop at one of the local ceramics store. I loved the pretty yellow and blue hand-painted pottery and the store owner was very nice. Some of the pottery was meant for gifts, so I didn’t have that much buyer’s remorse.

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During one of our evening strolls, we witnessed some of the Italian passion: tears from girls fighting with their boyfriends, passionate kissing in the middle of the sidewalk, fights between an unhappy customer and the funicolare ticket sellers, and one overheard by the entire town of Orvieto through an open window – part of the charm.

Orvieto was a good base for us for a day trip to Firenze (about two hours by train) but we underestimated how late we would return and failed to consider that the funicolare would be closed. We wanted to walk up the hill to our B&B but we were informed that it was a 20 km walk, so we decided that waiting 30 min. for the 10:20 p.m. bus was a better choice than walking in the dark for 10 miles. We thought that most places stayed open until midnight so we set out to find something to eat. We didn’t have much luck – apparently, most places want to close down after 11 p.m. and two places we tried basically ignored us…. We finally found a busy bar (across from the pottery shop) and the terrace was full, as everyone was watching the soccer match (gioco del calico) on TV. David was about to become the Hunger Hulk, so I pulled out my emergency Italian. I told one of the waiters Voremos mangiare qualcosa (not too far from the correct vogliamo mangiare qualcosa). He said Certo but that the only space they had was inside. It turned out that the inside space was plentiful and we had it all to ourselves. We had a pizza Capriciosa, with cheese, ham, sausage, radicchio, and topped with an over-easy egg. We also had some red wine and agua naturale (not frizzata). Of course, like in other European countries, people like to stay and talk for hours instead of rushing through a meal, getting the check, and leaving. So the waiter took his time checking back with us but he was more than nice and accommodating. We finally left around 2 a.m. We slept in on Saturday, had a cappuccino, and an espresso with two pasti and took it easy during the rest of the day.

Cappuccinos and pasti (pastries) in Orvieto were great! So was the thin crust pizza with lots of creative toppings. The Bellini I had was simple, yet delicious: Prosecco and fresh peach juice. We had some Orvieto area wines and we enjoyed them. I prefer red wines usually but I found the white wine I tasted to be delicious and better than the area reds: it was light and buttery, with a smooth finish. Chianti area is not far from Orvieto (about two hours north, with Montepulciano wine area within an hour’s train ride). There is a lot left to see in Orvieto. It seems like every time we turned on a different little street, we discovered yet another thing, a great panorama or a historic dwelling.

I think that it’s definitely worth going back to the area and maybe renting a car, exploring the wine country and Orvieto in more details. In between Montepulciano and Orvieto, Castiglione del Lago looked like a place I might want to visit too.

FIRENZE (FLORENCE)

One day in Florence is hardly enough time…. So we wanted to see Il Duomo. Getting tickets was a more complicated endeavor than it should have been. We walked to the monument but couldn’t find the ticket place nearby; we walked back to the church across from the railway station in hopes of finding it, only to turn around and finally find the place on a side street before reaching Il Duomo plaza. The tickets were € 10 each. We walked over to Il Duomo and stood in line for maybe one hour. Finally, we were moving and going inside. There were two ticket scanners and when I tried scanning mine, it didn’t work. Not to hold up the line any further, I told the guard that the ticket office must have given us the wrong tickets and that we’d be right back after we went to set them straight. Back at the side-street ticket office, we showed the attendants our “bad tickets” and had another precious moment when the guy told us with an amused but benevolent smile on his face that we were trying to use Umbria bus tickets…. Somehow, I had grabbed the wrong tickets from my small but sneaky purse. Oops – scusa, colpa mia…. We walked back to Il Duomo and made it inside. The cool air was a welcome respite before climbing to the top. The ascent was long and steep – I was the color of Pomodoro by the time we emerged from the narrow and twisted staircase onto the rooftop – but it was totally worth it! The view was amazing and gratifying!

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After such great turmoil and effort, we were famished. We didn’t have a lot of time before catching the train back to Orvieto, so we looked around nearby for a casual bite. Luckily, we didn’t have to walk very far to find All’Antico Vinaio, and have the most amazing sandwich I’ve ever tasted – EVER! I had freshly baked bread with cured wild boar meat, artichoke spread, pecorino cheese, roasted red peppers, and greens. For € 2, we helped ourselves to some wine. We sat on a bench across from the small place where they made the sandwiches and savored the taste of Italy.

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(photo above courtesy of All’Antico Vinaio)

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[pause to reminisce; mouth watering…. OK, I’m back]

Next, we saw Ponte Vecchio and Piazza Michelangelo for a nice overview of the città.

Back at the train station – lesson learned earlier – we made sure to pay attention to the train track number, which of course, changed at the last minute…. Luckily, David noticed the switch, which was only to the adjacent track, and we headed back to Orvieto.

…to be continued (next, Verona, Venezia, and more)