For my 70th Birthday I was treated to a trip to Verona to see the opera in the Roman arena ( a lifetime’s ambition). The flight from Bristol was great with unusually clear views over England and France and Italy. Landing at Milan Malpensa airport, we then caught the train to Milan. The station at Milan was incredibly large, imposing and typical of Fascist Brutalist architecture. I have since found out it is in fact the largest station in Europe.It’s always nice to get your first cup of coffee and pastry when in Italy…here in one of the many station cafes…Getting to our hotel/apartment Residenza delle Città we found it to be immediately full of Italian style….and the apartment itself was terrific.I had done a lot of research on where to eat. However, around the corner we ignored all that research and found a lovely pizza place that looked like a regular neighbourhood hang-out rather than any chain pizza restaurant. And so it proved. Not a single tourist in there, English or otherwise. It was just what we wanted. One of the two brothers who own it looked after us and a good time was had by all. The pizzas were fantastic.Next day we went first of course to the Duomo famously the largest church in Italy. Knowing we had only a few hours in Milan we made no attempt to go inside, but we looked at it from every angle, and enjoyed the sumptuous carving….in stone……and bronze….interestingly the doors are nineteenth and twentieth century not the work of medieval craftsmen as I first thought.There was much to admire.After a quick walk around Piazza del Duomo…we passed up one of the streets full of stylish shops….……..here a bookshop ( which we can never resist of course)….to come quickly to la Galleria Vittorio Emanuele which was second on our list of must-sees, and an absolutely stunning example of a posh shopping arcade, full of Versace, Prada and other famous Italian and international designers.But all the shops in downtown Milan are sensational, not just in the arcade. How about this for an alternative to the Aga?Our stroll through the city revealed a superb range of classy buildings…. and even gateways to splendid private houses…We lunched in the Piazza Del Duomo….having passed on the stairwell what looked like a very old olive tree but was in fact a bronze sculpture……..a- ma-zing….We then wound our way slowly down cobbled streets with a mix of old and new trams (very reminiscent of Lisbon)…..to a favourite Milanese public garden – the Parco Sempione – a large placid green area, nice after the bustle of town, running from the Castello Sforzesco to Arco della Pace. After our peaceful interlude in the park…..we had a good look around the castle, the core of it dating back to 1358-1368 during the Visconti’s period who used the Castle as his residence while he stayed in Milan, but mostly used it as a military base. Later, it was mainly Francesco Sforza who, as ruler of Milan in 1450, gave particular impetus to the reconstruction of the building which had been seriously damaged between 1447 and 1450. He quickly rebuilt the castle, this time with a 230 ft tall central tower – the Torre del Filarete (now a symbol of Milan itself), flanked with large round towers. His successors further improved and embellished the castle. The inside of the castle is now home to several museums which we noted as worth our attention on a longer visit (let’s hope it’s soon!). We had covered a lot of ground and after another quick coffee made our way to our train, and here a word about the Italo trains. We went on two during our time in Italy, and I think we were in ‘Smart’ class both times, the lowest of four classes. To us it smacked of style and comfort with leather seats, foot rests, individual waste containers etc etc. If only Italo would take over our national railways!The area between Milan and Verona is famous for a number of significant wines including Prosecco, Valpolicello and more….so, vineyard after vineyard was glimpsed from the train windows…..also the odd lake, and always the mountains in the background – the Apennines, the backbone of Italy, 870 miles long and surging up to 9000 feet at their highest…The railway infrastructure was quite impressive too…here a signal box…what was most impressive however was the smoothness and speed of the journey – at one point we were doing 247k an hour (153mph). Fantastic.Our flat in Verona was booked through Airbnb and was very pleasant. But its big plus was that it was outside the tourist centre and in a residential district. So the people we bumped into were Italian. Whilst this meant a reasonable walk to get into the centre, it was absolutely fine. We were in no hurry anyway.On our first night we wandered over the Porta Nuovo into town, and relaxed with an outdoor meal at one of the hundreds of cafes and restaurants…F. had the most boring salad ever, my spicy aubergine bake was very tasty. The bottle of local wine went down a treat..Along the street of our restaurant were some excavations revealing what? I never did find out!The atmosphere at night in Verona is great….it’s a pleasure to walk around.and lively……The next morning – our first – we ambled along our narrow little street to the river…This is the river Adige, second longest in Italy, rising in Switzerland…..and there are beautiful walks and promenades along it….As this is Italy there are quite a lot of bikes…..after walking into town we reached what is regarded as the centre of Verona – Piazza Bra, huge and full of restaurants, cafes, bars, shops……..and of course the Roman amphitheatre built in the first century, and where we were due to go to the Opera the next day. In fact it is internationally famous for the large-scale opera performances given there and is one of the best preserved ancient structures of its kind. In ancient times, the arena’s capacity was nearly 30,000 people. The stage for concerts and opera performances decreases the available places to a maximum nowadays of 15,000. It will be used as the closing ceremony for the 2026 Winter Olympics in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo. (Must watch if we’re still around!). Luckily, as the weather was hot, there is a beautiful little garden in the midst of Piazza Bra which we availed ourselves of to consult our map.Having bought a Verona card which was 25 Euros each for two days ( a bargain as it turned out ), and which allows entry to all sorts of places as well as bus travel etc, we then made our way through one of the ancient arches, this one fifteenth century……and along some nice arcades……to the Castelvecchio fortress which took the name “Castelvecchio” (meaning “old castle” of course in Italian) just after the construction of the Castel San Pietro in 1393, which is located nearby.
The castle, an imposing complex marked by seven brick towers, was completed in 1356 as a defensive structure aimed to control the access to the city from the river Adige and it was converted into a museum or in fact a series of museums in the 1920s.
From 1958 to 1964, the museum was completely renovated and updated after a design by famous Italian architect Carlo Scarpa. Scarpa’s project, which harmoniously combined contemporary building materials, such as bare concrete and steel, with the castle’s medieval architecture, is still widely considered among the best examples of the conversion of a historic building into a modern museum.The building is a large square compound made mainly out of red bricks and is an impressive example of Gothic architecture. One of the most noteworthy features of the castle is its imposing M-shaped merlons which run along the walls of the bridge and the castle itself. There are seven towers in the castle along with a maschio or a super elevated keep. Inside are four main buildings. Castelvecchio is surrounded by a ditch that is now dry. When the castle was first built, the moat was filled with water from the nearby Adige. “It is believed that the castle was built on the location of an earlier Roman fortress. The castle and nearby bridge were built by Lord Cangrande II della Scala, who in 1350 married Elizabeth, the daughter of Louis IV of Bavaria and the Countess of Hainualt, Margaret II. The castle was constructed as a deterrent to attack by powerful neighbors like the Sforzas and Gonzagas and the city state of Venice. The construction of the castle started in 1354 and Cangrande died in 1359, before it was completed. The fortified bridge over the Adige was designed to let the castle’s inhabitants escape north to Tyrol in case of a rebellion or a coup d’etat. During the time of Venetian rule in the area slits were added to the structure to allow defence by cannons. The fortress was badly damaged during the Napoleonic Wars and Napoleon himself stayed in the castle many times when he visited Verona. Under the later rule of the Austrians the castle was used as barracks and was later restored in 1923.”The art galleries and museums were full of surprises and well worth an extended visit…One thing that particularly caught our eye on the walls were these artists’ preparatory drawings and underpainting – absolutely fascinating – and fourteenth century.and this – almost like a cartoon book – thirty Bible stories painted on wood, again fourteenth century.These pics give some idea of the sumptuousness of medieval wall decoration….pretty spectacular you have to agree.And here a view of the Skaliger or Castelvecchio Bridge – a fortified bridge that was built over the River Adige. The bridge featured segmental arches and when it was originally constructed it had the world’s largest span at 48.7 meters.The bridge was built as we noted around 1354 by Lord Cangrande II in order to facilitate escape from his fortress. A reflection of the times! The construction was solid and the bridge remained intact until the end of the 18th century when French troops destroyed the left bank tower. In 1945, during World War II, the bridge along with Ponte Pietra was totally destroyed by the Germans. Reconstruction began in 1949 and was completed two years later on all but the left tower. The bridge was built using red bricks for the upper part, quite common with the landmarks in the city during the Scaliger era. The lower portion of the bridge was fashioned out of white marble. Legend has it that the designer of the bridge, Guglielmo Bevilacqua arrived at the inauguration ceremony riding a horse, ready to flee in case it came crumbling down. When the bridge was seen to be a success Bevilacqua was reportedly presented with a sword belonging to Saint Martin by Cangrande.One of the highlights of our visit was the walk around the walls and battlements…..and I thought a very unusual and perhaps typically Italian stylish touch was to find a little garden perched on the battlements themselves. Terrific.At the end of the high-level walk we came across a statue of Cangrande II Della Scala himself, immortalised in stone like the archetypal cavalier. Scarpa the architect decided to place this particular sculpture on a concrete plinth seven metres high, creating an niche that allowed the work to be seen from multiple angles…….Our little tour finished, just beside our bus stop was The Arco dei Gavi an ancient structure built by the gens Gavia, a noble Roman family who had their hometown in Verona, at the beginning of the Via Postumia, the Roman road leading into the city. During the Middle Ages it was used as a gate in the walls.Our free bus was very pleasant and free of tourists….We got off in an area where we quickly disposed of a double ice cream each and headed past a group of rather nice buildings….and along a promenade…..to the funicular which we took up to the viewpoint…where we stayed a while enjoying the amazing vistas……It had all been thirsty work, so we stopped off at a hilltop cafe again with the incredible views and sank a large beer and orange juice…..