……. all of a sudden here was ‘the bridge with no parapet’. Worth seeing, but a minute later there were about ten people on there having their photos taken…….Looking at our map we saw we were fairly near the Rialto Bridge and so we headed there with the thought of using our vaporetto tickets some more. After a quick think we caught a vaporetto going to Murano island, famous of course for its glass…..We went under the Rialto….and were soon on our way up the Grand Canal again….a lovely relaxing ride over the lagoon, and we were there.What a contrast to Venice. No hoards of people. No clicking cameras. Just a smattering of ordinary people who actually live here. Yes there were a number of glass shops and I am sure Murano does get busy. But not when we were there, thank goodness.The church’s plain facade and stark isolated bell tower belied the face it presented to the canal…..and there were some lovely features inside, including the floors……and naturally some glass work……there were even ordinary shops…..and rows of ‘ordinary’ houses….Feeling thirsty just before we were to catch our return boat, and unable to find a local bar or cafe, we popped into a boutique hotel which had just recently opened…. we were on our own.It was really very pleasant, and the view………We returned a slightly different way across the lagoon and this took us past the cemetery on San Michele island… in fact the whole island is only occupied by churches and by long ranks of tombs. Fascinating.We disembarked at the station where we were a little early, but the evening light was fantastic….and rather than join the policeman and his girlfriend at the station bar, we took our drinks outside with a bag of crisps and sat on the steps…..until the turning on of the lights notified us of our train….Back in Verona, the evening mood walking through the streets for home was delightful….and in Verona as in Milan we were always seeing stylish new shops……here a quirky display from an optician. For some reason F. told me Verona is famous for its opticians and eye-testing……..The next day, our last, we were due to catch a bus to Lake Garda a short distance away, but we were awakened to an enormous storm (lots and lots of thunder and lightning). It lasted all day and led to us staying in and playing a new and enjoyable game, given to us by our daughter, lots and lots of times (Bananagrams). The weather abated for the evening and we had a last stroll around Verona, calling at a locals bar for a last drink or two….On the day of our leaving we popped around the corner to the cake shop we had only just discovered for breakfast, again with lots of locals who nearly always stand….and after a last shop at the grocers for a bottle of Limoncello and some olive oil..we made our way to the bus stop by the river, passing a very busy artists school…to arrive eventually in plenty of time at the airport – this time Bergamo – which as you can see is quite scenic itself. What a magnificent trip.
After a quick cup of coffee next morning we caught the bus to the station and then the Italo train to Venice (all booked at home on Trainline). I still can’t get over the amazing sight that greets you on coming out of the station concourse. You are immediately in the heart of Venice and its canals. Right there. At the start of the Grand Canal. It’s like stepping onto a film set. Incredible.We knew that the water taxis – the famous vaporetti – would be nearby. They were right outside.We grabbed a day ticket each (12 Euros) and what a bargain that proved to be. It was worth it for the trip into the centre alone. The boat went more or less the whole length of the Grand Canal stopping along the way. What a journey. Click after click went my mobile.And what I couldn’t get over was how busy the waterways were. Particularly with goods traffic. Everything from dredgers with their miasmatic loads to DHL boats (imagine) to fruit and veg boats. I really hadn’t appreciated that this was how it would be.I understand that gondoliers get around £95,000 a year……..but they still can’t afford to live in Venice itself…….
But the architecture was something else. We all know the problems of Venice – the stupidly large cruise ships, the conversion of old buildings to hotels, flats, Airbnb, the loss of residents to tourism. According to Bloomberg ‘The city’s population basically peaked in the 1500s, and though it rallied again to near 16th century levels in the 1970s, today there are just one third as many Venetians as 50 years ago.’ Less than 50,000 residents compared to over 20 million visitors each year, of which over half are day trippers (just like us). It’s all a disaster. Basically the place is a museum. But what a museum! All too soon our journey was over and we disembarked at the Piazza San Marco. Because we were here for such a short time we had no intention of actually going inside places (just as in Milan). That would have been pointless to try. Instead we wanted to ‘feel’ Venice. So, we enjoyed the sheer size and splendour of the Doge’s Palace…..the Piazza itself (Napoleon called it the drawing room of Europe)……and of course the Basilica….as well as the Renaissance-style clock tower…However fairly quickly and decisively we headed off down the nearest street in order to escape the tourists….(sorry, I should say the other tourists)….That escape never came. We walked 30,000 steps that day, (according to my app about 12 miles, but say 8 or 9 miles), and we never got rid of other tourists. They were literally everywhere. And not only tourists, but tourists’ shops. Like Blackpool in the 50’s. Well not quite.But you could have 200 million visitors a year let alone 20 million, and you still wouldn’t take away the beauty, the specialness of the city…..around every corner, and I do mean every corner, a wonderful view……We were heading for the district of Castello to visit a special bookshop. But we just headed in a general direction, not concerned whether we got lost…..which we did frequently…and eventually we were there……the Libreria Acqua Alta. In this unique shop, which has been called one of the most beautiful in the world, and is certainly one if not the quirkiest, books are stored and on display in gondolas, canoes, and bathtubs. Books are even turned into furniture and architecture themselves! Books that got ruined by high water, or acqua alta have not been thrown away, but have been used instead to become decorative features, walls or even the steps of a book staircase that gives wonderful views over the canal. It is unbelievable. Especially to a couple of people like ourselves who owned two very nice bookshops. The guy who owns this has turned a problem into an opportunity in a very big way indeed.We sat fascinated by the loop of film which shows the shop actually under water……and as for the full-size gondola in the middle of the shop……Incroyable!Unless we had seen it we wouldn’t have believed it, but lunch called…..and we resumed our magical footstepsand we were so lucky to find what on this day was probably the quietest piazza in the whole of Venice…….we had yet another ‘special’ birthday lunch here at Osteria Boccadero (I was doing so well with this birthday….). It was really really nice. And my squid ink seafood linguini was delicious…….Suitably rested and refreshed we only had one more ‘objective’ (good to have objectives) on this day, and that was to see the ‘bridge with no parapet’. This involved a walk along the lagoon side of Venice along a lovely promenade, then cutting back towards the Grand Canal…..
Next stop was the Roman amphitheatre, not to be confused with the Arena where we would be seeing the opera..built around the end of the first century B.C. its visible remains today include the stage, the orchestra, the auditorium and some galleries on two subsequent levels together with a top corridor.It was being set up for a pop concert on our visit….
but the Roman seating was still clearly visible,and the setting marvellous….Also on site there is a fascinating museum with Roman finds from Verona in an old fourteenth century monastery behind the theatre………….here a floor… a wall decoration….……a funerary Stella which translates “Cippus lays a curse on anyone who dares to dirty or violate the sepulchre”. Obviously this must have been an issue in Verona!…..lots of pottery and glassware….absolutely incredible it survives….…..a larger than life-size bronze foot from a statue….and an upper walk…….Verona full then of layers of History which is all wonderful to see……..Next day we again walked into town passing one of the ubiquitous policemen. wherever we went there were police of varying sorts some with sub machine-guns , all with holstered pistols……..all very different from England.Our first destination was the Arena itself…of the outside only the Ala, a short section of the outer ring that was the façade of the Arena, has been preserved, shown here in my photo. Under the reign of Theodoric (493-526 AD), the outer ring was partially demolished for the construction of a second set of defensive walls, and until the Renaissance the Arena was used as a stone quarry. The façade features just one architectural style, the Tuscan order, with bossages and limestone blocks from Valpolicella.Once inside the scale of the building became clear…..this was after all the third largest arena in Italy…..Excavations under the structure have brought to light a complex hydraulic system which enabled water to be brought inside the amphitheatre, both for spectacular water games and to clean up the arena after the bloody fights held there. All quite incredible to behold.On our way to our next point of interest we popped into one of the many churches. This was St Niccolo, a fine example of Italian seventeenth century architecture…..We also explored the church of Sant’Anastasia.I loved the flooring in particular, all local marble…..The hunchbacks of Verona are two figures in the church, which are supporting the two stoups at the base of the first columns of the church’s central nave.Next on our itinerary however was the Torre Dei Lamberti Tower – located in the Piazza della Erbe, the Torre Dei Lamberti is the tallest of several towers in Verona. In 12th century Verona, as was the practice in many Italian cities at the time, noble families demonstrated their power and wealth through constructing tall and elaborate towers. The towers acted as luxurious homes as well as watch towers. Ideally, towers were built to be bigger than the nearest tower. Writing this has brought back memories of San Gimignano where there are many such towers giving it the name ‘The Town of Fine Towers’.
Anyhow as the name suggests, the Lamberti Tower was built by the wealthy Lamberti family. Work was begun on the tower in 1172 and was eventually completed in 1463. Over the years however, modifications have been made including the raising of the height by the Venetians in the 16th century. It is still possible to make out the different sections of the tower based on the building materials used.
Before ascending the tower we visited what was called an exhibition of Veronese modern art. I must say it didn’t seem very modern to either of us, but that just shows everywhere is different.What I did like very much was the sensuous painting by Hayez (the Italian equivalent to DeLaCroix) of the personification of “Italy”. She holds the cross in one hand and the volume entitled “History of Italy” in the other, in memory of the martyrdom that took place in the streets of Milan in the days of 1848, when attempts were made unsuccessfully to obtain independence from the Hapsburg Empire and work towards the unification of Italy…..she is therefore both strong yet vulnerable. and these sculptures I admired which were about six or nine inches tall…..We then exited into the courtyard where the striping effect of use of brick interlaid with marble was quite clear………..and we ascended the tower not slowly by its 368 steps but quickly on the elevator! The views were worth our admittedly slender effort…..What is absolutely clear looking at these photos is the significance in historic towns of roofing all done in the same local materials….this gives such a sense of unity.We came out into the Piazza Della Erbe for a quick look at the pensive statue of Dante…..it represents another manifestation of the struggle for independence…………………we just had a fleeting visit then to the Scaliger Tombs – a group of five Gothic funerary monuments in Verona, celebrating the Scaliger family, who ruled in Verona from the 13th to the late 14th century.The tombs are located in a court of the church of Santa Maria Antica, separated from the street by a wall with medieval iron grilles. Built in Gothic style, they are a series of tombs, most of which are in the shape of a small temple and covered by a baldachin. According to the French historian Georges Duby, they are one of the most outstanding examples of Gothic art. The wrought iron enclosure is decorated with a stair motif, in reference to the Italian meaning of the name of the family, della Scala………..Lunch beckoned and whilst the restaurants in the Piazza looked lovely……… we found, down a side street, what turned out to be a fantastic local restaurant for my birthday lunch…..Prosecco, Soave, brilliant food and a relaxing coffee…what more could one ask?On our way to the Duomo…we saw yet another elevated tomb….it seems the Veronesi are trying to get as close to Heaven as they dare.The Cathedral, which is dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta, is the central structure of a complex of architectural buildings which include San Giovanni in Fonte, Santa Elena, the Canons’ cloister, the Capitular library, the square in front of the church and the bishop’s residence. During the Roman Empire, in the area of the present day church, there were villas with private thermal baths (balnea) and probably also a few small temples. The first palaeo Christian basilica was built on the area occupied today by the church of Santa Elena. It was consecrated by S. Zeno, bishop of Verona, between 362 380 A.D. but it soon turned out to be too small and a few decades later it was replaced by a larger basilica. Quite a few remains of the mosaic floor of both palaeo Christian basilicas can be seen under the church of Santa Elena and the Canons’ cloister.
The second palaeo christian basilica collapsed, probably during the 7th century A.D., due to a strong fire or maybe an earthquake. Archdeacon Pacifico was in charge of the reconstruction of the church, between the 8th and the 9th century and the Cathedral, known by the name of Santa Maria Matricolare, was built further south, on the area on which it is situated today.
The church was greatly damaged by an earthquake in 1117 A.D. and reconstruction work lasted at least 20 years: the building acquired its current width and the two Romanesque porches.
The inside was completely renovated between the second half of the 15th and the second half of the 16th century with the addition of the side chapels and the semicircular choir screen.The floor is magnificent and composed of local marbles….At one point I was amazed to find on a shelf some modern scriptural texts bound exquisitely which I examined……works of art in their own right…..Back home over the bridge of stone to get ready for the opera….Even arriving at the opera was special…..we were due to see Carmen.and once inside it was obvious how spectacular the occasion was going to be….The performance was outstanding with two of the three main singers very strong. The orchestra was on top form and the production itself was all you would expect in so magnificent an arena. As a birthday present – sensational!The walk home through Verona at night was delightful…….
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…..