Ah… how fickle we travelers can be, always making oaths as to the prettiest, most beautiful, most entrancing destination that captures our spirit. Only a fool would commend such an impression to others, acquired in the momentary embrace of some enchanting town.
This is the existential dilemma we face as we complete our final week in Northern Italy. Three charming sirens: Verona; Venice; Bolzano; seductively compete for our favor.
Here’s how the epic theme unfolded:
Our usually perilous viaggio (journey) over the mountains and through the tunnels was mercifully tame, thanks to Sunday traffic, a peppier power-train in our updated Panda, and us – driver and navigator schooled in Autostrade post-traumatic survival skills.
We coast to the hills surrounding Verona, and meet fellow guests all just arriving at Villa Beatrice, a vivacious B&B, where we had previously “soloed”. With relaxed expectations typical of small Italian lodgings, we introduce ourselves to one another while awaiting our host, Simone’s arrival with his lovely Romanian finance, Angelica. Guests from Chicago, Brazil, and Japan all convened here to attend VinItaly, the international exposition for Italy’s wine industry. Luckily we secured our cozy room and strategies for coveted restaurant tables since the town was jammed with cosmopolitan hipsters taking advantage of the flowing promotional wine.
At Da Ugo, a very old trattoria, we are greeted warmly by Manuel, who remembered us and our preferred table from previous visits. Horse and donkey meat is a house specialty here, however we steered to the more pedestrian – liver with onions and polenta, and pappardelle con wild asparagus. At Du de Cope, we split, in a very un-Italian fashion, a wonderful insalata di casa and a perfect pizza topped with fresh (not melted) burrata.
Each day as we walked the rural, gentrified hills overlooking Verona, and then drove to the edge of the walled city (see photo of secret parking spot) to glide by foot over smooth travertine stones that grace the sidewalks and squares, we were reminded of the delights of Shakespeare’s setting for Romeo e Giulietta.
Simone is an energetic host, who attends to his guests with multilingual advice and directions, emergency transport to the train, and exotic juices blended each morning to accompany his home baking. We now have his recipe for delicious torta di riso, which he made for us, knowing our love for it. Not in direct reciprocation, Lisa spent some time offering basic training tips to Simone and his adorable, wildly affectionate Border Collie puppy, Shanti.
After lunching two days at a favorite café on Piazza delle Erbe, and comparing this unforgettable setting with other known contenders (in Siena, Rome, Firenze) Lisa and I confirmed it as Italy’s most perfect town square.
With all of this we were tempted to award Verona as the most beautiful destination in all of Italy. Well, not just yet….
You may have noticed the umbrellas and gray skies (travel brochures say “dramatic”) in some of our dispatches. However our adventurous spirits were not dampened by the persistent inclemency.
More to the point, we traveled by train to Venice for a daylong side-trip into a brilliant blue sky and the city virtually to ourselves. Seems like everyone was back in Verona taking in the vino. Exceptions were a few travelers from the “mountains” of China, to whom we offered assistance on the train. They were so excited to reverse Marco Polo’s adventure, exclaiming as their telephoto lens came out to capture the island city, “the water looks so clean!”
As weeks of rain now cleared, and the usual hoards of tourists kept at bay, what was unconcealed was the simple appeal of Venice; tiny piazzas with hanging laundry and misplaced graffiti, the still canals conveying workmen and their goods, children and grandparents relaxing in the squares, and the subdued tone of this once great trading empire seen as someone’s neighborhood.
If Venice is a postcard of the preserved past, our next destination, Bolzano, in the Dolomite Mountains of Italy’s South Tyrol, may be a view of the future revealed.
While the advent of spring was noticeably retarded in Umbria and Tuscany due to the cold, damp weather, the pastel shades of a landscape in bloom were awakening in this region at the base of great snowy peaks. Lisa surmised that the shorter growing season in the North accelerated the flowering cycles of trees, orchards, and wildflowers. The sudden “weather balm” also brought the bi-cultural population out in full colorful display.
Bolzano (or Bozen, in German) has elements of a still relaxed Italian pace, however the constitution and workability of the town is decidedly Austrian. Ordered municipal byways, spotless Alpine farms and churches, stores open all day (no siesta hours), and a refined demeanor are apparent.
We billeted at the light and airy Hotel Hanny, which is perched on the side of a vineyard-stepped, and castle-dotted valley just beyond the manicured town. Thanks to our host family Riegler, we had access to bikes and footpaths for three active and relaxing days in which to intimately connect to the community. Some of the roads we trekked leading almost vertically to farms and Gasthofs are so steep they would be deemed “illegal” by our cautious standards.
We were able to bike to dinner in the center of town where German and Italian dishes compliment each other. White asparagus, fresh trout, risottos, delicious brown breads, frosty pilsner beers and white wines. Of course, fantastic high-fiber breakfast buffets braced us for days of brisk activity. Transitioning from the six phrases of Italian we know to the four words of German was tricky, yet pulled off with aplomb.
An active mountain sports culture is visible everywhere. We steered around grannies and triathletes on every configuration of bike, saw skis being ported to freshly snow-covered runs, rubbed shoulders with runners, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. An array of extraordinary sports facilities and public spaces have been built along the river and promenade that covers the length of town. Someone is paying attention here in planning a city that works.
The paragon of this modern connection to nature and active life-style is the World HQ of Salewa, a mountaineering gear and apparel manufacturer. In 2011 they opened a multi-purpose structure (offices, retail shop, and futuristic climbing space that opens to outdoor mountain views.
We thrilled at the spectacle of expert climbers scaling 150-foot walls and overhangs, the reflection of white-peaked mountains against the stark black glass of this monolithic architecture, and how it all conformed to the contours of the glacial carved valley and an ancient fortress.
[Euro fashion bulletin: everything “puffy” in vivid colors. Vests, light weight coats, sports jackets, hoodies, all in high-tech fabrics.]
Bolzano has the feel of a cultured and workable environment that has addressed some of the challenges of contemporary life and would be easy to adjust to as a place to call home.
So you can see that we have enjoyed and sung the praises of these three bella sisters of Northern Italy. No need to compete or choose between their very different gifts.
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