Baking in mid-thirties degree heat, showering in refreshingly-iced glasses of Aperol Spritz.
This is a magnificent short-hop, long weekend destination, with it’s 2,000 year old Roman Arena, multitude of bars and Trattorias, stunning riverside views, boutique shops, antique stores, churches, palazzos and, well, Italian class.
Despite the heat, we pounded the streets of this small city from top to bottom, easily manageable for the averagely fit explorer. And we fell in love with the place.
The grand, sweeping avenues are lined with regular refreshment stops. And it seemed that locals and visitors alike drink little more than the aforementioned, day-glow Aperol. It’s an acquired, bitter but refreshing Summer drink with a shot of the alcoholic liqueur of its name, a splash of Cava fizz, topped up with soda water and served in a tall wine tulip with lots of ice. Magnificent.
We were on a luxury away trip; Mark Knopfler and his band in the stunning Arena, which has seen everything from boy bands to gladiators in its long, sun-soaked history. And as evening fell on the night after our arrival, still stiflingly hot, we found a little Trattoria just around the corner for a last minute top-up of pizza.
The night before we’d headed out, full of optimism about Italian seafood and lashings of pasta awash in syrupy tomato sauce or unctuous creaminess. I ate horsemeat.
It turns out horsemeat is a speciality of the region. Who knew?
We stumbled across an achingly romantic little place, all candles and wooden chairs and tables under the cooling arches of a grand old building off main byways and highways. Simple fayre, lovingly created, menu in Italian, sprightly, feisty waitresses and fiercely atteractive waiters nonchalantly gliding throughout.
A surreptitious studying of our Italian dictionary revealed the horsemeat situation only once we’d sat down, ordered a carafe of wine and looked around, feeling very pleased with ourselves. Horsemeat made up three quarters of the menu in one way or another.
Now I’m not particularly squeamish. I’ve eaten ants in Borneo, crocodile in Nairobi, gizzards and offal in France (mais oui) and bucketloads of various dubious pork bits in Bavaria. But my youngest daughter is at that horse mad age and besides, eating horse is something that died out in the consciousness of the UK around the Second World War.
It was too late to get up and leave without complete tourist embarrassment. So I took one for the team and my wife, coward that she is, opted for lasagne. Lasagne for God’s sake!
Horsemeat ragout was the dish of the day, served on a bed of polenta. Ah well, in for a penny, in for a pound. I poured myself a healthy slug of vino rosso and waited with bated breath.
Not for long, as it turned out. Within five minutes the dish was on my plate. I always find that distressing, particularly when geared up for a long, leisurely post sundown meal in a new land. It meant, I guess, that the dish in question was bubbling away in a giant vat out back, which doesn’t mean it won’t be good but does somewhat lessen the spell of a personally cooked, intimate Italian meal.
It was good. Rich, deeply flavoured, like a heavily reduced ragout made perhaps with an entire bottle of Chianti. It was meaty and complex and I enjoyed it. And within an hour of sitting down, we were laughing our way up the street and off to find another wonderful little bar where we could wile away the rest of the evening and watch the crowds float by.
Back on concert night, we found our entrance and entered the bowels of the ancient building – one of the oldest on the planet and still in virtually daily use. During our stay, a month-long opera festival was in full swing and giant dramatic statues, pillars, columns and dackdrops were littered around the Arena during the day, with stages, light and sound being lifted into place by cranes overnight. Quite an operation and with temperatures soaring well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the afternoon, the roadies and stage crew must habve been knackered. And yet when we emerged into the sultry air to see the inside of the vast rising steps of the Arena, we could pay withness to the wonderful job they’d done. One of the most impressive and atmospheric stages and venues it’s ever been my privilege to see.
As night fell and the heat very slowly dissipated into a mere airing cupboard temperature, Knopfler and his ten-piece band created a weaving aural tapestry that blended magic and music for two glorious hours that will live for us forever. The heat of the day’s sun burned from the stone through the thin cushions we’d rented and cooked our arses, but we didn’t care. Memories were created that will live with us forever. And as the unforgettable, carefully picked notes of Romeo & Juliet rang across Verona, the crowd cried in joy – a true homecoming to the birthplace of Shakespeare’s timless classic creation.
And finally, a real Going Home; the theme from Local Hero. An achingly uplifting, bittersweet instrumental that finishes on a wonderfully life-affirming, two fingers up, chugging rhythm. Lights popped and glistened across the vast arena and beyond the walls in the piazza, hawkers selling neon kids’ aerial toys, fired them up in long, swooping arcs in the sky.
We filed out and into the alleys and shortly to a lovely little place where I was allowed to smoke a cigar at the bar and drink cold beer and chat enthusiastically with fellow concert goers until it was the early hours and time to trace our weary steps back to our quiet hotel and the white noise relief of a gustily blowing aircon system.
Thank you, Verona. A beautiful, timeless city of love and laughter.