Leaving Azerbaijan, we were looking for somewhere warm in Europe as the year tracked steadily through autumn. We had decided on Malta but was there somewhere closer for a quick hike beforehand? A random travel article about ‘places in Europe where you can walk all year’ alerted us to Lake Garda in Italy. Apparently it has a warm micro-climate caused by the lake temperature and surrounding topography.
There’s a hike from Verona to Lake Garda through the Valpolicella valley. A wine walk. Marvellous.
And it turns out, Azerbaijan Airlines flies direct to Milan twice a week, and then it’s just two hours on the fast train from Milan to Verona. Sounded like it was meant to be. We left Baku on a morning flight and were in Verona mid-afternoon.
To anyone outside Europe, Verona is probably best known as the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Romantics flock here in the thousands to see ‘that’ balcony. More on it later.
We had no idea how much more there is to Verona.
Verona was hugely important to the Romans because of its location at the intersection of three major routes across the Roman Empire. It’s amphitheatre was the third largest in Italy and the eighth largest in the empire. Built from pink marble in the 1st century CE, it’s even older than the Coliseum in Rome.
What stands today is actually just the inner ring. The outer ring which made it truly colossal was damaged in an earthquake centuries ago and the stone was then pilfered to extend the city walls.
With 50 tiers of seats and a capacity for 30,000, the amphitheatre was initially used for gladiatorial contests and combats against wild animals. In the Middle Ages, it was executions and duels. From the 14th century it began to be used for festivals and parades.
In 1913, to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Verdi, a production of Aida was staged. Every year since, except for during the world wars and COVID, Verona has held a summer opera festival here. It’s a major event for the city.
Verona has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the value and importance of its many historical buildings. Look down any lane and there’s something interesting.
Since at least the 1700s, and possibly as early as the 1500s, a whale rib bone has been hanging from the Arco della Costa (Arch of the Rib). No one is clear why it was put there. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance era, judges used the walkway on top of the arch to move between the city hall and their residences. That way they could avoid being approached by begging petitioners and sleaze merchants with corrupt offers. A legend developed that the whale bone would fall on the first truly innocent man to walk beneath it. Despite the passage of several popes and kings under the arch, the bone hasn’t fallen. Oops.
Verona seems to have a church on every corner.
The Church of Saint Fermo is two churches in one. From 1065 to 1143, Benedictines demolished an earlier church and built a ‘lower church’ underground to house relics from the earlier one, and an ‘upper church’ for themselves.
The lower church is simple in design and decoration.
The upper church is more elaborate and has some beautifully preserved frescoes.
The Cathedral Complex is a group of ecclesiastical buildings which began with a basilica built in the 4th century CE and grew from there. It features the Romanesque Cathedral of St Maria Assunta.
There’s an enormous 12th century baptismal font carved from a single block of marble.
And over at the Basilica of St Anastasia, an Italian Gothic extravaganza, these unusual fellows have been holding up the holy water basins for over 500 years.
The Veronese are immensely proud of their historical area. Here’s a good example. Two of Ponte Pietro’s arches date to the 1st century BCE and the rest to repairs made in the 13th century. In 1945, the retreating German army tried to blow up the bridge, and almost succeeded. After the war, locals retrieved the stones from the river and carefully rebuilt the bridge to near pre-war condition.
And yes, we felt obliged to go and see ‘that’ balcony. Shakespeare’s drama about the warring Montagues and Capulets is set in Verona. The families are, of course, fictitious. That did not stop the city authorities who saw a marketing opportunity in it in the 1930s. On the totally specious rationale that Cappello sounds a bit like Capulet, they identified a house on Via Capello which they announced was Juliet’s family home and built a 14th century style balcony on it.
In Act 5, Romeo proclaims “For I will raise her statue in pure gold, that while Verona by that name is known, there shall no figure at such rate be set as that of true and faithful Juliet”.
So as well as the balcony, they erected a bronze statue of Juliet in the courtyard below.
That’s right. The families didn’t exist. The house has no relevant history and did not even have a balcony until the 20th century. Note the ugly modern balcony on the floor above!
It doesn’t stop legions of giggling fans from coming here. It was wet and off-season, but still plenty of them. And now there’s a bizarre tradition – if less than 100 years can be said to amount to a tradition – that if you rub the statue’s breast, your luck in love will change. What’s creepy is that we saw both blokes and ladies doing it. Some of them were couples photographing each other fondling the breast. It just isn’t right!!!
There’s a Juliet museum in the building and you can pay to walk out onto the balcony while your accompanying person photographs you from below doing your best Juliet impersonation. And across town you can also pay to visit Juliet’s tomb.
Seeing the balcony in order to have a laugh at the earnest gawpers is one thing, but paying to visit fictitious sites? No thanks. But plenty do.
As you might have noted from the photographs, Verona was wet. It was also cold. Where was that promised micro-climate? We were starting the walk tomorrow and hoped for a change.
Verona to Parona
Next morning, the weather had indeed improved. Still overcast but no rain and much warmer. We headed out through the city, passing Castelvecchio, a fortress built in the 13th century.
After crossing the river on Ponte Pietro, we climbed up to Castel San Pietro.
From the top, the beauty of Verona’s old town is plain to see.
We followed a path along the river with the historic centre of the city opposite.
Eventually we reached Ponte Scaligero, the 13th century bridge linking back to Castelvecchio.
We continued on and soon left the city, following a path along the river all the way to Parona.
The weather held and the walk was pleasant.
Parona to Funame
A beautiful autumn morning dawned in Parona. Crisp air, blue skies. Perfect for walking.
Autumn leaves, old stone building, an aqueduct. All nice.
Then we left the river and entered the vineyards. The picking season is finished of course, but except in the dead of winter, vineyards in historic areas always look good.
Day in Funame
We stayed an extra day in Funame. It’s a lovely little town.
We hiked up the nearby hill to the Sanctuario della Madonna de la Salette. It was built in 1864 by the people of Funame as thanks for divine intervention in ending a phylloxera epidemic which was destroying the area’s vineyards.
Funame has several cellar doors in town and numerous wineries in the area are open for tastings of the region’s world famous valpolicella and amarone wines. It also punches well above its weight on the gastronomy front. It’s a foodie destination for Italians and has some seriously top class restaurants, including Enoteca della Valpolicella where we had a magnificent meal and some excellent valpolicella.
It’s church had that very week re-inaugurated it’s pipe organ. Built in 1914, it’s just been painstakingly restored and we listened to an evening concert in the church.
It was all Johann Bach and his mates. John was disappointed the organist didn’t play A Whiter Shade of Pale. Anyone who’s seen The Big Chill will understand.
Funame to Sega di Cavaion
Next morning the weather was again glorious. We headed out through the olive groves and along country lanes.
After a slight climb there was a lovely view back to Funame.
We came to the tiny village of San Pietro and then up a steep hill through forest to the picture perfect village of San Giorgio.
From the terrace next to the cafe, there’s a panoramic view all the way to Lake Garda.
It’s inexplicable why this isn’t on every ‘top ten villages in Italy’ list. After a coffee and a break, we reluctantly headed down and on to our next stop, an inn on the outskirts of Sega di Cavaion.
Sega di Cavaion to Bardolino
Once again a beautiful morning as we headed across the river and through the vines.
We reached Cavaion Veronese, a classic cobblestoned town.
And then through more vineyards to the town of Bardolino, basking in the sun on Lake Garda.
We spent a second day in Bardolino where we walked around the lake to Garda, another pretty town.
And then on to San Viligio and back. There is indeed a temperate micro-climate here. It must have been at least ten degrees warmer than in Verona. Shorts and t-shirt weather.
There were even a couple of guys spear fishing in the lake.
The summer season has finished and there is a lull until Christmas brings another surge in visitors. But the weather was warm and sunny. It was a great time to be here. The perfect way to finish? An Aperol spritz by the lake, of course!