Right before I left for Dorset last month, in anticipation of my next adventure, I hopped on the internet and searched for the cheapest plane tickets I could get from Prague. The destination appointed to me by the fates was Milan (well, Bergamo, which is a different town entirely despite the name of its airport). Italy! Great! I booked the tickets, took off for England, and thought no more about the trip until maybe a week before departure, when it occurred to me that I should really try to learn some Italian. Oh hello, Duolingo.
It was also quite last-minute that I decided what I would actually do during my week in Italy. Milan itself held little appeal. I wanted to hike, and I wanted mountains, but I also didn’t want to die. The Cinque Terre look amazing, but apparently the trails tend to get washed out this time of year. The Dolomites would have been soooooooo coooooool, but probably too treacherous for solo travel at this time of year, especially because it was difficult to find out if any mountain rifugios (basically cabins) would even be open.
I settled on Lago di Garda, the biggest lake in Italy, mountainous but not remote, dotted with towns & villages that at least theoretically could accommodate a hungry traveller in comfort. I would spend my first day in Verona, so that I could see what an Italian city looks like, then I’d bus up to the village of Arco and use it as home base for a few days of hiking, then walk to idyllic Limone sul Garda for my last couple of days.
I found that each location was accompanied by its own theme or mood or whatever you’d call it, so that’s how I decided to split up this account. First:
Day 1: In fair Verona, where we lay our scene
I chose Verona for my one Italian city because a friend told me a few days before my trip that it’s awesome. Good enough for me!
I did a little bit of Googling in advance, and learned that pretty much every major attraction could be found in the few square blocks of the city’s historic centre: the third-biggest Roman amphitheatre in Italy, some medieval towers, ‘Juliet’s balcony’ (baaaaaarf), shops, etc. Okay, I guess I’ll head in that direction and see what happens.
First I had to buy a bus ticket for the following day, and at the station had my first of countless conversations of this type:
THEM: (brightly) Ciao!
ME: Ciao! Parla inglese?
THEM: (look of abject horror) Ohhhhh, poco poco poco!…erm, no.
ME: Well shit.
It appears that they mostly get Italian and German tourists in the north of Italy (especially outside Verona). Almost no one I would encounter that whole week would speak any English (or French, for that matter) at all, and in my anglo arrogance, it had never really occurred to me that I might have to function entirely in Italian…Good thing I’d invested several tens of minutes into learning the language.
Verona was a blast, though. With the next day’s travel arranged, I headed toward Porta Nuova, the gateway to the historic centre, and immediately found some old walls to play in.
I crossed into the old town centre and was charmed for like a solid 7-8 minutes. The famous Roman amphitheatre, though spectacular, charged €10 for admission. NO THANKS. I was perfectly happy to do a circuit of the exterior and peer inside through doorways for free. As for the rest of this area, though it is breathtakingly pretty, it’s also…not for me. There were all kinds of fancy rich-people stores, and cloying tourist restaurants begging for my custom. Yech. Walked through the rest of the town centre without so much as breaking my stride, until I came to the Roman Ponte Pietra which led across the river to a saner part of the city.
I loved it here. I found the affordable site of a Roman theatre and resolved to come back to it later. I climbed the hill to the Piazzale Castel S. Pietro, which offers stunning views over the city. My wanderings on the hill brought me to a mysterious, secluded green space full of crumbling walls that I found absolutely enchanting. I sat there writing and looking around wistfully for ages, until I could no longer ignore the urgent notices from my bladder. Found a divey café, and became acquainted with their squat toilet.
While admiring the the city from Castel S. Pietro, I had noticed an old city wall that stretched a little ways north up into the hills before turning back toward the city. There had been no mention of it in my preliminary Google research. How mysterious. I really, really like old walls, as you may have noticed, especially if they’re mysterious. I decided to investigate, and wound up stomping around gleefully for hours. There’s some lovely parkland running alongside the walls, with walking paths and things, and periodically you’ll find crumbling old towers to creep into. What a fun thing to have in your city! And so devoid of people! Just a few joggers and couples walking dogs, and one buoyant Canadian poking her head into every nook and cranny.
I had sort of wanted to follow the wall from one end to the other, and made it most of the way, but the afternoon was slipping away from me and I really wanted to take a look at those Roman ruins. So that’s where I went next, happily forking over a mere €4,50 for admission. It’s an Augustan (late-1st c. BCE) theatre, the site littered with bits of sculpture and extending up a good part of the S. Pietro hill that I had climbed earlier. At the top, there was a fine little archaeological museum housed in a 15th-c. Jesuit monastery that was itself a very interesting site.
Finally, exhausted and delighted from a full day of gazing at old things, I headed back to my AirBnB for the night. I tried out a bidet for the first time there. It was ice cold and the less said about that the better.
But do you know what made my day in Verona so wonderful? I hadn’t planned any of it. I didn’t even wind up doing any of the things I’d thought I might want to do. Any great experience is made a thousand times better when it’s accompanied by the thrill of discovery, the satisfaction of having found a neat thing all on your own. There’s a feeling, whenever you go somewhere new, that there are things you must do. You must visit the Eiffel Tower in Paris. You must cross the Charles Bridge in Prague. You must go look at Juliet’s balcony in Verona. No, you don’t have to do any of that. If you’re on your way to something else and you find yourself peering down an alley or up a hill and thinking I wonder where that leads? then fucking drop everything and go take a look. That’s where the adventure is.