Verona: Looking for Romeo under some balconies

A few weeks ago, I planned a lazy, cozy PJ weekend spent dozing and catching up on movies.  But when a couple of friends invited me to Verona, I couldn’t say no.  A new city!  Yay!  Unlike Shakespeare, I was actually going to see Verona.  Yup, he set his star crossed lovers in this quaint medieval city without ever setting foot in Italy at all.  When I announced my departure on a Girls Night Out skype chat in NY (well, they were still up, and I was about to hop into the shower), they said “Have fun looking for Romeo.”

“Where do I find him?”

“Check under some balconies.”

Sleepy yet excited, I met my friends at that train station and we headed on over for our adventure. We were greeted with torrential rain upon our arrival – bummer.  We walked to our quaint hotel, which was midway between the city center and the train station, and began exploring.  Knowing nothing at all about Verona and having not even seen a guidebook, the city was a complete surprise.  Quaint castle.  Cool bridge from that castle with views over the river and the panorama of the city.  Various lookouts filled with tourists and necking teens.  This was definitely THE makeout spot for the Vernoese – wannabe Romeos charming the pants off their girls in that old fashioned lip lock we so often forget as we grow older and  . . .anyway.

My friend kept saying, “I love my life!  Seriously, I love my life.”

This was just a simple weekend trip for us.  Yes, I love my life.  We are so lucky.  Even in the rain, we were blissfully happy, wandering, exploring, just being.

Strolling through town, it was apparent that not just the locals were inspired by Romeo.  Many couples made it a kind of romantic pilgrimage to walk hand in hand in the streets that inspired the tragic love story.  People do love this story.  It came up in my 10th grade class, and all the girls swooned about how romantic and sweet the story is, and my snarky, sarcastic Korean student said “They die.  It’s tragic.  It’s horrible.  Nobody wins.”

And I said, “Would you rather have that amazing love and then die or would you rather live a long life and never know love?”

The girls said “love and die,” the guys said “life!”  hmmm.

After the bridge, we wandered in search of good food.  We heard that the people are really nice here and that the food is splendid.  We followed an amazing scent to a local restaurant where we learned that both rumors were true.  Our waiter was nice, sweet, funny, and spoke English!  Coming from non-touristy Genoa where almost nobody speaks it, this was a welcome treat.  I ordered macronicini with pumpkin and pork.  My friend ordered tortellini filled with a mix of meats. That sounded amazing and I went to switch and the waiter shouted an alarmed, “NO!”

Startled, I said, “Huh?”

“The macaronicini is amazing.  You must have it.  It’s my favorite.”

One friend switched her order and we were absolutely not disappointed.  Apparently the tortellini was delicious too, but that pumpkin … mmmm, such hearty flavor.  In Northern Italy, near the Sud Tirol, the food shows an interesting alpine influence.  Italian cooking — so regional.  Travel a hundred miles in any direction, and you’ve hit an entirely different style of cooking.  Living in Genoa, all the restaurants (and even the shops) feature ligurian cuisine, food from the land — simple compositions that let the ingredients shine.  But I get sick of the same thing over and over, and therefore love trying new cuisine!  YUM!

It was cold and wet, so we met up with friends at a bar.  They used to work with my colleague in China and are now at an international school in Albania.  We traded teaching stories, planned a visit, enjoyed lots of vino, then strolled through town, down cobbled lanes, into an old church with a funky pendulum, past a market, and then into another bar next to the coliseum, where I had 4 more glasses of delicious vino and aperitivos.  Chatting, enjoying, and relishing the evening.  Afterwards, we were hungry for more food and ducked into what we thought was a chill restaurant.  In our fleeces, with soggy hair, we didn’t exactly fit in with the packed crowd dolled up for date night, but we enjoyed our snug table by the open fire where the chefs cooked veggies and bread.  I had a simple onion soup, thick and tasty, while gnoshing on bread.  Then back to the hotel and to bed.

The weather got even colder the next day as the rain came down even heavier, so we decided to grab an earlier train home.  But first,  we grabbed a nice heated outdoor breakfast, featuring hot chocolate that was like melted candy bar … mmm… then we figured, hey why not . . . let’s go look for “Juliet’s House.”  Of course Juliet is fictional, but they set up a balcony and a bronze statue of Juliet.  Tourists rub her right breast for good luck in love and sex.  That breast was worn shiny by all the . . . love? I touched it quickly for a photo with silent apologies to the bard for the huge disgrace that must have him turning in his grave . . . but I couldn’t help it.  When in Verona . . .

The whole area, a little cove off a side street, has turned into a shrine for love.  Couples attach locks to a grate, engraved with their names.  Locks of Love.  I wonder how many of those relationships outlasted the lock.  I wonder how often someone comes over with clippers to ditch the locks.  And in the archway leading to the whole scene, couples doodled their names, initials, and love messages to each other within hearts.  The urge to mark, whether it’s a tree, a bathroom stall, or “Juliet’s” balcony.  The urge to preserve when everything is ultimately transient.

It’s hard to think of Romeo and Juliet without thinking of this song:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fiXkvsKpdk

Here are some pictures from our trip:

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Backstreets of Venice

Dad and I passed the gelato shop I visited in 2002 for my first real gelato, an addiction that kept me coming back sometimes 3 times a day.  I told him about the mini-tornado that swooped into Venice during my stay, turning the canals into giant wave pools, covering the stones with water along with a torrent of rain.  I slipped down the steps of the Rialto Bridge, running for cover with my hostelmate Katie, and we ducked into a bar shortly before they pulled the metal gate closed.  We were locked inside to brave the storm.  We had a few drinks and met a group of locals that showed us around afterwards.  We surveyed the damage, wind battered trees, and flower pots and window boxes broken everywhere.  A unique Venetian memory.

“Hey, Dad, my b&B was actually in this neighborhood.  It’s been 10 years, but I wonder if I could find it.”

With pure 10 year old memories, I navigated down the winding backstreets and said, “Ahh yes, up ahead, there will be a turn, a tiny bridge over a quaint canal, and then the street is shortly after that.”  Sure enough, we made it to the street and think we found the place.  Later, I checked facebook pictures on my iphone and found that I actually took a picture of the door back then, but we didn’t go back to check we were right.  Ahh technology!

While we were in the neighborhood, we went searching because I remembered many quaint restaurants for aperitivos, but I couldn’t find them. Was I on the wrong streets?  Did they close?  Nothing is constant except change, even in this well-preserved museum of a city.  Eventually we ended up in a charming square, the trees turning brown in mid autumn, folks quietly clinking their silverware against the plates under a starry night sky.  We picked one place in the far corner, and sat down for a beer and a meal.  I had the lemon chicken and Dad had veal marsala.

It was a long yet fun day.  We were exhausted, and wound our way to the bus station, the university section of the city before boarding a vaporetto back to our dock, Ca’D’oro.  I passed out on the bed in my clothes before 9:30.

The next day we woke up for another breakfast and checked out the rooftop terrace, which was a special surprise.  Beautiful and peaceful view of Venice from up there.

Boat day.  We boarded a vaporetto for the lido.  The Adriatic was bright blue, and I kept repeating, “It’s so pretty.”  I knew what it looked like, yet I was still happy and surprised to see it again.

At the lido, we walked along the main street, past holiday-style tourist shops selling flip flops and sand toys.  “It’s a totally different feel here,” said Dad.

“Yup, it’s connected to the mainland.  More of a resort.” Cars can drive over a bridge to get here, unlike in Venice.  There are plenty of hotels to stay here, and certainly more space, yet it lacks the charm of the tight, winding paths and canals of Venice.

We made it to the big, Sandy beach, and gazed out over the blue water, churning and turning gray under a stormy sky.  By the time we left the beach, the rain had started, and then it became like a shower by the time we arrived on the island of Murano, world-famous for its gorgeous, colorful glass.

We wandered up and down the streets, gazed at the shop windows (all selling glass except for a few that sold food).  We snacked on giant meringue, I nibbled–er, devoured Harbo gummy bears, then back on the boat, soggy and tired, to head for town.  We had decided to eat at the Hard Rock Cafe tonight.  I was getting very sick of the lack of variety in Italian food. I wanted a BURGER, and bacon and cheddar!  Dad is used to Italian food as well, growing up in NYC and with my family’s great cooking over the years (I’ve yet to find a restaurant that rivals many of the family dishes, including mama’s sauce).  Sidenote: Every time I tell people my family is from Piacenza, they always say, “Oh, the food there is the best!”

The Hard Rock Cafe was nearly impossible to find.  The map on the website was . . . wrong. . . misleading.  Google maps kept running us around in circles.  I even called the restaurant and the directions were confusing at best.  Eventually, my Dad stopped into a shop and got directions that were more clear, and we saw it, glass windows, facing a quiet canal filled with gondolas.  Normally a travel sin, but now an oasis.

We went inside, while some of my favorite songs blasted in my ears, and we orderd Nastro beer, noshed on cheddar nachos, and by the time our bacon burgers came, we were stuffed but continued.  Bruce played.  I smiled.  Our waitress was one of the top 3 I’ve ever had. Ever.  She was so lively, so fun, so funny, dancing in the aisles, joking with us – animated like a cartoon.

Then back to bed, where I passed out even earlier, I think.  Oh wait, there was a gelato first.  🙂

The next morning, we awoke for our last breakfast.  I went outside to try to get a pair of shoes really quick, and saw the ground had buckled.  Acqua Alta – the high waters.  They seep up through the clay in the rising tide and cause all kinds of damage.  Even part of the wall of our hotel had broken through, spilling clay.  A neverending battle.

They say one day Venice will be just like a museum, with no actual residents because it’s so hard to live here, to raise children when you have to navigate the streets, bridges, canals, vaporettos with a stroller.  They claim it would be like a Disneyland for grownups.  It would still be amazing, though, even if that happens.  Hey, as long as it’s here.  The Acqua Alta, though, has other plans.  See Venice while you can.

Ah Venezia!

This weekend I returned to Venice for the first time since 2002.  10 years gone.  There is always a risk returning to a place you once loved and adored, a fear that you could ruin the magic and distort the original memory — like Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” – the memory may compete with the current image in your mind’s eye.

Check out images from my first trip to Venice, featuring the 21-year-old me who inspired my current life.  This is for you, kiddo!  Stay fun!

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A little over 10 years ago, I strapped on an overloaded backpack after college graduation, and popped all around Europe, booking hostels on the Internet and changing plans as I went.  I originally booked two days in Venice, but fell so in love that I had to completely rearrange the rest of the trip, just for one more night.  I heard false rumors of the stench, dirty water, and decaying buildings — but instead found clean(ish) blue water, no noticeable scent, and buildings that were in charming states of renovation – preserving the beautiful architecture — architecture unlike any I’ve encountered in my travels since.

That first night, after wandering through back alleys following detailed and slightly confusing directions, I found my B&B, met my hostel-mate, and went out for a delightful aperitif along a small canal, enjoying the beautiful life.  As I wandered, explored, tasted gelato, gazed at the scenery, and soaked in the unbelievable feeling of being in a place I dreamed about my whole life, I was elated.  I kept thinking of the report I did in 4th grade, researching the city of Venice, and drawing detailed pictures with markers and crayons,  painstakingly copying the boats and canalsI found in my library books.  How amazing!  What would it be like to go there?  I need to see.  Then I did! [As a bonus, the next post will be cut and pasted from the blog of my youth, when it was so important to just get the ideas down — type, type, type — GO!  edit later.  You’ll see]

The trip was magical, and the city was hard to leave after just three short nights.  On to the Tuscan countryside and a new group of friends, sights and experiences.  But I always savored the images, still not believing I was there.  All my trips to Europe since then, I have not returned.  Now that it’s about 4 hours from my new home in Genoa, it’s a weekend trip for me.  It was Dad’s first time to Italy, and as beautiful as Genoa is, it’s not the highlight of an Italian tour.  He had to see one of the big three (Venice, Florence and Rome).  He also got some time to see the Milan train station, but more like in my previous journeys– unimpressed, worried about missing a train, and a bit rushed.  I’m happy to say that Venice was just as magical and impressive, swarms of tourists and all.

When Dad arrived last week, we spent an evening in Nervi (a typical Ligurian resort neighborhood minutes from my apartment).  We then went to Acqui Terme for the weekend to indulge in mountain views, thermal waters, and quaint Medieval Architecture.  The following day, Dad went off to Constance, Germany for more spas and lakeside views while I tackled the workweek.  Thursday, I darted off after teaching four 80 minute long classes and met him in Milan as he was on his way back from Germany.  I plopped into my train seat and gazed, dozed, and attempted to unwind while Dad caught up with all his stories from the past three days.

A couple of hours later, we rolled onto the causeway, glimpses of boats and lights glittering in the water on our way into the station.  Once outside, you are right there on the Grand Canal, in the heart of Venice, with gondolas, impressive domes and terraces of charming buildings, half-lit for the evening with a humble “Hello” rather than an all out “HEY! HI!  Look at me!”  Dad and I navigated the intricacies of the Vaporetto sysem (the waterbusses, the main hub of public transport in the city) and noticed that the machine wouldn’t take American cards.  How do we pay the 7 euros. 7 euros for a bus ride? Yikes.  As we figured out details and stressed about the “work” of travel, the buildings were there, a beautiful background as we were having our “Amazing Race” moments.  I had to remind myself “Calm down, you are on holiday. Enjoy!”

We met up with young American girls, maybe backpacking for a weekend during Study Abroad, and they said the guidebook said you can buy them on the boat.  We boarded, nobody asked, and we rode for free.  Whoops.  Gliding past buildings, peeking in windows, watching people stroll about, the city was magic at this time of night, empty, ours.  We arrived at Ca’Doro, our neighborhood — and we were so delighted with our choice.  We chose a basic yet nice 3 Star hotel near the action, but not in it, nestled on a quiet canal.  When we got to the hotel, after a magical walk through the streets, a neighborhood I’d never seen, I was shocked.  It was literally on the canal.  Up into the room, I peeked out the window and saw that we faced the canal with a stunning view — I couldn’t wait to see it in the morning.  After 11pm, we were exhausted but we were here, ready for a nice long weekend of exploration and beauty.  And as much as I love Genoa, I was happy to get away.

The next morning, we awoke to a basic but good continental breakfast in the dining area, then went out strolling and exploring Strada Nuova and all the shops.  Shopping is surely good in Venice, perhaps better than Genoa, which is interesting because everything has to be carted in on boats then hand trucked to the stores.  I had my eye on a few purses and clothes, but I was really here for the getaway and the beauty as well as spend time with my father — even though both of us were exhausted.  Take it easy, enjoy.

Friday, we did a lot of strolling about, to the Rialto Bridge and St. Mark’s Square, which was gratefully not yet flooded.  By Sunday, Acqua Alta had started to flood St. Mark’s Square as usual, and tourists had to walk on raised platforms.  These platforms are set up all over the city, especially this time of year as the high tide season begins in October.  Add this to the fact that Venice has sunken about 9 inches in 60 years, and we have quite a problem on our hands.  I’m hoping they use the 7 euro bus fee to help subsidize the massive projects in place to protect the city.  It’s quite fascinating, actually . . .they are building giant doors on the sea floor where the Adriatic spills into the canals of Venice, a city built on hundreds of little islands at the mouth of the Po River.  When the tides get high, the doors will go up and prevent the water from rising.  Sounds cool, like it could work in theory — but also quite dangerous if the city relies on this technology and it fails suddenly . . . If not done properly, could a rush of water flood the city to the dome of St. Mark’s Basilica?

It is quite amazing how well preserved this city is, given the age and the odds against it.  “See Venice while you can!” they tell us tourists.  And the tourists are coming, usually dumped in by the cruise ship load, in clusters of 3-4,000.  When these day trippers head back to their boats at night, only having glimpsed the most crushed, touristy parts of Venice, Rialto, St. Mark’s, the island of Murano for the glass . . . the city breathes again.  The streets become magical, and you can wander freely and get lost in time.  80% of the city is actually off the beaten tourist path, and if you take the time to wander just a little bit, you can enjoy the “real” Venice, when the ships are in port.

More about the real Venice and the magic of our visit.  And I’ll show the new pictures soon, this time embedded in the story instead of the slideshow.  Ciao for now.  Off to dinner with Dad, his last night in Italy.