Christmas is a strange time to be traveling. You can be in the most magical places and still yearn for home. I was lucky to be traveling with my family (with the exception of my brother and sister-in-law who couldn’t swing a trip), staying in a nice and homey apartment for several days. While it wasn’t exactly home, it was a pretty good compromise. Verona proved to be a great place to unwind, with just enough to see, but not too much that we felt badly about spending time together in the apartment. The town is charming, clean, and easy to navigate. There are a few nice museums, a really great city center with 2 main piazzas, a roman amphitheater that still hosts operas and concerts, and a gorgeous river thats worth a stroll. Several busy roads running through town are lined with popular Italian clothing stores, making this a popular town for Italian tourists, as well as international tourists. The streets were lined with hanging lights and wreaths to celebrate the holidays, and the two main piazzas were packed with Christmas market stalls, selling hats, scarves, and souvenirs, but also seasonal treats like mulled wine, pastries and German sausage.
The buildings have a story book quality to them. Having been under the domain of both the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Venetian Empire, this city has the typical, rustic charm of any Italian city, with hints of Orientalism in the pointed windows and geometric patterns, as well as Parisian flair, in the wrought iron and large boulevards. Verona may be best known for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Taming of the Shrew. While the Montague and Capulet families are fictional, Tourists can visit the House of Juliet, where the real-life Cappello family once lived. This charming home just off of Piazza Erbe (the most beautiful square in the world, as it was voted by tourists in a recent survey) features a open courtyard, with a balcony, overlooking throngs of tourists. In the center of the courtyard stands a statue of Juliet, which tourists take pictures with, while rubbing her breast for good luck in love. Obviously, my mother insisted that I go take a picture… who knows, maybe this will be the year!
While riding the train up from Rome, I read the whole chapter on Verona in Rick Steves to prepare myself for what lay ahead. He talked about the evening passeggiata, where the Italians come out for a stroll around the city as the sun sets. It seemed unlikely to me that people still participated in this in a modern culture, but its true! People really do come out in droves and stroll up and down the boulevards, with no agenda other than to see and be seen. As my friends will tell you, I love nothing more than to wander for hours and people watch, no matter where I am in the world, so this made reason number 1,000,000 of why I love the Italian culture.
The real highlights of the trip were food and wine related.
Firstly, Wines: There are two main wine regions around Verona: Soave and Valpolicella. Soave produces white wine, principally from the Garganega grape variety, though Trebbiano di Soave and Chardonnay are permitted in varying percentages. This fresh and fruity wine is similar to a Pinot Grigio (I think!), and through ample research I was able to determine that this wine pairs well with almost anything and is appealing at all times of day. Research continues, will publish full findings later. While the Soave Classico Superior was very good, the cheaper versions were also good enough for me. Valpolicella is a region that produces several styles of red wine. Most basic Valpolicella wines are a light and fragrant table wine. However, Recioto style is a popular dessert wine and Amarone, a strong wine made from dried grapes – with a sneakily high alcohol content. The Ripasso style wines of the region are incredibly popular- the pomace of leftover grape skins and seeds from the fermentation of recioto and Amarone are added to the batch of Valpolicella wines, resulting in a boost in alcohol level and body of the wines, adding to the wine’s complexity, flavor and color.
Food: One of the most important dishes of this region is Risotto, a creamy rice dish that amplifies the flavor of whatever you add. This dish is generally very simple, yet cooking it is a labor of love. The truly authentic risotto dishes are served in large batches, for 2 people (that’s how you know they made it special for you, incorporating the ingredients from the beginning, instead of scooping up some pre-made and adding the additional ingredients).
Horse and donkey meat, as well as polenta are other regional specialties, that I didn’t have the chance to partake of. I think because we were visiting during Christmas time, the restaurants were pulling out all the big, typical dishes, like Osso Bucco and Truffled Gnocchi. Both of which I tried…and then died. The Osso Bucco was just so tender and fatty and wonderful. The gnocchi was really surprising. Instead of potato, the gnocchi was formed using ricotta, making fluffy little balls of yum. Thanks to my dad, who loves to spoil us, and (probably more likely) an over abundance of wine, Christmas Eve dinner at Ristorante Maffei was probably one of the most indulgent meals I’ve had: Foie Gras, Risotto with porcini mushrooms, walnuts and goat cheese, Venison fillet with raspberry sauce and grilled mushrooms. And then when we insisted that we were full, the waitress brought us tiramisu anyways, and we were so happy she did.
Right outside the restaurant on Piazza delle Erbe were a bunch of incredible little bars, with locals spilling out into the square, drinking and laughing – enjoying apertivos with their drinks. My sister and I went to the most crowded one and befriended a bartender who had lived in New York. I drank too much Valpolicella Classico Superiore and gave the guy his best tip of the night (Still not sure the tipping protocol in bars?)
Bottom line: Verona was a great place to visit. It’s not a place I would spend more than a day or two, if it was my first trip or a short trip to Italy.