Verona and Vicenza

Tuesday 24th April 2007, Peschiera, Lake Garda
Being good in Italy isn't easy. We seem to be permanently in trouble despite trying really hard to understand all the signs, notices and inscriptions everywhere. And Italy certainly has a lot of them – official and otherwise. They must be the graffiti capital of the world.

Recently we really got up the computer shop manager's nose by asking for an hour on the internet. He demanded our passports, dates of birth and address and filled in the forms in triplicate. We then discovered that the computers were steam driven and lacked USB ports so were useless to us. He ripped our forms into shreds and threw them into the bin expressing most comprehensibly without the need of language just what he thought of us. We shuffled off muttering "scusi, scusi" as if it were our fault the internet shop was useless.

Today we arrived at the railway station in Peschiera for the train to Verona. The tickets were really cheap and we were delighted. Our intended train was delayed, but so was the earlier one so we caught that instead. The guard growled fiercely when he examined our tickets and our knees began to shake as we recognised the signs that once again we had somehow transgressed. We were on the Intercity train for Innsbruck and Munich. The train stopped at Verona and was running almost empty but we should have waited the extra thirty minutes for our delayed local train. This was explained in a mixture of German and Italian, the only languages widely spoken here. (It's a myth that everyone speaks English.) Leaving Germany to take the blame for our misdemeanours we explained in German that we'd misunderstood the timetable (not quite true, we'd just jumped on board when we miraculously understood the announcement that the next train at platform one was stopping at Verona.) By this time we were almost at Verona anyway so apologised and offered to get off at the next stop. The guard grumbled gently, gave up and went off to harass somebody else instead.

Our final transgression of the day was just before lunch when we called in at a lovely little church in Verona to light a candle in memory of Dorothy, a very good friend of ours who died tragically in the city whilst on holiday some years ago. We placed the candle slightly to one side of the others as for us it was special. We then wrote a brief message of affection in the book of remembrance. As we did so there was a banging of doors and a jangling of keys as the church concierge, with a face like thunder, arrived to lock the church for lunch. She was not prepared to hang around for irritating tourists and how dare they place a candle out of its regimented line! We were hustled out and the door slammed behind us.

To return to the topic of graffiti; our visit today was quite spoilt by it. It is all pervasive, covering every available surface with badly written scribble. Even the wonderful historic monuments are not spared. The entrance to the Capulet's palace and Juliet's balcony has been so smothered, over and over with messages of unrequited love that the paint, paper and chewing gum are inches thick on the brickwork! Even her tomb has messages written, scribbled and painted over it and padlocks hang chained to door and window bars with the names of loved ones written on them. The fact that Italian graffiti tends to be about love, devotion and poetry rather than words of obscenity really doesn't improve matters much. It is still unsightly and depressing to see beautiful buildings so defaced. Attempts have been made by the authorities with special post-boxes set up asking people to post their messages to Juliet in them. Nobody does of course. It's so much more satisfying to stick a blob of chewing gum, with the name of your paramour written on it in felt-tip, on to the wall of the church where Romeo married Juliet.

Graffiti at the entrance to the House of the Capulets, Verona

There is a message on one of the walls at Pompeii, written over the top of thousands of others, stating that "it is a wonder this poor old wall has not collapsed under the weight of so much rubbish that has been written on it". So the tradition of writing on walls in Italy goes back a long, long way. During the middle ages and the Renaissance period wall painting reached its zenith with beautiful frescoes on palace walls by Giotto, Fra Philippo Lippi and Michaelangelo. Since then there has been a continuous decline and today we have witnessed both the best and the worst that Verona can offer, from desecrated tombs and churches to exquisite 15th century frescoes, their colours still vivid, exuding the charm and elegance of their age.

Verona is indeed a beautiful, but expensive city set on a bend of the river Adige amidst vines and orchards. There is so much to see that one is quite overawed and bewildered by it all. Statues, palaces, squares, tombs, churches, gardens and ancient bridges lead you on until you become quite lost in the cobbled streets and open spaces of the old town. Even the pavements are in pink and white marble. Just to give a flavour of what we have seen we will list the main places and show photographs or we will never get to bed tonight!

Leaving the station we passed the Porta Nuova, decorated with a wrecked car as a warning to drivers, walked up the Corso Porta Nuova to Piazza Bra with its cool gardens and the massive Roman arena to one side.

Porta Nuova, Verona

Two gentlemen of Verona

The Roman arena, Verona

We continued up the Via Mazzini to Piazza delle Erbe with its pink marble columns and fountains, then turned through an archway to the Piazza dei Signori with its statue of Dante in the centre and the Loggia del Consiglio. We visited the tombs of the Scaligers, one of the ruling families during the thirteenth century, which were not set in the ground but placed up high between their palace and their church.

Piazza delle Erbe,Verona

Piazza delle Erbe,Verona

Piazza dei Signori with statue of Dante, Verona

Tomb of one of the Scaligers, Verona

It was during the time of the Scaligers that the romance of Romeo and Juliet, immortalised by Shakespeare, took place. The opera Romeo e Giulietta was actually being performed in the Roman arena during our visit. We visited the house of the Capulets and saw Juliet's balcony – thought to have been an early Christian sarcophagus. The courtyard was thronged by Japanese and Italian tourists and the present-day equivalent of kissing the feet of St. Peter seems to be groping the breasts of the statue of Juliet recently installed in the courtyard below the balcony.

Poster for Romeo e Giulietta, Verona

House of the Capulets with Juliet's balcony, Verona

We made our way to the river, crossed the medieval bridge, Ponte di Pietra with its defensive gateway and climbed up past the Roman theatre to the "new" castle, from where we had spectacular views over the roofs of the city.

New castle and Roman theatre from across the River Adige, Verona

Ponte di Pietra and Cathedral campanile from the Castle, Verona

Returning across the river we visited the Romanesque cathedral with its wonderful arches supported by lions, before buying some kebabs for lunch to eat on a bench overlooking one of the old bridges on the river.

Cathedral, Verona

Refreshed, we walked along beside the river to find Juliet's tomb and the church by the Capuchin cloisters where she and Romeo were married. This turned out to be in a rather drear and unprepossessing quarter of the town full of blocks of modern flats and offices. We were rather shocked to find that Via Shakespeare is nothing but a 1970s poor quality housing area. Surely the writer who has done so much to make the city of Verona a household name deserves something better!

The charming Via Shakespeare, Verona

Capuchin cloisters, Verona

Juliet's tomb in the Capuchin cloisters, Verona

We followed the line of the massive fortifications built by the Scaligers which ended in a remarkable brick castle and crenelated bridge built in 1354.

Gateway of the old castle, Verona

Scaliger Bridge, Verona

By now we were beginning to wilt in the heat, so staggered back to one of the piazzas where we collapsed with a couple of delicious Italian ice creams gathering our strength for the long walk back to the station.

We almost forgot to add this souvenir of Verona

Wednesday 25th April 2007-04-22, Peschiera, Lake Garda
Although this isn't a particularly good campsite, being large with a dusty, sandy soil that gets everywhere, it is very convenient for getting trains to nearby cities, thus avoiding the trouble of driving and finding somewhere to park. So we are still here and today we visited Vicenza, an hour's train ride away. It is a very different place from Verona and far quieter and more pleasant to stroll around in. There were very few tourists there today and the huge groups of fifty plus young Italians we encountered yesterday obviously didn't have Vicenza on their cultural itinerary. These groups are harmless enough but very noisy and they take up so much space, crowding everyone else out.

Vicenza has about a hundred beautiful renaissance and mediaeval palaces as well as a cathedral and countless churches. It was here that Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) perfected his architectural style, having studied the classical buildings of Greece and Rome as well as the work of Vitruvius. How the city had the financial resources to give him free rein to construct such an architectural wealth of buildings we cannot imagine, but certainly the city was planned as an entity, the buildings complimenting each other. His works in Vicenza are now listed on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites. As we wandered the streets we became increasingly astonished as each new vista showed yet another huge perfectly proportioned palace with columns arranged according to the architectural orders of antiquity, the tops of the facades often adorned with statues. Not that the work of Palladio and his pupil Scamozzi detracted from the many medieval brick towers and palaces with their pointed windows and occasional traces of frescos. One of these the Ca d'Oro, so named because the now vanished frescoes once had gold backgrounds, was particularly ornate.

Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), Vicenza

Ca d'Oro, Vicenza

Most of the major palaces lie along the main thoroughfare, the arcaded and pedestrianised Corso Palladio and some of its side streets, such as the Contra Porti, where the massive Palazzo Thiene and the Palazzo Iseppo da Porto are to be found. Towards the end of the Corso Palladio is Palladio's own house, much more modest than those he built for others, and just round the corner facing onto the Piazza Matteotti is his imposing Palazzo Chiericati, now used as a picture gallery.

Corso Palladio, Vicenza

Palazzo Thiene, Vicenza

Palladio's own house, Vicenza

Palazzo Chiericati, Vicenza

Bottoms up, ceiling painting in Palazzo Chiericati, Vicenza

On the other side of the square is the old medieval prison compound, and here Palladio planned one of his most unusual enterprises, the construction of the Teatro Olimpico on classical lines. He had studied Vitruvius and visited a number of surviving theatres in Italy and France but died before his theatre plans could be completed. It was intended for a performance of an updated version of Oedipus Rex with music by Gabrielli for the Accademia Olimpia, a learned society in Vicenza who had commissioned the theatre. Construction was completed by Palladio's pupil Scamozzi who produced the clever trompe l'oeil scenery, purportedly views of streets in Thebes but really showing an ideal Palladian city with the impression of a distant perspective. The costume designs and producer's notes also survive. The first performance was in 1585 – to a mixed reception. The performance did not start until after one in the morning and ended at five. Reports talk of the discomfort of the semi-circular wooden seats where spectators had to lean against the legs of those on the next tier up, and the complete lack of any sanitary facilities! So Palladio and Scamozzi may have produced an impressive design but certain practicalities had been completely overlooked.

Entrance to prison compound and theatre, Vicenza

Stage of Teatro Olimpico, Vicenza

There are two important squares to the south of the Corso Palladio. The Piazza Duomo is a most satisfying composition, surrounded by classical buildings with the Diocesan Museum along one side and the brick flank of the medieval Cathedral along another. The west façade of the Cathedral shows the only external use of masonry on the building, with wonderful soft patterning making use of the different colours of marble and other stones.

Diocesan Museum, Vicenza

Cathedral, Vicenza

The other square, the Piazza dei Signori, also has a massive work by Palladio along its south side, the Basilica, a meeting place for the notables of the city. Along the opposite side are the Monte de Pieta and the Loggia del Capitano, once used by the Venetian governor. One of the two columns in the square bears the lion of St. Mark as the city was for several centuries under the rule of Venice.

Piazza dei Signori, showing columns, Vicenza

Palladio's Basilica, Vicenza

There were crowds in the square when we arrived, and police and soldiers were lined up in front of the Loggia del Capitano. We asked in the tourist office what was happening and were told that today was Liberation Day, a national holiday in Italy to commemorate the country's liberation from Germany in 1945. Soon we could hear a band approaching and this was followed by veterans bearing banners and dignitaries, some wearing sashes, who mounted a podium and, interspersed with fanfares and presenting of arms, speeches were given. The proceedings were greeted with polite applause in which we joined - although we wondered whether we really should. There were demonstrators there with flags, some from the communist party, others peace campaigners and protesters against the proposed enlargement of the nearby American base, but they kept a dignified silence. Indeed everything seemed to be conducted in a most civilised manner. Banners in windows requested politely "Yankees please go home" and the police in front of the little café to which we adjourned at the far end of the square had nothing to do. (Incidentally, the coffees here cost us 2.40 euros rather than the seven we'd paid yesterday in Verona.)

Parade in front of the Loggia del Capitano, Vicenza

We saw inside several palaces which housed museums. They had beautifully proportioned rooms with stuccoed cornices, wall and ceiling paintings, chandeliers in Venetian glass, and they were decorated with putti and sculptures. Perhaps the grandest was the Palazzo Leoni Montanari, the private museum of the Banca Intesa with excellent landscape paintings by Canaletto and his school, and one of the largest collections of Russian icons in the West.

Courtyard of Palazzo Leoni Montanari, Vicenza

After two days walking around hot city streets and absorbing so much history, art and culture Jill was so exhausted that she was only too happy to leave Ian to write up most of the events of today.

Palladio did not design manhole covers, Vicenza