Mantua & Verona, Italy
May 20-31, 2016
During my eight weeks on Lake Como, I decided to take a mid-break trip to eat Prosciutto di Parma and Parmesan Reggiano from the source, taste aged Balsamico di Modena, and walk the streets famously known in the love story of Romeo & Juliet in Mantua and Verona.
Adding another UNESCO World Heritage site to my travel list, I spent half a day visiting what has recently been named “the Italian Capital of Culture,” Mantua. First stop, lunch at Tiratappi where I tried riso alla “pilota” (rice with mantuan sausage) suggested by my waiter as a common local dish. What I’ve noticed about Italian cities is that each little city has their own special regional dish. While the riso was pretty basic in ingredients, it was delicious and different from the pounds of pasta I had been consuming back on the lake so I enjoyed it.
After lunch, I wandered the same streets of the city Romeo was banished to in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Calm and less touristy than most other Italian cities I had visited, Mantua felt untouched from the modern world. As I roamed the streets, it was as if I had been transported back in time. I could imagine horses crossing the wide path of Piazza Sordello with the Duomo di Mantua at the end of it; and the sight of the Basilica di Sant’Andrea, Piazza delle Erbe, and the Rontonda di San Lorenzo in one backdrop was jaw dropping.
Oh, Verona. What should have been a 50-minute train ride turned into a 3-hour adventure trying to get to Verona from Mantua. The train broke down 20 minutes outside of the city, so I spent a couple hours stranded in a small town. With no Uber or taxis readily available, I had to wait almost two hours, just like people used to do before the ‘sharing’ economy culture, for a transport bus.
Standard accommodation in Verona was quite expensive, so I took an even riskier approach in finding a place to stay for the night. While I was prepared to pay a pretty penny for a fancy hotel in case this option didn’t work out, I’m glad that it did. I stayed at the Cittadella B&B for 40 euros a night in a room that was listed for 70 euros without prior reservations. Using Booking.com, I knew they potentially had one room left open so I just literally showed up on their doorstep. However, since there wasn’t an actual “front desk,” just a buzzer that rang an employee about 15 mins away, I didn’t know what would happen–I had never done this before. It was definitely the shadiest hotel experience I’ve put myself in while traveling solo but luckily the B&B ended up being awesome! I had a huge room, breakfast in the morning, and a clean, safe place to sleep near the old town. While I am always typically prepared with a planned itinerary and definitely a booked hotel, I’ve learned over the years that sometimes you have to leave things to spontaneity because you never know if you’re going to want to stay in a city longer or change the course of your plans. Plus, sometimes you’ll get last minute deals if you’re lucky like I did.
Since I had lost most of the day traveling, I was eager to start exploring the home of Romeo & Juliet’s love story starting with the famous Verona Arena then to Casa di Giulietta (Juliet’s house and balcony) only to find it closed! I peaked beyond the iron gates and soon realized that there was a couple sitting in the courtyard at a small round candle-lit table with a bottle of champagne–he was proposing! Seriously, I think that tops any proposal I’ve heard of.
After my heart skipped a beat for a second and remembering that being single right now has allowed me the flexibility to do whatever I want like quit my job and travel the world, live in Italy, etc., I quickly moved on and began soaking in the liveliness of the city. Piazza delle Erbe–stunning. While I have seen a lot of beautiful piazzas, Piazza delle Erbe is seriously so beautiful I cannot describe it. I’m not a great writer to begin with so it’s even more difficult for me to find words to describes its essence, it’s mesmerizing beauty, and it’s medieval decor. I thought Mantua transported me back in time, well Verona definitely blew my mind!
Osteria al Duca is a must not only because it is known to be Romeo’s house but also because the food is absolutely delicious and the atmosphere really does take you back in time with its uneven floorboards, crooked stairs, and tight space. It is as if you are really eating a home-cooked meal in the famous romantics’s house. Dinner. Well, although I didn’t have much of an appetite, I had to choose from the Chef’s menu which included a First and Second course for only 18 euros: Tagliatelle al (duck) ragu and Pastisada de caval con polenta (spezzatino di cavallo)… yes, braised horse meat with polenta. I had never had horse before but the waiter swore by it as it is a traditional dish of Verona, so I had to at least try it! He was right, it was delicious but I felt so bad (and I was stuffed from the first course) that I couldn’t finish it.
As I mentioned, the restaurant is small, so I lucked out without a reservation. I sat upstairs next to a lovely couple from England who were on a three week adventure in Italy for a wedding. They shared stories about their travels, their kids, and told me all about this trip they were going to take on the Orient Express, a luxury train from Venice to London–one I hope to be fortunate enough to travel on one day. Then, I told them how I was working in New York, decided to take a break, started traveling the world, and decided to live in Italy for a few months. They left me with encouraging words and insisted we keep in touch because they were interested in seeing where I ended up. It’s funny, when people think of solo travel they often think about how lonely it is. Yes, it is lonely at times–there’s no doubt about that–but being solo also opens up the door to conversations you wouldn’t normally have, it forces you to be more social in order to find human connection, and it makes you more approachable.
With most stores closed for the evening, I just strolled the marble streets walking off my wine buzz from dinner. The Scaliger Tombs, located just around the corner from Osteria al Duca, were a little scary at night but Palazzo Forti where the Torre dei Lamberti, Verona’s tallest medieval tower, and famous staircase is was calm and quiet and enabled me to escape the tourist crowds.
The next day is when my self-guided walking tour began. I started back at Juliet’s balcony before it became too packed. I even rubbed her statue’s boob for luck in the love department. Then, I walked through the city to Piazza dei Signori, then down to the Adige river to Santa Anastasia church making my way to Ponte Pietra and ultimately ending up at the Verona Cathedral. Of course I added a little shopping in between along Via Giuseppe Mazzini and Corso Porta Borsari to the ancient Roman Borsari gate–it dates back to the 1st century AD and was even likely to have been built over a preexisting gate from the 1st century BC! Last stop, the Castelvecchio Museum and Bridge to soak in just one last view of Verona, then back to Como!