Have you ever considered giving a surprise holiday as a present? It’s a great idea for a gift. It could be the perfect stocking filler for a Christmas morn. For me, and I think most people, the thought of heading off into the unknown is exciting. This blog tells you what it’s like to be on the receiving end and maybe you’ll plan a surprise holiday of your own. Actually, this is my second time on a Magical Mystery Tour as my wife, Anne, took me to Malaga for a present a couple of years ago. She’s a keeper!
The week before my birthday in July, she sent me a little video clip on Facebook. It was a message announcing that I was off on a trip for four nights. The only clues I had were that there was no beach, and I had to pack my cabin bag for hot weather.
Naturally, I speculated on the possible destination over the next few days. I reasoned that the likely candidates were Spain, France and Italy, but not on the coast. Certainly not Silloth, the ‘jewel of the Lake District’. Ahh… those memories… Anyway, early on the Thursday morning we got a taxi to Manchester Airport. I took my glasses off so I couldn’t read the departure board and I was not given my boarding pass. At Gate 29 the mist cleared a little as I could see our destination was Bergamo in Italy, however we had visited there recently, and I guessed it was to be merely a transit point today.
I was right. We left the airport and went straight to the bus station outside via a couple of beers and a slice of pizza. Of course, there were still many possible destinations, Lakes Como and Garda to the north and plenty of places to the west. We had tickets for a Flixibus as, on paper, it was cheaper and faster than the train. But it was delayed a couple of hours in heavy traffic, so it was only cheaper. We sat outside and watched the world go by. It could have been dull, but it wasn’t. I was just savouring the atmosphere, soaking up the transient moment, enjoying the sun and wondering where we were off to.
Meanwhile, Anne was trying to end my wonderment by giving me clues which I utterly failed to pick up on. “We couldn’t go directly to our destination as flight prices are mad at this time of year.” Nothing. “It’s really busy where we’re going because of the special festival that’s on.” Nope. “We might meet two gentlemen, or a love-struck young couple called Romeo and Juliet.” Not a sausage. In the end, she gave up hinting and told me; “We’re going to Verona, to see Carmen”. I let out a shriek of delight! Though I don’t have a ‘bucket list’, this had been a dream of mine for some time.
We arrived rather later than planned, but in good spirits. When we got to our apartment on the edge of the town centre, Anne rang ahead and spoke to the owner in her flawless Italian. He came out of the apartment to greet us. I could see the top of his shining pate; “Buongiorno” exclaimed the mouth just below it, with a suspiciously strong Blackburn accent. The second part of the surprise, our friends Mick and Andrea Murphy were here too (I thought they were in Turkey or Georgia).
In less than a minute, I had a cold beer in my hand and the subterfuge was laid bare. We had two nights here, then two more back in Bergamo before going home. The jet-setting Murphys were off to Barcelona for five nights of further gallivanting. At this juncture, we showered and anointed ourselves with perfumed oils, scraping the excess off with a strigil. We donned our finest togas and strolled into town for an evening’s feasting and carousing in Verona’s finest taverns.
It was a very warm night, but we made it to the main square near the arena after a couple of stops offs to maintain hydration. The place was buzzing with life, all the bars and restaurants suitably patronised. The opera started at 9.00pm and people were waiting in queues to get through security. A wait that would not be over till the fat lady sings. (get in!)
Courtesy of TripAdvisor Andrea had unearthed a highly praised eatery, Ristorante Pizzeria Nastro Azzurro. It’s just behind the main square next to the amphitheatre. The food was excellent and the service top drawer. So good that it felt like dining in a very posh joint. However, the prices were reasonable. Four of us had two courses each, three bottles of house wine and a beer or two, and the bill came to about £140. The waiters made it feel like a special occasion without any obsequious grovelling. They cared about their food and the restaurant. If you’re in Verona, I can recommend this place.
The next day, the hot weather broke and there were a few heavy showers. This curtailed our stroll around the sights a little but brought the temperature down, which was welcome. Medieval Verona is quite splendid with examples of architecture spanning two thousand years. Like similar Italian towns, their development has tended to incorporate older structures, re-using them rather than knocking them down. There was no town planning, of course, it was just cheaper that way. Consequently, there is a richness of ingredients as you can see at spots like the ‘Porta Bosari’. It’s an ancient Roman gate from the 1st century AD, which straddles the road attached to two buildings from the middle ages.
Castelvecchio (literally ‘the old castle’) is large and impressive, dating back to the 14th century. A splendid, crenelated bridge runs from here over the river Adige. The river was quite a torrent following heavy rains in the Alps. I would have liked to explore more, but our time was limited.
Piazza del Erbe is the market square and was the forum of the town during the Roman Empire period. Alongside the market stalls there are bars and restaurants, so it’s a great spot to watch the world go by. The buildings surrounding it are decorated with colourful hanging baskets of flowers or painted facades. We would have hung out there a bit, but it started raining.
Inevitably, there are signs pointing the way to Juliet’s balcony. There was quite a crowd there, so we didn’t go in. The non-existence of doomed lovers doesn’t put tourists off visiting their eponymous homes. The passage leading to the courtyard where Romeo spake ‘But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?’ is plastered with graffiti. Variations on ‘Romeo and Juliet 4 eva’ in every language you can think of. Shakespeare certainly did the town a favour when he set his play in Verona.
As we were at the opera in the evening, we opted for a fulsome lunch and an afternoon’s preparatory snooze. As luck would have it, we were going to Osteria Al Duca which was next door to Romeo’s supposed old home. At least that’s what the front door of the yard proclaimed. There weren’t many visitors to Romeo’s ex-man cave. It seems Juliet is the big draw.
The restaurant was a good choice, thanks once again to TripAdvisor. We started off with a couple of artisan beers, a bit pricey at £5 for half a pint, but very good. The house wine was the same price for half a litre carafe and was superb for the money. I had minced donkey with noodles (spaghetti) for my starter and it was gorgeous. For my main, I played safe with chicken, which was unpretentious and quite passable. In retrospect, I should have tried the horse. I wish I’d ordered the beef Mick had as it was very tender in a rich gravy. The menu seemed to be traditional local fayre which often comes served with polenta. There are numerous ways of preparing polenta, all of which are designed to hide the fact it tastes bland and has the texture of cement. In fairness, it’s quite good for you.
Later that evening, we headed into the centre for the opera. I’ve seen Carmen before, though never in such a stunning setting as the Roman Amphitheatre, the Arena di Verona. Nowadays, it seats 15000 people facing a vast stage that demands grand spectacles to reflect the sizable space. The production had a cast of about 150 (I was counting) and a massive orchestra (including four harps, to give a sense of scale). It was a ‘full on’ production, including horses and fireworks.
Tickets were not pricey given the scale of the show; about £70, where we sat in the mid-range seats. Beware the rain as it can stop the performance and you won’t get your money back. I reckon it was about three quarters full on our visit. The most expensive seats are in the stalls and you have to be dressed up in your finery to take your place. There are tickets available on the day costing about £20. These are for the seats in the higher tiers. If you are sat on these (stone) seats take, or hire, a cushion to discourage the old Nobby Stiles, you don’t want to be bruising your grapes.
The first Act was paused for a brief shower, but this worked out well as it was pleasantly cool afterwards. The audience seemed a mixed bag. Getting out your mobile phone is deemed acceptable, it would not be elsewhere in my experience. Humming or tapping your foot is frowned upon. Ah well. I resisted the temptation to join in with the chorus parts in my lusty baritone. It would have got me thrown out. Traditionally, opera singers do not use microphones but in such an open setting they were essential. The amplification was subtly and effectively done, however, and I didn’t notice it.
The show finished around 12.15 so it was a lengthy production but there were plenty of intervals to buy a drink or go to the loo. These aren’t well signposted however, and I was surprised to note that there were only cubicles in the gents. I was even more surprised to note on my exit that I was the only male in there. I’m sure there was a sensible explanation.
Carmen was a brilliant experience and, in such a setting, the stuff of dreams. Anne and I skipped home under the stars.
Should you go?
Verona is (yet another) wonderful Italian town. If you like opera, then it’s a no brainer. If you are opera curious, then it’s a class place to check it out, but make sure you see an accessible (well known) production. Should you book a surprise holiday for your partner? I think that people who like to be ‘in control’ may find it difficult to relax and be comfortable with not knowing. I’m fine with it. My wife would be much less so. Meeting friends out there was an added layer of fun and we had a great time.
After Verona we had a lovely couple of days in Bergamo, a favourite of mine. I recommend a visit if only because its so convenient for Milan Bergamo airport. Check the link here for a taste of this lovely town.
If you liked my blog, there’s every possibility that you’ll like the comic novel I’ve recently published. It’s such a wheeze, darlings. As much as I enjoyed teaching, and respect those who do the job, there’s plenty to laugh at. I spent 30 years giggling 😊. It’s a bargain at £2.21 for the Kindle! Click on the image for the Amazon link.