Saturday, September 18, 2010

One Verona, Two Padova, Three Venezia, Four

It's 6:50 am and we have our first rainy day on the Lido. I am writing, Kat is showering, the coffee is brewing, Lu is sleeping, and Rich is out running. Activities abound. It has been a very relaxing trip so far, and we have made ourselves right at home. Our plan is to take the 8:58 train west to Verona, then head back toward Venezia with a stopover in Padova. We're excited to have a change in scenery and though truly beautiful, the thought of slogging through a waterlogged Venezia (isn't it always?) holds no interest for us. Have we become spoiled already?

Saturday - September 18, 2010

We're handling these transportation schedules like we've done it all our lives. We are now able to differentiate between the options and pick the boat that not only has the shortest ride to the train station (Ferrovia), but also has the fewest stops along the way. We're not sure why that makes a difference, but it seems to. The automated ticket machines are easy to operate and within moments we have seat reservations and tickets (expensive $25 each) in hand. With our mighty high-speed steed panting on the track, we grabbed some train chow at the pastry shop and board with time to kill.

An hour and ten minutes later we emerged from the Verona Porta Nuova station with bus tickets in hand (there's a handy Tabac inside) and realized we had no idea where we were going or what bus to take to get there. All our transportation confidence has drizzled away with the weather. Rich used his copious lack of Italian language skills to learn that we could take any bus going to the Arena. Simple enough and not a long ride as it turned out.

The sound of the traffic on the wet cobblestone roads and the click-clacking of all the diesel engines was offensive to our ears. We had become accustomed to the soft, melodic sound of boat exhaust as it bubbles to the surface behind our boat.

First impression of Verona is that it feels (like the song) "pretty", with old, nicely proportioned buildings and spotlessly clean streets. We walked through a pleasant, well maintained flowered park to Piazza Brà for a quick cup of coffee. This is the same place where a young 24 year old unknown opera singer from the United States began her career in 1947. Opera's Hollywood and Vine corner for Maria Callas.

Dominating the piazza is the Arena - an old two story coliseum that reminds us of a similar structure we had seen in Nîmes, France. Wonder if it was the same builder. On the second level there is a huge placard with the picture of an Arab women but we have no idea who she is or why they have this banner so prominently displayed. (Note. In fact: The photo is of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman convicted of adultery, who since 2007 had been under sentence of death by stoning. The execution was to take place in September 2010 but worldwide attention caused the government of Iran to stay the execution until November and change the charge to murder (of her husband) and the method to hanging. Like that should make it OK. Why have we not heard about this? Sometimes I'm amazed how isolated the US is.) On the other side of the square there is a pretty good section of the original crenelated city wall. Nice.

Even for a rainy Saturday morning there are a good number of tourists wandering about, and from the attitude of the shopkeepers we chatted with, the Veronese do not seem as irritated by all the visitors as the Venetians. There is an entirely different feel to the city and perhaps they are just proud of this little jewel.

We sought out and found the Porta Borsari, the archway at the end of Corso Porta Borsari, one of the main streets. This customs gate from the 3rd century was an integral part of the original Roman city walls. The inscription is dated 245 AD and gives the city name as Colonia Verona Augusta. The façade, in local white limestone, has two arches flanked by semi-columns with Corinthian capitals which supports entablature and pediment. In the upper part is a two-floor wall with twelve arched windows, some of which are included in small niches with triangular pediment. Something about the window treatment with the arched and triangular pediments reminds me of the north face of the White House. I'll have to check that when we get home. (Note: It does. Mind like a steel trap, rusty at times.)

We had read about the elaborate above ground tombs of the Scaligere family nestled in the cemetery next to the Santa Maria Antica church. There are five of them, and the biggest, most elaborate was built for big-daddy Scaligere himself. (If I remember correctly this is the same guy who made everyone else in town reduce the size of their towers to be smaller than his - Freud would have had a ball with this insecure little fellow).
So I'm cool with these above ground final resting places, but I think it's carrying it to the extreme when you put your tomb above the entrance gate so that everyone has to walk beneath it on their way to work. Whatever. Plus it looks a little top heavy like it could tumble any minute.

I'm almost embarrassed to write that the next stop on our little tour was the make-believe house of the make-believe character Guilieta Capulet from Shakespeare's imagination. The dell Capello family owned the house on Via Capello for many years before one of the enterprising family members decided to turn stone into gold. Millions of people (us included) have made their way through the graffiti adorned passageway and into the courtyard, and paid millions of Euros (us not included) to climb the stairs and stand on the famous little balcony. That a massive restoration effort to add the windows, gothic doors and the balcony was carried out in the 1930s (a few hundred years after old Billy penned his famous story) takes nothing away from the sheer spectacle of it. People were jammed into the little courtyard and it was near impossible to get a good picture of the spot where Juliette proclaimed her love. At least I could imagine the merchant Shylock wandering the street-side canals of Venezia in peace and solitude the other day.

We headed to the pleasant (and deserted) walkway that runs above the banks of the river Adige. The river wraps itself around the old part of Verona and was a perfect counterpoint to the madness we had just left. The rain had subsided and the sparkling clear river was running swiftly towards the Venice lagoon to empty into the Adriatic. We wondered if it was draining the mountain range we had flown over just a few days earlier. It was peaceful and beautiful and a quiet family moment to savor.

We decided to lunch in Verona, and quite a good decision it was. With no recommendation to go by, we popped into the warm and cozy little Osteria A 'La Carega' (Chair?) hidden down one of the little back streets. Off the beaten track it's possible we were the first Americans to find this little gem. (Note: It's own home page declares - "It's a typical guesthouse in the old city center, prices are affordable and there you'll never find tourists." - that is until the Silveiras came to town.) We felt right at home, served by two lovely young women who were as surprised to see us as we were to see them. The wine and food were excellent, and everyone (including a Moretti beer label look-a-like patron who turned out to be a diplomat from the Moroccan embassy) was very friendly and outgoing. We hated to leave, but leave we must as we had another little town down the train track awaiting us.

Rich and Lu decided to head directly back to Venezia while we hopped on the local train to Padova, a short (and cheap $3.80) 30 minute train ride east. The last time we were in Padova in 2007 with Edward and Alicia we had spent most of our time talking to traffic cops, so we wanted to give the city another chance. We are glad we did. Exiting the train station we grabbed the tram that runs up the main street and within minutes were standing in the packed nave of the beautiful Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua where the celebration of mass was in full bloom.

Anthony was born in Lisboa, Portugal at the end of the 12th century into a rich, noble family. A devout follower of St. Francis of Assisi he gave it all up to become a member of the Franciscan order. Known for his oratory skills, he traveled through Italy and France preaching the gospels. He was so revered that upon his early death at the age of 36, he was canonized the following year, the quickest in the history of the Catholic Church. Construction of the basilica in which we were standing began the following year (1232). For over seven and a half centuries it has been a major pilgrimage site.

We joined the stream of people making their way down the left aisle to the saint's tomb, where people ran their hands along the cold marble as they walked by. Many, with tears in their eyes, seemed to be exhorting Anthony to answer their silent prayers. It was more than touching. We stayed in line to pass behind the altar and before a series of glass cases that contained: Anthony's lower jaw, his tongue, his vocal chords (which when his remains were examined in 1981 were still intact which is pretty unusual) and fragments of the True Cross. We can now add these to the list of saints' body parts we have seen in person.

In an adjoining building we walked silently through a museum that housed a collection of tributes and votives, most bearing the marking P.G.R (per grazia ricevuta - for prayers answered) sent in by people who had been helped by St. Anthony. These paintings, drawings, newspaper clippings and crafts all told the same story of gratitude for miracles received. Powerful stuff.

These pictures show some pretty dramatic accidents from which the victim recovered. Click on them to enlarge.

We probably should have left then. Instead we went into the requisite gift shop, where they were doing a booming business. People were 2 or 3 deep waiting to get the attention of the salesperson to make their purchase. For some reason it was a little disconcerting to see the clerk hurriedly searching through a large box (marked Made in China I think) beneath the counter to find the right keyring or refrigerator magnet (we bought one, BTW) with a likeness of the beloved saint. But we had seen this before, and understand the business and economics of it all. The new wrinkle here was the very modern anteroom that looked like it was lifted from the lobby of our local Wachovia bank in Virginia. If I read the sign correctly you could go up to one of the friendly tellers and buy some services (magazines, mass offerings, trips?). Seemed a little too commercial and complex for the very simple Franciscan Anthony.

Leaving the church we decided to walk back to the train station. Well, the truth is the decision was made for us when we found that you can only buy tram tickets at the station and we hadn't. In fact it was a pleasant walk among the hordes of college kids (the University of Padua was founded in 1222 - so they have had a lot of practice hording) who were out enjoying their Saturday night. Particularly pleasant was a stroll along the statue filled park and canal near the main market square.

We caught the late afternoon local train (another cheap $5) back, and arrived in Venezia with the rain coming down. The boat ride to the Lido seemed long and with the wet weather each stop (of which there were many) subjected the boat workers to a good soaking. I had to rethink my idea that being a busdriver in Venice was the ideal job. We settled into our apartment, shared some more wine and stories, and planned Sunday's island hopping itinerary. All in all, a great day.

(Note: The aerial view of the Arena at Verona, the White House and the Basilica of St. Anthony at night are from Wiki. The front of the Osteria a la Careiga is from it's web page. The picture of the four of us at the riverwalk is from an anonymous Veronese who we sincerely thank.)

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