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Verona, the hidden gem of northern Italy

by Richard Mason | June 12, 2021 at 8:30 p.m.
Richard Mason

For the next several columns I’m going to do vacation getaways. If you are anything like my family, a long awaited vacation, after a year of being trapped at home by the pandemic, is high on your to-do list.

I’ve picked three trips to start with, and here they are: Verona, Italy; the Canadian Rockies; and training through Switzerland. I’ve left out a couple of obvious ones such as New Orleans, Greenwood and Belize, since I’ve covered them in the past.

I’m going to start with Verona, Italy because with cut-rate air tickets on the market as airlines crank up, a ticket to Milan, Italy or Geneva, Switzerland, and a short train ride to Verona won’t break the bank and lodging and food in northern Italy is reasonable.

Verona is frequently overlooked as a vacation destination because of two towns that dominate northern Italy. The large cities of Venice and Milan have such a strong pull that Verona is usually just a two hour stop on a tour bus schedule to see the famous Roman amphitheater, or maybe to have a quick lunch on the way to Venice.

A few years back Vertis and I traveled to Verona, and stayed there for our entire ten-day vacation. We always travel by train or car in Europe, and after flying into Geneva, we took a train to Verona. Of course, we didn’t just sit around Verona and relax, but we did crash for a day recuperating from the 10-hour flight to Geneva.

Of course, on your return home, I would recommend you spend at least a couple of days in Geneva. The city and surrounding Swiss countryside are well worth a visit.

Actually, Verona has a lot more to see than a spectacular, ancient Roman amphitheater. There are numerous reasons for you to make it a base for your northern Italy vacation. The town is a World Heritage Site, and there are plenty of historic venues to visit if that suits your fancy. You can easily spend several days just poking around in the historic center of town and going in the numerous churches. Of course, the main four church cathedral complex is breathtakingly beautiful, and easily worth at least a half day for an overall visit to these magnificent churches.

Our first day trip from Verona was a little over an hour by train to Venice. Of course,Venice is a top attraction, and it should be, but staying in laid back Verona and walking those quiet streets late in the day after the tour buses are gone, where mostly local residents are out for a before-dinner stroll, is one reason to pick Verona.

We do love Venice, but we enjoy it more as a day trip from Verona. On the way to Venice, you might consider stopping in Padua and visiting the old town area where students from the University of Padua hang out. It is truly a neat area to people watch, dine and stroll the ancient streets.

But the big attraction of the area, Venice, still draws the largest crowds, and yes, the city is hugely popular, but even with the streets a little crowded, St. Mark’s Square and St. Mark’s Basilica are still such a great pleasure to visit that Venice should be a must visit on anyone’s European trip. A ride through the winding canals, even if it is a little touristy, is actually worthwhile to slowly take in the ancient streets. (Actually there aren’t many streets — just canals.) If you venture away from the main plaza, you can dine with the locals and have a great Italian lunch or dinner at a reasonable price.

But if you really want to dive into the top fun attraction that Venice offers, attend Carnival. We know two attractive lady friends who flew over to just attend Carnival, and then, after a Carnival weekend, flew directly back home. Of course we inquired about their long weekend, but only received smiles as an answer.

But let’s get back to Verona for a bit. We stayed in the center of town in a small hotel, which couldn’t have been better located. Of course, since my favorite food is northern Italian, it was hard for us to make a mistake in picking a restaurant. However, there are many good ones and one great one. Very near our hotel is a famous Verona restaurant called The Restaurant Archie, and for a small town boy from Arkansas who loves northern Italian food, it was like going to Heaven and finding out God is Italian.

Of course, if you are a Shakespeare fan, then you know the Master picked Verona as the setting for two of his plays. Everyone knows “Romeo and Juliet,” but the other play, “Two Gentlemen from Verona,” is not as well known. However, even though Shakespeare never visited Verona, the local tourist information service has designated a balcony where Juliet called for Romeo, and you won’t have any trouble finding it.

“Romeo, Romeo, where art thou?”

If you are using Verona as your base to visit northern Italy, a day trip to Milan is a must. You should go by train, since with almost hourly connections, it is the easiest way to the center of the city. The trip is not much more than an hour and a half in length. There are several must visit sights in Milan, and almost all of them are in or very close to the city center. I would start by going to the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle ll (the original shopping mall built 1877). The architecture makes this shopping area worth the visit, and we had a margherita pizza there, which spoiled me forever.

Milan is the home of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” painting, which was originally painted as a back wall decoration for a convent dining hall. It really is amazing. You must make a reservation for the tour, and go with a group of around 20 into a large room with humidity and light control to protect the painting.

It’s hard to miss one of the major gothic cathedrals in the world, the Cathedral of Milan, and the huge square in the center of the city. There are cathedrals and then there are Cathedrals! The Duomo (Italian for Cathedral) qualifies as a don’t-miss-it stop, even if you have had it with church or cathedral tours. This massive gothic cathedral is spectacular, and it will take you almost a half day to really go through it. It’s in the city center and only a four minute walk from the Galleria.

I have just touched on the obvious highlights of northern Italy, and I left out the small hill towns, which are easy to visit and absolutely beautiful. If you go, consider a Euro-Rail pass. Most of the towns are easily visited by rail, and the Euro-Rail pass is the easiest way to get around. To sum up a trip to the Verona area let me just say this: you will see a lot of spectacular large and neat small towns and eat some wonderful food. A visit to northern Italy is not a tough trip.

Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email [email protected]

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