Ever since 1992 when I saw an episode of Morse set in Verona I’d wanted to go. The stunning scenery, the gorgeous architecture and the incredible breath-taking arena did more to inspire my daydreams than any episode of Wish You Were Here. I wanted desperately to wander those narrow streets and sip chilled wine as the sun went down, but most of all I wanted to see an opera.
Fast forward 25 years and despite a career in travel spanning almost as long I’d never had the opportunity to visit. With my 50th birthday approaching I figured it was high time that particular destination got bumped up the bucket list. My husband (let’s call him Mr Midlife) (but let’s not tell him) was agreeable to the idea, on the condition that it wasn’t insanely expensive.
Ah – there’s the thing. How exactly do you visit any Italian city in the summer, particularly one with a famous opera festival taking place, and keep the cost down? Had I been looking in 1992 I’ve no doubt I would have been stumped, but fortunately in 2016 we had Google.
I’m a teeny bit of a Google junkie, I can (and frequently do) spend hours just faffing about looking for things that I might like to do one day, or places that I might like to visit. Give me the green light for an actual plan and I’m all over it, so if it’s a city you’re keen to visit read on for my top tips.
When to go …
Let’s assume that you want to experience an opera whilst you’re there, the festival takes place from late June, and throughout July and August. One thing worth remembering is that most shops in Verona are closed on Sundays, and often Mondays too. If you want uninterrupted access to shopping and are only planning on a couple of nights then travel midweek rather than at the weekend.
If you’re going for a short break and have a limited amount of time then go as early as possible and leave your bags at your accommodation whilst you explore the city.
The city itself is only about 20 minutes from the airport, there’s a shuttle bus from the airport to the train station on the outskirts of the city that runs every 20 minutes. However, I’d advise that if you have one justifiable luxury on a short trip it’s a taxi/pre booked private transfers. The train station is a good 20 minute walk from the centre of the city, which is a maze of streets that you won’t yet be familiar with. It’s not a great start to be roaming those streets in the increasing heat looking for your hotel. Of course you could reduce the cost by taking the shuttle to the train station (at the time of our visit €6) and picking up a taxi from there, but being able to relax in the comfort of an air conditioned car, with the knowledge that your driver actually knows where he’s going is priceless (well, around €45 each way).
This is where I struck gold. I absolutely and whole-heartedly recommend the B&B that I stumbled across on one of my late night Google forays. Mr Midlife and I have very differing opinions as to the definition of “not insanely expensive” but I have a few basics that I consider essential even if we’re going cheap; en suite bathroom, fully functioning air con, clean rooms, non sagging mattress, fluffy towels and obsequious service. I’m joking about the last two, well Ok, possibly just the last one. Anyway, it was very evident that we were not going to be able to afford a hotel offering all of these during the opera festival and I was beginning to seriously worry that I may have to sacrifice my desire for fluffy towels. I’d looked around the outskirts for cheaper properties but didn’t want to be miles out, I’d found some “reasonably priced” hostel type accommodations in the centre but this was my 50th birthday – I didn’t want a bloody hostel! Then bingo – I stumbled across BB Santo Stefano, it looked charming, it had great reviews on trip advisor, I contacted the owner and he responded promptly, to be honest it all looked rather perfect.
And it was. We arrived at around 9am, rang the bell at the front door and were welcomed in by Luca, the owner. Over coffee in his living room he apologised that we couldn’t have access to our room but it wasn’t ready so early, he was happy to keep our bags whilst we went off to explore. He took a mobile number and said he would text when the room was ready, then he pointed us in the direction of the city and suggested we just wander, it was small apparently, we couldn’t really get lost. The building is just metres from Ponte Pietra, the oldest bridge in Verona – we crossed the bridge, entered through the stone arch and we got wonderfully and beautifully lost.
I digress, because this is about the accommodation. BB Santo Stefano has 3 rooms and an apartment, breakfast is served in your room at a time agreed with Luca. Our room was spotless, the bedding was crisp, the air con was powerful, THE BATHROOM WAS VILLEROY AND BOCH! This was by far the poshest B&B I’d ever stayed in! There was a fabulous shower and the towels were reasonably fluffy too. Happy days! The breakfast was a continental offering of croissants, muffins, fresh fruit, yogurts, fruit juice, tea or coffee, certainly more than adequate and at around £100 per night it was about a quarter the price of a luxury hotel. If you want to visit Verona, stay here!
The Opera …
The reason we were in Verona. I’d booked our tickets in advance on line. You can check what’s on by visiting the official site here and book tickets by following the links and registering with getticket.it. Now for the surprising part – you can get tickets for €25 per person! Yes really! Granted you’ll be sitting on a stone step but €25 for an opera! In Verona! And don’t worry too much about the stone step; you can rent a cushion for €2 when you get there (although that didn’t stop Mr Midlife from complaining throughout about how uncomfortable his bottom was…).
We saw La Traviata by Verdi. Neither of us are opera buffs so we wanted something pretty light that we might be able to follow! I’d read a synopsis of the plot beforehand but there was no need – there are large screens positioned on top of the walls with an English translation of what is being performed. Performances start at 9pm and it’s fair to say that the biggest problem was the heat – it was still around 27 degrees. TAKE WATER! We didn’t, and by the time we got to the first interval I practically accosted the usher selling cold cans of lemonade!
We wandered for hours and took so many photos of churches, piazzas and towers but we couldn’t go all that way and not visit the famous balcony of Casa Julieta. It’s conveniently located just off one of the main shopping streets. It’s claimed that the house belonged to the Capulets, and the balcony is the one from where Juliet called for her Romeo. The courtyard below was heaving with people (mostly clamouring to rub the breast of a statue of Juliet!) and there is graffiti all over the walls (heavy fine so don’t be tempted!). It’s not quite the monument to love I had imagined. And despite the fact that Romeo and Juliet is a work of fiction there are an alarming number of people trying to work out how he might have climbed up to the balcony. Marginally worrying….
We also took a quick trip over to Venice for an afternoon – another destination on the bucket list. It takes just over an hour by train and costs around €20 for a return ticket. The guy at the train station ticket office was helpful despite my appalling attempts at Italian. You have to validate your ticket in a machine at the end of the platform before boarding and our train was really clean, comfortable, air conditioned and on time! If you want to buy tickets in advance or just check times before going to the station you can do so on the Trenitalia site You need a ticket to Venezia Santa Lucia not Venezia Mestre which is on the mainland. Venice was a great place to wander around, we didn’t do museums or galleries on this visit, this was a weekend break on the cheap remember, but one of the best pieces of advice I was given before hand was to take a vaporetto from outside the train station all the way to St Marks Square. The number 1 vaporetto calls at every stop between the two points and takes about 45 mins to an hour. If you can get a seat outside you have the most fabulous sightseeing opportunity all for the bargain price of €7.50.
It’s Italy – there are cheap eats and drop-dead-with–shock-at-the-price eats, but there are menus outside all the restaurants (and if you find one that doesn’t have the menu on display you might be wise to ask). Eat pizza, eat pasta, eat gelato, enjoy la dolce vita and make plans to return – Verona will capture your heart.
** All opinions are my own and today’s prices may differ slightly from what we paid in 2016. Where possible I have checked the prices but cannot be held responsible if incorrect.
Have you been to Verona? Would you go? Which is your favourite Italian city? Leave me a comment and let me know xx