Whatever springs to mind when you think of Italy – hearty bowls of pasta, canals dotted with gondolas, mountains of creamy gelato or tumbling historic ruins, it’s a given that the country has left a powerful imprint on everyone’s imaginations. With the promise of beauty, romanticism and bohemian allure at every turn, a short getaway seemed like the perfect antidote to the bleakness of British winter. Buoyed by the prospect of experiencing the charm of Italy out-of-season, we packed our bags and headed off for a stay in Lake Garda and Venice.
We arrived at Verona airport early one Friday morning, and decided to take advantage of our proximity to the city by riding the twenty-minute airport shuttle to the outskirts. From there, we hopped on board another bus and rode into the old town. From the moment I stepped onto the cobbled streets of fair Verona, I bounced along with that childlike fervour you get when your senses warm to your surroundings. Colourful Mediterranean hues, balconied houses, the scent of fresh produce, shutters flung open as waiters paced beneath – each side street offered new discoveries.
We ambled around the Piazza delle Erbe, a picturesque market square bordered by an ancient town hall and frescoed Mazzanti houses. For a while, we watched the water tumbling from the Madonna Verona Fountain, listening to a musician play show tunes on a grand piano. As we moved through the marketplace, we happened across Juliet’s balcony down a side alley – instantly recognisable for it’s Gothic arched portal and sandy-stone courtyard plastered in love notes and hastily-scrawled messages; not least for the crowd of tourists huddled beneath the balcony where Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers secretly met. The afternoon passed slowly as we pottered along the river, where the warm sunshine had brought many young couples out onto the banks. Next, over the Ponte Pietra bridge, a red-brick Roman arch crossing over the Adige River bordered by blue sky, fir trees and lemon yellow buildings. That evening, we caught the bus to The Ziba Hotel & Spa, which sits on the edge of the ancient fortress of Peschiera del Garda.
The next morning, we caught a bus to Bardolino, a town at the southern end of Italy’s largest lake, Garda. We arrived by lunchtime to a sleepy town swathed in sea mist. The lake was eerily silent and mirror-smooth, and while we waited for the mist to lift we had lunch in a tiny café – learning then that it was far too early for most Italians to start emerging for the day. As we followed the pedestrian trail alongside the water to Lazise, a town about an hour’s walk from Bardolino, the mist gradually began to lift. We passed vines, olive and citrus trees aplenty, as the afternoon sunshine backlit the cragged blue mountains. We reached Lazise by late afternoon and were once again charmed by Garda’s provincial towns, our thoughts backed by the six towers of the Castello Scaligero, set around a glittering harbour.
The following day we journeyed to Sirmione, a popular tourist town which sits on the tip of the beautiful peninsula south of the lake. The town is set entirely within Roman castle walls, where cobbled lanes lead down to pine needle-green shores, the outline of the mountains rearing out of the morning mist. We barely noticed the damp weather, for the town is well sheltered by the ancient battlements, leaving visitors free to peruse the various eateries and gelato parlours dotted along the lanes without being blown away. After downing cups of molten hot chocolate, we travelled to Peschiera del Garda railway station to catch our train to Venice, and arrived in the famed floating city by late afternoon. 15 minutes from the train station in the quarter of Cannaregio sits Hotel Giorgione; a historic, family-owned residence furnished with Venetian décor and Murano glass chandeliers. Upon arrival, we were told there was a chance of aqua alta (floods) that evening. Sure enough, as we walked out for dinner, we observed wooden walkways being assembled down the streets as the inky canals rose in the darkness.
The next morning, we boarded the public water boat from the Strada Nuova up the Grand Canal – the best way to see the glories of Venetian architecture lining its banks. 90 minutes later, we neared the end of the signature waterway and stepped off the boat in Castello, a district with a real sense of residential character and the only place where, as tourists, we felt outnumbered by locals. Amongst the canals, bridges and slightly dilapidated buildings was a picture of real life: people stringing washing outside their windows, gossiping Italians sipping coffee, kids kicking footballs against 14th-century walls.
We passed medieval military barracks and tiny cafés with low doorways and handwritten blackboards; narrow streets and crêperies selling hot pastries filled with gelato. We stopped at the Basilica di San Marco, marvelling at its gold ground mosaics and marble columns, and took a few left and right turns until the crowds melted away and we once more found deserted backstreets. The rest of our afternoon passed slowly as we explored varied artisan shops, including Arcobaleno – an incredible shop selling artists’ pigments made naturally from flowers and minerals. I gazed at the shelves stocked with kilner jars of Titian red, Tiepolo sky-blue and Tintoretto teal pigment, while a shop assistant beside me practiced traditional wax seals. I could have easily believed I had travelled back to a bygone time.
Our last day in Venice dawned with brilliant sunshine, its canals reflecting the beauty of each crooked thoroughfare. We bought some fresh strawberries from a local market and sat on the steps of a canal, watching gondola-drivers argy-bargy in the midday rays. Whilst searching for toilets we got hopelessly lost – as one should do in Venice – and happened across a derelict arcade reminiscent of Victorian London, where every turned corner is met with a figure rushing in the other direction. As we walked to the dock that evening to catch the boat to Marco Polo Airport, we turned to watch a pink and lilac sunset speckle the sky, while Venetian women passed by in big fur coats.
As our trip drew to a close, I came to realise that whilst Italy had well and truly delivered with its beauty, it was its pace of life that made me feel so at ease. Time, it could be said, has a different value there. There is time to chat with friends in the street, time to get lost down alleyways and lunch in old-fashioned ristorantes, time to amble, saunter and ponder. The colour, good food and friendliness left me with a resounding sense that all would be okay, long after the scent of hot sangria had faded from my clothes.