The Ginger Man

Archives: March 2016

Verona, Veneto

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About two hours from bustling Milan and touristy Venice is Verona — a welcome sip of pure, easygoing Italy. Made famous by Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, Verona is Italy’s fourth-most-visited city and second in the Veneto region only to Venice in population and artistic importance. If you don’t need world-class sights, this town is a joy.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet made Verona a household word. Locals marvel that each year, about 1,600 Japanese tour groups break their Venice-to-Milan ride for an hour-long stop in Verona just to stand in a courtyard. The House of Juliet, where the real-life Cappello family once lived, is a crass and throbbing mob scene. The tiny, admittedly romantic courtyard is a spectacle in itself, with visitors from all over the world posing on the almost believable balcony and taking snapshots of each other rubbing Juliet’s bronze breast, hoping to get lucky in love.

The city is so famous for love that it gets countless letters addressed simply to “Juliet, Verona, Italy.” There are even volunteers to respond to these mostly lovesick people (see www.julietclub.com). And they’re getting even busier, thanks to the movie Letters to Juliet, about a girl (Amanda Seyfried) who finds a letter while visiting the House of Juliet and travels through Italy to help reunite the author with her lost love.

Despite the romantic fiction, the town is packed with genuine history. Because ancient Romans considered Verona an ideal resting spot before crossing the Alps, the city has a wealth of Roman ruins. The well-preserved amphitheater — the third largest in the Roman world — dates from the first century a.d. and still retains most of its original stone. Over the centuries, crowds of up to 25,000 spectators have cheered Roman gladiator battles, medieval executions, and modern plays — including Verona’s popular summer opera festival, which takes advantage of the arena’s famous acoustics.

Corso Porta Borsari was the main drag of Roman Verona. A stroll here makes for a fun, ancient scavenger hunt. Remnants of the towns illustrious past — chips of Roman columns, medieval reliefs, fine old facades, and fossils in marble — are scattered among modern-day fancy shop windows.

You’ll end up at Piazza Erbe, Verona’s market square, where vendors come to slice and sell whatever’s in season. People have gathered here since Roman times, when this was a forum. The whale’s rib, hanging from an archway for 500 years, was a souvenir brought home from the Orient by spice traders. Today Piazza Erbe is for the locals, who start their evening with an aperitivo here. It’s a trendy scene, as young Veronans fill the bars to enjoy their refreshing spritz drinks, olives, and chips.

After spritzing, it’s time for feasting. And Verona has its share of excellent eateries. One of my happiest memories from a past trip is eating with my friends at Enoteca Can Grande, where we let the chef, Giuliano, bring us whatever he wanted. The carne cruda (raw beef), was, as Giuliano put it, “like seeing the smile of a beautiful woman after 10 years. You never forget her.” The mortadella (Italian-style baloney — not a high-end meat) was served with black truffle. It was exquisite. Imagine calling spam exquisite…just add truffle. Then came the best polenta I’d ever tasted, with anchovies. As it turns out, anchovies and polenta are a “good marriage.” For dessert: a plate of voluptuous slices of cheese. “Even if we do not talk,” said one of my friends, “with these cheeses we have a good conversation.” As I held the warm and happy tire of my full tummy, I thought about how Italians live life with abandon — and how they enjoy their food.

Besides eating, for me the highlight of Verona is the evening passeggiata (stroll). It’s a multigenerational affair. Like peacocks, the young and nubile spread their wings across the wide sidewalk promenade, made broad by the town’s Venetian overloads in the 17th century so the town’s beautiful people could see and be seen in all their finery.

Verona 

A collage of the city of Verona, Clockwise from top of left to right: View of Piazza Bra from Verona Arena, House of Juliet, Verona Arena, Ponte Pietra at sunset, Statue of Madonna Verona’s fountain in Piazza Erbe, View of Piazza Erbe from Lamberti Tower

The Wine

Veneto is a substantial and increasingly important wine region in the north-eastern corner of Italy. Administratively it forms part of the Triveneto zone, along with its smaller neighbors Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. In terms of geography, culture and wine styles, it represents a transition between the alpine, Germano-Slavic end of Italy and the warmer, drier, more Roman lands to the south.

Veneto is slightly smaller than Italy’s other main wine-producing regions –Piedmont, Tuscany, Lombardy, Puglia and Sicily – yet it generates more wine than any of them. Although the southern regions Sicily and Puglia were for a long time Italy’s main wine producers, this balance began to shift north towards Veneto in the latter half of the 20th century. In the 1990s, southern Italian wine languished in an increasingly competitive and demanding world, while Veneto upped its game, gaining recognition with such wines as Valpolicella, Amarone, Soave and Prosecco.

With fruity red Valpolicella complementing its intense Amarone and sweet Recioto counterparts, Veneto is armed with a formidable portfolio of red wines to complement its refreshing whites such as Soave and sparkling Prosecco. Although much of the new vineyard area which supported Veneto’s increased wine output was of questionable viticultural quality, today more than 25% of the region’s wine is made and sold under DOC/DOCG titles.

The Veneto region can be roughly split into three geographical areas, distinguished by their topography and geology. In the north-west the foothills of the Alps descend along the eastern edge of Lake Garda, their path mirrored by the Adige river as it descends from the heights of Alto Adige. Here in the cooler, alpine-influenced climate, fresh, crisp whites are made under the Bianco di Custoza and Garda titles, while refreshing, unassuming Bardolino from the shores of Lake Garda makes the case for Veneto’s lightest reds. Just east of the lake and north of Verona is Valpolicella and its sub-region Valpantena: the fabled ‘Valley of Many Cellars’ produces half a million hectoliters of fruity red wine every vintage. In terms of production volume, Valpolicella is the only DOC to rival Tuscany’s famous Chianti. Immediately east of Valpolicella is Soave, home to the eponymous dry white wine which now ranks among Italy’s most famous products, and beyond that Gambellara serves as an eastern extension of Soave, both geographically and stylistically. Garganega and Trebbiano are the key white-wine grape varieties here, while Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella are behind the vast majority of reds.

In central Veneto, around Vicenza and Padua, are the Colli Berici, Colli Euganei and Breganze. Although the plains below these hills produce vast quantities of wine, only the better-quality wines from more elevated areas have gained DOC status. International varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir (Pinot Nero here) and even Carmenere have proved successful here, as has northern Italy’s flagship white Pinot Grigio and Veneto’s own Tocai Friulano.

In the north-eastern corner of the region, on either side of the Piave river (which has its own Piave DOC covering the land between Conegliano and the coast), sparkling Prosecco reigns supreme. Still wines are also made here (Lison, Lison-Pramaggiore, Montello e Colli Asolani and Colli di Conegliano), but the common factor which unites almost all viticultural zones in north-eastern Veneto is the Glera grape (typically known as Prosecco), and the foaming spumante and semi-sparkling frizzante wines it creates.

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