And Now …. To Verona and Parma
Monday, September 16, 2013
We managed to be out of our Venice hotel, following breakfast, at 8:30 am and boarded our final vaporetto on our way to the Hertz dealership where we would pick up our car, our transportation for the next 4 weeks. We met David and Heather Bailey at the Hertz office to transport one of their suitcases until we meet again in a few days. Then we were whisked away in a van (my goodness!! A vehicle on wheels!) to the outer reaches of the city where our car was parked.
Along the way, we saw trains, people-movers, all manner of wheeled vehicles and crossed over a several kilometer causeway that connects the City of Venice to the mainland.
We quickly loaded our luggage into our little Ford Fiesta, powered up the GPS and headed out onto the highway to begin our drive to Parma, approximately 2 hours away. It did not take long to acclimatize to the traffic and soon we were discussing optional side trips on the way to Parma.
We decided to go to Verona, of Romeo and Juliette fame. In fact, Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, is fiction and thus Romeo and Juliette were not real characters and therefore did not live or love in Verona. That does not stop the townspeople from playing on a theme though. There are streets, cafes, hotels and all manner of other things names after many characters in the play. There is even a house that claims to be Juliette’s home, complete with the infamous balcony. This element of Verona was very entertaining to us.
What actually drew us to Verona, though, is the enormous Roman arena that was built there during the first century AD and is so well preserved that it is still used today for musical and theatrical concerts. It seats 30,000 people in an open air round theatre. Many seats are the original granite seats that were installed almost 2000 years ago. Some new seats have been installed, no doubt commanding higher ticket prices for the added comfort. In fact, a rock concert was scheduled for this evening and we were there during their sound check. The acoustics were great as far as we could tell. Earplugs, please.
The entire structure was impressive to say the least. Both its size and its beauty, the artistry in the placing of the stone in the walls and on the surrounding walkway were all breathtaking. This arena is described as the best preserved Roman monument in Italy. We were glad to have made the detour to visit.
We had lunch in a small café that served a range of pasta dishes. Of course, we made use of the bathroom while there which leads to me to introduce a whole new topic. Toilets!
Yes, let’s talk about toilets. Jim and I have travelled many different places and have used many different styles of toilets over the years. But Italy has offered yet something new in the style of toilets. I must say that we were fully expecting the toilets here to be as they are at home. Full seated, raised, reasonably comfortable toilets. And, in fairness, many are. So we were quite surprised to encounter a style of toilet that even Jim, with all his toilet research, has never encountered. This style is quite common, especially in public establishments such as museums and restaurants. And often unisex. I describe them as the hover style.
These toilets sit close to the ground, have a porcelain bowl, no seat and are very suitable for a 2 year old boy who is learning to direct his flow accurately into a bowl. However ….. for an aging and out of shape woman, this hover toilet is less than comfortable! Does one sit? Or hover? Or crouch? Or what? And once down, how in the world are creaky knees supposed to get one back to an upright position? Various systems have been used – the doorknob on the stall is particularly useful as a lever as is the purse shelf or the toilet paper dispenser. Fortunately, Jim and I have never been permanently separated due to a toileting malfunction. But we are here for 5 more weeks so time will tell. I will not even begin to describe the experience that occurred in the lovely café in Verona that had a fully Asian style squat toilet!
And so we left Verona behind and headed out onto the Austrade (freeway again). It was an experience to behold. I had forgotten about the inflated speed of traffic and the need always to be in the right hand lane except for passing that we had encountered many years ago in Germany. It only took a couple of bright headlights in our rearview mirror to let me know that 120Km / hour in the left hand lane was not an acceptable speed. So I moved over to join the long line of slower moving trucks to let the faster cars pass by. And, they were all faster. A short distance later, we encountered a large over the road sign that read, ”Respect the speed limit. 130 km / hour”. No wonder we were the slowest vehicle in the fast lane!
We travelled through some rich agricultural land en route. Olives, grapes, corn and hay were growing abundantly in fields along the roadway. As autumn is close at hand, there was a range of equipment in the fields beginning the harvest, particularly of corn and hay. It is the kind of travel Jim and I enjoy and we look forward to more of the same but on the local roads, not the autostrade.
We arrived in Parma mid afternoon and made our way to our B&B on San Rosa Street. It was deep in the labyrinth that is at the core of this ancient city. Add to the confusion that visitors are only allowed to bring their cars into the core with a permit to drop off luggage and then find parking at the edge of Centro. Happily the proprietor of our B&B was at home when we arrived and assisted us in removing luggage from the car and into the house. We then drove along a myriad of narrow one way streets to exit the Centro and find the parking structure that had been suggested to us. The car will remain their until we leave on Wednesday morning.
One of the decisions Jim and I made as a basic tenet of travel is that we will always stay in our selected accommodation for at least two nights. In the case of this B&B, it was a very good decision. Our elegant room is on the first floor of this refurbished old home and filled with beautiful furniture and amenities. There is a glass elevator that travels silently up the wall of a courtyard and delivers us just steps from our room and the equally elegant dining room. The bathroom is well equipped, decorated in white and absolutely gorgeous. We settled in very happily and soon found ourselves out exploring the town.
We first explored the area near the car park. We found there a fish shop that featured over 200 varieties of frozen fish, all flash frozen and gleaming in their bins awaiting selection by hungry patrons. There were certainly many types of fish from all over the world that we had never heard of. Of course, we left empty handed as we had no way to prepare any of the fish, no matter how good it looked.
We headed back toward Centro and instantly were aware of the contrast between the outer area of Parma and the centre of the city. While Parma outside the centro had appeared a bit woebegotten, the core is filled with large ancient buildings, mostly Roman, which have been refurbished. A cathedral, a multitude of churches and museums, an 8 sided building with a cupola, a convent, stately homes, and a main shopping area lined with high end shops and enticing restaurants, bars and gelateries. We wandered somewhat aimlessly, taking photos and enjoying the sites. Of course, streets meandered in every direction and we had to check the map frequently to ensure we were en route to the restaurant suggested by our hostess. She made a reservation for us because it would lead to better service. Except for a short stop in a Desigual shop which I will return to tomorrow, we kept moving and finally turned into a small alley and found our destination, Trattoria del ________ .
The Trattoria was everything our hostess had described. The service was wonderful, the menu varied and the food delicious. Jim order a primo platter that featured three of the house specialties including baked parmesan cheese. I ordered a mixed salad with horsemeat – yes, horsemeat, a local specialty. It was served as medium rare steak on a plate of vegetables and it was actually very nice tasting. It was a bit tough to chew and I later learned that most people prefer it ground and raw, more like steak tartare. I am not sure that I am brave enough for that but I am happy to have tasted it and enjoyed the whole piece of meat. Rather than dessert, we chose to order some fried bread and a plate of parmesan cheese. What a great choice!! Delicious!! And such a mainstay of the local cuisine.
We had a little difficulty finding our way back home. Everything looks so different after dark. Meandering streets looked oh so familiar until we realized we had never been on them before. After getting totally turned around, a kind lady pointed us in the right direction and we successfully found our way home. En route, we encountered the beautiful voices of a choir practicing high in a building late in the evening (after 10 pm). There was something ephemeral about their voices as they wafted across the late night air. A lovely way to end our evening.
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Well, this day did not go according to our plan. We enjoyed our breakfast at the large dining room table and had a somewhat slow start, leaving our room about 11 am. I wanted to indulge myself with a manicure at a nearby day spa. Happily, they were able to take me in as soon as we arrived. Jim went out for a walk and I sat contentedly in the chair. The lady who was providing the service spoke no English so it was a time of relaxation and quiet contemplation for me. As she worked, I became more and more aware that I was actually not feeling well. Chills, headache, goosebumps, fatigue …. As soon as she was finished with me, we headed straight back to our B&B where I fell into bed and slept the afternoon away. It was not part of our plan but, truly, there was no choice.
Jim spent some of the time doing more research about things that lie ahead of us and some of the time going out for a walk in Centro. He even went to the Desigual Shop and bought the purse I had my eye on. How nice is that!
We had arranged to go to a traditional Italian dinner at the home of friends of our B&B Hostess. As the afternoon wore on, I began to feel slightly better and we decided we would still take in this dinner. We are delighted that we did!
Before I describe the dinner in detail, I need to let you know that not only is Parma the home of parmesan cheese, it is also the home of prosciutto and all other things made from pork, or so it seems. This will become abundantly clear as you read on.
We were welcomed warmly in to the home of our hosts, Ros and Beppe. They were proud of their home and pointed out some features that were very traditional in an Italian home (they clearly enjoy a prosperous lifestyle.) They also have an exquisite country home that was featured in a magazine this month. The photos of the building, the decor and the landscape were breathtaking.
One of the challenges of the evening was that we speak no Italian and they spoke very little English. Fortunately we all had passable French and were able to communicate pretty effectively. When words failed us, re relied on hand gestures and more wine!
The meal was delicious, consisting of several courses. First we were served appetizers in the living room. Parmesan cheese, of course, and some pastries with interesting toppings – ham and pesto. And our first variety of wine.
Next we moved into the dining room where we feasted on antipasto – two kinds of Parma ham and salami and, yes, another variety of Italian wine. Ravioli followed this, the first filled with delicious pesto and the second filled with pumpkin and slightly sweetened with a thin coating of sugar. So far, everything was amazing.
Next came our secundi, a course of smoked ham and smooth mashed potatoes. And yet another variety of wine. I have to say that by this time, I was having difficulty eating another thing. I asked if they ate like this every night and they just laughed and shook their heads. We also asked what time they typically had breakfast and what they ate. Not surprisingly, breakfast is early but very small, usually coffee and fruit or yogurt. That led into a conversation about dining patterns in different countries and cultures.
Finally dessert was served – gelato and some sweet cookies. I declined the cookies and only ate some of the gelato. Jim and I were both fully sated! Three more varieties of wine, liqueurs actually, appeared and we sampled them all. By this time it was 11:30 at night and it was time to go home. Happily it was a very sort walk and I fell into bed and slept the night through.
It had been a unique and wonderful evening. Our French seemed to carry us through and we felt happy about the entire experience. What lucky people we are!