Perugia and Assisi were a lot further south than any of the other cities on our itinerary. So from Assisi it was a long train journey back north to Florence, a quick change, and then west to our next destination.
Back in 2005 we had a family holiday in Tuscany; we saw several interesting cities, but Lucca was too far from our villa. So it was on the itinerary for 2017! At first sight we were disappointed: parts of the city (especially around the station) were scruffy, and ‘pedestrianised’ in the old town apparently meant that there were lots of bikes, but not too many cars. Cloudy weather – quite a shock after ten days of unbroken hot sun! – did not add to the attractiveness of the city. But when the weather improved, and we got to know Lucca better, our opinion became much more positive.
We visited the cathedral, and particularly liked the modern stained glass. Other churches included San Giovanni e Santa Reparata where you can see the remains of five different layers – an older church built on top of a yet older church built on top of a Roman temple built on top of Roman houses (fragments of mosaics remain). The Piazza Anfiteatro is fascinating because houses and restaurants have been built into the old amphitheatre.
We climbed to the top of the Tower Giunigi – unusual because there are trees growing on the flat roof – and enjoyed amazing views over the city. We also walked right round the city walls, from which you can get views of both the city and the beautiful countryside. You can also see a number of weird sculptures on the bastions.
Lucca is the city where Puccini was born, and there is a concert in his honour every night in one of the churches. The one we went to included a selection of music from Mozart as well as Puccini. It seemed the right thing to do while in Lucca, and also seemed an appropriate prelude to the operas we will see over the next couple of weeks.
From Lucca to Mantua was a long and complex train journey, involving three changes. Two were very quick (we almost missed one connection because the train was running late) but at least we had time for coffee in Bologna (a luxury not usually available on Italian trains).
Unfortunately the weather deteriorated while we were in Mantua: we had cloudy grey skies and some really violent thunderstorms. But we managed to be inside during the worst, and it didn’t stop us from seeing the sights. We also had the opportunity of getting our washing done – a real bonus!
Mantua is not on the top tourist trail, but there are two main places really worth visiting. The Palazzo Ducale, right in the centre, is huge, and there is one room after another with frescoed walls and elaborate ceilings. The most famous room is the Camera degli Sposi; visitor numbers are restricted, you have to pre-book and you are allowed five minutes max – although we saw no signs of these rules being enforced. By this stage of our trip we had seen hundreds of frescoes, but those in the palace were different in that they depicted not religious themes, but life among the aristocracy.
The other palace is the Palazzo Te, a mile or two outside the town, and built as the summer retreat for the current duke and his mistress. Again, there were lots of highly decorated rooms, with mainly classical and sometimes erotic themes. The outstanding one was the Sala dei Giganti, illustrating the victory of Jupiter over the Titans. It is hard to describe the spectacular effect, but it really does create the illusion that the rocks are tumbling down around you.
In addition to the palaces, we visited the cathedral and other churches. We were particularly impressed by the Bibiena Theatre, used originally for science talks, now also for cultural performances – a real gem of a place.
We’ve wanted to visit Verona for years – since even before we created our bucket list! In particular we wanted to see an opera in the Arena – the third biggest amphitheatre in the world, and the best preserved. Inside the original building there is a huge stage, and seating for over 20,000. The opera productions are spectacular, and we booked months ago to see Aida. So here we were in Verona, feeling quite excited when the time finally came. Several times during the day we looked anxiously at the sky – there were clouds around, and a threat of thunderstorms in the evening. Fortunately they did not materialise. The evening was fine, if a little windy. The opera started at 9pm, and we left the Arena at 1am.
Did the performance live up to expectations? In many ways, yes – the setting, the scale, the atmosphere all made for a magical experience. We were however slightly disappointed with the production, which was modernistic, minimalist and monochrome. The cast of thousands (well, hundreds anyway) and some of the effects were indeed spectacular. But there were no real elephants in the parade scene, as in the past: instead, there were mechanical animals, the main characters were seated on forklift trucks, and other members of the cast were zooming around on what looked like jetskis. Two men were constructing a kind of tower, abseiling up and down – we had no idea why. We’ve decided that, as far as opera is concerned, we are traditionalists at heart.
At the end of Aida, the lovers die in a tomb – which links neatly with Verona’s other claim to fame, a story in which star-crossed lovers meet a similar fate. People come from all over the world to visit Juliet’s house, gaze at Juliet’s balcony, stand in Juliet’s courtyard and touch Juliet’s statue. Never mind the fact that the balcony was added to the house in 1935, that it is far too high to climb, and that Romeo and Juliet never existed anyway. (You can also visit Juliet’s tomb – nothing much to see, but surprisingly it’s a popular spot for weddings!) We went to a promenade performance of excerpts from the play which was quite entertaining. It was (mainly) in Italian, but we guessed correctly that this would not be a problem, as we are familiar with the plot!
We stayed three nights in Verona, but had plenty to occupy our time. In addition to the above, we visited the cathedral and three other big churches full of artwork; the old castle which is now a museum; the impressively decorated Scaligeri tombs; and some lively piazzas. We crossed to the other side of the river to visit a palazzo with gardens, and the remains of the Roman theatre (not to be confused with the amphitheatre). We had great views of the town from there, and from a tower in the centre. All in all, we had a great time in Verona, and are glad that we made it there at last, even if the opera was slightly disappointing.