I planned nothing for Verona.
I forced myself to commit to a blank schedule.
I would get there, sleep, and see what happened.
This is not something that comes naturally to me. I’m spontaneous, I frequently do things without any forward planning, but, I’m always doing things. I struggle to stay still, to stop, pause, breathe. I feel myself twitching, discomfort creeping into the pit of my stomach whenever I find myself without something to do, or trying to be motionless in life.
But I needed to in Verona. I’d hit burn out in Slovenia, and it was time to recover. Properly. So that I could enjoy the rest of my trip without feeling my enthusiasm and energy lagging behind me.
I arrived at my Airbnb at 7:30am and checked in. My host, Olga, showed me my room, and gave me my keys.
I shut the door behind me.
My first private room since I’d left Wales three weeks ago to the day.
I was alone. Sharing this space with no one other than myself.
I slept naked.
A luxury afforded only to those who have the delight of a private room, and that, was exactly what I had.
I was going to enjoy every moment of it.
The room was white, clean and fresh.
I slept for two hours and then got up. I felt worse for having napped. Sluggish.
I knew nothing about Verona prior to coming, bar its association with Shakespeare, but now that I was here, I realised that it was pleasantly small. I could easily meander around without having to make any great effort to see everything, and still see it all.
I unpacked my things and let myself spread out across the whole room.
I walked to the Piazza Delle Erbe. A city square in Verona where market stalls gather selling fruit and veg, as well as an array of tacky tourist paraphernalia.
I walked down the sloping streets until I found the river Adige separating the city in two. Several bridges crossed it in the distance, each varying in age and design.
That evening I ate out at L’Imbottito de Le 4 Ciacole. A small restaurant only ten minutes’ walk from my Airbnb.
As I walked to the restaurant I realised that at the time when I had arrived in Berlin, there would have been a 50/50 chance that I wouldn’t have gone out for dinner. I’d have found an excuse. Money. Time. Distance. Tiredness.
But this time?
I knew I would go. Even as I wrote the text to Mumma. I wasn’t asking her because I needed pushing out of the door. I was asking her because I wanted a boost.
I had set out on this journey to confront and embrace myself, and now I could see that I was doing it.
Three weeks ago, I’d have needed to see those words written by my mother. But now I knew I would go regardless of what she said. It wasn’t a case of not going anymore. It was a case of how I felt as I walked out the door.
The roads in Italy are hell.
I’ve never known anything like them.
Across the whole of Europe I’d found crossing roads to be different to the UK. First of all, there are no buttons at the traffic lights. You simply stand and wait for it to go green. Secondly, nobody, and I mean nobody, crosses roads in Europe unless there is a green man. This means that if you’re at a crossing in the middle of the night, and there are no cars, you may well still see people standing at the traffic lights waiting for the green man. Thirdly, there is a rule across Europe called what I now know as the ‘turn right rule’ whereby cars turning right can still go through traffic lights even when there’s a green man.
By the time I’d reached Slovenia I had grown accustomed and comfortable to these differences, just in time for the shock of Italy.
In Verona, although there are traffic lights, predominantly there are just what I’d presumed were zebra crossings. Except for, in Verona, cars do not stop at zebra crossings if you wait patiently at the side of the road. The cars will only stop once you boldly walk out into the middle of the road indicating that you are indeed crossing, effectively walking straight out into moving traffic.
I thought I was going to die.
Having escaped near death crossing the roads, I entered L’Imbottito de Le 4 Ciacole and felt immediately like the elephant in the room.
The restaurant consisted of three sections. At the front, looking out over the street, was seating for drinkers. Minimalist bar stools stood underneath a wooden ledge jutting out from the large window. Facing the front door, a small staircase wound up to a balcony of tables and chairs that looked down on the bar area. Behind the stairs was a room with additional restaurant seating.
I took a seat upstairs on the balcony. Studied the menu. Asked for a glass of red wine. “From Verona?”
The wine was delicious. Thick and juicy.
I’d read online the week before that Verona, whilst not widely known for its wine, is home to some of the best Veneto vineyards producing one of the regions most delicious wines, Valpolicella.
When my food arrived I was presented with a nest of freshly made spaghetti (cooked aldente, of course) with what looked like some sort of minced meat on top. Was the meat cooked? I have no idea. But it tasted delicious.
I ate it slowly. Trying to savour every mouthful. Each flavour and texture.
I was on edge. I could feel my shoulders cinched up to my ear lobes. The skin across my back slightly taught with tension. Why wasn’t I relaxed? I tried to force myself to loosen and enjoy the experience. But I was grating against the air.
When I got back to my Airbnb I snuggled under the duvet and opened my laptop. Rang Sion. Opened up Netflix. I sat and enjoyed doing nothing. I felt the tension ease. My body step away from the edge.
The next day I explored Verona.
I started at the Basilica di San Zeno Maggiore where Romeo and Juliet had married in secret. From there I followed the road to the Ponte Scaligero (Castel Vecchio Bridge), and, walking east, I passed the Arco dei Gavi and Verona Arena (a very well-preserved Roman amphitheatre).
I stopped at a restaurant and ordered a glass of red wine.
I’m in Italy, after all.
I noticed that the only other people participating in lunch time drinking were men in suits.
Business meetings perhaps.
I found a small takeaway shop called Bigoli selling wide cardboard cups of freshly made spaghetti with a topping of your choice. I chose tomato.
The pasta in Italy is unparalleled to anything I’ve ever eaten in the UK. It is so full of flavour. So wholesome.
I’ve often heard that in Italy, the pasta forms the main part of the dish, with the sauce being merely a smattering compared to the ladles we pour on in Britain.
But the sauce is the best bit! I’ve always thought.
Yes. The sauce is the best bit. But only when the pasta is that shit.
My first impression was… Busy. A small square behind a shop was filled with people desperately trying to take a photo of a tiny stone balcony jutting out from an otherwise unspectacular building. The shop itself was a cacophony of red, heart-shaped tat.
A bloke stood next to a statue of Juliet, cupping her breasts.
But behind the statue, beneath the balcony, was a wall of chewing gum.
Two metal gates were covered from top to bottom with padlocks. Where there was space, people had even stuck plasters on.
But the chewing gum.
People had gone so far as to stick it along the branches of a tree growing up the wall.
It was as though their desperation to be a part of something, to leave their mark, to not be forgotten, had completely overridden the desire to preserve and show respect for a place. To enjoy its beauty. To savour the moment.
People were so desperate to be a part of it, they’d ruined it.
The next day I spent under my duvet, writing. It was cold and windy outside. I wanted some down time. To cwtch up and be warm.
I never do this at home.
In fact, I’m categorically horrendous at it.
I get restless. Anxious. I become obsessed with the notion that I’m wasting time and that I must be doing something productive otherwise the whole day has become a complete disaster.
I felt it waiting outside the bedroom door. Waiting for me. Waiting for me to open the door and let that fear in.
But I didn’t.
I said no.
I relaxed. I pulled a blanket around my shoulders and the duvet up to close the gap. I sat in bed for a whole day writing, browsing the internet, reading. I did nothing in particular in the comfort and warmth of my own company and a good bed.
Verona gave me some much-needed respite. I saw the city. The peeling facades of the buildings. The balconies, rustic and worn. The architecture so distinct from that which I’d seen across the rest of Europe.
Instead of stretching myself our across a whole city, I used the time to pull myself back in.