In recognition of San Zeno, the city’s patron saint, Thursday was a local holiday in Verona.
With no school or work commitments, and finally allowed out beyond our immediate neighbourhood, we set off with a renewed sense of freedom for a day trip in the hills above Valpolicella, a renowned local wine-making region, second only to Chianti in its number of DOC designations.
As this was our first proper excursion since that frenetic overnight trip to Tuscany two and a half months ago, we were determined to get this right.
In normal circumstances, we would have travelled to the eastern shore of Lake Garda – to Bardolino, Lazise or Garda for lunch and a lake front passeggiata, but, anxious to avoid the flocks of people who I imagined were having the same idea and, after nearly three months confined to close quarters, keen to explore somewhere new, we set our sights on Breonio, a remote village in the most northerly part of the Verona region. At 850 metres above sea level, it is an ideal base for exploring the high Valpolicella area and the western ridges of Lessinia natural park.
Before we set off, a few words about San Zeno, in whose name we were enjoying this day of leisure. Born in the 4th century, it is thought that Zeno was a native of Mauretania (present day north Africa) and is said to have introduced countless African children to the joys of Catholicism. At some point he entered the monastery in Verona and was subsequently elected bishop of the city.
In religious iconography, Zeno is often represented with fishing rod or tackle. One day while fishing on the banks of the River Adige, Zeno saw a peasant crossing the river with a horse and cart. While crossing the river, the horses began to panic. Zeno, believing it to be the work of the devil, made the sign of the cross and the horses miraculously calmed to complete the crossing.
Zeno was responsible for building Verona’s first cathedral, situated on the site currently occupied by the present-day cathedral that bears his name, which dates to the early 9th century. His remains, which are to be found in the crypt of the cathedral, are the focal point of the annual Festa di San Zeno, five days of music, sport and local cuisine, one of many local cultural events cancelled this year.
The 40-minute drive from Verona to the village of Breonio took us west towards Parona and Arbizzano, then north through San Pietro in Cariano and Fumane, before climbing up towards Manune and Molina.
This is the heart of the Valpolicella wine producing region and I have never seen the vineyards looking so green, lush and verdant. The 2020 harvest could be one to savour! For those of you not familiar with the wines of the region, Valpolicella is home to several distinctive types of red wine, the most notable of which are the Valpolicella Classico or Superiore, Valpolicella Ripasso and Amarone. They are generally made from three grape varieties: Corvina Veronese, Rondinella and Molinara.
The basic Valpolicella (Classico or Superiore) is a light, fragrant table wine with distinctive cherry notes. The Classico is made from grapes grown in the original Valpolicella production zone, while the Superiore is aged at least one year and has an alcohol content of at least 12 percent.
Ripasso (which means “repassed”) is a relatively new addition to the market. To produce this wine, the pomace (the leftover mush after the grapes have been crushed) from the fermentation of recioto (the local dessert wine) and Amarone (see below) are added to a batch of basic Valpolicella wine for a period of extended maceration (infusion). This process boosts the alcohol level and increases the complexity, flavour and colour of the resultant wine. In the interests of research, I opened a bottle last night and can confirm that, in addition to the distinctive cherry flavour, there was also a strong note of vanilla.
The Amarone is the most prestigious wine produced in Valpolicella (see also Amarone: The King of Wines). Strong and full-bodied but velvety smooth, grapes grown for Amarone are the last to be harvested in Valpolicella. Once harvested, they are kept in special drying rooms for three or four months, during which time they shrivel like raisins. The resultant wine is then aged for upwards of five years in large oak barrels, producing a unique, complex dark wine. Perfect for a late-night autumnal supper with walnuts and parmesan cheese!
Leaving the sprawling vineyards below us, in less than an hour we were passing by the Antica Chiesa dei Santi Marziale e Giovanni in Breonio and parking at the Albergo Ristorante Breonio. I was not disappointed by my first impressions of the village. Peaceful and pretty, there were also clear signs that in normal times it would have been a hive of activity on a weekend like this. Not today though. We enjoyed a coffee in the hotel’s expansive courtyard before heading off in search of the starting point for our days hike.
It didn’t take us too long to find the sign post that marked the beginning of footpath that we would follow (route 240). Almost immediately we found ourselves engaged in an exhilarating climb to Monte Crocetta, a cross overlooking the village that was erected in 1933 to celebrate the Catholic jubilee of that year. At 955 metres above sea level, the views to Lake Garda and beyond were breathtaking. We then followed a high ridge that passed some caves that had formed part of a World War I trench complex.
With one or two detours along the way and stopping for picnic lunch and various snack breaks, we encountered caves, forests, ridges, pastures, fields of wildflowers, forestry tracks, stunning views and abundant bird and insect life. It was an ideal route for the all the family. Even better, the warm welcome and cold beer when we eventually arrived back at the hotel bar where we’d parked the car. I've downed a few beers in my time, but that one will take some beating!
With lockdown over we are determined to get out and explore more. In Breonio we found the perfect starting place. Cheers!
May is my favourite time of year (I’m also a big fan of Christmas, but that’s another story).
At this time of year the weather in Verona is just about perfect (although last night’s downpour was a timely reminder that there is also the occasional washout).
Generally warm, dry and sunny, but before the stifling heat of the summer arrives, by mid-afternoon the temperature approaches a very pleasant 25/26 degrees.
The shrubs, trees and grass are lush and green, and the local wildlife in full song. Our annual battle with the neighbourhood ant colony has reached its peak. I’m winning this year, but trying to prevent ape (bees) and vespe (wasps) from nesting in our air-conditioning units is a daily battle of wit and courage. Our real nemesis, the zanzare, have yet to arrive in full force.
Within a few weeks the temperature will have risen by ten degrees or more and the landscape will soon become scorched and arid. In the height of the summer the mountains, the beach or the lake are the best places to escape the oppressive heat of the city.
But for now, the weather is ideal. The Italians have finally made the transition to short sleeves (although you’ll still see, even now, the occasional bubble jacket and scarf).
In Italy, as elsewhere, May is blessed with innumerable holidays and long weekends (or ponte as the Italians prefer to call them). May Day, Festa della Mamma and Pentecoste all fall in this hallowed month. Between 25 April (when Italy celebrates liberazione and 2 June (Festa della Repubblica), there’s barely a full-working week to contend with.
Add to the equation the various community events and festivals that take place throughout the month, including the Festa della Comunità in our neighbouring village and the three-day celebration of San Zeno, the city’s patron saint, as well as various wine festivals, which include the legendary Magnalonga della Valpolicella (a 10km wine-guzzling extravaganza), and you can understand my affection for this time of year.
May also marks the climax of the domestic football season, and Hellas Verona are invariably involved in some nail-biting promotion or relegation battle. Some of the most memorable games I’ve witnessed in the past 9 years have taken place in May: securing promotion to Serie A against Empoli after an 11 year absence in 2013; Luca Toni’s equaliser against Juve a year later (his 20th goal of a remarkable first season back in A); and the bittersweet victory against Juve 2 years later, Luca Toni’s last game, with relegation already confirmed; and finally, last season’s incredible play offs, which culminated in promotion back to Serie A.
And to top of what is always a dramatic month, my birthday happens to fall on the penultimate day of the month!
But of course, this May is quite unlike any other I’ve spent in Verona. All public events have been cancelled, the concept of the working week is a distant memory and football still seems a long way off.
I’ll still be celebrating my birthday though! I might even have a party this year!
As the lockdown restrictions eased slightly this week, we’ve enjoyed our first tentative tastes of freedom in over 50 days.
Earlier in the week we took the kids out for a walk and cycle around our immediate neighbourhood. There was a semblance of normality. The bakery was open and we picked up a couple of our favourite pizzette rosse. People were coming and going and there was a degree of activity that would have seemed unthinkable just a week or two ago.
But if you looked carefully, all was not quite as it seemed. Less traffic for sure. The parks were closed. Bars and restaurants remained shuttered, while pedestrians assiduously kept a strict distance and everyone was wearing mask.
On Friday, the May Day public holiday, we prepared a flask of coffee and a couple of sandwiches and headed out for the short but exhilarating hike up to the hilltop cross that overlooks the village of Avesa. Even our youngest, who would normally have complained about such exertion, bounded up with a carefree spring in his step.
Arriving at the cross, we veered west, taking the narrow footpath that winds its way down towards the nearby village of Quinzano. Here we would normally stop for a coffee or something stronger, but with nothing open we took the narrow road upwards towards the Eremo di San Rocchetto - the hermitage of Saint Roche (or St Rollox if you’re from Glasgow), known locally as San Rocco. The hill on which the hermitage stands was once known as monte Calvario, because it reminded the pilgrims who had returned from the Holy Land of Mount Calvary, the site of the crucifixion.
Following the death of his parents, the young Rocco arrived in Italy during a plague epidemic (perhaps between 1347-49). He tended the sick in the public hospitals at Acquapendente, Cesena, Rimini, Novara and Rome, where he is said to have performed many miraculous cures, before succumbing to the disease himself and being forced to retreat in isolation into the forest.
Somehow Rocco survived and his status as a pilgrim who survived the plague is paramount in his iconography. The cult of San Rocco gained further momentum during the bubonic plague that passed through northern Italy in 1477–79. Following his canonisation, San Rocco’s remains were transferred to Venice, where they remain to this day at the Church of San Rocco. Near the church is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, noted for its numerous Tintoretto paintings, it was founded in the 15th century as a confraternity to assist the citizens in time of plague.
As we make our way up the narrow road that leads to the hermitage (via Crucis), we notice a series of roadside reliefs carved in stone that depict Christ on the day of his crucifixion. Locating these shrines, sometimes shrouded in vegetation, provides a useful stimulus to the younger members of our party as the path steepens. Although traditionally there are 14 stations of the cross, we find only seven before we emerge at the pretty hilltop hermitage.
Amongst other things San Rocco is the patron saint of dogs, invalids, falsely accused people and bachelors. If, like me, you don’t fall into any of those categories, you can simply enjoy the peace and tranquillity as you look down on the city below.
According to my records, today is day 50 of the lockdown.
Reflecting on 50 days of social isolation, it all just seems so surreal.
While northern Italy has been at the epicentre of the global crisis, here in Verona we've been lucky to avoid the worst of the impact. Ours has been a challenge of surviving the lockdown, rather than confronting the more pernicious threat posed by the virus itself.
So these 50 days have a certain dream-like quality to them. In the weeks, months and years to come, I'm sure I’ll look back on these days and question whether they even actually happened!
In Italy, thoughts have now turned to the next phase of dealing with the crisis, what Prime Minister Conte has described as learning to live with the virus, rather than an absolute return to normality.
Normality or not, the mood in Verona has once again shifted. The fear of the harm the virus might wreak has subsided. There is a cautious optimism that the worst is over, and an overwhelming urge to move on.
Three factors have converged to shape this shifting mood.
The first is the marked and consistent downward trend in the covid-related data. Yesterday (26 April), Italy recorded its lowest daily death toll in six weeks (just 260 deaths), although it has snuck up again today to 333. The numbers (contagions, hospital admissions and deaths) are now all moving in a downward direction.
The second factor has been mounting speculation about the terms of the second phase of the lockdown. The current decree expires on 3 May and there has been detailed conjecture about what the next phase of the lockdown might look like.
The third factor is what behavioural scientists might call behavioural fatigue. Put simply, people have now had enough of the strict lockdown. A few weeks ago, the streets were deserted. Those solitary few who ventured out for a jog or cycle where quickly slapped down.
In Verona that level of absolute compliance has now subsided. Encouraged by the data and the revised regulations regarding social distancing, masks and movements outside your house, people are once again venturing out.
With parks and other public spaces still closed and few cars on the roads, families have reclaimed our street, a quiet residential cul-de-sac, as safe place to get some fresh air and play. Elderly couples take their early evening passeggiata along the middle of the road. A girl scoots up and down on her scooter. Her brother shows off his ball skills. Everyone seems to have taken up jogging!
A seismic shift in working patterns and traffic flows has given us a tantalising glimpse of a greener and more sustainable future that may be possible after lockdown.
On Sunday evening we dispatched the kids to bed and gathered around the laptop to watch a rerun of Prime Minister Conte’s address to the nation in which he explained what phase two of the lockdown would look like. Throughout the crisis he’s struck a reassuring, authoritative and forthright tone. He speaks plainly, taking personal responsibility for the actions of his government. Italy is fortunate to have him, particularly when you consider those lurking in the shadows.
From 4 May a gradual easing of the lockdown measures will begin. Sceptics have observed that little will actually change, but manufacturing, construction and wholesale will recommence, outdoor exercise will be permitted beyond the vicinity of your home, and parks and public gardens will reopen.
But it will still be necessary to carry the self-certification document when leaving the house and children’s play areas will remain closed. Kids will still not be allowed to play together in public places and confirmation too that schools would remain closed until September. That means six months without school! I’ve tried not to dwell too much on that sobering prospect!
Travelling outside your region (in our case the region of Veneto) is also still not permitted. For us that means trips to our family in Corfino will remain off limits. We had been planning a 90th birthday party in May, but that will have to wait.
From 18 May there will be a further easing. Shops will be allowed to reopen, as well as museums, exhibitions and libraries. Football teams will be allowed to train together, somehow paving the way for the conclusion of the Serie A season. Quite how this is to be achieved is still a matter of some conjecture, but games will certainly be played behind closed doors.
All going well, bars, restaurants, hairdressers and beauty salons will reopen on 1 June, paving the way for a summer approaching some semblance of normality.
In the meantime, the government continues to recommend remote working. Masks must be worn in public places and anyone exhibiting symptoms (including a temperature above 37.5 degrees) must self-quarantine and inform their doctor, while the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions are advised not to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary.
As we approach this first stage of liberation, I have to confess to something resembling Stockholm syndrome. I’ve come to terms with my confinement and, rather strangely, I’m somewhat ambivalent about getting out!
I’ve grown fond of my morning coffee on the balcony, my days spent with the kids, my evening workout in the garage, my solitary after-dinner can of beer. I don’t think I’m ready yet for work or bars, the gym or the pub!
Just as well there’s another month to prepare myself!
Anger, frustration, confusion, doubt, disbelief, despair.
And I’ve not even had my morning coffee yet!
Well, we’re now 40 days into the lockdown [or at least we were on Friday when I began writing this blog], and I guess it’s normal that a crisis of this natures provokes such an intense emotional response.
But how do we process these deep emotions without the usual outlets of football, the pub or a long run?
Writing, reading, exercise and music all provide some relief from the tension/boredom/frustration of the lockdown.
Alcohol also helps, but rarely before breakfast.
For me, writing has been cathartic. No matter how confused or angry or worried I’ve been, I’ve always felt better after committing my thoughts to paper.
Exercise is another escape. I lock myself in our subterranean garage for an hour each evening. Nothing more illicit than the early evening news and a few bench presses, but being out of the house, away from the kids and in my own space for an hour or so is liberating. I invariably return to the lockdown in better humour than I left.
Since Tuesday, when there was a slight relaxation of the rules (certain shops have now re-opened and taking exercise within a 200 metre radius of your house is now permitted as long as you wear gloves and a mask), I’ve also taken to running up and down our street every other day. Fifteen 3-minute laps to rack up around 5 kilometres.
Others in our neighbourhood have also begun to enjoy these first tentative steps of freedom beyond the confines of their homes and we discreetly acknowledge each other as we pass from a safe distance.
Reading is another escape. For the first 30 days of the lockdown I could barely lift a book. The sustained concentration required to switch off from the minute by minute evolution of the crisis was beyond me. Besides, with two kids to feed, entertain and educate, finding a moment to pick up a book was never easy.
But in the last week or so, I’ve started to read again. I turned to a book that has inspired me in the past. Stephen E. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers tells the story of a company of airborne light infantry established in the summer of 1942 at the height of the Second World War. The company was deployed in France, Holland, Belgium and Germany, before taking Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at Berchstesgaden.
Band of Brothers underlines the importance of training, preparation, equipment and, above all, leadership. Easy Company was blessed with outstanding NCOs and a company commander who led from the front.
Reflecting on the hardships that generation endured and the sacrifices they made puts our own experience into some perspective.
A final outlet during these challenging 40 days has been music. In the early days of the lockdown, we let our hair down with some extravagant guitar riffs and in-house shows. That soon gave way to a more melancholic air, as I introduced the kids to the joys of Simon and Garfunkel, the Verve and James Taylor (they'll thank me for it one day).
More recently I’ve been revisiting some early Oasis, inspired by the Listen Up podcast, published last year to mark the 25th anniversary of the release of Definitely Maybe. Although it’s by no means my favourite album, it is one that, more than any other, defines my youth.
Perhaps it’s that transcendence back to those days of youthful freedom, excess and discovery that is so comforting in these strange days of lockdown?
Anyway, next week I’m gonna dust down my guitar. It’s never too late to be a rock star!
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