‘Buona notte, bella’, Alissio smiled, shyly. Picking up my empty limoncello shot glass, he opened the dishwasher. I looked at his deep, brown eyes and wished I could have got to know them better. Thanks Groupon Mini-Breaks, I blame you for my failed romance. Alissio, a drummer from Rome, working as a bartender here in Verona. How very cliché. The city, the food, the people. Verona is truly the city of love, and I was trapped.
I should note that I was visiting the city with my nan, who is age 69. This, however, does not mean the trip was any different to if I’d visited with a friend my own age. We shopped, we drank, we ate. We visited Dublin together last year, and it was a weekend of Prosecco-fuelled shopping trips and 2pm cocktails. A lot had changed in the year for us both, and though we still enjoyed our limoncello nightcaps, we were more conscious of making the most of every second of the trip.
I spent the first thirteen years of my life a vegetarian, living on pizza and pasta, so travelling to Italy for the first time felt a little like returning to my mother-land. Desperate to get a taste for authentic Italian food, we sought advice from the hotel receptionist, Francesco. He recommended a little restaurant in the centre of the city called Ristorante Greppia, and it didn’t disappoint. As we couldn’t decide what to have, the waiter gave us half of our top choices on one plate. Buttery pasta topped with truffle was a delicate accomplice to pumpkin and red wine risotto, washed down with a bottle of rosé. The waiters were impeccable. It felt like they made it their mission to help us taste their best dishes, and I never wanted to leave.
Lake Garda was an interesting experience, if not a failure. The lake is about 52km in length, and is surrounded by small towns. Verona is about twenty minutes from the two towns at the south of the lake, so we headed there eagerly. My nan had memories of a beautiful town called Sirmione and we became determined to find it. We travelled by train, which was a fantastic way to see the rustic Italian countryside. Wooden mills, dilapidated farmyards and picturesque cottages flew by. Our first stop was Peschiera del Garda. After a lot of walking in the direction of the town centre, I asked a restaurateur where the centre was. ‘You’re in it!’ He said. I asked him how we could get to Sirmione, to which he pointed down a little street and said we would be there in five minutes. This answer was proved questionable when I used my Google Maps, which told us it would take us more like five hours to walk there! Had it been a hot summers day, we might not have minded. However, it was only mid-March, and we couldn’t even see across the lake for low clouds.
Nevertheless, we proceeded. We had lunch on the side of the lake and pretended the day was going to plan. After admitting we could not spend another minute in Peschiera, we retreated to the train station and got a train to Santa Maria di Lugana, the next town. This town was actually even less successful than Peschiera. Though this town had the benefit of shops, it was not quite as pretty, and the weather was getting worse. After popping into numerous shops, we finally purchased two bus tickets to Sirmione, which by this point felt like tickets to the promised land. We sat at the bus stop for what felt like a millennium, and befriended a German couple with rather limited English. At long last, the bus came. We were off to Sirmione.
Sirmione sits on a peninsular about three miles long, and driving up it I was expecting big things. Getting off the bus, I wrapped my stiff leather jacket further around myself and glared at the clouds. It was getting colder. ‘This way’, my nan instructed, pointing towards a large archway over a moat. The main town of Sirmione sits on its own island. We headed straight to the nearest café as the cold was unbearable, and sat outside under an electric heater. I ordered a hot chocolate and was amazed when a cup of what appeared to be literally melted chocolate was placed in front of me. The rest of the town was pretty much deserted. Gift shops were closed, as were many restaurants. It appeared Sirmione is only in full action during the main summer months. I admit, it was a little difficult not to get frustrated at this, as our whole day had been spent searching for this place.
Frozen and moody, we returned to the hotel and took a shot of lemoncello each. Tonight would be better, we told ourselves as we plastered matching lipstick to our lemony lips. I googled restaurants and chose the one with the highest rating. Ristorante il Canacolo. A wave to Francesco and we were off.
The moment we walked through the door of Ristorante il Canacolo we knew we were in for a treat, a very expensive treat. A glass of Prosecco was thrust into our hands before we even sat down, let alone asked for one. Walking to our table gave us a sense of what we had to come. A chef in whites with a stereotypical, curly, white moustache stood in the centre of the restaurant thinly slicing an array of antipasti. An older waiter in a tux wheeled a tray of deluxe desserts under our noses.
We were shown to our table and the next five minutes was spent trying to keep up with the waiter reading out the menu for us. It was difficult to concentrate as large table of Italians was seated next to us. They appeared not to have ordered from the basic menu, but instead were being constantly supplied with aperitifs of cold meats and bread as they guzzled endless amounts of wine. The table was set for twelve people, however when we arrived there were only five seated. Throughout our meal we watched more arrive. What surprised me was that the seated people were already eating, whereas in England we would wait for the whole table to arrive before even ordering.
Eventually, I ordered a pine nut and artichoke pasta, and my nan a T-bone steak. Despite this meal being almost double the price of the one we had the night before, we were a little disappointed. The waiters prioritised the large table of Italians, and didn’t seem to care as much about the two British tourists. A totally different experience to the night before, where we had felt every waiter in the restaurant was there to serve our every whim.
Rest assured, the service did not stop us from drinking. I am a sweet rosé drinker, and am slowly trying to wean myself onto more sophisticated whites and reds. However, I asked the waiter for the sweetest wine they had, and was shocked (and admittedly, thrilled) when he returned with a healthy glass of dessert wine! I love dessert wine. It conjures up the happiest memories of my fourteen-year-old self and my best friend sneaking into my nans wine store between courses and downing a few mouthfuls of the stuff before returning, giggling, to the table. And now here I was, at twenty, in Italy getting drunk with the woman I used to hide my alcohol intake from!
Walking back from the restaurant was wonderful. We stumbled tipsily down the main high-street of Verona, giggling and ogling at the brightly lit store fronts of Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana. My wine-stained mind delighted in the stars above, my nan talked of wanting a cigarette. ‘We need an Italian dictionary!’ I declared, and strutted powerfully into the news agent. ‘Un dictionnaire, s’il vous plaît’ was met with confused head shaking by the two Italians behind the counter.
Heavy heads did not stop us enjoying our final day, especially as the sun had finally come out! Our first stop, stalling ourselves from shopping for as long as we could, was the Verona Arena, or amphitheatre. A view over the whole of the city was worth climbing the steps for. The views were delicious, and it was here I made up my mind that Italy was perfect. Disorganised streets were hidden by higgledy-piggledy rooftops of different tones of orange. Old Italian ladies hung their washing from their balconies. I wished to know what their greatest troubles in life were, and what made them happiest in this beautiful city. How could you find a problem in the world when you looked out your bedroom window at where blue sky meeting the boundless, snow-capped alps?
Thanks for reading X