Side Trip: Verona in a Flash


I THOUGHT I WAS RACING THROUGH EUROPE until I met a young California couple in Milan’s central train station, consulting their Eurail map. They are doing nine countries in three weeks. By that standard, my trip — three countries in four weeks — is leisurely. Yet my three-and-a-half hours in Verona, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its medieval architecture, was ridiculously inadequate.

I had braved the Metro for the first time, taking it four stops from the Duomo station near my hotel to Milano Centrale, and found it very civilized. Not crowded, well-marked, 1.5 euro/ride. My intention was to take an 11:35 train to Verona, but I needed a reservation. I took a number (#741) and waited to be called to one of a dozen windows. They were up to #687 when I got there about 10:45, and the line wasn’t moving fast. At 11:38 I had my reservations — on the 12:05 to Verona, with a return to Milan later (but not late enough) the same day.


When I got off at Verona after an hour-and-a-half in first-class comfort, I couldn’t spot a tourist information stand or a billboard with a map on it or anything. So I approached a limo driver who was holding a placard outside the station. “Scusi, signore, dove il centro?”  I think I fooled him with my perfect accent. He gave me some rapid-fire directions accompanied, fortunately, by clear hand gestures. After 10 minutes of walking along a busy boulevard, I came to an arched gate, above, clearly the place where the old city began. And just beyond it, yet another Roman arena, huge and so intact it’s used for a summer opera festival. (At this point, I’m blasé about Roman arenas.)

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Verona is a very pretty town,  After an earthquake in the 12th century, the city was rebuilt in Romanesque style. Much of that, especially church architecture, remains. The pink and yellow buildings, with peaked windows, turrets, towers, and balconies, reminded me somewhat of Venice, less than two hours away.


I joined the throngs of visitors dodging each other’s cameras. With limited time and zero advance prep, all I could do was walk, and look, and eat.

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I had lunch outdoors in Piazza Erbe, below — a cold seafood salad followed by the best spinach tortellini in memory.


Then I retraced my steps, more or less, to the station, and tore myself away from Verona, having had no more than the merest glimpse of a potentially enthralling place.

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¡Hola Madrid!


THIS IS GOING TO BE HARD. Not the traveling-alone part. And certainly not the drinking vermouth part. The no-shopping part (of which more later).

I left New York yesterday in yet another snowstorm and arrived today in a city where the sky is blue and the sun is casting long sharp shadows. I’ve been to Madrid once before and don’t know it at all well. When I was here five years ago, I walked elegant boulevards and visited major museums. In the few hours I had today, before setting off tomorrow on my monthlong Mediterranean Eurail trip, I wanted to see what was there was to see on some of Madrid’s old backstreets.


I took a bus from the airport to Madrid’s Atocha railroad station, above, which will be the launch point for my journey tomorrow. As long as I was there, I had my Eurailpass “activated” at a ticket window, which consisted of a stamp and took five minutes. Atocha’s original section has been transformed into an indoor tropical garden; what an excellent re-use for a cavernous skylit space (I believe the state-of-the-art business end of the station is where I’ll leave from tomorrow).


Exiting the station, above, I checked in to my hotel, the NH Madrid Nacional, practically across the street. It’s a business hotel, part of a large European chain. Its exterior (seen below at night, when I returned from my perambulations four miles and five hours later) is as beautiful as its guest rooms are bland and soulless. But convenience is what I was after for my first night. The lobby, below, is where I’ll have my morning coffee.


This afternoon I made a circuit, basically, of the neighborhood known as Cortes, central and very old, walking up Calle Huertas to the 17th century Plaza Mayor, heart of the city, and back along San Jeronimo, weaving in and out of labyrinthine streets, some pedestrianized. I saw tapas bars old and new, lots of old-school stores (upholstery, shoes, hats, fabrics), polished elegance and graffiti, the stylish and the homeless.






Here’s where I popped in for a break — a glass of sweet vermouth and the best olives ever (sorry, Sahadi) at Casa Alberto, two photos below, serving since 1827 from an onyx bar in the house where Cervantes wrote Don Quixote two centuries earlier.


Below, a historic patisserie on San Geronimo.


Eventually wended my way back toward Plaza Emperador Carlos V, around which cluster my hotel, the train station, and the Museo Nacional de Arte Reina Sofia, which I had missed last time around. It was by then 7PM and admission (normally 8 euros) was free. I headed for the permanent collection and saw Picasso’s Guernica, which used to live at MoMA in New York, and rooms full of studies and sketches illuminating the great work. I saw more Miro in one place than ever before, and spent a long time studying a large-scale model of Josep Lluis Sert’s 1937 Spanish pavilion for the Barcelona World Expo.

Had a catch-as-catch-can dinner (a potato omelette and a glass of wine) sitting at the bar in the museum’s cafe. Below, a Lichtenstein sculpture in the Reina Sofia plaza.


Now about the shopping. I’m already feeling I packed too much. My suitcase, below, weighed 24 pounds when I left New York, and a backpack probably another 20-25. They’re both crammed. Yet look at those espadrilles, in an infinite selection of colors (10 euros; could that be because they’re basically disposable?)

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I was sorely tempted, and this is only Day 1.


Post-Charlie Paris, Travel Plans for March


PARIS IS STILL PARIS, as these atmospheric photos, taken last weekend by my cousin Susan, show. She reported the streets were ‘normale,’ with plenty of shoppers (the semi-annual sales are on) and heavier police presence in the Marais.

My month-long, late-winter European sojourn is on, and I’m in trip-planning mode once again. I’m flying into Madrid, heading south from there to visit friends who live in the mountains near Malaga, then riding the rails toward the South of France and eventually into Italy, ending up in Naples and the Amalfi Coast. (Paris is not part of this trip, by the way; I’m hoping for warmth and sunshine.)

When I got realistic and started thinking about timing, I cut out ‘detours’ like San Sebastian, Lyon and Switzerland, and will more or less hug the Mediterranean coast, so I can spend more time in fewer places. Still, it will be a whirlwind. I’m aiming for at least two nights (Cordoba), sometimes three (Arles, Nice) or four (Milan, with side trips), at each stop. I’m making a few key reservations, mostly at modest but hopefully charming hotels, hostels and B&Bs. My budget for accommodations is $100/night, but I’m finding there’s plenty available and in many cases, I won’t even have to spend that much.

Working on the logistics, consulting schedules, figuring out how to hop from one place to another in half-day, three- or four-hour train increments. Overnight trains are out. I have enough trouble sleeping well in a bed, and I want to see the scenery I’m passing through — at close to 200mph, I’m afraid. The European rail system is largely high-speed trains now, though I’ll take local trains when possible.

Your encouraging input on my previous post and suggestions for places to go and see are much appreciated. So let us continue. I’ve been to Barcelona and Valencia; this trip will mostly be about seeing places I have NOT been. I’m considering spending time in Zaragoza and/or Giona. Anyone been to either of those?

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Photos: Susan Rosenthal