32nd Birthday in Verona, or “How many Italians can we get to sing to you?”

or, “How many liquids can we drink in one day?”

Midnight. February 1, 2014. All of a sudden, the lights dimmed, and a chorus of “Tanti Auguri” started, led by Paolo, our exuberant bartender at Osteria del Bugiardo. With rousing operatic style, Paolo received cheers from the whole bar as I blew out the candle in my little birthday biscuit. (Many thanks to Alan for orchestrating this whole little surprise.) A group of handsome Italian men, celebrating their friend’s birthday, invited us to join their group and we proceeded to down a few more glasses of bubbly before shutting down the bar. Not a bad way to start my birthday. 🙂

The next morning, Alan and I decided to see the main tourist sights in Verona before our dinner reservation. First it was off to Juliet’s House, where we showed the lady herself a little affection all in the name of good luck in love. 😉

After another wander through town and some coffee and juice at Caffe e Parole, it was off to the Arena, Verona’s Roman amphitheater.  We climbed to the top to take in the views of the city and out to the mountains (pretty impressive on a broken toe, I may add). The walkways beneath the stadium steps were spectacular as well and made for a good photo shoot.  Alan and I agreed we would love to come back in the summer when the Arena hosts Verona’s Opera Festival. What a fantastic place to hear some classical music!

Then it was on to the Castelvecchio. While we found the compulsory museum a bit dry, we loved roaming the ramparts. We were two of only about four people on the walkways on that cold February day.  After a scenic stint on the Castelvecchio Bridge, it was off to warm up and forage for some snacks and drinks. We walked back along the river and ended up in the Terrazza al Ponte, a bar and café we spied previously from the Ponte Pietra because of its cute terrace (so not just a clever name). The mist and the rollicking river made the terrace a delight, but it was too cold to stay out for long, so we warmed up inside with some wine and a caprese salad snack.  It was here that we met another group of lovely Italian men (after we noticed them taking tequila shots at 3pm) who bought us a drink and proceeded to sing “Happy Birthday” a couple more times. Our little break turned into over four hours of antics, and we had to tear ourselves away for dinner at Enoteca Cangrande.

I initially wanted to do the bespoke tasting  I read about, but the regular menu looked so good we decided just to order off that. The kindly staff presented us with a gnochetti dish on the house, then it was ravioli with truffles for me and we split beef braised in red wine with polenta.  Enoteca Cangrande gave us a luxurious experience with plenty of time for energized people to chat during courses which nearly turned into nap time for us.  Here’s the thing: You really do need a siesta when eating and drinking your way through Italy. It exists for a reason. Instead of resting, we were making new friends over several glasses of prosecco, which means we hit the wall at dinner.We couldn’t even make it to dessert! (A fact which I’m still a bit sad about, really.)

After a blissful sleep at the fabulous Hotel Milano, only Caffe e Parole and Osteria del Bugiardo were on the agenda before our evening flight. Back at the wine bar, we walked in to a warm welcome like we were old friends. We settled into our regular place at the bar, had a few more glasses of Vigliacco, some charcuterie and bruschetta and sampled the beef meatballs with polenta just to fuel us for the flight.

I realize as I write this that food and wine (and antics) feature more than the Verona sights, but isn’t that what a good birthday weekend is all about?  How it’s taken me 32 years to have a birthday in Italy when I am, if nothing else, an Italophile at heart, I will never know. I think this may need to become an annual tradition.

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© Jennifer Konopasek and GoodTravelerKarma, 2014.

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In fair Verona where we lay our scene…

In Mr. Massart’s 9th grade English class, we had to memorize the prologue to “Romeo and Juliet.” Turns out, 18 years later after a couple of glasses of wine, I can still recite about half of it. Then again, maybe I was just inspired by Verona. 🙂

My fellow London-based American world traveler and friend Alan and I took a painfully early flight from London to squeeze the most out of our weekend. We arrived in Verona, wandered through the huge Piazza Bra, the most open piazza I’ve seen outside of Rome, and not long after went to forage for pizza.  Juliet could wait.

Our search took us to Pizzeria Du de Cope in a small galleria off of the main shopping street Via Mazzini. After munching on delicious brick oven pizza with that superb crispy-outside, chewy inside dough and a couple of glasses of Valpolicella, we were off to orient ourselves with this little town.

The great thing about visiting Italy in the winter is that the other tourists are scarce. As we wandered the Via Mazzini to the main Piazza Erbe, we were partaking in passeggiata with all of the locals, which, for me, an elementary Italian student, is a feast for the ears.  We rambled to the river and then over to find a coffee shop and a gelateria. Sadly, gelato is not a big seller in January so the recommended Gelateria Ponte Pietra was closed, but we did find the warm and comfortable Caffe e Parole. This quickly became my favorite spot in Verona with exquisite creamy cappuccinos, fresh spun vegetable juice concoctions and pastries to die for. My favorite were the little “frittelle” doughnuts filled with cream.

Buzzing a bit on good Italian espresso, we continued to wander the town, getting our bearings and planning our tourist adventures for the next day. We wanted a little apertivo before heading to concierge recommended restaurant for dinner and as we wandered the Corso Porta Borsari, we found a great wine bar, Osteria del Bugiardo. It was a bit quiet around 4pm on a Friday, so we sidled up to the bar, ordered some 2.50 Euro glasses of Valpolicella classic and soaked up the scene. This is clearly a local favorite, but being in a tourist area, the staff is welcoming, English-speaking and friendly.  The osteria got increasingly busy as we sat there while the town got off of work and got ready to party. While we sipped the house red, everyone around us was drinking a sparkling rose. It was obvious that we needed to try this, and after one glass of the lovely Vigliacco we were hooked. We dragged ourselves away to dinner, but knew we would be coming back later.

And return we did. The clientele was notably younger and clearly starting the weekend right. We squeezed into a tiny corner near a group of attractive Italian guys celebrating a birthday. They were drinking the bubbly first but then changed to a beautifully decanted red. And this is why I love Italians. A birthday party in London or New York would likely involve a teetering tray of Jager Bombs. In Verona? A bottle of fine vintage.

The shots came later. But more on that shortly. 🙂

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© Jennifer Konopasek and GoodTravelerKarma, 2014.