Italy is one of the world's great travel destinations. No matter how many times you visit the country, it never gets old, and always invigorates the senses, leaving you wanting more.
Verona and Venice are two of the country's greatest cities. If you want superb food, paired with unforgettable sights and architecture, they tick those boxes. And then some.
I decided to visit them by car on a road trip that took me across Northern Italy, through Verona and Venice, down to Trieste, then across the border into Slovenia.
Verona is a very handy two-hour, 30-minute flight from Dublin, and with Hertz now offering a service where you can be collected at the arrivals terminal, you can be in the city centre three hours after leaving Dublin Airport.
Just inside Verona's third-century Roman city gates you find the Hotel Marco Polo, which is essentially a five-minute walk from the city centre. The exterior of the Marco Polo is old grandeur, but inside sharp lines, and white as the dominant colour, give the hotel a modern, minimalist feel.
Strolling down from the Marco Polo to the city the roads are lined with high-end clothing and furniture stores, and you most certainly get the feeling that you're in Italy - it's all good design and a uniquely Italian sense of style.
Before long one reaches the Piazza Bra, a main square, which is lined with stalls selling meats, cheeses and other foodstuffs. As one strolls by these various stands, the Anfiteatro Arena looms up ahead, much like a sports stadium in modern cities.
Lights splash against the stone walls in the evening, highlighting every detail of the amphitheatre's architecture. In summer, the venue is used for opera events.
From there the city fans out, with attractions around almost every corner. It's a city for walking, where you can amble along and stumble across interesting shops and places to eat.
The highlights are the Casa Capuleti and balcony, a shrine to the fictional Juliet from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It's one of those attractions labelled as a must-see and scores of tourists surround it like bees to honey.
Casa Capuleti is located adjacent to the Piazza delle Erbe, another beautiful, open square, which is lined with cafés serving up coffees, wine and liquors to suitably beautiful looking Italians in well-cut suits and dresses. It's just the sort of scene you expect to see when walking through an Italian city.
Turn a corner at the end of this piazza and you find the church of Saint Anastasia, a stunning, Gothic-style church. It almost upstages the nearby Verona Duomo (cathedral), which is the city's finest example of Romanesque architecture. The peace in the Duomo descends on you as soon as you enter, and the smell of incense touches your nostrils.
From there it's also worth strolling over the Ponte Pietra bridge and looking downriver at the San Stefano church; it's impossibly beautiful and even the most hardened cynic will love it.
I had just the one night in Verona, so the choice of where to eat was a tricky one. In the end I went for La Greppia, slap-bang in the centre of town. Why? Animal lovers will hate this, but because of the house specialty: horse stew. It's certainly not for everyone, but the dish is delicious and has a unique venison-like taste and is served alongside polenta. It's a traditional peasant dish of the Veneto region.
For me, it was on to Venice the next day, hitting the autostrada again, as the road veered east and past the snow-capped Alps to the north. It's a beautiful drive, watching kilometres of mountains pass by, with agricultural land below the peaks.
As one nears Venice the setting changes to industry. The factories that line the roads highlight the importance of industry to the Veneto region, which became an economic powerhouse in the 1960s and 70s.
To get to Venice itself, the road leads onto a wide bridge that spans the lagoon and connects with the main island. There is a car park just across that bridge where you can leave your car before making your way by foot across the foot bridge (Ponte della Costituzione), which leads past the train station.
Accommodation options in the city are many and the prices are all quite high. The three-star Locanda di Orsaria strikes a good balance. It's fairly priced – for Venice – and also has tastefully decorated rooms, which give a nod to more elaborate Venetian architecture while also modernising that look somewhat. Also, the rooms at the back of the building have fantastic views across a green space and the crumbling grandeur of the neighbouring building exteriors.
Locanda di Orsaria is also perfectly located on the Grand Canal, which snakes its way through the heart of the city, with bridges crossing the various other canals that lead off the flow of the main waterway.
Like Verona, this city is one for strolling. As you make your way past those canals and bridges, all lined with majestic Venetian architecture, you just can't help but be impressed. The city is beautiful beyond words.
Venice is rammed with tourists along the main streets and while I fully expected that to bother me, because it's just such a jaw-dropping city, you don't mind that it has to be shared.
Besides, the surprising thing for me was that once you make your way off the main streets, the back streets are surprisingly quiet, especially at night. You can have piazzas, bars and church exteriors all to yourself.
Forty minutes' walk along the Grand Canal and you reach the crown jewel – the Piazza San Marco (St Mark's Square). It opens up ahead of you as you exit a narrow street, lined on four sides by ornate Venetian architecture, leaving you in no doubt that you are in one of the most stunning man-made places on earth.
The Palazzo Ducale (the main residence of the supreme authority of the former Republic of Venice), Biblioteca Marciana (the National Library of St Mark's) and Museo Correr (civic art and history museum) all line the square, enticing you inside.
For me, however, just walking past the exteriors, taking in the view out across the sea to the neighbouring islands, is the highlight. You can also walk down to the public gardens, the Giardini Reali. There you can indulge in some quiet relaxation and look back down some of the canals as they prepare to join the sea. After that, make your way to the waterfront again to look out and across at the Santa Maria della Salute church nestled on the other side of the Grand Canal's waters. It's as picturesque and perfect as it sounds.
When you've had your fill of sightseeing, a superb central restaurant is Trattoria alla Madonna, located right beside the iconic Rialto Bridge. Once inside, the restaurant's homely feel takes over. It's not silver service, more traditional Italian food with friendly, efficient service. The cured meats, seafood and steak are all excellent. With some Valpolicella, this is the perfect place to recall the sights seen in the city that day.
Next up for me was a trip south-east across the border to Slovenia, more of which anon.
How To Get There
Aer Lingus flies direct to Verona from Dublin. Ryanair flies to Dublin from Treviso, a short drive from Venice.
Hertz offers car rental at Verona Airport. Its Gold Plus Rewards scheme is the one to go for. Hertz will have the car waiting for you at the arrivals terminal, as well as a host of other benefits: https://www.hertz.ie/rentacar/member/enrollment
Where To Stay
Hotel Marco Polo, Verona: http://www.hotelmarcopoloverona.it/en
La Locanda di Orsaria, Venice: http://www.locandaorsaria.com
Where To Eat
La Greppia, Verona: http://www.ristorantegreppia.com
Trattoria alla Madonna, Venice: http://www.ristoranteallamadonna.com
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