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Long weekend: Verona & Venice

Relive the golden age of train travel aboard the Orient-Express, on a four-day tour of Europe, taking in the jewel of Northern Italy, Verona, and ending with the 'grand old lady', Venice.

Long weekend: Verona & Venice

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The weekend: The golden age of rail revisited

Requirements: A whirlwind journey through Europe with an emphasis on the finer things in life

Fits the bill: Orient-Express to Verona and Venice

Budget: £2,500

 

Prosecco?’ asks the steward. The offer was to become a familiar refrain on this four-day tour — and one I was more than willing to accept. From the moment I’m welcomed into the inner sanctum — the Orient-Express’ waiting room at London’s Victoria station (tucked away from the commuter chaos on platform 2) — I’m a convert to the joys of train travel: no security, a cup of tea (Prosecco to follow), no queuing or delays…

Our train, the British Pullman, is waiting to introduce us to her ‘ladies’ and ‘gents’ — the train carriages — and then take us down to Folkestone on the first leg of this special long weekend. Lovingly reassembled by wealthy trainspotters from the carriages of the iconic Brighton Belle and Golden Arrow of the 1920s and ’30s, the British Pullman exudes luxury in every detail, and each carriage has its own name and theme — and a fascinating story to tell: Phoenix was the favourite of the Queen Mother, Perseus was part of Winston Churchill’s funeral train. Lucille, our carriage, currently laid out like an elegant tea room was home to a rail enthusiast for 16 years until she was returned to the fold. Her distinctive marquetry of Grecian urns on green-dyed holly wood was made by master craftsman and designer Albert Dunn in the 1920s.

The Pullman’s inventor, George Mortimer Pullman, described the train as ‘Palaces on Wheels’ and the term still rings true, as a gourmet brunch of scrambled eggs and salmon is served with a dose of scenic British countryside — and the first taste of Prosecco, as part of a Bellini.

On arrival at Folkestone, a coach takes us through the Eurotunnel, the least glamorous leg of the journey, to the renowned wagon-lits (sleeper) that beckons — the art deco icon that is the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) at Calais Ville.

If the British Pullman was ‘Palaces on Wheels’, then this is the ‘King of Kings’ — as it was known in its heyday (although today it’s enjoying a much-lauded revival).

Stepping aboard, you’re instantly transported back to a golden age of travel, one where the romance and elegance of the Orient-Express served as a backdrop to Agatha Christie’s famous murder-mystery novel, featuring the moustachioed Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. Later, the barman, Walter Nisi, introduces the cocktail bearing Christie’s name and featuring 12 secret ingredients — one for each country the train travels through during the year.

“It was originally created for David Suchet when he travelled with us,” Walter explains. The actor — synonymous with Poirot, having played the role on TV for the past 23 years — is a popular passenger with VSOE staff.

Upon boarding, the handsome steward, Juan Paulo, escorts me to my cabin, Sleeping Car A, number 4. Initially, it seems pokey and cramped but once I’m unpacked it feels more than adequate — roomy even, with the most ingenious space-saving devices in play, including a hidden sink and a fold-down table, and intricate art deco fixtures and fittings.

The attention to detail on board is remarkable. At first, the wash basin in the shared toilets (each carriage has two: one at the front and back) flummoxes a few of us, as using it involves unlocking a clasp to fold the basin down — the water drains away as you refold it back to its original position. Ingenious.

Then there’s the dress code: smart-formal. Anxious discussions on what to wear are ongoing during our 31-hour VSOE experience. In short, the answer is: the dressier the better. Some of my fellow passengers sport their glitziest evening glad rags, others opt for a more muted, yet smart, approach; but all take the dress code seriously.

As the train meanders from London to Calais, then on to Paris and through Austria and Switzerland, the array of chocolate-box scenery morphs from cityscapes to rural and Alpine greenery, before we finally cross into Italy via the Brenner Pass — the lowest of the Alpine passes, bordering Austria.

Yet, magnificent though the views are, I have to remind myself to look outside, as the onboard experience is all-consuming. From the beautiful bar carriage to the three exquisitely decorated dining cars — I favour the ‘Côte d’Azur’, built in 1929 as a first-class Pullman and decorated by René Lalique with decadent, art nouveau flourishes.

Luckily, Juan Paulo warns us when we’re approaching the most scenic spots. The 35-minute stretch of track from Innsbruck to Brennero is billed as the most picturesque — lush mountainsides dotted with quaint churches and bridges, plus the chance to get a shot of the train as it snakes round a bend. Later, there’s a 6.30am wake-up call to ensure we don’t miss mist-shrouded Lake Zurich.

In fair Verona

Disembarking at Verona Porta Nuova railway station, the gateway to Northern Italy awaits. Resting on the serpentine River Adige, framed by verdant hills and orchards, the graceful city of Verona is often referred to as ‘little Rome’, due to its impressive historic buildings and key role in the days of the Roman Empire.

Pacing the city’s wide esplanades and courtly piazzas on a guided walking tour gives further insight into its appeal. Founded in the first century BC, Verona flourished under the rule of the Scaligeri family in the 13th and 14th centuries. The vicious feuds between the dominant families in this period was the basis for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a play that cemented Verona’s place on the tourism map.

Although Romeo and Juliet never existed in real life, and it’s highly unlikely the bard ever set eyes on Verona, popular tradition has located the ‘homes’ of the star-crossed lovers at two city-centre addresses. Sadly, ‘Romeo’s house’, a crenelated 13th-century building, has fallen into disrepair; the exterior disfigured by multicoloured graffiti. Casa di Giulietta (Juliet’s House), on the other hand, has a certain balcony to admire and a courtyard where young lovers can pay homage to a statue of the tragic lady or attach scribbled messages to loved ones.

On the downside, the lovebirds have gone some way to eclipsing Verona’s real-world charms — its culture, history, ambience and gastronomy. From the city’s lively heart, Piazza Erbe, and the Castelvecchio (Old Castle) with its fortified bridge to the beautiful Cathedral of Verona and San Zeno Church, this is a city with more than one love story to uncover. And then there are Veronese wines to savour, including Soave, Bardolino and Custoza, and a feast of pasta, lovingly prepared and exquisitely presented.

For many people, the highlight of a trip to Verona is a night of opera at the Arena di Verona, so that’s exactly what’s on our itinerary. Dating back to AD30, the ancient amphitheatre — seating 30,000 in its Roman heyday and now comfortably accommodating 20,000 — is the ultimate historic backdrop for the lavish musical productions. And whether you love opera or not, the atmosphere is truly intoxicating.

As dusk descends, a hush falls over the Arena and a performance of The Barber of Seville unfolds. With a stellar cast, outlandish costumes, imposing full-piece orchestra and crazy set-pieces — climaxing in a flurry of fireworks — Figaro’s aria has never looked or sounded so good.

The Grand old lady

If the Orient-Express offers a glimpse of British high society, stiff upper lip and all; Verona a taster of Italian style and elegance; then Venice represents an assault on the senses, engulfing us in its charisma and otherworldly presence.

Known as ‘the grand old lady’ or the ‘queen of the Adriatic’, this city diva may be past her prime but she can still justly claim to be one of the world’s most mesmerising beauties.

One minibus and water taxi transfer later, we’re ready to indulge in Venice’s finer charms, beginning with a swift tour of St Mark’s Square, then heading to the open-air markets of Rialto, the heartbeat of the city, to be introduced to a woman who epitomises Italian flair and grace like no other.

Enter Antonia Sautter of Atelier Venetia — dressmaker, designer and creator and organiser of the Ballo del Doge, one of the most prestigious balls of the Venice Carnival.

Exuding elegance and sharp Italian style in a crisp white suit, she tells me the inspiration for the event came around 20 years ago when, as the owner of a costume shop, she was approached by a BBC director and Monty Python’s Terry Jones, who were looking for someone to organise a ball for a film they were making, The Crusader.

“So I thought, why not,” says Antonia. “My friends became extras and I supplied all the costumes. The following year, my friends asked me to do it again. So I did. Now it’s the event — the Sultan of Oman comes every year.”
Not only does Antonia make the costumes, she also attends fittings for the likes of Juan Cotes and Vivienne Westwood — the latter of whom she cites as a friend. “I take care of everything — the lighting, the costumes, the choreography,” Antonia explains.

No ordinary ball, this is an artistic extravaganza — with a price tag to match (£1,500 a ticket, bookable via ticket specialists such as Liaisons Abroad).

Playing dress-up is expected of us too — wigs, masks, costumes — but the clock is ticking and lunch is a water taxi ride away at Locanda Cipriani in Torcello. Off the beaten track, the restaurant was opened in 1935 by Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Venice’s famous Harry’s Bar, and is still owned by the family.

His name resurfaces on a visit to Hotel Cipriani on Giudecca Island — a magnet for Hollywood A-listers since it opened in 1958. As our barman, the enigmatic Walter, prepares our Bellinis, he tells us that the peach juice and Prosecco cocktail that we kicked off our journey with was invented by Giuseppe, with whom he worked with for over 33 years.

It’s not the only cocktail associated with the Cipriani name, either. Walter tells us that after a special screening of his 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney returned to Hotel Cipriani and mixed together vodka, cranberry, lime, cucumber, ginger and brown sugar, christening the concoction the Buona Notte (Good night) in its honour.

“It was so popular that night we sold 100,” Walter chuckles. “We even had to specially open the kitchen.”

Evidently at ease in the presence of the stars, we learn his other celeb chums include two other members of the modern-day Rat Pack: Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

This glimpse into the private lives of the rich and famous, aperitif in hand, is a fitting way to end the weekend… Anyone for a Prosecco?

 
Perfect day — Venice
■ 10am: Breakfast overlooking Santa Maria della Salute.
■ 11.30am: Tour of St Mark’s Square.
■ 12.30pm: Lunch at Locanda Cipriano, Torcello.
■ 2pm: Shopping or a gallery if you can fit one in.
■ 5pm: Bellinis at Harry’s Bar.
■ 7pm: Dinner, then a stroll through St Mark’s Square.

Tradition: Wear your Sunday best aboard the Orient-Express (you’ll regret not playing dress-up). And make sure you buy a souvenir — branded teddy bears, bags or jewellery — at a price.

Must-do: Visit Antonia Sautter’s studio, Atelier Venetia, in Venice for a dress-fitting, great story-telling and insight into the incredible Carnival season.

ESSENTIALS

Verona & Venice

Getting there
Via British Pullman from London Victoria to Folkestone, then a coach to Calais, VSOE to Verona and Venice. www.orient-express.com
BMIbaby, British Airways, EasyJet, Jet2 and Monarch all fly from Venice to the UK. www.ba.com
Average flight time: 2h50m.

 

When to go
May, June and September all offer great weather as well as cultural events in Verona and Venice.

 

Places mentioned
Casa di Giulietta (Juliet’s House). Via Cappello, 23 Verona
Antonia Sautter. www.antoniasautter.it/en
Ballo del Doge. www.ilballodeldoge.com
Hotel Cipriani. www.hotelcipriani.com
Locanda Cipriani. www.locandacipriani.com

 

More info
Arena di Verona celebrates its 90th anniversary this year. Its opera season runs from 22 June-2 September, although performances are throughout the year. www.arena.it

 

How to do it
Kuoni offers four nights on a tailor-made trip, including one night aboard the VSOE from London to Verona on full-board basis, one night B&B at the Grand Hotel Verona, two nights B&B at the Westin Europa & Regina, Venice in a premium room and return flights from Venice to Heathrow with British Airways. From £2,516 per person based on two sharing. www.kuoni.co.uk

Liaisons Abroad offers opera tickets and bespoke arrangements for any stay in any European city, including Verona and Venice. Choose from personalised guided walking tours, a private visit to a Venetian costumier, opera and off-the-beaten-track restaurants. www.liaisonsabroad.com

 

Published in the May/June 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)