“Where are you going?” asked the waiter in Naples. A lover of the flavours of the south and Sicily, I was uncertain about moving to the north, where my partner had a new job.
“Verona,” I said, “What’s it like?” The waiter’s contempt was immediate and magnificent. “Verona,” he grimaced, with relish, “Verona bruta!”
Verona is cruel.
Every town in Italy has a terrible reputation, according to other towns. The Veronese are held to be cold, illiberal and snobbish. We found them warm, generous and kind. They like people to look smart because scruffs are bad for business. The city sits at the foot of the Brenner Pass, leading to Northern Europe, and on the main road between Milan, Venice and the Balkans. The Veronese have been traders forever. We smartened up.
The international school — where we taught the children of the new mercantile elite — provided a flat for us, just five minutes from Piazza Bra and the Arena, which has been in continuous use for a millennium. Every night of the opera season, crowds in finery hurried under our windows. With €40 and wine decanted into a plastic bottle, you perch on the Arena’s ancient stone and join a thousand years of spectacle.
Tourist Verona is delightful: in the neck of a meander in the Adige River, which runs cold green with snowmelt, its churches, piazzas, restaurants and alleys are beguiling. But there is another side to the city. In one bar, portraits of Mussolini are displayed without irony. Three customers hunch under the slightly frightening gaze of the owner, a coolly charming fascist. Verona’s Lido, a huge complex, where we swam day after day, was once the biggest pool in the country. The Fascists decided such a large expanse of happy people whiffed of communism, so now there are four smaller pools. A refugee from Libya said that Verona was held by his peers to be the worst place to be billetted in all Italy, but a local woman took him in, employed him, and helped him get his papers.
There is a deep peace to the place, too. The inventor of the first barbiturate named it Veronal because he had never been anywhere more tranquil. On velvet nights, in the centre of town, I sometimes heard owls calling.
We watched the seasons turn outside our tiny flat. Spring comes early south of the Alps. The mountains make an icy wave behind the city as the crocuses flower on the walls, and the swallows turn up. Summer brings dazzling heat, the reek of pines, jasmine, and swimming in Lake Garda. We explored the Dolomites, a cheap train ride away. The high mountains are particularly lovely in bright autumns, which stretch across months. The bell-clear days of the of St Martin’s summer (which ends on 11 November) are my favourite. Winter in Verona means thrashing black rains and evil fogs, trapping fumes, smelling of burned metal. Walking by the river one smoggy night I realised I wanted to go away to sea in ships, and write a book about it.
When I returned, we moved 10km west towards Lake Garda and rented the top floor of a villa. The NATO presence in the Veneto (originally intended to stall a Soviet attack through Yugoslavia) has left an expat community. Many are American women who knew this was the obvious place to settle. One such woman, Mary, was our landlady: an expert in the arts of life. Apricots, pears, olives, lemons, tomatoes, aubergines and courgettes flourish in her garden. Life in the Valpolicella turns slowly, with the rhythm of the vineyards, from training the vines to pruning, to the great harvest and the clearances.
We were spoiled on Valpolicella Classico, Superiore, Ripasso and Amarone. I had never much minded about food and drink before, but now I learned their seasonal pleasures like a new language. The local dialects are no less distinct: ‘Let’s go’ in Italian is ‘Andiamo’ but in Verona ‘Nemo’, and in our valley, ‘Andin’. Saints’ days and festivals seemed unceasing. Our favourite, the manialunga, the ‘long eat’, sees hundreds of people walking from hamlet to hamlet, consuming the dishes and wines of a seven-course meal.
Bells, cicadas, cockcrow and lines of cypresses in hazy light were our normality. It was paradise. Neighbours became friends. We were foreign, but they could see we loved their land as they did, and they shared it. Our microclimate veered from tropical to alpine. Tremendous summer storms came in from Lake Garda. In winter, snow rolled down from the mountains like armies. The woods glowed purplish against white drifts on the morning our son was born in the hospital over the hill. I longed to raise him in the Veneto, to never leave, but who may stay in paradise? You can only give thanks you were there. And, God willing, you can go back, sometimes, too.
Horatio is a writer, radio producer and journalist. His latest book, Down to the Sea in Ships: of Ageless Oceans and Modern Men is out now in paperback. RRP: £20 (Chatto & Windus)
Published in the May 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)