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Parma to Val Camonica – Day 4

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I got up early to pack up and head out to the station, leaving the keys on the table as the landlady had requested. Back in the restaurant café, I was again attacked by those annoying flies–probably the same ones as yesterday, hmm. At one point, I felt a slight panic when I realised I couldn’t find my bag in the place I’d left it, only to realise I’d left it in front of the counter when paying for my espresso and brioche.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t managed to get a souvenir from Parma–there was apparently a place called Parma Point on Strada Garibaldi that sold souvenirs, but they don’t open until 9.30, so there was really no time for that.

There were a few options for getting to Verona, with different costs. The two main ones were that you could take the train to Bologna Centrale and then change trains to go to Verona, or first go to Suzzara, before changing to go to Mantova, then changing again to go Verona. This cost only around €9, as opposed to €30.

On the journey, I almost got off at the wrong stop, when I saw only part of the name of the station we were at. I’d hurriedly picked up my luggage and was about to get off, when I noticed that the station was “Luzzara” and not “Suzzara”–I’d only seen the “uzzara” bit!

Finally arriving at Verona station, I went out to the car park to meet my friend Alessandra. She lives in London as well, and is visiting her family in the Val Camonica area of Lombardy. She’d driven to Verona, where we’d decided to spend the day before heading back in the evening. The station was actually on the outskirts of the city, so we drove to the centre and left the car in a special car park. Instead of finding a parking spot yourself, you drive in, hand over your keys to the attendant and they take care of parking it. When you get back, they bring it out again, ready for you to drive off. Very convenient!

After a short walk, we entered the historical centre of Verona through the large city walls, and headed into a large piazza where we saw the famous Arena. This is where outdoor opera and music performances are held. The Festivalbar music show, which I used to watch on TV when I was living in Florence as a child, used to be held here.

A 10 minute walk took us to Juliet’s balcony, which was in a small courtyard packed with people posing for pictures outside this famous ‘landmark’. Yes, this is supposedly the place where Juliet–or the real-life equivalent on which she was based–stood while waiting for her Romeo to arrive. Sure, whatever. 🙂 The famous ‘wherefore art thou Romeo’ scene (by the by, it’s ‘wherefore’ and not ‘where’, but this isn’t the place to discuss Shakespeare!) would have taken place here. There was also a slightly ugly statue of Juliet in the courtyard, with one of her breasts being far shinier than the other. The reason for this is because it’s a tradition to touch the statue’s right breast for good luck. Indeed, there were people having their pictures taken doing just that. Both men and women, in case you’re wondering…

I picked up some postcards and souvenirs in the shop in the courtyard, before heading out to the Arena’s piazza and stopping for a drink. Ah, some shade from the sun! There was also a mini market in the centre of the piazza selling food, leather goods and various other items. We browsed this for a while, before going off to see the Duomo in one of the other piazzas.

As often happens on these trips, my mobile phone battery began to get very low, and unfortunately I’d forgotten to charge up the portable charger–so much for carrying that around! So I wasn’t able to take as many photos in Verona as I’d have liked. I’d also left my wallet back in the car, so I couldn’t withdraw any cash and had to rely on my friend to pay for everything. 😉 There still seem to be many places in Italy where it’s still cash-only, and it can be hard to get by without a good stash on you at all times.

We headed into the side streets from the Piazza del Duomo to catch a bit of respite from the sun, and stopped for a quick gelato. Afterwards, we went into a large bookshop that had pretty much everything on sale. I was keen to pick up an Italian cookbook with dessert recipes, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a heavy A-Z of ‘torti e dolci italiani’. It was only €9, but in the end I decided against weighing up my luggage too much. (I also have far too many books at home, and the Internet makes these sorts of books a bit less useful than they might have been in the past.)

We then popped into a Bialetti shop, and I asked the assistant about the pot I’d bought. She said I had to make sure I’d put in the right amount of water and also that the type of coffee I should use had to be more ‘robusta’ than ‘arabica’. These are the two main types of coffee bean species, with ‘robusta’ being more sturdy and with a higher concentration of caffeine than ‘arabica’. Many of the ground espresso coffee packs sold (like Lavazza) have different combinations of both types of bean. When I checked later on, the pack I’d bought in Parma (and failed with) had actually been 30% arabica and 70% robusta, pretty much what the assistant ordered. Still a mystery, then.

It was getting ever hotter, and we decided it was probably time to start the journey to Val Camonica, so we could have time to rest for a bit before an evening out. We headed out onto the autostrada–motorway, or highway–the first time I’d been on them in Italy. I think next time I’m here, I’ll hire a car, perhaps in town, and learn to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, i.e. on the right-hand side. It can be so confusing, especially with roundabouts. We headed in the direction of Brescia, then passed through several tunnels–cut through the mountains–to reach Val Camonica. What with the large hillsides jutting all around us as we drove through the bottom of the valley, I couldn’t help feeling we were going somewhere a bit isolated.

Alessandra’s house is in a place called Esine, a commune in the Provincia di Bresica. Really, this place feels like deepest Lombardia. I wonder how many of the people here are direct descendants of the Germanic Lombards who settled this region back in the 6-7th centuries. Then again, there are people here whose physiognomy is typical of Celtic areas in Northern Europe–a few of the people I met were almost classically Scottish in appearance. Italy generally is a very mixed country with regard to ethnic origin–its position as the heartland of the Roman Empire meant that people from all over Europe, as well as the Middle East and North Africa came and settled here.

After driving for almost two hours, we arrived at the house and were greeted by Alessandra’s mother, who also lives there. The top floor of the house has a long balcony that looks out onto some spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.

Alessandra’s mother was curious to try out my new moka pot, but it didn’t work for her either. Clearly, something is up with this thing!

After a shower and a rest, we headed out again in the car and picked up my friend’s sister and kids, before travelling to Bienno, a nearby medieval village and apparently known as one of the most beautiful in Italy. There is an annual arts and crafts festival on at the moment, with artisans from all over Italy coming here to show their wares. The sheer amount of creativity in this country is just unbelievable sometimes.

The only people who are allowed to drive into Bienno are apparently those with a permit, presumably only for residents or their families. As we approached the village, a traffic warden stopped the car and checked that we had the document displayed in the window before allowing us to go in. The village itself feels genuinely medieval, with probably all of the buildings dating from that era. There was even a watermill powered by a mountain stream that flowed into the village. The mill itself was working and still produced flour, which you could buy in a nearby shop.

After a short walk, we went to a large gazebo with long tables where they served food–a bit like being at Oktoberfest, but without the fancy costumes! Many of Alessandra’s family members were there, and it was nice to talk a little with them, often about food. So Italian. 🙂 They also confirmed that it’s hard to get around easily in this area if you don’t have a car. Public transport is never great in Italy as it is, and when you get to this sort of isolated area, then cars are really your only option.

I’ve been thinking of buying a small apartment in Italy, either to let out or use myself as a holiday home–depending on prices and circumstances–and I was given all kinds of suggestions as to what I should buy in this area. Although I really like it here, it still feels a little isolated, and I’m not sure it’s very well known to British tourists either. However, there are apparently many Scandinavian people who visit the area frequently and have holiday homes on an island called Monteisola on the Lago d’Iseo, the nearby lake in Val Camonica. I guess I need to do a bit more research before deciding.

After dinner, we walked to the main piazza of Bienno, where there was a tango orchestra playing. Fantastic! Unfortunately, there were no professional dancers, and very few of the audience actually started to dance either. I don’t think that was really the intention of the event as such though. Alessandra was keen to learn a few steps and at one point I became an unofficial tango teacher in one of the side piazzas (‘piazetta’), getting the curious attention of passers-by!

We stopped off for a quick coffee, before going to see some kind of outdoor performance at the bottom of the town (sounds so funny writing that). No one seemed to actually know what it was, and we ended up waiting for over half an hour. There was a restless little boy sitting in front of me, who was snapping away with his camera. At one point, he casually turned it to me and started taking photos. I obliged with as many faces as I could make! His mother just looked on and smiled.

In the end, the wait was worth it. Three dancers came on with flexible water pipes covering their bodies. As they began their performance, water shot out of them, with the spray fanning out and flying high into the air, occasionally splashing down onto the audience. The water combined with the colourful backlighting to create some pretty spectacular effects.

After the show ended–and it was really brief–Alessandra and I went back out in the car, out of Bienno, and met up with some of her friends from the area. We eventually got back to Esine around 2am for some well-deserved shuteye.

This morning, we head to Lago d’Iseo.

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