As soon as I sat down to my breakfast repast the next morning, my hosts started asking me what I thought of last night’s horsemeat. They were genuinely curious to know why we don’t eat horses in England and, right at that moment, I couldn’t think of any reasons that would stand up in court.
I still can’t, to be honest. If you’re a carnivore, then all meat (they reasoned) was fair game. If you’re going to eat meat, then there’s no essential difference between the death of a pig or a chicken and the death of a horse. The fact that another example of the same species might win you a few quid at Epsom or Aintree should have no bearing on the matter and logically doesn’t.
Nor should the fact that the animal in question has, throughout history, been regarded as aesthetically pleasing. After all, there are few creatures more endearing than lambs frolicking - ‘gambolling’ - in the verdant meadows of Spring but that doesn’t stop us slaughtering them in huge numbers, eviscerating them, roasting them, smothering them in lashings of mint sauce and devouring them as if our lives depended on it.
My hosts also drew to my increasingly queasy attention the fact that, had my Grand Tour been a little more exotic and taken me to places further-flung than Italy, I would probably have been smilingly invited to eat dog or snake or chocolate-coated locusts.
To my enormous relief, there were no obvious ill-effects from the previous night’s consumption of equine flesh (so to speak) and - having successfully changed the subject to my last few hours in Verona - I enjoyed a wonderful breakfast with my hosts. The cooked ham was as sweet as honey. It and the soft almond biscuits offset the bitterness of the coffee perfectly.
And I’m starting to sound exactly like the kind of Sunday magazine ‘food critic’ I abhor.
As a matter of fact, Francesca and Guilo (my hosts) were a bit miffed. As far as they were concerned, I had apparently only used their city as a springboard to get to Venice and back without having to pay Venice’s extortionate hotel prices. I had not, they suggested, done Verona justice.
And they were absolutely right. My aimless wanderings around its streets had shown me that Verona had a lot more to offer than I had given it credit for. Which is why I spent my remaining three or four hours doing it as much justice as I could in the time available.
It didn’t take long for Verona to score a bullseye. This is the view upstream from the Ponte Novi and it left me gaping - largely because, of all the chocolate-box views of Italy I had seen so far, this one was the classic. A view like this could only be in ancient urban Italy. As I looked at it, it seemed to me that some great painterly architect had placed each element of the picture ‘just so’ and for the best achievable effect.
I hope the photograph gives you some idea of what I mean, though I doubt it.
In the upcoming few days, I would see many more sights not unlike this one, but it’s the Italianate purity of this vista which has stayed with me the strongest.
My route back to Fran and Guilo’s house took me along the lovely Via Cappello and it was there that Verona scored the second bullseye of the morning as I found myself gaping in disbelief at Juliet’s house; she ofRomeo and Julietfame.
The tourists - overwhelmingly Japanese - trickled, and then flooded, into its small courtyard. I joined them and gazed wistfully up atthatbalcony. I watched as my fellow-visitors did what tourist tradition dictates; they had themselves photographed standing next to a life-size statue of Juliet, cupping her right breast. Doing this is supposed to bring better luck to the lovelorn and, for the sake of the painfully coy Japanese men who agreed to pose for the cameras, I hope it worked.
Despite the rather cramped proportions of the courtyard, there is a kind of melancholic and romantic atmosphere about it. Or therewasuntil someone - presumably an office employee from the adjacent building - stepped out onto the famous balcony to have a fag. That spoilt the overall effect just a bit.
It’s all good, clean fun, although Ididhave to keep reminding myself thatRomeo and Julietis an entirely fictional story and that, in any case, Shakespeare had originally intended to set it in Siena. It’s Verona’s good fortune that he changed his mind.
I didn’t mind this harmless bit of tourist entrapment. In fact ‘harmless’ may be too unkind a word for it. It may well be a genuine force and focus for hope and love. If that sounds a little overblown, consider this….
The walls of the covered stone passageway leading into and out of the courtyard are smothered with love. Generations of love-smitten - or love-bereft - visitors have covered the walls with layer upon layer of letters, notes and cards. There must be millions of them, from ground level to vault. They must be in almost every language spoken on earth from visitors from everywhere on the planet.
They are heartfelt requests to end loneliness and isolation. They plead for Juliet to intervene in unrequited or unfulfilled passion. Their writers seek advice or solace. Some of them even beg for increased fertility; for children.
And they don’t just come from visitors to the house, either. Thousands of people send their letters and cards to Juliet in Verona every year. A feature film has recently been made about this phenomenon:Letters to Juliet. I’m told it’s quite good.
These, then, are not the pathetic scribblings of last-ditch fantasists (which is how I have seen them described). They are rather expressions, and proof, of the universal need to love and be loved.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.Viva Jiulietta.
I drank a final cup of Veronese coffee while I waited for my bus in the Piazza Bra’. Nearby, Second World War bombs had blasted holes in the street, revealing the extensive foundations of a grand Roman city (as they had done in Cologne) - now, proudly on show.
Once again on my Grand Tour, World War Two had raised its head. As I drank my coffee, the guide book I was reading was telling me that Verona had been the most powerful Fascist city in Italy between 1939 and 1945. It was the centre for the brutal interrogation of the Italian Resistance and was a kind of ‘holding pen’ for Jews, who were rounded up here and sent to Nazi concentration camps.
This wasn’t the right note on which to be leaving such a captivating city.
I closed my guidebook and instead looked over at the ancient amphitheatre and city walls. The horror and pain of World War Two was threatening to hijack my Grand Tour for the third time. I suppose that, for a younger visitor - or one to whom history was not such a strong personal interest - these aspects of Verona’s past would be relegated to the box marked ‘interesting but no longer significant’.
But ever since I looked at the wartime pictures of a devastated and destroyed Cologne, I had found it difficult to shunt thoughts of the war out of my mindset quite as well as I would have liked.
If we do not remember our mistakes, we do not learn from them. We imperil our own future if we forget too quickly the consequences of the mistakes we make.
To what extent - and how - should we remember the death and the suffering and the struggle? And how do we square that necessity with an equal and natural desire to ‘put it all behind us and move on’?
As I looked out over the Piazza Bra’, two old men - resplendent in brightly-coloured shirts, extravagantly-patterned cravats, pressed chinos and scuffless shoes, walked slowly past. They were deep in animated and amusing conversation. There was much hand-gesturing and genial, unselfconscious laughter. As they walked by, I was greeted by an emphatic 'Buon giorno!'
Smiling back, I realised that it was indeed time to ‘put it all behind me and move on’. If an entire city - Cologne - can do it; if Alex in Munich can do it; if my Two Gentlemen of Verona can do it…..Ican do it.
I can hear quite a few people whispering ‘And not before time, Ian - not before time’.
Much of the line south from Verona to Bologna and beyond seems to be a purpose-built, high-speed line of the kind being built all over Europe. Modern railway engineering renders the natural contours of the land irrelevant. The railway builders simply drill tunnels straight through any hills they encounter.
Sadly, this means that my journey to Florence seems to have been mostly in the dark. As the train rushed south, I was allowed only brief glimpses of countryside between long stretches of soulless tunnel wall.
To dampen my disappointment, I got to thinking again of those Two Gentlemen of Verona. It occurred to me that, if I played my cards right and used my imagination, I could acquire a unique ‘set’, a collection of ‘items’, a string of linked locations.
Go with me on this one.
I have visited Athens. It was many years ago and it was awful, although I’m told it’s improved since the 2004 Olympics.
I have visited Windsor, too. I went there several times when I lived in London. In fact, I was there about 3 months ago.
My Grand Tour has now taken me to both Verona and Venice.
Which only leaves Tyre.
Deep in some Tuscan railway tunnel, I smiled at my own reflection in the window and wondered where, exactly, Tyre was. I wondered, not entirely flippantly, whether there were any cheap flights available to Tyre. Perhaps, I thought, you can even get there by train.
As I stepped from the mainline train terminus in Florence about two hours later, I was feeling distinctly uneasy. Remember that I had visited Venice for the first time in my life only the day before. And remember, too, what we are all told about Venice; that it’s impossible not to fall totally in love with it.
Blinking in the Florentine sunshine, I remembered my deeply mixed reactions to Venice. And I remembered, too, that down the centuries, people have made the same uncompromising claims about Florence. That it’s uniquely captivating, totally seductive, irresistibly cultured and historic and beautiful and….
What confronted me outside the terminus of Santa Maria Novella was precisely what often confronts a railway traveller: lots of other travellers bustling to and fro; queues of taxis and queues of people waiting for them; puzzled backpackers; lost tourists; noisy road traffic and even noisier people; locals dashing from platform to street; dozens of confusing bus-stops and buses appearing - and disappearing - round every visible corner.
I loved it at once.
But an exploration of this most lauded of cities would have to wait. As in all my other destinations, my first priority was to find my accommodation.
My Florentine hosts - Massimo and Stefano - had thoughtfully emailed me detailed instructions: which bus to get from the station; where to get a ticket; where to get off; the route from bus-stop to B&B. Their email ended ‘Why don’t you just take a taxi?’
But before I set out on my Grand Tour I had decided that, wherever I ended up, I would only ever use public transport to get around. Taxis were for wimps. I (I decided) would grab a transport map of whichever city I was in and find my way around by sheer intuition and ingenuity, coupled with my unerringly accurate sense of geographical location. I would be my own GPS.
I finally rang their doorbell 90 minutes - and three buses - later. I had foolishly caught a 6A rather than a 6B, and it was going north rather than east, and - to cap it all - I had finally disembarked two stops too early.
But - and for some reason I find this inexpressibly satisfying - I was able to maintain a clean sheet. Throughout my Grand Tour I only ever used public transport: trains, buses or trams.
In the gay community, ‘bears’ are big friendly men with beards. Massimo and Stefano are bears. By some considerable margin, they were the friendliest, cosiest, most welcoming and most instantly likeable people I met on my Grand Tour. Big, smiley, cuddley, happy.
Their flat was sumptuous. It occupied the top two floors of a fashionable old apartment block just outside central Florence. Turkish rugs were scattered casually on cool marble floors. All available wall space was covered with paintings and drawings, mostly the work of Massimo, Stefano or their friends. Luxuriant houseplants graced each corner. Oddball ornaments and bric-a-brac were placed as if the apartment was designed specially for them. You could write a treatise about the antique Victorian bathroom.
My room - see above - was lovely.
The flat was enchanting. Beautiful and utilitarian at the same time, as the best designs surely ought to be. I could happily have moved in there and then.
But, as I quickly discovered, I had an appointment.
Massimo is an opera singer. No, really. And during several internet conversations, I had told him how much I enjoyed what I considered to be quite a wide range of music. As I sat down to a very welcome cup of coffee, he told me he had got me a ticket for a special choral performance that evening in the city.
I was flabbergasted. In fact, I thought he was joking at first. But he wasn’t.
I’m glad to say that both of my new Florentine bear friends were keen to hear of my Grand Tour adventures and I was just as keen to tell them. So, after a splendidly slap-up repast of Stefano’s extra-special lasagne, we walked slowly into the city centre, talking and laughing all the way. I scarcely noticed my surroundings as M&S (as I came to call them) led me on through narrow streets, around endless corners and across countless courtyards, talking excitedly all the way.
Our destination was the church of San Stefano, a florid baroque confection of the type which always makes me feel almost queasy. As the lights dimmed, though, and the music started, all thoughts of my staid and stolid English cultural upbringing vanished.
It was a performance of Rossini’sStabat Mater. Rossini is well-known as the composer of playful operas likeThe Barber of SevilleorWilliam Tell. TheStabat Mater, though, is a very sacred and solemn text - it’s centred on the crucifixion.
But Rossini couldn’t help himself. When he sat down to write a sacred piece of music, he couldn’t resist the temptation to make it sound like one of his operas. This makes hisStabat Materone of the weirdest pieces of solemn sacred music ever written. It’s full of happy little tunes you’d whistle in the shower.
Not for the first time on my Grand Tour, I had to mentally pinch myself.
I was sitting between my two new bear-mates in a sumptuous church in the heart of a fabled Italian city listening to an amazing performance of a piece of music I liked very much.