Shakespeare’s never-ending Italian love story

room for a little one: this tiny port is half an hour's walk along the beach from Garda.
room for a little one: this tiny port is half an hour's walk along the beach from Garda.
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Italians love to express themselves with their hands as well as their voices, and the man on the shore of Lake Garda was a graphic example, with accents at his fingertips and emotion in the palms of his hands. But he wasn’t saying a word...

He didn’t need to. Before him were a dozen mums, grandmas and great-grandmas, more fuller figure than bella figura, who translated their choirmaster’s hand signals into the sound of angels.

Idyllic: the fishing boat harbour at Bardolino.

Idyllic: the fishing boat harbour at Bardolino.

Garda – the town, not the lake- was hosting its annual choir festival with groups of singers moving from one spot to another in the amphitheatre formed by the Dolomite foothills behind and the giant pearl that is the blue-grey waters in front.

After the sacred choral music of the ladies choir came a group of black-clad teens who served up a hot Americano, Carasone’s swinging mickey-take of Yankee wannabes, followed by a bee-bop bouree.

This was a slice of the real Italy, with real Italians – not Berlusconi’s bimbos or banks going bust. Their music stopped all conversation, as hard a thing to do in Italy as stopping the traffic, and when it was over, everyone got back to waving their arms about as normal, this time in wild applause.

It was a magical introduction to Garda, a wonderful base from which to explore the little world which laps the lake.

all aboard: the harbour at Lazise.

all aboard: the harbour at Lazise.

It’s hard not to wax lyrical about a region which has named its airport after one of the two greatest poets ever – Catullus, who was born there – and has as its capital Verona, in which the other – Shakespeare, who never even went there - set Romeo and Juliet.

Walking hand in hand, then, is a must on the dreamy lakeshores, and the 40 minute stroll from Garda to Bardolino along the promenade is perfect for romance. You have to avoid the cafés and restaurants which pop up every 100 metres or so or you won’t enjoy the eating spots in the old fishing port, which has palaces, a wide boulevard and scores of pretty side streets – and three fascinating churches.

One takes you back to 893 AD, another is a cinema, and the third, San Nicolo e San Severo, holds a secret. As your eyes get used to the gloom inside, the church’s giant dome mural slowly appears in all its glory, like a 360 degree poster for a film which Hollywood never made about Jesus conquering the Roman Empire, complete with shattered columns, dead soldiers and cherubs with bugles.

One of the must-see towns on the Lake is Sirmione, an hour’s cruise on the punctual and well-appointed ferries which criss-cross the water. Sirmione is on the business end of a peninsula shaped like a badminton raquet, and is home to very posh hotels, designer shops, winding streets and the castle Lego appears to have based its all designs on. To get in by car, you still have to cross its drawbridge.

n]No, it's not Legoland: the fortress at Sirmione.

n]No, it's not Legoland: the fortress at Sirmione.

It’s worth climbing the walls to stare across Sirmione’s roofscape, with the hidden balconies and roof gardens tourists could never otherwise see.

Catullus, erotic poet and defender of the Roman republic, spent his holidays there when he wasn’t in Rome getting in trouble for calling taking the mickey out of Julius Caesar in verse.

Verona also claims Catullus as its own, and getting to the city by bus is worthy of an epic. Italy’s buses are cheap because they are full – a lesson for us British, perhaps –so getting on one is like joining a slow-motion riot where a queue should have been. You can be polite and hold back, so long as you don’t mind walking. It’s depressing to stoop to national stereotypes, but it really did end up as a bloodless re-enactment of the Second World War, in that the Germans tried to break through the British lines, the Italians weren’t much help, the Americans came on board just in time and the Swedish stood on the sidelines and watched.

The city’s depressing suburbs, which are more The Wire than The Dolce Vita, soon peeled away to reveal a city where merchants put a lot of store in stone. They had a great example to follow – the first amphitheatre built by the Romans, a slightly smaller version of that Johnny-come-lately version known as the Coliseum. The best way to see it now, if you have the time and money, is in its new role as a major open-air opera venue, with spectacular productions on a regular basis.

Chorus of approval: lakeside singers in Garda.

Chorus of approval: lakeside singers in Garda.

Verona towers above you. When you emerge from the Via Borsini, a dark, atmospheric canyon of shops and cafes, some of whose toilets are in 2,000 year-old basements, the scale of the Piazza delle Erbe is breath-taking. Giant towers, eight and nine storey medieval buildings, Venetian-style university blocks and a clock with a face as big as the Moon looks down.

No wonder stories of its power and glory filtered across Europe to a young Midlands lad and inspired him to write the greatest love story ever.

And the dark hatred which is the backdrop to the vivid light which dawns for Romeo as he sees Juliet on her balcony is still set in stone. Today, crowds mill beneath her supposed balcony like a mob, so she’d be wise to stay up there. That’s exactly what her forebears would have done: stay up there. In the nearby Piazza Delle Signori, the Lamberti family built an eight-storey fortress and locked themselves in for safety. The top families had so many enemies that they even had bridges built between the courts and the town hall so they didn’t have to risk a dagger in the back during the two minute walk across the piazza. No wonder Romeo and Juliet doesn’t have a happy ending…

But hopefully Italy’s current problems will. One of the operas most popular in Verona is Nabucco, into which Puccini is popularly thought to have slipped a protest song against the Austrians, who could visit the city without leaving their borders until 1866, when Garibaldi’s revolution created the Italian Republic and kicked them out.

That song is the haunting The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, whose domination by the Egyptians the Veronese equated with their own occupation by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

And it was that song which one of the groups in the Garda choir festival rounded off their performance. It was a rather ragged rendition, as ragged as some of those early revolutionaries themselves, but by far the most moving. At the choirmaster’s command, you could see the Italians’ pride in pulling together, a metaphor for the ordinary folk who will have to get the real Italy, the real Europe, back on song after the bankers shattered its economy.

wherefore art thou?: Juliet's balcony - allegedly - in Verona.

wherefore art thou?: Juliet's balcony - allegedly - in Verona.

Let’s hope they get the right choirmaster.

John Phillips

PS: We stayed at the Hotel Eden, but did that really mean poor old Mrs P had to be cast out naked into the wilderness like Eve?

The Hotel took her pyjamas to the laundry with the bed linen, and they didn’t come back. Not exactly a major disaster, but it did make us feel we’d been taken to the cleaners, too, when all holiday-provider Thomsons could suggest was that the hotel post them on, despite the fact we’d been told by the management there that they had been lost.

I pointed out that if I’d refused to pay my bar bill on the grounds that my money wasn’t available because it was being laundered at the time, they’d call the Carabinieri, but if the hotel lost their guests’ goods, it appeared to be just tough luck.

Needless to say, Mrs P solved the problem by stealing my pyjamas, and, like Adam, I left the Eden wondering how I’d got the worst of it.

PPS: Should it still possible to have a late booking in the age of the internet? Mrs P and I flew with Thomsons, who wanted to charge us £40 for a late booking made two weeks before departure – but because we’d used the internet, that fee would be waived.

When I phoned about where to pick the tickets up at the airport, I was told they would be coming through the post as we were in time after all, so the internet bonus wasn’t exactly meaningful.

They didn’t arrive, but no problem – I picked them up at Manchester, where despite the fact that all the details were on computer file, they were hand written.

Or at least I thought they were in the plural. Having plenty of time in the check-in queue because the baggage conveyor had broken down – you guessed, one of the bags arrived a day after we did – I had time to kill,l so looked at the tickets, only to find, just in time, that they’d only made one out for me. It seems strange in the internet age that tickets aren’t just e-mailed, or, if you do have to pick them up, printed out.

clock this: the Piazza delle Erbe in Verona.

clock this: the Piazza delle Erbe in Verona.