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Thursday begins with croissants and coffee after an early morning rise and drive to Gatwick airport North Terminal for our flight to start our holiday to Verona, in Northern Italy.
A short hop on a Boeing 737 later and we land at Valerio Catullo, from where we take a taxi to our hotel, beautifully nestling in one of Verona’s tiny side streets.
Once checked in and unpacked, we meet up with friends and walk down to the Piazza Erbe where, purely by chance we discover, it’s all happening – with market stalls and a bustling café culture.
At a charming restaurant we are lucky enough to find ourselves a seat in the sun – probably since most self-respecting Italians choose to sit in the shade – and select from the menu that very Italian dish, pizza margherita.
We sit awhile, taking in the sights and sounds all around, before moseying on down to the Ponte Pietra, from which we look out over the ruined old Roman theatre – juxtaposed against the modernistic fast road which leads to other equally intriguing cities nearby – Venice, Papua, Modena.
We return, footsore and weary after our short exploration of the city, to recharge our batteries with a glass or two of Prosecco and nibbles.
The evening sees us venturing once again to the Piazza Erbe for our evening meal, but shattered after our busy day, we retire early and sleep like logs.
Top tips for visiting the opera in Verona
On Friday morning we convene for breakfast. After filling our deserving boots with a selection of fruit, yoghurt, juice, scrambled eggs, ham, cheese and bread with jam, nutella, marmalade or honey, we leave the comfort of the dining room for a 30-minute stroll to the bus station.
Locating the stop for the Sirmione bus, we wait patiently in the hot sun, having just missed the previous one.
Almost an hour later, we arrive at the tiny peninsula projecting into the magnificent azure waters of Lake Garda and our long wait for transport is immediately a distant memory. The view is utterly breathtaking.
Dodging boat-owners touting for business by promising to go back later, we make our way into the tiny fortified town that is Sirmione.
We enter by way of a drawbridge, stopping to gaze at the fish swimming happily below us. Wandering through the impressive portal, the narrow streets open out before us.
We follow the crowd and aim for the second street on the left, since that seems to be where the attraction is. A few minutes later, we understand why.
A small piazza materialises in front of our eyes on the banks of the lake and the views are stunning. Cafes line the sides of the piazza but all the tables – and more importantly, the seats – are fully occupied.
Someone makes a move and we thankfully slide into their vacated place. Four beers and bruschetta, followed swiftly by pizza with mozzarella and prosciutto, are consumed at our leisure while watching the world go by – and a must for any authentic holiday to Italy!
Reluctantly, we leave our spot and immediately someone repeats our desperate action of an hour or two previous and grabs our newly-available places.
We amble towards the lido publico, a small pebbly beach, and venture beyond – down the concrete path which borders the lake, where swans graze in the reeds and grebes dive amongst the mallards on the cool, clear water.
We follow the path quite a way before retracing our steps through the walled town to find the boat-owner, who by now must be wondering if we were ever coming back.
He had obviously given up and gone home – but another man has taken his place so we board his launch and settle down to a short trip around the headland.
This one turns out to be our best choice, as his running commentary keeps us amused and interested throughout the journey.
Upon leaving the shore, the first place of interest he shows us is the Thermal Spa and beyond it, up on the hill and surrounded by tall cypresses, the former house of the famous opera singer, Maria Callas.
Further round the coast of the little peninsula our attention is directed towards the ancient Roman Bath House, built by Valerius Catullo, impressive in its enormity despite the hundreds of years of erosion and stones being relocated to build the fortified walls.
This is the original, he tells us. The one we saw earlier is the modern version. The Romans had noticed there was a hot spring under the lake and had rigged up pipes to transfer the heated water to their baths.
Our captain veers inshore to a certain position and indicates the yellow onshore pumping station and the sulphuric air rising in a constant chain to the surface. This is the hot spring, he explains.
We are fascinated. So much so we almost topple out in our excitement to see the bubbles bursting below the boat.
Top things to see in Verona
Food and drink aplenty
Catching the 18.28 bus back is difficult – this place is too good to be true.
But the journey back to the city comes in useful, as all four of us manage to catch forty winks to gear us up for the evening, which we spend in the Piazza Bra (to my mind, it should be called the Piazza Arena, since that is what is to be found there).
Once again, restaurants galore deck the sides of the piazza, but they are many. The square is large. It contains a grassed area with trees and benches and many people returning home after a hard day’s work.
The restaurants are not yet full – just the occasional diner: Italians generally eat late. It is a tough decision to make – they all look so inviting.
We choose one and there we stay, comfortable and nurtured. Drinks are served with promptitude and the food leaves us in no doubt we have chosen wisely.
We even like the coffee cups so much – a festival of Romeo and Juliet is remembered upon them – that, for a small fee, we are allowed to bring them home as souvenirs.
At the hotel we decide on a nightcap, and four G&Ts later we are taking the lift to our own beds when we realise we have left our room-keys on the table in the bar of our Italian hotel.
We send the lift back down and the door opens to reveal the smiling barman holding up our keys. As soon as the lift door closes, you can surely guess at the hilarity that goes on within its four tiny walls.
But that is not the end of it – we realise we have left our purchases down there too – our precious cups. More hilarity ensues as we go and retrieve them.
We turn to say ‘Buona notte’ to our barman, but by this time he is nowhere to be seen –presumably gratefully in his own land of nod – and hilarity resumes anew.
On Saturday, we breakfast as richly as before. The boys take a nap while the girls make a long-awaited trip to the market in the Piazza Erbe, looking longingly in shop windows along the way.
Tiffany’s, Pandora, Zara – these and many more line the cream-marble-paved main shopping street.
Finding ourselves at the same restaurant we spent our first evening once more, the boys join us and we take our mid-morning refreshment – an icy cool Aperol Spritz.
Moving on we set out for the Sotto Rivo area, on the banks of the River Adige. This waterway flows round the city, under several interesting and attractive bridges.
Its flow is plentiful, fed by the melt waters of the Dolomites. It flows generally southwards on the eastern side of Lake Garda, wandering through Verona before making its way roughly eastwards towards the Adriatic.
We arrive in a diminutive street off the beaten track and come across a spaghetti house nestling beneath the towering Santa Anastasia church, which serves a mean pizza accompanied by salad mediterraneo.
The best Italian food and drink
Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Crossing the Adige, we take a closer look at the Roman theatre. A couple of us mount the many steps to the top of the hill to survey the city below, whilst the other two take a nap in the shade.
Returning via the Ponte Nuovo, we are led almost straight to the small courtyard housing Juliet’s balcony.
We mingle with other tourists as they climb up to the balcony, touch her statue for good luck and write her letters for romantic advice, whilst their partners wait patiently in the wings, camera poised to snap the moment for posterity.
After an aperitif and a freshen-up, we leave the hotel once more and head for the Piazza Bra, where we dine on Arrosto di Vitello, Spaghetti Carbonara and Scallopine con Limon.
A night-cap in the hotel is the finale for the day and we pile once more into the bar where we enjoy one last G&T.
After leaving our packed suitcases in the hotel depository and having a few hours to kill before our flight home, our final morning, inevitably, is spent in the Arena itself –an amphitheatre of not-such-large proportions as its brother, the Colosseum in Rome, but equally as impressive.
From its gargantuan walls and heady heights – and steps so high we can only climb up on our hands and knees – we gaze into its depths and feel as though we might fall headlong, helter-skelter down to its very core and be gobbled up.
Once a place where gladiators and wild animals battled to the death to satisfy Roman blood-thirsts, it is now a popular concert venue, welcoming the likes of Spandau Ballet, Mumford and Sons, as well as grand operatic performances that draw people on Italian opera holidays from all over Europe.
Enjoy two memorable opera performances in Verona's awe-inspiring Roman amphitheatre Find out more here.
Our Italian holiday is almost at an end.
An Aperol Spritz later we wend our way to the Castel Vecchio to view yet more striking Roman structures, such as the famous Ponte Vecchio, with its crenellated walls and windows through which the ancient warriors could see their enemies sailing upriver and overcome them before they could do mischief.
After celebratory Prosecco and nibbles, we leave for the Piazza Erbe, where it all began, to eat our farewell lunch. A spot of last-minute shopping to buy presents leads to a mad dash for our suitcases, followed by a taxi ride back to the airport, small by city standards yet adequate for our needs.
A British Airways 737 takes us our short and comfortable flight home and our lovely Italian holiday is finally over… but watch out Verona – we’ll be back!
Perhaps tp experience Verona’s wonderful opera festival…
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