/I'm in Italy! or Italia, that is./
And yes, I know I've been here in Italia for nearly a week now. With no posts. (All of December, just about nich. Fun fact: nic, pronounced nich, is actually the word for "nothing" in Slovak.) I don't know how much I want to backtrack and log right now, but I'll make a stab at describing just how fairytale life here in Italy is.
To start, everything I ever remembered about how wonderful and beautiful and dolce vita Italy is does not even come close to the reality. It is so, so much better than that. (The one exception is the weather. Why is it negative degrees Celsius and oppressively overcast? Where is the heat of that famous Italian sun?)
My host family has a house in a little town of 11,000 just a few kilometers from Verona... I always forget the name of this town, but it's basically part of Verona. I think it's included in population counts, probably (Verona = 300,000).
Small-town life is good. Less crime, quieter streets, and you can actually own a house, instead of just a really expensive apartment, which is all you will ever have if you want to live in actual Verona. A block from the house is a very pretty church; sometime soon I'll have to go out walking and explore a little.
Verona itself is ideally positioned. In the far distance are beautiful, snowy mountains (for some reason they often look pink-toned to me, sort of rosy)--pre-Alps, Marco told me, which get up to 2,000 meters, if I remember correctly. Want to go skiing? It's an hour's drive. Also in close proximity, just 30 kilometers away (or else a half-hour drive? I forget) is the largest lake in Italy. No, it's not Como. It's called Garda. Once the weather clears up (hopefully soon! it's been nothing but gray and clammy) we're going to go see it. I'm so excited. And let's see, what else is close to Verona? Well, if you want the Mediterranean, it's an hour away. Venice--one hour. There's also a Disneyland-equivalent that's close by, called Gardenland or something...
I'll get to more descriptions of the actual town of Verona, which is utterly charming, later. For now, I want to talk about glorious yesterday.
In the morning, Marco had to go to an office nearby for some papers, and was going there via motorcycle. Motorcycles absolutely scare me, but Sandy assured me Marco was safe and responsible and went slowly. So I said a few prayers, buckled my helmet, and got on behind Marco. My very first time on a motorcycle. Also my last, hopefully--not because I was freaked out or didn't enjoy myself, but just because I still think it's too dangerous. Oh well.
So, anyway, we were out on the open road and it felt amazing. I couldn't shake the thought that just one little slip of the wheel and I would be hurled out into the road, probably to get immediately run over... But thankfully all went right. True to his word, Marco went slowly and we were out in the fields, not downtown Verona or anything (now that would have really scared me).
We turned off onto a little dirt road and Marco took me past a darling little pony, surrounded by chickens and geese. A little further and we came to a river, where there was a natural spring, Marco said. He takes Sasha and Giulia, his niece, there fishing sometimes, but right now there wasn't enough water. We turned back to the road and went onwards.
Our destination, it turned out, was not any old office building... It was a castle. Castel D'atezza, it might have been called? Something like that. It was beautiful, glowing gold in the sunlight (which, for the record, was abundant, but had no heat in it). It is currently in the process of rennovation and is full of offices. While he went to take care of his business, Marco left me to explore.
I spent a long time in a covered area between archways, staring out at the back of the castle--where the river and fields were. It was very cold, and the river below with the natural spring (I could actually see in one place the bubbling up, like a little fountain!) was actually steaming. Right at river's edge, on the opposite side from the castle (obviously the owners used the river as a fence for them) were several animals--I think I counted three donkeys and five sheep, including little lambs pressed to their mothers.
It was such a perfect pastoral scene. The fields stretched as far as the eye could see; there was one white stork hopping around one of them. The donkeys scratched their heads on branches, eyes closed in content; the sheeps' bells tinkled as they shook their head. At one point, all the sheep got worked up in distress when they realized one of their fellows was fenced away from them (I could see her as well, next to the geese and hen enclosure). Baaing back and forth ensued until, abruptly, everyone just let it be. Amid the fields were little rustic villas, so perfectly Italian, and further still was a line of greenhouses, shining brightly with reflected sunlight. All so idyllic... except eventually I really had to turn away because I was so cold there in the shadows.
It wasn't warm anywhere, but standing in front of the castle in the full sun helped. So I stood there for a long time, looking. The castle was not very internally wide; it was just large in its U shape. It was about four storeys high, all stone. The front facade with all the designs and faces in stone had been sorely worn by the ages. All the windows were closed over with wood shutters. The castle was painted a warm tan color. Just under the windows, I suddenly noticed something interesting: on both sides of each window were little brass men, not very detailed, but a detail in their very existence. I didn't know what their purpose was. When later Marco came to pick me up, I asked him, and he explained they're what you use to hold the shutters back. Ah ha!
We went back home on motorcycle. But oh, it was cold! I just sat inside shivering afterwards. A little later, though, I pulled my coat on again because we were off, Sandy, Marco, and I, to see "the best panoramic view of all of Verona!" We drove up to the top of one of the hills that surrounds Verona. All of the hills are completely covered with cyprus trees. I love seeing these signature plants--olive trees, juniper bushes, pines, palms, and greatest of all, cypruses--and just being taken with the beauty of Italy and that fact that I'm actually here.
At the top was a castle apparently built by Austrians (sorry, I don't remember that particular story) and below was all of Verona. It was a very hazy day, and looking out and seeing all these towers and spires (churches) rising out of and cutting through the bright mist, I was somehow reminded of looking out over Istanbul, or maybe Cairo, and seeing the mosques do the same.
Besides all the manifold towers and churches, notable sights were the rivers and the bridges. (And of course all the other buildings as well...Still have yet to see an ugly Italy building.) From where I stood, I could see at least four bridges traversing the Adige, the river, which is the second-largest in Italy (the Tiber, in Rome, comes in at number four). The coolest of these bridges, as far as I could see, was a beautiful one which still had some of the original white Roman stones. Unfortunately, all of Verona's bridges were bombed by the Germans at the end of WWII, so only a small portion of the white stones could be salvaged (the rest is brick).
When we'd had our fill, we walked down the steps leading off of this castle complex, until we came to the Roman theater. Looking over the stair rails to the ruins far below, I felt like some deep sea diver, exploring Atlantis or other underwater city. The stones were corroded and you could not longer see the purpose behind the design, how these massive arches and walls had ever formed something complete. (There is another part of the Roman theater that really is a theater, which is still used every summer for a--what else?--Shakespeare festival, but these stones fascinated me more.)
I'll finish later, I have to go now.