This morning after check-out, we explore the south-western part of central Verona, visiting the mighty Castelvecchio Museum and the Duomo dedicated to the local patron saint, San Zeno. The Castelvecchio is a vast, fourteenth-century fortified palace built by the Scala family: it’s no coincidence that it’s in this position: Cangrande II della Scala built it here partly for defensive purposes but also so that he and his family could cross the River Adige swiftly – via the triple-arched and battlemented Ponte Scagliero – and head north to their lands in Austria. The museum is vast, with 29 rooms of coins, weapons, paintings and sculptures, but the building is also spectacular, with elegant Venetian windows, courtyard gardens and mighty towers with swallowtail battlements.
Beside the next bridge upstream is the Duomo, the Basilica San Zeno, named after a fourth-century saint revered by both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches. The first cathedral and monastery were built by Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, and later rebuilt in the Romanesque style. After the earthquake of 1117, it was restored, enlarged and finally completed in the fourteenth century. Its façade of creamy brick and stone, with a gabled nave, side aisles and a campanile, is strikingly simple, with a mighty rose window in the early gothic style, designed as a Wheel of Fortune. Of course, it’s most famous for its crypt – not just because it holds the body of St Zeno, his face covered by a silver mask, but because it is here that Shakespeare is thought to have set the site of Romeo and Juliet’s secret marriage.
Our coach picks us up from the basilica to take us back to Mantova, stopping en route for a delicious lunch near the town of Isola della Scala. This is rice country, with thousands of acres of the pre-Alpine flat lands south of Lake Garda dedicated to irrigated paddy fields and the growing of one of the Italy’s most famous products – risotto rice. We visit a riseria, or rice farm, to learn about the cultivation of this extraordinary grain, mostly of the japonica variety, and exactly how to turn it into creamy, rich ‘risotto all’Isolana’. It’s thought that it arrived in Italy from India sometime during the Middle Ages, so it’s a perfect way to conclude our tour.
Replete with risotto and steeped in culture, it’s time for us to return to Mantua to prepare for our final departure on Tuesday.
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