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OPINION | RICHARD MASON: A travel base in northern Italy

by Richard Mason | June 13, 2021 at 8:54 a.m.

If you are anything like my family, a long-awaited vacation, after over a year of being trapped at home by the pandemic, is high on your to-do list. For those thinking about going to Europe, a good choice is Verona, Italy.

Residents of the United States can enter Italy as tourists if arriving on covid-tested flights operated by Delta, American, and United. With reasonably priced tickets on the market, a flight to Milan, Italy or Geneva, Switzerland, and a short train ride to Verona won't break the bank, and lodging and food in northern Italy is reasonable.

Verona is frequently overlooked as a vacation destination because the larger cities of Venice and Milan have such a strong pull. It's usually relegated to a two-hour stop on a tour bus on the way to see Roman ruins or to have lunch on the road to Venice.

A few years back, Vertis and I traveled to Verona and stayed there for 10 days. After a 10-hour flight to Geneva, we took a train to Verona, rested for a day, then began our Italian odyssey.

There are numerous reasons to make Verona a base for a northern Italy exploration. The town is a World Heritage Site, and there are plenty of medieval venues to visit. You can easily spend several days poking around the winding streets and piazzas and going in the numerous churches, which are breathtakingly beautiful.

Our first day trip from Verona was to Venice, a little over an hour by train. We love Venice, but enjoy it more as a day trip from Verona. On the way, you might consider stopping in Padua and visiting the old town area where students from the University of Padua (founded in the 12th century) hang out. It is a perfect place to people-watch, dine, and stroll the ancient streets.

Venice draws the largest crowds and is hugely popular, but St. Mark's Square and St. Mark's Basilica are such great pleasures to visit that Venice should be a must on anyone's European trip. A gondola through the winding canals, admittedly a little touristy, is a nice way to slowly take in the city. If you venture away from St. Mark's Square (generally known as la Piazza), you can dine with the locals and have a great lunch or dinner at a reasonable price.

If you really want to dive into the top attraction that Venice offers, attend Carnival, which has been celebrated since the 12th century (it was canceled this year because of the pandemic).

We know two attractive lady friends who flew over to attend Carnival and then, after a weekend, flew directly home. We inquired about their time there, but only received smiles as an answer.

But let's get back to Verona. We stayed in the center of town in a small hotel. Since my favorite food is northern Italian, it was hard to make a mistake in picking a restaurant. Very near our hotel is Ristorante Arche, and for a small-town boy from Arkansas it was like going to heaven and finding out God is Italian.

If you are a Shakespeare fan, you know the Master picked Verona as the setting for two of his plays: "Romeo and Juliet" and "Two Gentlemen from Verona." Even though Shakespeare never visited Verona, the local tourist information service has designated the balcony on a 13th-century house as the place where Juliet called for Romeo, and you won't have any trouble finding it. "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou?"

From Verona, be sure to take a day trip to Milan. You should go by train, since with almost hourly connections it is the easiest way to the center of the city and takes not much more than an hour and a half.

There are several must-visit sights in Milan that are in or very close to the city center. Start by going to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle ll (the original shopping mall, built in 1877). The architecture makes this major landmark worth the visit, and we had a Neopolitan-style margherita pizza there with San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, fresh basil, salt and extra-virgin olive oil, which spoiled me forever.

Milan is the home of Michelangelo's "The Lord's Supper" painting, which was originally created as a back wall decoration for a convent dining hall. It's housed by the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, and is really amazing. You must make a reservation for the tour.

It's hard to miss the huge Duomo di Milano cathedral and the Piazza del Duomo square in the center of the city, a four-minute walk from the Galleria. There are cathedrals, and then there are Cathedrals! The Duomo qualifies as a don't-miss-it stop, even if you have had it with church or cathedral tours. It's massive and spectacular, and it will take you almost a half day to really go through it.

Don't pass by the charming small hill towns, If you go, consider getting a Eurail pass (get 10 percent off during a summer sale). Most of the towns are easily visited by rail, and the pass is the easiest way to get around.

You will see a lot of spectacular towns and eat some wonderful food. It's not a tough trip.

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