Climbing Verona’s Scalone San Pietro

Photo by Jill KimballWe were hopelessly obvious tourists, my mother and I. We sported unintentionally matching black fleece jackets, bags decidedly not made of leather, and confused expressions as we stopped at every corner to consult a city map.

But I was sure the Italians who walked past us and made a concerted effort to ignore our Americanness must understand our befuddlement. Their hometown of Verona, they must know, was a distracting place. For every sight we intended to visit, there was another equally interesting sight not marked on our maps that we stumbled upon and consequently forgot where we’d been headed in the first place.

This time, we were on our way to the Roman theater across the river from Verona’s historical center. The city dropped us off two blocks from the ruins along a busy traffic artery. Which direction should we go? We pulled out the map once more. Then it happened again. Verona’s distracting nature reared its too-beautiful head in the form of a narrow column of stone steps lined with sherbet ice cream apartment buildings. The engraved stone street sign on the wall, which read “Scalone San Pietro,” begged us to climb the stairs to the top, where we knew the hill palace of Castel San Pietro stood.

Balcony on the Scalone San Pietro, Verona, Veneto, Italy. Photo by Jill Kimball

With thoughts of Roman ruins gone from our minds, we climbed the stairs. It might have been the red of the first apartment building on my left, a color that reminded me of the Early Girl tomatoes that spilled over the sides of the planter box in the backyard one summer, that pulled me in. Or it could have been the quaintness of the basket-adorned bikes strategically locked against the ground-floor windows covered by iron bars. The paint on Number 7’s facade was a splotchy salmon shade, the kind of color foreigners try to duplicate with sponges when they want the Tuscan look but that can only truly be achieved by the erosions of time. A grape vine snaked its way in and out of the iron-bar balcony, and I wondered why there weren’t crowds of people gathered here, because surely this was the real balcony on which Juliet called for her Romeo. As far as I was concerned, this house, with its gently creeping greenery framing the wooden doorway, was the realCapulet family home.

In two more flights of steps, an iron gate stood open and a sign vaguely mentioned restoration. We curiously walked through and found ourselves in what looked like the Irish countryside. A deep thicket of grass stretched out to the base of a brick wall at the edge of the hill. Crudely hewn prisms of stone, placed all around the grass, served as benches. No one else was there, nor had anyone left evidence of having visited recently, adding to the park’s austerity. Yet somehow the blank expanse of grass and stone was inviting, and I felt an urge to sit down with some panini and wine and gaze out at the mist. For even on this gray day, the city’s entire expanse was visible from here. Past the River Adige, red spires and domes stuck out of the tile-cielinged maze and mopeds the size of ants scooted along the bridges. On a hill opposite the park, on the outskirts of the city, sat a massive Palladian-style columned creation above dots of houses.

View from the Parco Scalone Castel San Pietro, Verona, Veneto, Italy. Photo by Jill Kimball

Why was no one here, I thought? Could there be a better view of Verona anywhere else in the city? Shouldn’t Rick Steves let people know about this?

Perhaps, for all our fashion faux pas and touristy tendencies, my mother and I had the capacity to be trendsetters.

The clash of the Italians

I had just finished my oil-covered bruschetta appetizer when the young waiter appeared to whisk our plates away and clear the table for our main course platters–gnocchi, rice, octopus. Before he could walk away, I stopped him by asking in my most polished Italian accent where I might find the bathroom.

I knew, however, all was already lost. It was clear by the way he silently appraised me with an up-and-down sweep of the eyes that to him I was just another foreign tourist. Perhaps it was my flared jeans, which had gone out of style two years ago in Italy, or the emerging holes at the hem of my black cotton v-neck t-shirt. To He Of The Impeccably-Pressed Black Button-Down, to this twentysomething Florentine waiter whose white apron remained spotless in the face of innumerable drink spills, I was an underling. He did not, nor would he ever, consider us kindred spirits.

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Nevertheless, out of politeness, he asked my parents and I where we were from and what brought us to Florence. My mom explained that she and my dad were on vacation from the States and that I was studying in Italy this term.

“Here?” he asked.

“No,” I said, “in a really small town. Near Venice.”

“Which town?”

You’ve never heard of it, I thought. “Paderno del Grappa? In the Veneto?”

At that last word he wrinkled his nose, as if physically repulsed. “The Veneto?” He waved his hand in a dismissive shooing motion. “Why would you want to study there?”

Florence, I knew he meant to imply, was the only place worth studying in all of Italy. And why not? It is, after all, the home of all the great Renaissance thinkers, painters, sculptors and architects and houses most of the relics of these great men within its city limits. Couple Florence’s historical significance with the fact that it’s cradled neatly in the heart of the rolling hills of Tuscany and that it’s made up almost entirely of red-roofed buildings and you’ve got yourself an extraordinarily inspiring place to think and create. Picture the perfect study spot, multiply it by a few square miles, add some mint-green and pale-orange stripes of marble, and viola! That’s Florence. A study spot for the ages.

I understood the waiter’s point, but the fact was, he wasn’t merely suggesting Florence was an inspiring city for scholars. He was suggesting the Veneto was ugly and drab. He wasn’t giving me helpful advice; he was introducing me to the subtle geographical warfare that’s present everywhere in Italy.

My friend Marco was born in Verona, a Veneto city whose residents unconditionally support their now-dismal home soccer team as a Chicago Cubs fan might have done in the 1990s. He was elated upon hearing I was to study in his home region; though he regretted I had to live in folksy Paderno del Grappa, he joyously announced Verona was a mere hour or two away by train. I told him I’d like to travel all around Italy while I was there: Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples…

“DON’T go to Southern Italy, whatever you do,” he warned me in an ominous tone. “Not Naples, and especially not Sicily.” As far as Marco was concerned, Italy got worse the farther south you traveled.

Why do people in different regions of Italy despise those in other regions? To an outsider, the entirety of Italy is beautiful and worth visiting. Why do they refuse to admit that parts of Italy other than their own hometowns contain spots of interest and beauty? I understand a certain degree of rivalry; after all, we Northern Californians always joke that Southern Californians are too shallow, fake and sun-drenched for our taste. But we certainly don’t hate each other. I continually tell people that San Diego is one of the loveliest and most culturally rich places in the state. So, Italians, what gives?

To understand these ancient rivalries, Americans must understand that Italy is just that–ancient. Roots here run deep; families raised in a specific Italian town may not leave that town for 10 generations. Thus, allegiance to an Italian region morphs into defense for that region and, ultimately, denunciation of the rest of Italy. We Americans, ever a mobile people whose culture is decidedly not formed from ancient history, don’t understand these multiple generations never uprooting. When I have kids, they will most likely leave the nest and start their own lives somewhere else; their kids will probably do the same. We move on. Italians stay put.

I never thought I’d say this, but maybe the Italians can learn something from us: geographic tolerance. That waiter doesn’t know what he’s missing if he’s never woken up to the sight of the snow-covered Dolomites out his bedroom window.