A Singular Honeymoon - Part 1
Once upon a time, not so long ago, I was single, terminally single, and it dawned on me, a passionate and romantic traveller of old, not only will I not be getting married any time soon, but I won't be going on a Honeymoon either. This was devastating news. Me, someone whose sole reason for living was to travel, and to eat, and to drink, and to smell, (things ... not to actually pong) and to watch sunsets, and to swim, and to bask, and bathe and wallow and amble and stroll and to love.... to share. Someone whose heart lay in the classic honeymoon destinations no matter how crass and obvious they may have become.
There's still a way to do them justice, and for the reasons they actually became popular in the first place rather than this list that's been drawn up by grumpy narcissistic princesses and tour operators. These places became the Honeymoon 'A' list because they offered Renaissance architecture, works of art, isolated beaches, changing light, amazing sunsets, or even sunrises for those that chose to marry young. They offered great food, local wines, a sense of grandeur, of wonder and of escape... and of Hollywood romance. Like dipping ones toe in the foot spa of the Grand Tour but without having the surly mosquito attracting relatives in tow. It is in fact based on the Grand Tour. A trip carried out by the British nobility as a sojourn of enlightenment and learning. If we all save long enough for our wedding, and more importantly our Honeymoon, we can all be nobility. We all become romantic poets, characters from a Room With a View or of every romance novel ever written. Boy, I've seen some money thrown at bad weddings and even worse Honeymoons but that's all about personal choice, so I have to let them all off, .... begrudgingly. Going back to my point, a honeymoon is our chance to be utterly romantic and noble, if you will. So for me, not to be getting married was big news, big news indeed. There was only one thing for it - No, not rush into marriage with someone undeserving or ill fitting - I was to go on my Honeymoon on my own. There was only one rule, which is an unusual rule for a Honeymoon.... , probably - I wasn't allowed to say no to anything.
Where to begin? London. I always start with London
London could be seen as more of as Stag weekend than a Honeymoon really, but I'm sticking to my guns here. It was my dream romantic trip and I was going for it. It began with walks along South Bank, the Golden Hind, Tate Modern, feasting, stall by wonderful stall, and a beer or two at London's now famous Borough Market
before catching a boat to wander the streets and markets of Greenwich. Here, taking in the Cutty Sark, the magnificent Painted Hall of the Royal Naval College, the Meridian Line and a pint or two at The Gypsy Moth. Returning back to the City of London on a rather depressing bus to Leadenhall Market and a stroll down Fleet Street. Taking in a few of the historic pubs to be found down this quickly disappearing medieval gem. The Cheshire Cheese, the Punch Tavern and I even took in Ye Olde Cock, but not in the way you're thinking. I like pubs, always have. I used to work in them, run them and drink..... often, in them.
I love the smell, the history and the beer. The fact that so many are being lost to redevelopment, high rents and a changing social make-up, its saddening in the extreme. When visiting London, by the way, I urge you to choose your pubs before going to any particular area. Knowing something of a pub's history and choosing the best, really helps with the experience.
The next day was spent at Simpson's in the Strand eating Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding with a bottle of Crozes Hermitage and Treacle Pudding and Custard for 'afters'.
What a honeymoon this was turning out to be and I'd only just started. Later I met up with old friends for a pub crawl through the Dickensian streets of Clerkenwell. Part Stag, part Service, booze was already beginning to feature quite strongly on this very personal trip of mine. It all becomes a bit of a blur here but these streets are well worth a visit.
Great markets, great food, more history than you could shake a tally stick at, wonderful pubs and mighty handsome real ales, to boot. The next day was football. Why not?Arsenal v Manchester United. 1-1, at The Emirates Stadium in Islington.
If you ever fancy experiencing a top flight game, @arsenaltickets on Twitter is a good way of beating the online touts and is as reliable as can be. Worth noting too, that the excellent Piebury Corner, close to Holloway Road tube station, probably sells London's best pies, on match days or otherwise. The next day, Afternoon Tea at The Savoy - Newly refurbished and shining as brightly as a new pin. A walk around the Inner Temple and the delights of The Strand to walk of the scones and we're off again.
Leg one completed. Not all of it totally or classically romantic, I think you'll agree, but this was my Honeymoon remember. It's the only chance I'll get, as I certainly don't intend to not get married ever again.
Then on to Verona.
I arrived in Verona as nature intended, by train, as no chariots were available. After a short walk up the hill, you are immediately greeted by the amphitheatre. Surrounded by a crescent of cafes and tavernas, and it greets you like a hefty Great Maiden Aunt - A kiss on both cheeks, a big old bear hug and a drink of something stiff from the dusty sideboard. There are also quite a few tourists. Not so many as to make you run away, but quite a few, nonetheless. There are a few Centurions scattered around here too. HDT (High Definition Tourists) photo gimmicks at 5 or €10 a pop. I'm not going to pull any punches here; there is absolutely no excuse for them to be here. There are no excuses to have your photo taken with them either. If you didn't, they wouldn't exist, after all. This is an ancient city. A beautiful bastion of the Roman, the Renaissance and the Medieval. Many died building it, and many more died protecting it. If you want to have your photograph taken with unemployed actors dressed up as Roman Soldiers then go to Disneyland, for crying out loud.
Verona also owes its fame, in no small part, to William Shakespeare, who wrote several plays set within these majestic and fortified walls, The Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentlemen of Verona and the most important here, Romeo & Juliet. Because of the latter, the place has taken on an even more romantically reverential air, with lovers and sentimentalists flocking from the world all over, to see Juliet's balcony, hang a lovers lock or even leave a letter to Juliet herself. There are so many traditions surrounding Juliet's 'house' that it's hard to know where to begin. I guess that's for those particular disciples to find out and to act upon. To me she's a work of fiction and to lord over a balcony that good old Bill didn't even know existed in a town he never visited about a women he made up, isn't so much about Juliet's Balcony as The Verona Tourist Authority's Balcony. In fact, it's now a World Heritage Site so they've done really well out of it. The crowds gather and and it's quite horrible, but I guess people need they're romantic fables. A bit like believing that Marilyn Monroe was a good actress, a brilliant singer, a great dancer, a humanitarian, a feminist icon, a professional performer and all round good egg. Make it up, and the people will buy it..... But I digress.
Verona is utterly captivating and it's one of my favourite cities in Italy, if not the world. Apart from the things I've previously mentioned, the streets are narrow and cobbled, the food traditional and plentiful, there are enough bars of all types to keep us real, or to help us escape. There are beautiful walks, especially up to the Giardino Giusti, where the views back down over the old town and the pretty rapidly flowing Adige River, are mesmerising, and live long in the memory..... Especially if you have your camera with you. Many people take a picnic up to the boundary walls and watch the long sunset, accompanied with a bottle of wine and not a small amount of love. Couples of every age also embrace and snatch kisses along the banks of the river as they walk always slowly, in each others arms. - It really is that kind of place, so I suppose I can thank Juliet a little for her contribution after all. The piazzas too, are well worth a mention and are exactly as they are supposed to be. Bustling with real people, townsfolk and cooks hungry for ingredients for tonight's meal, locals meeting and talking keenly about the weeks happenings and the usual array of tourists shopping for crap they don't need, can't use and have to carry home.
In the evening, the atmosphere changes and it's very easy to lose the whole evening in the same spot - People watching, relaxing and drinking a glass of the local Soave easily lets slip the hours. Soave, this crisp, delicious white wine is a must, by the way. Often overlooked in favour of the well overrated Pinot Grigio, it is a firm favourite with OST and Italians alike, and its easy drinking and subtle orchard flavours make it a great and reliable all rounder. I'd consider it akin to drinking sherry in southern Spain, it's that innate to the area. I chose to stay at the splendid Palazzo Victoria. I wonderful and romantic hotel near the city walls and close to everything. On my second night, there was a private party held there for a local TV celebrity. This party I naturally gatecrashed and it turned into quite a night. If you enter into an agreement for a Honeymoon whereby saying 'No' is not allowed, you can only imagine how bad things might get a big 'do' like this one. Suffice to say that stuck to my remit like glue and duly can't remember anything about the next 12 hours.
The Castelvecchio at night was an unexpected delight, the churches and basilicas are incredible, the locals friendly and kind and I can only recommend it as highly as I can. I love Verona, with every ounce of my heart. Also, there are so many other wonderful, iconic Italian cities in the area, easily accessible by train, that Verona also makes a fantastic base from which to explore the region. The lakes, Venice, Padua, Milan, Bologna and Modena are all within a laid back day trip away. Verona is almost perfect, and it's certainly perfect enough. It's our job to help ensure it continuing perfectitudeness by caring for and appreciating its history and beauty and turning our noses up at the tacky tourist traps and the tawdry trinkets.
Verona - This was my first port of call proper, on my Honeymoon and it's going really well thus far. I'm still in love and there have been no arguments. I can even thank this mesmerising city for that.
From Verona I headed to Lake Garda. The train part was easy, but there were no buses running at the time as it was a public holiday or some such, and it was going to be difficult getting from the station at Peschiera to Garda itself, but a cab was an option and this, I took. I even gave a young couple a lift to their hotel en route, as my random act of kindness for the day too, and boy, were they in love. Being on Honeymoon on my own might not be such an easy ride after all, the way these two were going at it. I was quite jealous and I was on my honeymoon.
I arrived in Garda late morning and after a very brief walk around the lakeside town, I picked my spot in a restaurant on the waters edge and settled in. I was thirsty, firstly, and so I ordered a Moretti. I actually hoped to god for a whole fish for lunch. Simply grilled, with lemon, fried potatoes and a green salad. The whole area just shouted this meal at you.
Nothing else was going to do. It wasn't a pasta day, no pizza here. It was Bream or Bass all the way, and my wishes came true, precisely and perfectly, and it was magnificent.
I drank yet another bottle of Soave, had a dessert I can't remember and then drank a few numbing Campari and sodas, just to because I was in the mood and was enjoying watching the lakeside activity, the passers-by and the warm atmosphere in general. It's exactly as you might imagine it and that's no bad thing. The colours are bright, the air clear, the atmosphere nostalgic but not run down or defunct. The locals and tourists alike, were happy and there were thankfully few of the latter. Most of the tourists obviously preferring the bustlier option that is Sirmione.
I love the long, lazy afternoons when I don't move an inch. I've spent so many such afternoons in comfortable tavernas or trattorias, hugged by alcohol and kissed by good fortune, unable to move... Not wishing to move. Why have to move anywhere? Eventually the time came to gather my things and to leave, as I had a flight to Greece to catch later that evening and I had lost track of time a little. I can honestly say that I have no idea where my luggage was but maybe that key point will come back to me as I write this. Where on earth did I leave it? It certainly wasn't on me.
I took a boat down and across the lake and it was wonderful. Stopping off at the old lakeside towns of Bardolino and Lazise before disembarking in the dreaded Sirmione.
Don't get me wrong, Sirmione is a wonderful looking town but it was rammed, and I was getting tired and well over the bar when it came to brawling and doing the cobbled street shuffle with every Tom, Dietrich and Harvey there. It was a bank holiday too, don't forget, so the Italian day trippers were out in droves as well. I just wanted out.
This as it turned out, involved a very, very long walk to the train station. From there, to the airport to try and remember where I'd left my luggage, then off to the Greek Islands, ...... not all of them, it's worth noting, but some. The day had been a busy one, but you need to cram these things in. Travelling these huge distances mean that we need to make the effort once we arrive - either to cross it off a list or to confirm that a place deserves more of our precious time. Garda was lovely. It was going very well indeed.