The ultimate night out: opera in Verona.

by eileenco

If you think you don't like Opera - try this. A night out does not get any better. All for €20!! All easily done on a short break on a cheap flight to Milan.

Thank you Ryanair. We can now all have the ultimate night out without breaking the bank. Fly on a budget to Milan fand spend a night at the open-air opera in Verona. Don't like opera? Try sitting at the top of the Roman arena with the sun going down over Verona (think Romeo and Juliet). Mellow bottle of local red wine, some bread and tangy cheese along with 20,000 other people buzzing with anticipation. On to centre stage walks a diminutive figure (you are at the top of the arena, remember) with an impossibly big gong, and the one-minute countdown  to the start of the show begins. This is your cue to light the candle given to you on arrival. Magic. The whole arena twinkles and falls silent.

Live music, extravagant stage sets, impossible stories – all told with heart-grabbing emotion. You would have to be a wooden top not to be moved. If this is your first experience of opera and you are really only there for the picnic with a view, just you wait. You will be drawn in by the drama and will only be released three hours later when it is all over.

Midnight in Verona and 20,000 people stream out of the many gates all round the arena. It feels like the end of a  football match and suddenly you are dropped back to reality. Savour the evening at one of the many restaurants which are alive with dinner being served in the middle of the night. Try the delicious Ostaria La Stueta (via Redentore 4B) but remember to book early in the day if you want a table here.

If you have an extra day, Venice is only a short train ride away. I arrived at the Venice station accommodation office in mid August  and was offered a night at the fabulous Hotel Saturnia, in central Venice, for half price. OK, it was still €150 but for a sumptuous room overlooking the canal it had to be a bargain. Best of all, it is only two minutes' walk to St Marks Square.

So, now the room is arranged, better find the water bus to whisk us down from the train station on the Grand Canal to St Marks Square. Exit the station and you are standing in a Turner painting with water taxis tying up and loading and disgorging passengers right in front of you. Buy a 24-hour pass and you are free to travel around the canals at your leisure. The pass includes visiting other islands such as Murano where you can leave the hustle of Venice and step back in time – where they still create the famous exclusive Murano glassware. Eat an authentic, imaginative and reasonably priced dinner on the side of the canal at La Zucca (www.restaurantsomh.com/v25.htm), meaning Pumpkin. This is great dining and is especially good for vegetarians.

We had one night left on our three day break and had thought about a night at the Italian lakes on our way back to Milan – but the possibility of a second night at the opera was too alluring and tickets for Aida were purchased for the same night. Was that ever the right decision? Our first opera was La Traviata – an intimate and absorbing story. By contrast, Aida was an extravagant spectacle of an opera set in ancient  Egypt with a cast of hundreds and beguiling special effects. Think full-size elephants marching  across the skyline, etc. This really is pantomime for grown-ups. You have to smile.

You could of course spend a whole  week in Verona, attending a different opera almost every night- many people do. We were there in August and the unallocated seats on the stone steps of the arena were readily available even on the night of the performance. There are proper seats as well, of course, for the high prices usually associated with opera – but the experience on the stone seats (cushion can be rented for €1) is just as good if not better.

We planned to pick up a picnic of some bread and wine on our way to the event but the shops had all just closed. No problem, as we went back to a great little bodega we had visited through the day and a bottle of Valpolicella Classico was opened and bagged along with some bread and fantastic hard cheese. Nothing could have tasted better. The bodega was a great find up one of the many spoke streets radiating off the arena. It was a modern take on an old formula and served wine and cheeses throughut the day and at lunchtime there was hot food available. I asked for a menu and was simply offered  the dish of the day (there was only ever one) which on that occasion was gnocchi with a sauce – perfect and saves the agony of choosing the wrong thing off the menu!

Verona is a great place to start an Italian experience as it is small enough not to get lost and well known enough as the location of Romeo and Juliet, to impress. Visit the Juliet balcony for a photo call to show your friends and wander along the river to get back where you started. Venice is nothing short of sensational and Milan is the capital of style. A complete Italian experience… and we haven't even thought about Florence, Tuscany or Rome. Whether you choose Verona for a short break, or just stay there overnight, you will be talking about it for months.