After the huge event at the Castelvecchio and the excitement of the Torino Book Fair, Jan and I were looking forward to a day to ourselves. On Sunday we took a mid-day train back to Verona, then Jan cooked a dinner for our hostess, Joyce, and Anna and Antonio. She made her legendary brie soup, and we talked politics and art and culture until late into the night.
The next day we had been invited to stay at La Foresteria, the suite of apartments attached to the Serego-Alighieri estates. For those who do not know, the "Alighieri" in that name is that of Dante Alighieri. His son (and my hero) Pietro bought land in the Valpolicella region of Italy in 1353, and the family has lived there ever since. On our first visit in 2002, Jan and I were lucky enough to have an afternoon to interview the Count Serego-Alighieri about his family history. He showed us the marriage carriage that was used when the family linked itself to the Serego clan (another famous Veronese family, one of whom murdered a descendant of Mastino!). We saw the family crest inlaid in the floor and over the mantle, beside framed photos of the Count's daughters.
Which is one of the things I like best about Verona. Everything is still in use. From the Arena, where they hold operas and concerts, to Cangrande's palace, which is not only the city hall but also houses the apartment of the chief of police, to a lovely condo Jan and I toured, with famous 19th century paintings the size of half a basketball court on the walls. They maintain the old, but with the new. Nothing is kept out of use, but rather worked seamlessly into daily life.
This time, after a lovely morning exploring places that are going to show up in The Prince's Doom, Anna drove Jan and me out to the Count's abode in the country. It's much more built up than I remember, and indeed when we spoke, the Count lamented the overdevelopment that's been happening. He's very much a Lord Grantham, but without the myopia - instead of clinging to tradition, his vineyard has partnered with MASI wines, gaining him a huge distribution for his products. He sees the building that's been happening as speculative, and ruining the land upon which they make their living.
Ever an elegant man, we sat down with him in the dining area of La Foresteria, after depositing our bags in our beautiful room. I presented him with copies of all the Verona books - I'd sent one when MoV was first published, but it felt wonderful to hand him a copy in Italian as well. Then he, Jan, Anna, and I sat and talked for half an hour. It was delightful, mostly because I didn't want anything from him this time. Instead, I was the one bringing gifts.
Before, I had only been interested in the 14th century history of the land. This time I looked around at the large courtyard, at the looming shadow of Monte Baldo to the north, and said, "How on earth did the villa survive the Second World War?"
The Count looked at me in surprise. "Did I never tell you this story?" And he proceeded to relate how his father had saved the villa in 1945.
During the war, the Nazis used the villa as an outpost, first for troops, then as a munitions depot. The whole area sits at the foot of the Brenner Pass, the route the retreating Nazis would have to take. On April 22nd 1945 the order came to all Nazis still in Italy - retreat, and leave nothing for the Allies to use. For the Nazis stationed at La Foresteria, this meant blowing up all of the munitions - and the villa and village along with them.
That night, the Count's father invited the Nazi commander to a farewell dinner, and produced his best bottles of the wine grown on the land. He then proceeded to get the man drunk, talking all the time about this history of the villa, of the people in the village. He then offered the commander a way to obey his orders without blowing up anything. What if they transported all the munitions to the river and disposed of them there? The ordinance would be useless, and no one would be hurt.
The Nazi commander agreed in theory, but could not spare the men to do the work, not when they would be pulling back the next day. So late in the night the Count's father roused the whole village. Under the watchful eyes of a few Nazi soldiers, the villagers carried the explosives to the river and threw them in. By dawn of April 23rd, the munitons were all ruined and gone. The villagers were just beginning to relax when they heard a massive explosion from across the valley. Another village had not been so fortunate - the Nazi commander there had obeyed his orders to the letter.
The Nazis pulled out, and April 24th was V-I Day - Victory in Italy.
It did not escape me, of course, that the action of the story took place in the small hours of April 23rd. My wedding anniversary - and also Shakespeare's birthday. Serendipity seems to follow Shakespeare, Verona, and me.
After telling us that story, the Count arranged for Jan and I to have dinner in a nearby restaurant - which we later discovered he had asked to open just for us. Before we parted for the evening, I asked a favor. I had a photo of the Count and me standing beside his villa from 2002. Could we repeat the photograph? He agreed, and promised to meet me there in another dozen years.
Saying goodbye to Anna, we retired to our suite for a couple hours before taking a taxi to the next village over and having what I must confess was the best meal of my life. But I'll save that for another post.