Are you ready for a trip to Lessinia? Come with me to Europe’s largest natural bridge, which was probably the inspiration for Dante and a famous painter. It is called the Ponte Veja and is about half an hour’s drive from Verona. Let’s explore it together!
You will be wowed by the size of this natural monument, especially when you consider that humans have had nothing to do with its creation. One drop at a time, water has worked its way into the rocks to create this enormous arch, a tourist attraction and a site of geological and archaeological interest. Archaeological?
Absolutely because just below the top there are two caves where remains have been found from the Paleolithic era. It seems that these mountains were popular with our prehistoric forefathers, as evidenced by carvings on the wall that show how people moved here around one hundred thousand years ago to live in the deep caves and may have remained here for more than fifty thousand years or until the last ice age. Some claim that the spirit of these people can still be felt and they like to imagine how people spent their days up there. Obviously, this is a leap of imagination but an understandable one given the majestic nature of this place. Unfortunately, these days we can only look at the caves because they are still being studied by archaeologists and are closed to the public.
Ponte Veja in art: from Dante to Mantegna
Talking of the past, did you know that Dante sought refuge in Verona during his exile from Florence? It seems that he also visited Lessinia and, most probably, Ponte Veja. He mentions it in his Inferno, in the description of the eighth circle of hell, the circle of Malebolge. He describes a place with an iron-coloured stone bridge and in fact Ponte Veja is a pinkish colour due to the presence of red ammonite; in addition, it is a bridge that emerges from the rock:
I moved along;
Few steps we made until we there had come;
Where from the bank a rib of rock was flung."
(Inferno Canto XVIII)
In the case of Dante, we can only speculate. There is less doubt about the fresco by Andrea Montegna in the famous bridal chamber of the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua. The bridge on the left of the mural clearly resembles the Ponte Veja. The background is different but the rest is like a photograph.
How was the Ponte Veja formed?
This enormous bridge, more than thirty metres high and fifty metres long, is thought to have been the roof of an enormous cavern which was formed by water erosion. The opening may not have been so large because below the top you can still find many stone blocks. It is likely that these fell from the bridge, formed from impermeable layers of red ammonite marble and easily eroded red limestone. I recommend viewing the bridge from below, next to the stream, to get an impression of just how impressive this natural monument is.
Trattoria Ponte Veja, the traditional cuisine of Lessinia
Close to the bridge there is an excellent restaurant where you can savour some traditional Lessinia cooking. For example, grilled polenta with soppressa, the traditional sausage of Verona and perhaps a side of freshly picked mushrooms. Or why not try some simple gnocchi, which are even tastier with a sprinkling of Monte Veronese, Lessinia’s DOP cheese. Still hungry? I recommend a bowl of rabbit stew with polenta, a local delicacy.
But if you go to Ponte Veja in winter, you must try lesso misto con pearà, a stew of boiled meats in a creamy sauce made from bread, stock and pepper. I’m getting hungry! Perhaps I should tell you how to work off all this good food!
You could go for a walk to Dante’s chestnut tree, a six hundred year-old tree which the great poet is said to have sat under whilst writing the Malebolge circle of hell in his Inferno. You can also climb up onto the Ponte Veja, if you have a good head for heights. Otherwise, it would be better to take the little path that goes under it to a clearing which is an excellent vantage point for some photos.