Legend has it that, just after the end of the war in 489 AD between Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, and the Roman general Odoacer, the starving people of Verona were granted exceptional permission to eat the many horse carcasses left on the battlefield at the gates of the city. And thus the local horse meat tradition was born, still alive to this day.
Verona is one of few cities – the only one I personally have ever seen – where there are so many butcher shops dedicated to horse meat, also offering donkey and mule. There are at least a dozen in the municipality alone, the most famous of which is probably the Avesani butcher shop located in Piazzetta Monte, in the historic city centre.
Horse meat is the basis of several traditional Veronese recipes: first and foremost is “pastisada de caval” – a sort of stew slow cooked in red wine – but there are also meatballs, steaks, sauces and many more.
However, the belief that Veronese people only like horses on a plate is a gross oversimplification. In fact, the Fiera Cavalli horse fair has been held every November in Verona for over a century, the oldest in the city and the largest in Italy.
Today the Fiera Cavalli is one of the city’s most successful events. The first edition took place in 1897, but horse fairs have been held in Verona from time immemorial. The buying and selling of horses, in a city that has always been a major agricultural centre and a commercial hub, was a very important activity before the advent of the car.
Nowadays, horses are no longer bought to pull carriages or farm machinery, but to compete in horse races or to be used for equestrian tourism. The Fiera Cavalli, held in the Verona Exhibition Centre, is first and foremost a large exhibition, ranging from the finest thoroughbreds on the international circuit to foals that will, hopefully, become the champions of tomorrow.
But the Fiera Cavalli is also an event in its own right which sees thousands of children and young people flock to it alongside enthusiasts and industry professionals. There are horse shows, demonstrations and competitions, a chance to experience the thrill of riding for the first time or just to pet a pony.
The province of Verona, with its vineyard-covered hills, its gently sloping mountains with forests and pastures, its rivers (the Adige and the Mincio) is ideal for horseback riding, not to mention the numerous locations in the surrounding area where you can take a ride in contact with nature.
The Scaligero riding club are the closest stables to the historical centre: they are located in Boschetto, at the entrance of the South Adige Park, a vast area of woods and fields, full of trails and glades. Following the Adige north, up to the corte Molon villa, is another equestrian centre which organises horse rides in the Valpolicella hills and the mountain of Lessinia.
What Verona is lacking is a real racecourse. Not to worry: less than two hours to the north by car (or train), is Merano, where, in addition to having a historic racecourse, one of the most exciting horse races in Italy is held is held at the end of September every year. I have been once, to experience the thrill of betting on horses: that’s 10 euros straight down the pan.