I spent the weekend with friends in Verona, the amazingly beautiful heart of the Veneto, where they're having an Indian summer. Far from chilly London, you find yourself strolling beside the Adige river, marvelling at the Pisanello frescos in the church of St Anastasia, and reading the hilariously pretentious write-up of the new art installation in the old castle: 18 blue plastic beams laid on the battlements to create "a new cosmology".
You pass the afternoon gazing at the Italian matrons walking their tiny dogs on the Piazza Bra, each one maquillaged like Nancy Dell'Olio's even-higher-maintenance sister, or window-shopping on the Via Mazzini, and trying to resist buying a £120 Panama hat in Borsalino on the Piazza delle Erbe. At teatime, you struggle to find a café that will serve you milk in your Earl Grey (the Veronesi just don't get the British thing about milk: they find the idea of consuming breakfast cereal drenched in the stuff positively uncivilised).
And no visitor's itinerary is complete without a car-ride down the Via Albere, to check out the prostitutes: black African girls in jeans, tall Ukrainians in raincoats, and one stunning transsexual in skimpy underwear and a joke-shop silver wig. Verona dwellers are disdainful of the recent flood of immigrants from Albania, Romania, North Africa and further afield – the number of Chinese street traders and Sri Lankan restaurants has increased exponentially in the past five years.
The Veronesi I met aren't as xenophobic as the British – having a coastline so long and exposed to neighbours on all sides, they've become used to visitors over the centuries – but they're concerned about the profusion of nationalities. With typical Italian attention to style, they approve of the way the hookers slice up their territory: they can, with confidence, direct enquirers to the Serbian-hooker zone in the park, the Nigerian-hooker zone near the station, and the Chinese-hooker zone – one girl in a fetching white zippered jumpsuit, maintaining her vigil, like a tiny high commission in a foreign capital – beside the roundabout.
The city isn't as overrun with tourists as neighbouring Venice, and you can still find plenty of authentic local spirit. In a restaurant we visited, behind the Roman theatre, I dined on horse steak for the first time (more tender than beef steak, but has less flavour and tends to give you the, er, trots), and watched the other diners chuckling at the comical antics of the owner, a strange little chap known as Ropeton, or The Somersault Man, because of the way he runs hither and thither, in a constant state of jittery excitement, and occasionally roars people's names as if calling them out for a fight. To a Londoner, he seems a clear case of undiagnosed autism; to the locals, it's just the proprietor behaving picturesquely.
Every day, herds of visitors crowd into the courtyard of a medieval building known as Juliet's House. Daytrippers queue patiently for a chance to appear on the immemorial balcony, where the original teen hottie famously appeared to her lover, some time around 1300. The visitors seem heedless of the fact that Romeo and Juliet lived only in folklore, that there's no mention of a balcony in Shakespeare's play, and that the one on which they're posing was attached to the wall in 1936, after George Cukor's celebrated movie version.
Another queue waits, less patiently, to pose beside the medieval bronze statue of Juliet, whose face, throat and skirts are blackened by exposure to the elements, but whose torso has been burnished to a bright sheen by the tourists who, in their hilariously saucy way, invariably pose with one hand clamped to the girl's right breast. The medieval statue, by the way, was cast in 1972.
A friend who works for the Italian press was due to make a TV appearance the other day on RAI, the Italian BBC. As a routine precaution, the producers told him, "Be sure to sign the form that says you're not in the Mafia". My friend was nonplussed – when did broadcasters start having to do that? At the town hall, the girl handed over the declaration form as casually as if he'd applied for a driving licence. Because, although we may have thought that Italy's gangster activity had subsided since the arrest of Bernardo Provenzano last year, the Mafia are stronger than ever.
A report last week from the retailers' association Confesercenti showed that the Mafia's annual turnover is now €90bn, or 7 per cent of Italy's GDP, making it the country's most profitable business. Large corporations are accused of colluding with it for a quiet life, but, says the report, "protection rackets thrive in daily routine. People get used to them and they enter people's lives, taking root in workshops, companies, construction sites and the professions".
What intrigues middle-class Italians is the discovery of a sliding "tariff" of protection money. Market traders in Naples pay €5 or €10 a day for a stall. Shopkeepers cough up ¿100-€200 a month (twice as much in Palermo). And it will cost you ¿5,000 to open a supermarket, if you don't want to find the chiller cabinets smashed with baseball bats. An estimated 150,000 traders now pay protection money all over Italy. Nervous professionals now wonder how soon it will be before surgeries, hospitals, newspapers and legal practices can expect a little visit from the men in the Armani overcoats.Reuse content