Ah, Verona, the city of love, but Juliet should really cover up

Entrance to the amphitheater

Inside the amphitheater

Veneta region in Italy isn’t just about Venice. This region in the north is a surprise for those who decide to stray from the glorious city of canals, so famously immortalized by artists like Canelleto and literary scribes.

However, there’s Verona, the romantic city along the Adige River, population 270,000, and one of the richest and most prosperous cities, second in size in Veneta area after Venice. And it’s a comfortable 1 ½ hour drive.

Verona has been immortalized by Shakespeare who wrote the story of legendary star- crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, the oldest of all his tragedies. To this day no one is quite sure that the tale of the hapless duo actually took place. However, her actual family house survives in the city centre.

Through an ivy covered archway, being elbowed and elbowing our way into the crowded courtyard, Alberto, my guide, suggested that for luck, I should rub the now brightly polished right bosom of the bronze Juliet statue. I declined this superstition for various reasons but certainly after seeing several men and women, their hands cupping the vivacious heroine, looking profoundly foolish. Equally silly were the tourists who paid to stand on Juliet’s small marble balcony waving madly at their fellow travelling mates who snapped photos from below.

Inside the amphitheater

Costumers below the amphitheater

All that garishness aside, one cannot visit Verona without seeing this site. The house lived in by the Capulets was built in the 13th century and has survived while Casa Montecchi, the Montague’s house where Romeo resided, was in great disrepair and only recently privately purchased, renovated and now hidden by a wall built to keep away tourists’ prying eyes.

“No stopping for shopping,” Alberto dictated. My heart went pitter-patter as one supposes the very young Juliet felt when she saw her Romeo. Shopping is, after all, a love in another way and being a new age sport, it only seemed reasonable that I should partake as I walked on the marble pedestrian walk of chic and very fashionable via Guise Mizzen with the best Italian designer boutiques.

However, with time being a major issue and so much more to see, I obliged Antonio with just an occasional glance at the well-dressed windows.

Juliet’s balcony

Soon we were in the wide historic Piazza delle Erbe, described as one of the most beautiful squares in Italy. Centrally placed is The Madonna Verona Fountain built in 1368, perched atop a large marble basin taken from the old Roman baths.

In the mid day summer heat, a golden-coloured cocker spaniel couldn’t resist a dip in the fountain as his owner looked on with amusement. One could only surmise that he may be an Englishman who foolishly ‘goes out in the noonday sun’.

The square is an encyclopedia of architectural styles from Neo Classic, Romanesque to Baroque. Cavalli frescoes from the 16th century, are still visible on the exterior walls of Cassa Mazzanati.

At the end of the piazza is the monumental Baroque Palazzo Mafei, a 16th century building topped with 6 pagan divinities, Jupiter, Mercury Venus, Apollo, Hercules and Minerva. Torra dei (Tower) Lamberti, an 83 metre high construction from the 10th century, overwhelms with its presence. The only hiccup in this stunning area are the kitschy but definitely colourful market stalls that uglify this gracious piazza…

Another reason to come to Verona is to walk around one of the greatest and most famous archaeological monuments in Europe – the Roman Amphitheatre (also known as the Arena). Built in the 1st century, the 15,060 marble seats were once filled with a blood- thirsty audience who came to view the gladiators in their sanguine sport. These days, it is more refined. Although there are performances by rock stars like Eric Clapton and The Eagles, tickets for the major operatic productions during the summer, are much sought after.

Dressing room and wig room

“From May to September, the arena is turned into a theatre while the rest of the year it’s just a monument,” says Romy, the totally bilingual American born ‘ufficio commerciale e marketing, Fondazione, Arena di Verona. “Everything you see that isn’t Roman, has been added,” she said referring to the rugs, stage, chairs and orchestra pit.”

The first opera preformed here was Aida in 1913. It was also the first open air opera staged anywhere in Italy. With the exception of the two World Wars, there have always been productions. This year there are 5 operas and two new productions. Romy, pointed to the ancient arches in what we’d consider nose-bleed section known to cognoscenti to have the best acoustics. Curiously, they’re located in the less expensive seating area. The most expensive seats, (Euro 160) are on the floor. That evening, a sold-out production of Carmen was being performed. I watched as workmen built a large tilted stage for this opera.

Although not open to the public, below the Arena, are rooms that contain the wigs, costumes, areas for the alterations, dressing rooms and other small work areas.

It had rained the night before and also the morning of my visit. This ancient building has serious leaks. When it rains outside, it pours inside. However, considering the age of this mammoth edifice, it is an amazing feat that the condition is as good as it is. If the opera is interrupted by rain before the first act is over, theatre goers are reimbursed. And if there’s a weather problem after that, they try to wait it out. As a last resort, if that doesn’t work, then sorry but you’re out of luck, no refund, no opera. If that happens, the best substitute is to head to one of the many cafes and restaurants across at Piazza Bra where there’s an active nightlife.

From inside, I walked outside to the rear of the building, a strange sight indeed. Sitting there are various sets, one a huge pyramid. It’s here were grand sets from the opera Aida ( the next performance) is placed on the pavement, roped off and with the necessary security guards nearby. Since there is no storage room and the repertoire has several different operas scheduled, there isn’t any other area to ‘store’ the decorative sets.

Italians eat late compared to their North American counterparts so there was no fuss when we arrived for lunch after 2.30 at Le Calmiere. Piazza San Zeno, not in the city centre but walkable. Locals love this casual eatery where we were served homemade pasta and polenta with the local fresh water fish, luccio. After a very strong espresso (no cappuccino after 10AM and certainly no Starbucks), we walked over to the Basilica of San Zeno Maggiore, a great Romanesque architectural achievement. San Zeno is the patron saint of fishermen. Each side of the entrance is embellished with 18 bas relief panels depicting biblical scenes. The extraordinary huge bronze doors also have panels. Representing the life of San Zeno. Once inside, the 12th-14th century frescoes cover the church and the well preserved XV century altarpiece by Mantegna, are reasons to visit this amazing building.

The bronze of Juliet

Considered one of the five most beautiful gardens in the world with the unfortunate name, Temple of Nature, (Villa Sigurta Park), this third generation, privately owned, landscaped masterpiece, attracts all ages. As I wandered over a Japanese bridge, young children were amused by the fish and the lotus flowers in the pond below. On a hill, an elaborate tent had already been ‘pitched’ while the all-white table and chairs coverings and flowers were being readied for an evening wedding. The movie-set setting was perfect for glamourous nuptials.

Twenty minutes away is shimmering Lake Garda and where the recently opened 68 room, Hotel Caesius Thermae is located in the small resort town of Bardolino. The indoor pool near the spa didn’t attract many swimmers but the heat of the day drew swimmers to the large outdoor pool set among a well tended, colourful flowering garden. The hotel owns a large sail boat and twice a week, offers guests a 2 ½ hour trip around the lake. No wonder artists, celebrities and visiting potentates flock to this area with most impressive private homes and exclusive hotels. There can’t be too many lakes with the charm of background mountains, a stretch of sandy beaches, and calm azure waters.

Along with the tale of youth, beauty and love immortalized by the world’s greatest writer, the lively city of Verona and the sparkling Lake Garda, has magic worth the short trip from another of the world’s famed cities, Venice.

I flew to Italy on Alitalia. We drove from Venice to Verona, about 1 ½ hours depending on traffic.

Arena di Verona
Piazza Bra, 28

Ristorante Al Calmiere
Piazza San Zeno 10 Tel. 39 045 8030765
Email. Calmiere@libero.it

Hotel Caesius Thermae Tel 39 045 7219106
Via Pescheria 3, Bardolino

Church of San Zeno
Piazza San Zeno
Tel 045 800 6120).