Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 February 2009
Issue No. 933
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Walking through Verona

Giovanna Montalbetti visits the mecca of all lovers

photos: Sherif Sonbol Click to view caption
Clockwise from left: as visitors were sticking love notes with bubble gum defacing the walls of the house, it was decided to encourage the use of the gallery's walls instead. The gallery has become a singular site in its own right, usually full of people expressing their love in colourful graffiti; The bronze statue depicting Juliet by Paolo Groppo has developed a legend of its own. According to the myth, touching the statue's right breast brings good fortune, which accounts for the polished look of this part of Juliet's body; despite being devised as a touristic attraction (the balcony was an addition of the last century and Juliet may have never lived in the house), the courtyard at Casa di Giulietta is usually packed with tourists cramming to see the bronze statue and the famous balcony photos: Sherif Sonbol

It is early morning. The air is cool and the streets are silent. The first sun is timidly reflected on the marbled surface of Via Mazzini. The fashionable shops that have made this street famous are still closed, and the only people we pass by are a few locals on their way to work. This is one of Verona's many charms: despite being Italy's fourth most visited city, you will not find the crowds of Venice or Rome except, maybe, during the summer opera season or during Italy's top wine festival, Vinitaly.

Reality and legend come together in Verona: the reality of an artistic city full of history, and the legend of the world's most famous love story. William Shakespeare chose Verona as the setting for his Romeo and Juliet, and on walking through its streets it is hard to imagine he could have thought of a better scenario.

It is to Casa di Giulietta (Juliet's house) in Via Capello that we first walk. If you want to keep the illusion that Verona is yours alone, early morning is the best time to go and see what has become its most popular attraction. The house itself is not massively visited; most tourists feel happy enough to stare up at the balcony from the courtyard and dream of Juliet as they pose for a picture by her bronze statue. The site was used to accommodate the legend. Though no real evidence sustains Juliet ever lived here, the house displays a collection of antique furniture, as well as the bedroom used in Franco Zefirelli's film, and some frescoes saved from ancient villas that make it worth visiting. The courtyard is deserted and silent when we arrive, and we are even able to inspect the covered gallery that leads to it from the street. It is on the walls of this gallery that millions of lovers have scribbled their names and love- related insights, contributing thus to Verona's romantic legend.

As the first tourists arrive to Juliet's House we walk up to Piazza Erbe. The square sits on the site of the Roman forum and still it is the heart of the city. At its northern side is the Palazzo Maffei, located where the Roman capital used to be.

As the sun starts to warm the air, it is time to go up Torri dei Lamberti to enjoy one of the best sights of the city, right from its centre. From here it will be easy to decide which way to head thereafter, and to get impressive views of the nearest attractions.

Very close is Piazza dei Signori, the city's most elegant square, presided over by a statue of Dante Alighieri. When banished from Florence, Dante settled in Verona working on his Divine Comedy and dreaming of his platonic love, Beatrice.

Just by the piazza is the Arche Scaligeri, the white gothic tombs of the Della Scala rulers, crowned with impressive statues.

Walking north along the mediaeval Via Sottoriva we arrive at Verona's most romantic bridge, the Ponte Pietra, which dates back to the first century AD. Verona is Italy's best preserved Roman city after Rome, and offers a rich variety of Gothic and Renaissance architecture, with hundreds of churches and palaces, and many frescoed houses.

The Arena, the Church of Saint Zeno, the Roman Porta Borsari, Porta Leoni, and the Castelvecchio Museum are some of the city's touristic sites, but for those who want to flavour a truly romantic and more private experience, a trip to Juliet's tomb ( Tomba di Giulietta ) is worth the detour. Set in a former Capuchin monastery, the tomb is serene and has a nostalgic beauty, and its museum ( Museo degli Affreschi ) offers a moving collection of art containing some of the city's best Renaissance works.

If still in the mood for bucolic fairytale landscapes, take your dear one to the Giardino Giusti. Agostino Giusti was the Venetian knight who planned the gardens for the Giusti Palace back in 1570. The place still holds true nowadays to its Renaissance design, where grottos, balconies, statues, spiral staircases and fountains give way to privileged views of the city. Goethe took inspiration from one of its languid cypress trees, and the maze in the garden is said to be one of the oldest in Europe.

Verona holds plenty of small itineraries to be completed on foot, but for those who want to venture further away, a day trip to Brescia, Mantova or Lake Garda is most recommended. Known as Italy's largest and most popular lake, one may find privacy and breathtaking natural beauty if, instead of staying at the southern side, one heads to the northern part of the lake.

If you are visiting in summer consider investing in a couple of tickets for the opera. The performances held at the famous Arena are as remarkable as the amphitheatre itself. Opera, though, is not the only musical entertainment Verona hosts. Throughout the year there are several concerts in the Roman Theatre north, as well as many jazz clubs and live music shows.

To finish the day nothing could be better than a romantic dinner in one of the many cosy osterie or tarttorie, dining on local goods such as polenta dishes -- with or without horsemeat -- and Valpolicella or Soave wines.

On returning to the hotel, a final visit to Piazza Erbe will allow you to buy your dear one some delicious fresh fruit, if you catch the market stalls still open. You may also come across a rose seller, giving you the chance for a romantic detail under the moonlight.

The soft lighting of the city gives it a magical air, as accordion music and laughter welcome the crisp night breeze. With all its cultural, gastronomic and natural wealth, one can begin to understand Romeo's statement when, in Act III, Scene iii of Shakespeare's famous play, he says:

"There is no world without Verona walls

But purgatory, torture, hell itself."

While holding your lover's hand in Verona, you wouldn't dream of being anywhere else.

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