“Oh, Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” Who would ever have thought that the words spoken by Juliet to her young lover, Romeo, hundreds of years ago would have ignited the most famous and passionate love affair in history and ensured her home town of Verona eternal fame. Situated in north-eastern Italy on the banks of the Adige river, Verona is a beautiful, historic city, so important in the days of imperial Rome that it was known as piccola Roma (little Rome). Founded by the Romans as far back as the 1st century A.D., and once part of the Venetian Empire, it has a mixture of classical (Roman), medieval, and Renaissance architecture. Aside from its grand setting, what makes Verona truly remarkable, and brings hundreds of thousands of tourists flocking to this city every year is the fact that it was the setting for William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. Verona is a pilgrimage site for romantics and those with a passionate heart!
Thankfully for its many visitors, Verona is a walkable city with many sights to see: not only remnants of its romantic past, but also many places of historical interest. It’s a great location for a day trip with most visitors arriving from nearby Venice and Siena by train. From the Verona Porta Nuova train station, it is about a 20-minute walk to the centre of town, Piazza Bra. The first sight to catch your attention will be the immense Arena situated in the centre of the piazza (plaza). Resembling the Colosseum in Rome, it was built in 30 A.D. for the sole purpose of entertaining Verona’s citizens, offering fights to the death amongst gladiators and between gladiators and wild beasts such as lions and tigers. It even had a sophisticated hydraulic system, which could flood the Arena with water so that mock naval battles could be staged for everyone’s entertainment. The scale of the spectacles would have been immense, as the Arena was originally built to hold about 30,000 people (nowadays it holds about 20,000 people). Even after the fall of Rome, the violent spectacles continued during the Middle Ages, this time with knights battling each other in jousts and tournaments. Thankfully the violent history of the Arena has faded into history with the Arena “re-inventing” itself: it is now well known for hosting world-class operas. Every summer from late June to August in what was once a setting where men battled each other to the death, you can now watch extravagant shows such as Aida, Madame Butterfly, La Traviata, Rigoletto, and Carmen. The demand for tickets is great, so book early. No doubt this magnificent setting lit up by floodlights at night would be an incredibly grand spectacle and make your opera experience one that you would never forget!
From the Arena, make your way along the street via Mazzini to Piazza delle Erbe and then turn onto via Cappello. Within a few minutes you will come upon the Casa di Giulietta, Juliet’s house, Verona’s major shrine to history’s most famous couple: Romeo and Juliet. If you saw the movie “Letters to Juliet” starring Amanda Seyfried and Vanessa Redgrave, you will easily recognize this place. It is not a fictitious creation of Hollywood! Not only does it exist, but it gets half-a-million visitors every year! At Juliet’s house, you enter into a courtyard where until recently couples wrote their names on the outside wall of the house, as a symbol of their eternal love for each other. This house is a 4-storey medieval building dating back to the 1200‘s, and belonged to the Capulet family (the arch rival to the Montague’s, Romeo’s family). The walls inside are made of brick and clay with colorful frescos on them. There is furniture throughout the house, several well-preserved fireplaces, and colorful ceramic dishes on display. Of major interest to many is the re-constructed balcony where Juliet would have been visited by her lover, Romeo. From the house’s top floor, you have wonderful views of the terra-cotta rooftops of Verona and distant historical sites. If you are in search of your own Romeo, you can join Club Giulietta and request their help in finding true love (much as was portrayed in the movie “Letters to Juliet”). As you leave Juliet’s house you will see a gold statue of her in the courtyard. Tradition has it that if you rub her breast, you will have good luck. Many people do so!
Romeo’s house is nearby, only a couple of streets away at 4, Via Arche Scaligere. Unfortunately, it is not open to the public. This 13th century home belonged to the Montague family, and resembles a castle with a tower and a high stone wall. The Montague family had the heavily fortified home built for defensive purposes, primarily to protect themselves from their mortal enemy, the Capulet family (Juliet’s family and kin). The hatred between these two families was so intense that even the great medieval Italian poet, Dante, commented about their on-going feud in his book the “Divina Commedia” (The Divine Comedy).
A short walk from both homes is the Capuchin Monastery where Romeo and Juliet were married. The monastery is near Piazza Bra at 35 Via del Pontiere (off via Pallone). This medieval building has frescoes, a garden, and an underground crypt where Juliet was buried after she committed suicide. Known as the Tomba de Giulietta, Juliet’s tomb is a red marble sarcophagus, an elegant resting place for such a beautiful girl from one of Verona’s most wealthy families. Only married for less than a week, the tragic end to the lives of both Romeo and Juliet’s lives on in Verona; and thanks to William Shakespeare, they will be immortalized forever.
The Lamberti Tower
After paying homage to history’s most famous couple, return to the Piazza delle Erbe, originally created to be a Roman Forum. Later it became the city’s main market place, and now it is the historic centre of Verona and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This beautiful piazza is surrounded by medieval buildings and towers. The major attraction is the Torre dei Lamberti (the Lamberti Tower), an octagonal bell tower built in 1493. At 84 metres (275 feet) high, it is Verona’s tallest tower. For an incredible panoramic view of Verona, walk up its 238 steps or take the elevator.
Food and Desserts
For lunch or dinner, make sure to try one of the local specialities: pizzocheri (buckwheat pasta with cheese and sage), bigoli (pasta) with duck sauce, casoncelli (ravioli), gnocchi (potato dumplings), or Brasato di manzo all’Amarone (beef braised in wine). Polenta (cornmeal) is served with many dishes. Be forewarned that if your restaurant offers a dish containing “cavallo”, you may want to refrain from eating it as it is horse-meat! For dessert, try Pandoro, a star-shaped bread cake, popular during holidays. The inside of the cake is usually filled with Chantilly cream or vanilla gelato. Also known as the “golden cake”, it is a specialty of Verona. Two other popular dessert items are the chocolate cookies: Baci Di Giulietta (Juliet’s kisses) and Sospri di Romeo (Romeo’s sighs). You will see these cookies in many of the windows of the city’s pastry shops. Even with pastry, the Italians find romance!
For a meal in a truly historic setting visit the restaurant, Tre Marchetti (near the Arena). Its house specialty is baccala (salt cod). Meals have been served here since 1291 (older than most countries in the world)!
With your lunch or dinner meals try some of the area’s world-famous red wines: Valpolicella, Recioto, or Amarone. With dessert or as an aperitif, try Prosecco, a very popular white sparkling wine. Take advantage of this city’s incredible food and wines (in addition to its many sights)!
The Roman Theatre
From Piazza delle Erbe walk towards the river and cross the old stone bridge known as Ponte Pietra. On the other side you can visit Teatro Romano (the Roman Theatre) which dates back to the 1st Century A.D. Its location is quite stunning with stone seats built into the side of a hill overlooking the river. The theatre is still in use, hosting summer festivals of drama, music, and dance. If you are very fortunate, you can even attend its famous Shakespeare Festival performing every year from June through August, including performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the most famous classical theatre company in the world. What an incredible experience it would be to attend a world-class performance of Romeo and Juliet put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the very city where the couple once lived and died. It’s an experience you would never forget!
The Archeological Museum
On the hill above the Roman Theatre is the Archeological Museum. Housed in the former convent of San Gerolamo built in the 15th century, this museum houses a large collection of Roman artifacts such as mosaics, coins, sculpture and more.
St. Peter’s Castle
Nearby is the Castel San Pietro (St. Peter’s Castle). Climb up the steps to the hill where the castle resides. The castle itself is not open to the public, but the views from the hilltop are spectacular. Quaint old buildings with red terra-cotta roofs, tall cypress trees, and rolling hills covered with brightly-colored wild flowers are everywhere you look. The beautiful countryside is what makes Italy and particularly this city so special, especially at sunset.
The Giusti Garden
Another site that offers incredible views of the city is Giardino Giusti (the Giusti Garden), a 16th century Renaissance multi-tiered garden so magnificent that it inspired its most famous visitor, the great music composer, Mozart. This lush and sculpted garden is located on the same side of the river as the Roman Theatre near the bridge Ponte Nuovo. One of the oldest gardens in all of Italy, this garden has flowers, cypress trees, a labyrinth, grottos, fountains, and statues throughout.
Castelvecchio (The City Art Museum)
Return to the city centre to the Arena and go west along via Alpini towards Corso Cavour (and the river). You will come upon Castelvecchio, a 14th century red-brick fortified castle located on the banks of the Adige River. This castle houses the City Art Museum with its extensive collection of medieval sculpture and Renaissance paintings, particularly artists such as Guardi, Tintoretto, and Tieopolo. The castle was restored by the famed Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa who re-designed the castle’s doorways, furnishings, stairs, and even its light fixtures so that its artwork could be properly displayed in an authentic medieval setting. The museum also contains many 14th century frescoes. For views of the river and surrounding area, walk along the extensive ramparts of the castle.
Music and Concerts
If you happen to visit Verona during the summer make sure to visit the Piazza dei Signori (near the Piazza delle Erbe). This piazza is surrounded by magnificent Venetian Renaissance buildings, and in the middle of the piazza is a statue of the great poet, Dante. Fortunately for many visitors this grand location has frequent free concerts, entertaining you with jazz, tango, and classical music late into the evening.
If you are adventurous and a romantic at heart, then participate in Sognando Shakespeare (Dreaming Shakespeare) with its Teatro Itinerante (Traveling Theatre). Young talented actors in costume wander through Verona going from site to site, reciting Romeo and Juliet (in Italian only), as Shakespeare would have loved it to be. This impromptu theatre company usually performs from July to September. It’s a very unique experience, as you get to accompany the theatre company as it makes it way through Verona stopping at all of the incredible medieval sites. Again, it’s an experience you won’t forget, much like Verona itself! Even though Romeo and Juliet have long since passed away, their spirit and passion are still present, giving vibrancy to this beautiful and charming city!
About the author:
Eric Alexander Hamilton lives in Vancouver, Canada. He loves travelling and has lived in several cities such as Paris, London, and Zurich. His passions in life are photography and writing, particularly about travel, self-help and spiritual topics. To him, writing and photography are a natural match, as witnessed in his web site, www.lifedestiny.com. With each passing day, he is trying to follow the advice of the famous American writer, Jack London:, who said: “The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.” It’s advice we should all follow.