Made famous as the setting of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s tale of burning young romance, Verona is known worldwide as the city of love. Every year tourists flock from far and wide to retrace the steps of its star-crossed lovers, hoping that a trip to Juliet’s balcony (Casa di Giulietta) will bring them cupid’s luck. But it’s not just this mythical couple who make Verona the ideal spot for an intimate getaway – with cobbled streets, Roman architecture and attractive piazzas, this city offers a dreamy escape back in time.
Much of this dramatic, fairy-tale allure stems from Verona’s dramatic past. In the 3rd century BC, it was a thriving Roman trade centre complete with ancient gates, a forum and a central arena; in the Middle Ages, the city prospered under the fiery rule of the della Scala family. It then fell under the control of nearby Venice for many centuries until Napolean’s arrival, and even became a Fascist control centre during the Second World War. Now a Unesco World Heritage Site, the city still glows in the full colour of its cultural and historical significance.
In particular, the Roman arena at the heart of the city has become the internationally illustrious Arena di Verona, a venue for large-scale opera performances. Each summer it plays host to an opera festival with a diverse programme of productions, this year Carmen and La Traviata, and a superlative calibre of singers. Among its impressive CV of performers include Giuseppe Di Stefano, Renata Tebaldi, and Maria Callas, whose appearance there in 1947 marked her first in Italy.
The city’s old forum has also taken on a focal point as Piazza del Erbe, a bustling hotspot with cafes, bars and restaurants. The square’s most ancient monument is the fountain upholding a statue called Madonna Verona, a sculpture dating back to 380 AD. It’s also the sight of the beautifully baroque Palazzo Maffei, and a short walk from the Arco della Costa, the location of the iconic whale rib which has been hanging for 1,000 years: legend has it that it will fall only when someone walks underneath it who has never told a lie.
One of the most iconic sights of Verona is Castellvecchio (“old castle”), a prominent military construction heralding from the della Scala dynasty from the Middle Ages. Built in red bricks, it’s an example of the cutting-edge Gothic architecture of the age, with a museum displaying a large collection of god works, paintings and sculptures dating back to the Romanesque period. Its bridge stretches between the banks of the Adige River, offering quaint views of the soft waters winding around the city.
Located on the easterly side of Verona is Giardino Giusti, a palace and garden of topographical brilliance. It’s widely considered a masterpiece of Renaissance landscaping, a mixture manicured labyrinths, tall cypresses and areas of wild growth. With a stunning view from the belvedere onto the historic city centre, there is a pensive feel to this gardens; it’s said that lovers who manage to find themselves in the maze are destined to stay together.
In terms of venturing out of Verona, Lake Garda is a relatively short bus ride away. But the rolling vineyards of Valpolicella, within cycling distance just north of the city, are equally picturesque. This marble-quarrying region is the most famous in Veneto for its wine production – namely its bottles of fruity red, with hints of blueberry, banana and distinctive sour cherry. Several tours offer the opportunity to visit the wineries and enoteche and try their products, or you could simply sit back and drink away from one of Verona’s many bars.
For indeed, Verona is such a pleasant and homely city that you’ll want to savour every drop. Epitomising the soul of the romantic, it combines the magic of Venice with the architectural grandness of Italy’s other Roman cities – and, whether a cosy weekend away or not, it’ll soon have you starry-eyed for its beauty.