Where love comes to town

OROMEO, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

It’s one of the most famous questions in Shakespeare, and Verona has the answer. As Juliet stands on her balcony, lamenting the fact that her love is a Montague, and thus a sworn enemy of her Capulet household (“a rose by any other word would smell as sweet”), Romeo skulks in the bushes below, wondering when to reveal himself.

Visit Verona today, and you can just about imagine the literary lovebirds playing out the scene — just about. Reached via a cobbled archway off Via Cappello, the most fabled balcony in literature is stashed away in a tiny courtyard, boxed in by medieval buildings. Ivy tumbles down one of the walls. Gothic windows are carved into the brickwork. A steady procession of tourists files out onto the small, stone balcony — taking pictures and Facebooking friends.

Below the balcony stands a bronze statue of Juliet herself, her right breast shining like gold. It’s easy to see why. Over the years it has become tradition for visitors to rub the breast, before leaving their odes to love on a nearby walls. The breast has been buffed to an alarming brightness, and queues to touch it can comprise of several dozen people.

The courtyard is free to visit, though a visit to the 13th century house itself costs €6. Inside, bits and pieces of furniture and ceramics are on show. I can’t help thinking it is strangely humble for a Capulet abode, despite the undeniable thrill of standing on the balcony itself.

The Shakespearean links don’t stand up to too much scrutiny. I have my doubts about the Capulets living in such a modest space; others say the courtyard may or may not have inspired the bard, and that Juliet may or may not have even existed. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find several references to the balcony having been added in the 1930s. Digging deeper still, my Frommer’s guide says there are rumours to suggest it may once have been a brothel.

Not that these bothersome historical details are bursting any heart-shaped balloons. Casa de Giulietta remains one of the most visited sites in Italy.

Juliet’s cult is only growing, too. The tragic heroine’s tomb on Via delle Pontiere is another big visit for Valentine’s Day. Located in a moody cloister within the monastery of San Francesco al Corso, this is where the star-crossed lovers are said to have killed themselves, and the small church where their clandestine marriage is said to have taken place is nearby.

The tomb itself is a strange sight — looking more like a chunky stone bathtub than the kind of delicate sepulchre you might expect of a girl “who doth teach the torches to burn bright”. But that hasn’t stopped it becoming a place of pilgrimage for couples.

Back in the 1930s, another story goes, a letter was found at Juliet’s tomb. Addressed to Shakespeare’s tragic heroine, a local postman appears to have left it there, and a tradition was born. Every year, Juliet receives thousands of letters from all over the world — and amazingly, all of them are answered by the voluntary Club di Giulietta (Juliet Club).

You can imagine the content of these letters, received in myriad languages, sent by tortured teens and world-weary adults, advising Juliet, asking for help, ruminating philosophically on affairs of the heart, even soliciting magic spells. Every Valentine’s Day, the club offers a ‘Cara Giulietta’ prize for the most compelling.

“Juliet, you’re the storm and calm, the salt and the sugar, the tenderness and strength,” reads one of my favourite lines from the previous winners (see julietclub.com). The movie ‘Letters to Juliet’, starring Maggie Smith and Amanda Seyfried, was inspired by the members of the club.

Where Romeo stands in all of this, I’m not sure. He climbed a tree to reach his lover on her balcony, and he too died for love, but you won’t find his tomb in Verona, nor nobody writing to request his romantic advice. His house seems closed to visitors. Wherefore art thou, indeed?

Given its connection with Shakespeare’s play, Verona unsurprisingly goes the whole hog with Valentine’s Day. Its annual Verona in Love festival kicks off today and runs until Feb 14, with a communal, one-minute kiss scheduled to take place in the heart-shaped market in Piazza dei Signori … all in the name of love.

Sounds cheesy? Of course it does, but don’t worry — there’s lots to do in Verona besides balconies and breasts. The city itself is a World Heritage Site, and the 84m Torre dei Lamberti gives a bird’s eye view over the River Adige as it snakes its way through the medieval streetscape. Watch out for the arched Ponte Pietra bridge — dating from 100BC, the ancient Roman structure was destroyed by retreating Germans in the Second World War, only to be restored stone by stone.

The other sight I can’t get out of my mind — largely because it is slap, bang in the middle of the city — is Verona’s astonishing Roman arena. At one time the third-largest amphitheatre in the entire Roman Empire, the pink marble structure looks almost frozen in time, and remains amazingly intact. It not only survived WWII, but a 12th century earthquake to boot.

Nor is the arena a simple fossil. Verona’s summer opera festival sees dozens of open-air performances taking place in the millennia-old amphitheatre under the stars.

This June, the schedule kicks off with Don Giovanni, followed by Aida, Carmen and of course, Romeo & Juliet. The cheap seats start at €17 (arena.it).

Not to get to nerdy about it all, but the arena has also seen some pretty tantalising rock acts — including Radiohead, whose 2001 set list included Exit Music For A Film.

The song was originally written for, and ran over the end credits in Baz Luhrman’s 1996 movie version of Romeo & Juliet, starring Leonardo and Claire Danes as the tragic lovers.

As with any Italian city worth its salt, the best part of being in Verona is simply wandering its Roman and medieval streets, following your nose through squares like Pizza dei Signori, buying ice-cream at the touristy Piazza Bra, shopping on Via Mazzini, or exploring the sculpted terraces of the Giardino Giusti, the hillside gardens open since 1591.

Lovers who find their way into the small labyrinth here, my guidebook tells me, are destined to stay together.

Famously, Romeo was moved to declare that “there is no world without Verona’s walls”. For a couple of days, at least, you can take him at his word.

Flights

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies direct from Dublin to Verona from Mar 24. Ryanair (Ryanair.com) flies direct from Mar 27 to Verona Brescia, a 45-minute bus ride away. Ebookers.ie had flights and a 4-star hotel on the first weekend in Mar from €360pp. Verona is just over an hour by train from Venice. To travel between the two, see trenitalia.com. One-way fares start at €20.

Where to stay

If you’re travelling for Valentine’s Day, the Verona in Love festival (veronainlove.it) has a special offer bundling one night’s accommodation, a bottle of sparkling wine, two tickets for the Lamberti Tower, and two wine tastings in a local bar or restaurant from €113 for two people.

If you fancy staying nearby to Juliet’s house itself, Il Sogno di Giulietta (sognodigiulietta.ie) is a 16-room guesthouse right across the courtyard from the famous balcony. Going to press, it had B&B for two, with a candlelit dinner, on special offer from €150.

The sights

Admission to the courtyard at Casa di Giulietta (Via Cappello 23; +39 (0)45-803-4303) is free, but there is a €6/€4.50 entry charge for Juliet’s House itself. Verona’s Roman Arena is the other must-visit, particularly if you can nab a ticket to the opera (arena.it; from €17).

The shopping

Verona’s main shopping thoroughfare is Via Mazzini — you’ll find everything from Italian leather at Furla to big brands like Prada, Gucci and Cartier here. Verona is also one of the best cities in Italy to go vintage shopping.

The food

As well as traditional Italian favourites, Verona is widely known for its, erm, horse stew. Try a blast of patissada di cavallo at Osteria del Duca (Via Arche Scaligeri 2) or Trattoria Trota da Luciano (via Trota 3).

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