I’ve never read Romeo and Juliet. Or the Two Gentlemen of Verona for that matter. I wasn’t a fan of Shakespeare at school and was convinced he hadn’t intended his stories for literature syllabuses. Never mind all these hidden meanings and symbolistic inferences. Personally I reckon he just enjoyed writing a good yarn.
So when I found myself with one day in Verona this month, I had no idea I’d be on the trail of the famous star-crossed lovers. Although Romeo and Juliet may be purely fictional characters, the romance of Verona is very real.
Think ancient cobbled streets dappled in sunlight. Cosy street cafes serving risotto and valpolicella. Or medieval churches where each stone tells it’s own story. The tales this city could tell far surpass anything dreamed up by Mr Shakespeare!
I’ve always thought Italy to be a colourful country, but never before found brown to be a particularly romantic pigment. Yet when the sun shines on Verona, the painters palette springs to life. Visions of burnt umber, raw sienna and yellow ochre glow along the narrow streets, a photo opportunity at every turn.
Verona dates back to the Romans (doesn’t everywhere!) and has managed to retain much of it’s old world charm. The heart of the ancient town is neatly pocketed within a meander of the Adige River, and is easy to walk around without needing public transport. Just bring some comfy shoes! The city is only a short train journey from Venice (about 1 hour 20) and whilst many experience Verona as a day trip from her watery sister, I’d suggest perhaps doing it the other way around. Verona is better value, less crowded and easier to navigate. Plus it’s much simpler to find a decent restaurant in Verona!
So without much more ado about nothing…
Here’s what to do with one day in Verona
I’d suggest fortifying yourself with a decent breakfast before tackling the 368 steps of the Lamberti Tower, and the superb 360 degree views are definitely worth the exertion! The 12th Century monument was once one of many such towers across Verona. A display of wealth and status by the noble families that lived in them. In this instance the Lamberti family.
At the top of the 84 foot structure are 2 famous bells. The Rengo used to ring out a summons to the Town Council as well as to citizens during war time. The Marangona signalled the end of the working day for the marangon (artisans), and also acted as a fire alarm.
There is also a lift up to the top, but that’s cheating!
If you look closely at the picture above you can just make out a whale bone hanging under the archway below the tower. Legend says it will fall on the head of the first person to walk beneath who has never told a lie.
It’s been there a while!
The tower overlooks Piazza della Erbe, fondly known as the heart of the city. The piazza sits on the site of the ancient Roman forum (yep, it wasn’t just Rome that had one!) and shows off Italian Renaissance and Medieval architecture at it’s best. Come here to stroll around the market, and enjoy an glass of vino at one of the many bars.
Entrance to the tower costs €8. This includes the modern art gallery next door.
Next you should head to the famous, and slightly overrated Juliet’s House…
Unlike many foreign visitors to Verona, I’m not a fan of hype and idol-worship, and personally feel the Casa di Giulietta is simply a great money-spinner for local tourism coffers. Spoiler alert. Romeo and Juliet weren’t real! As for that balcony which everyone flocks to see? It was only added in the 20th Century. Sorry to burst the bubble.
Despite this, you can’t really visit Verona and not check out the house where Juliet was supposed to have lived.
An inn during it’s previous life, Juliet’s house is a multi-floored building showcasing ancient architecture, and more modern props and memorabilia from some of the famous Romeo and Juliet films. Including the bed used in the masterpiece by Zeffirelli. I thought that was kinda cool.
Maybe I’m a cynic, but I find this whole pilgrimage of love made by thousands each year rather pathetic. What was once a courtyard full of charm and character has been turned into a circus of disrespect. People were taking ‘selfies’ whilst fondling the breasts of the Juliet statue. A manoeuvre supposed to change the fortunes of those unlucky in love. In fact the Juliet statue is actually a replica, since the original was becoming damaged by the ravages of enthusiastic tourists.
Now that is a tragedy.
The wall behind her was plastered with initial-engraved chewing gum. Am I the only one who thinks this is disgusting rather than romantic?
The historical archway walls are concealed behind large graffiti boards, and the gift shop does a roaring trade in padlocks catering for the obligatory ‘love lock’ craze. Something else that baffles me. In my mind it all makes a mockery of culture and heritage rather than paying homage to it.
I’m a huge fan of historical fiction, but this is fictional history. I’m afraid I just don’t get it.
Perhaps the best way to experience the Juliet Balcony is by staying at the luxuriously cute Le Suite di Giulietta. Set back on the opposite side of the courtyard overlooking the Casa di Giulietta, you have free front row seats to both the balcony and the performances often held down below. Without the crowds. We stayed here a couple of nights and loved it!
The courtyard is free to enter, and you can see the balcony from here. Entry to the house is €6.
We visited in October when it was fairly quiet, but I imagine it would be a nightmare in the summer.
Go early in the morning before the crowds.
Now cross the river at the pretty Ponte Pietra and climb up to Castel San Pietro…
Castel San Pietro
The magnificent panoramic view is possibly even better here than from the Lamberti Tower. Once again lots of steps are involved. Verona was founded here on this hill, with settlements dating back to yep, you guessed it, the Romans! The current fortress was built by the Austrians in the 19th Century, but you can’t go inside.
The viewpoint can also be reached by car. But at least if you walk you can justify your gelato back at the bottom!
There is no entrance fee to the viewpoint.
The area back across the Ponte Pietra is very photogenic, with lots of cute bars and cafes, including one with a balcony facing the Castel!
Head back across the bridge to check out the Duomo…
The Italians really know how to do food, emotion…and churches! All shades of gaudy inside, the Duomo (cathedral) lived up to our high expectations and dazzled with it’s brilliance. I love snooping around churches. So often the experience is unexpected and therefore more appreciated than the more famous monuments.
Inside the lofty interior are several chapels, one of which has the famous “Assumption” painting by Titian. No, I hadn’t heard of it either, but I have heard of the painter! One bonus point to me.
Entrance costs €2.50.
If you only visit one church in Verona, make it this one.
If you plan on visiting at least 3 churches, buy a €6 cumulative ticket to give you admission to 4.
Castel Vecchio Museum and Ponte Scaligero
We didn’t have time to go inside the castle, but if you have 2 days the 14th Century fortress is definitely worth a visit. It was constructed to defend the city against attacks from powerful neighbours, including from the Venetians.
The castle was damaged during the Napoleonic Wars, and the man himself stayed here on many occasion. Under later Austrian rule the castle was used as a barracks, and today is a museum housing all the usual artefacts. Weapons, paintings…and pots. There’s always pots!
Many say that the basilica of San Zeno is the best of the bunch, but I’ll leave that up to you to decide. A little further out of the old town, it takes about half an hour to walk there from the centre. A very pleasant stroll though, especially along the riverbank where you’ll see dozens of tiny lizards basking in the sun on the wall.
One of the best preserved examples of Romanesque architecture in all of Northern Italy, San Zeno is famous for it’s bronze doors and marble interiors.
The crypt is cavernous, with a veritable forest of stone pillars as well as an urn containing the venerated body of Saint Zeno himself. There are some Renaissance paintings and the architecture is impressive, yet there was an overwhelming feeling of emptiness compared with the colourful Duomo interiors.
Entrance costs €2.50.
Piazza Bra and the Arena
If Piazza Erbe is the heart of Verona, then Piazza Bra must be the pulse.
‘Piazza’ means ‘meeting place’ and that’s precisely what happens here. During the day the pink marble esplanade is lined with people enjoying the pizzerie and gelaterie, the bright orange and yellow stuccoes beckoning loudly in the afternoon sun. At night culture lovers congregate by the fountains and statues, glasses of wine in hand, for evening performances at the Arena and theatre.
It was from a balcony here in the Piazza that Giuseppe Garibaldi, hero of the Risorgimento and leader of Italian unification, gave his famous “Rome or death” speech in 1867. But don’t get me started on that, or I’ll be waffling on for hours about one of my favourite struggles of history. Oh, and yes, the Garibaldi biscuit was indeed named after this famous general.
Whilst the Roman Arena may not quite match Rome’s Colosseum in terms of triumphant significance, I found it really refreshing that such an important monument was still being used today. However rather than bloody gladiator battles it is now famous for summer opera performances.
Italy’s third largest Roman amphitheatre is still interesting to visit during the day, although it is clearly geared towards it’s use as a theatre rather than a historical monument, with no information boards to be found.
Entrance during the day costs €10.
The Arena Opera season runs from June to August/September.
Take a cushion if you’re in the ‘cheap’ seats (i.e. the stone steps). Although I have to say there was much more space up on these levels than on the rather cramped plastic seating area.
They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you certainly can’t see all of Verona in just one, but you’ll see enough to make you want to return! It’s the sort of place that gets under your skin and puts a smile on your face every time you remember your visit.
I may not be a fan of Romeo and Juliet, but I agree Verona is the perfect place to fall in love.
Behind the Scenes
Hubbie and I went to one of the most romantic cities in the world, but we weren’t alone. We took my mum along too!
Normally very antisocial travellers we’ve always been wary of going away with friends or family, but what could possibly go wrong on a short jaunt to Europe?
Walking is the best way to see Verona, but boy will your feet ache by the end of the day. We’d traipsed all over the city in order to squeeze as much as possible into the 2 nights we had in the city. By the time we reached our last stop, the Arena, I was ready to drop.
At that point mum discovered she’d lost her wallet. We debated whether she’d been pick-pocketed or if she’d left it at the supermarket on the other side of the city. So we began to retrace our steps. Mum trying not to panic, hubbie being the practical one, and me silently cursing the fact that I’d have to drag my weary feet all the way back to San Zeno.
I should perhaps mention that mum also managed to leave her bag at the top of the Lamberti Tower that same morning, and didn’t realise until a kind German tourist came running down the steps with it for her. Just as well because there was no way I was climbing all the way back up. Dutiful daughter that I am.
I rehearsed my best Italian all the way to the supermarket, yet when we arrived my grammar flew out the window as I stumbled with my words and pathetically resorted to grabbing my own wallet and pointing. My Italian teacher would be so proud.
Luckily they’d found the wallet, and jubilantly returned it to us, saying the bloke in the queue behind had tried to claim it was his, the cheek. So thanks to the lovely folk at the Migross Supermarket in Via Barbarani for saving the day!
So then we just had to walk ALL the way back and resume our sightseeing at the Arena.
Love you mum!
Finally, I admit I did give in and have a photo taken on THE balcony. I’ll get down from my high horse right now!
Although unlike all the lovestruck girls gazing down to the courtyard to search for her Romeo, mine was right up there on the balcony with me, and enjoying every minute of learning about a made-up love story by an author he doesn’t understand.