Verona: An afternoon in the city of Romeo and Juliet
June 22, 2006
“Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene …”
Certainly William Shakespeare’s plan for his 15th-century Romeo and Juliet didn’t include store windows featuring trendy Italian fashions, crowds of international tourists peering into digital cameras or clusters of Italians talking on cell phones. But the historical center of Verona balances this modernity with its cobbled streets, hidden alleyways, red roofs and picturesque piazzas.
And if you’re short on time, many of its main sights can be seen in a day.
I was there for only four hours one afternoon. But in that time, armed with a local guidebook, I easily followed the city’s network of narrow streets, its original layout designed by the Romans. Traffic has limited access to the old town, so you don’t have to dodge mopeds or cars.
Here’s my quick, totally last-minute, wing-it itinerary, just to let you know how close some of the main sights are. I won’t mention all the historical details of invasions and Italian intrigue — that’s what the guidebook is for.
¶ Start at the busy Piazza Barbieri, a roomy plaza you can’t miss as it’s the site of the biggest and best-preserved Roman arena outside Rome. I couldn’t get into this former gladiator theater as The Eagles were doing a sound check for that evening’s concert. Also on the plaza are other guidebook-recommended buildings such as the famous opera house and palace. Lively cafes, souvenir shops, hordes of tourists and other piazza hanger-outers fill the area.
¶ Head left and window-shop on Via Mazzini, a pedestrian street lined with Italian designer clothes and shoe shops. It leads to the Piazza delle Erbe, the original site of the Roman forum where chariot races were held. Today market and souvenir stalls fill its center, but medieval and Romanesque architecture, 16th-century Cavalli frescoes, fountains and towers maintain its historical atmosphere.
¶ Head right to see Juliet’s balcony in a crowded little courtyard where millions of tourists believe the lovesick teen proclaimed her love for Romeo. Actually the 13th century building is the historical home of the Capulets. There’s also a museum inside and there’s a photo op for budding Juliets to stand on the balcony and yearn for their own true love tragedies.
¶ Stroll by Romeo’s supposed home, the 14th century Casa Montecchi, nearby on Via delle Arche Scaligere. Since it’s not restored, there’s not much to see and you can’t visit inside, but it’s one of those must-have photos.
¶ I figured I should include one church, so I chose Sant’Anastasia, the city’s biggest (versus the Duomo, the cathedral), partly influenced by the guidebook’s promise of my seeing a romantic painting of Pisanello’s “St. George and the Princess,” and two welcoming stone hunchbacks. Sant’Anastasia’s simple exterior only makes its inner Gothic atmosphere more splendid, its interior decorated in true Roman Catholic style with gold and ornate art.
¶ Continue on to the Adige River to cross the old Roman stone bridge, Ponte Pietra (get a photo from the side before you cross). Directly across the bridge are the restored ruins of a Roman theater, built in the first century. Today it’s used for, among other events, Shakespeare festivals. Stroll around the grounds, accompanied by a few of the requisite Roman ruins cats, and visit the archaeological museum with its Roman mosaics and bits of architecture.
Meanwhile, the streets of the center were filling with Eagles fans, so I strolled along the river’s edges and crossed the Ponte Nuovo to return to the parking house.
But if you plan ahead, you also can fit in the Piazza dei Signori with Dante’s sculpture and the Loggia del Consiglio building (said to be the most beautiful Renaissance structures in its time); the Porta Borsari, the Roman City Gate; the Castelvecchio (castle); the San Zeno (Black Bishop) church; Juliet’s tomb and anything else in the guidebook. Or maybe even make it an overnight trip.
My only advice: Just avoid days with any rock concerts or gladiator fights.
Jayne Traendly is a freelance writer living in Germany and a regular contributor to the travel section.
Certainly William Shakespeare’s plan for his 15th-century Romeo and Juliet didn’t include store windows featuring trendy Italian fashions, crowds of international tourists peering into digital cameras or clusters of Italians talking on cell phones. But the historical center of Verona balances this modernity with its cobbled streets, hidden alleyways, red roofs and picturesque piazzas. And if you’re short on time, many of its main sights can be seen in a day.