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August 16, 2017

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Once the city’s herb market, the Piazza delle Herbe remains one of the city’s most popular squares.

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In fair Verona

The city that inspired Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet will bring out the romantic in you

William Shakespeare overstated the case when he wrote: “There is no world without Verona walls, but purgatory, torture, hell itself.” Nevertheless, few visitors would deny that this river-wrapped city in northeastern Italy is a heavenly destination. The capital of the province of the same name, Verona not only looms large in literature, it occupies an enviable location near the entrance to the Brenner Pass, which made it strategically important for Romans eyeing the Alps. The quality of ruins from their imperial age, together with a wealth of medieval churches and Renaissance palaces, helped earn this city UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Factor in the Italian traveller’s holy trinity — fine arts, fashion and food — and you’ll understand why Verona (tourism.verona.it) is so hard to resist.

Beauty and the bard

It could be argued that “fair Verona” launched Shakespeare’s career: after all, it provided the backdrop for the comedic love story that is widely considered his first work — The Two Gentlemen of Verona. It was a tragic treatment, though, that made the greater mark. Romeo and Juliet was of course fiction, but the frenzy the play has caused here is very real.

Casa di Giulietta (23 Via Cappello) is the epicentre of activity and, each year, an estimated half a million devotees squeeze into its miniscule courtyard to look at Juliet’s supposed home. The resulting scene is more circus than sensuous: witness the thickly-coated “gum wall” or the endless sprawl of graffiti.

But Shakespeare — a man who clearly knew how to play to the masses — probably wouldn’t mind. If you don’t either, feel free to observe the scene, rub the bronze statue of Miss Capulet for luck, or post a love note, as Amanda Seyfried did in the 2010 flick Letters to Juliet. For €6, you can enter the actual 13th-century house to see a few themed displays and, more importantly, step through yonder window onto the stone balcony where the ultimate Instagram photo op awaits.

The tourism board has mapped out a self-guided walk (tourism.verona.it/en/itineraries/your-time-travel) that also features Casa di Romeo and the quiet tomb attributed to the star-crossed lovers in the cloister of San Francesco al Corso, a medieval Capuchin monastery.

Edifice complex

The crowds at Casa di Giulietta are a relatively new phenomenon compared to those that gather around the corner at Piazza delle Erbe. Originally the site of a Roman forum, it morphed into one of Italy’s most eye-popping squares. The Piazza is a market by day (though the titular erbe — or herbs — have largely been replaced by tourist trinkets); in the evening it is where hip locals sip neon-orange spritzers made with their preferred aperitivo, Aperol from nearby Padua.

The antique tower, fabulous fountain, ancient arches and frescoed Renaissance residences make Piazza delle Erbe postcard perfect. Other must-sees for architecture enthusiasts include the Castelvecchio (2 Corso Castelvecchio; comune.verona.it/castelvecchio/cvsito), a crenellated castle-turned-art museum stocked with works by Titian, Tintoretto, Canaletto and the like and the Basilica di San Zeno Maggiore (2 Piazza San Zeno; basilicasanzeno.it), an outstanding example of Romanesque style notable for the intricate bronze bas-reliefs which adorn its 12th-century doors. For an overview of the city’s beautiful buildings, ascend to the top of the 84-metre-high Torre dei Lamberti (1 Via della Costa; tourism.verona.it/_vti_g1_1.aspx), off Piazza delle Erbe — on a good day you will get a panoramic look at Northern Italy. Can’t tackle 368 steep steps? An elevator will whisk you up.

You’d do well to invest in a money-saving Verona Card (veronacard.it) if you intend to spend a lot of time perusing museums, monuments and churches. A two-day version costs €15 and covers admission to most of the top attractions.

State of the arts

A cultural hotspot for two millennia, Verona is a place where even folks who don’t know an aria from their elbow will be seduced by the arts scene. The events held here are superb and the venues are so atmospheric. Take the 18th-century Teatro Filarmonico (4K Via dei Mutilati; accademiafilarmonica.org), which hosts ballets, operas and symphonies, or Teatro Romano (2 Regaste Redentore; estateteatraleveronese.it), a crumbling first-century BCE site that stages jazz concerts and Shakespearean plays in Italian.

For sheer magnitude, though, nothing can match the Arena di Verona (7D Via Roma; arena.it): with seating for 15,000, it is one of the largest Roman amphitheatres in existence and arguably the best preserved. To fully appreciate its grandeur (and good acoustics) come June through early September for the world-class Arena di Verona Opera Festival.

Celebrating its centennial season this year, the festival will present six works — including Roméo et Juliette (the sentimental favourite), Aida (complete with on-stage horses) and Nabucco (with Plácido Domingo taking the title role on two nights). Trust me, watching a moonlit production from a seat once occupied by gladiatorial fans isn’t something you will easily forget. If it inspires you to delve deeper, visit the new Arena Museo Opera (7 Via Massalongo; arenamuseopera.com) to see costumes, props, scribbled scores and more.

Nosebleed festival seats in the arena’s top tiers start at €23, and stalls outside in Piazza Bra sell cushions (you’ll need one!) for €5. Bring a blanket, too: performances start around 9pm and those marble terraces can get cold.

Retail therapy

Proximity to Milan might make Verona seem like an also-ran in the shopping department, but instead it has quite a concentration of stores for its size. Via Mazzini, the main strip, runs from the Arena to Piazza delle Erbe and you could walk its length in about five minutes, assuming you could somehow avoid the throngs of well-heeled locals and aspiring out-of-towners who come to this street (and those radiating from it) for their shopping fix.

Europe’s big luxury labels are represented in boutiques like Roberto Cavalli, Gucci and Louis Vuitton. If your tastes are eclectic, there are multi-brand shops as well, such as Alexandra Boutique (11 Via Mazzini; alexandraboutique.com) and Al Duca D’Aosta (31 Via Mazzini; alducadaosta.com). For a vintage twist, try Boutique Cécile (9 Via San Salvatore Corte Regia; cecileboutiques.it), where coveted designs from the 1940s onwards are sold on consignment.

If the selection appears molto expensive, take heart: tucked in among the high-end options are affordable ones like Bershka (46 Via Mazzini; bershka.com) and Stradivarius (15 Via Mazzini; stradivarius.com), sister stores to Zara; and Kiko (Viale del Commercio; kikocosmetics.com), a Milanese company that sells quality make-up at drugstore prices.

In a Michelin mood

Since this is a sophisticated slice of Italy, it is perhaps not surprising that a city with only 265,000 residents boasts a pair of Michelin-starred eateries with another 15 in the surrounding area. One of the former, little La Fontanina (3 Portichetti Fontanelle; ristorantelafontanina.com; tasting menus from €45), is the primo pick for a big night. Located near the Teatro Romano and pretty Ponte Pietra, it has been drawing discerning diners for more than 200 years. Today, the menu tweaks tradition, serving dishes like truffle-stuffed ravioli, seafood pasta blackened with squid ink, or beef braised in Amarone (Verona’s renowned red wine) with Veronese-style polenta on the side.

For everyday dining, the city’s back streets are bursting with old-school osterie. These are the kind of unpretentious spots where you can still expect long communal tables in front and somebody’s grandmother cooking out back. Prices are reasonable (you’ll typically pay about €15 for a sustaining, two-course set menu at lunch) and the dishes are weighted towards Veneto specialties like pasta e fagioli or risotto all'Amarone. The caveat is that mom-and-pop places seldom have multilingual menus, so ordering can sometimes be a leap of faith. As a head’s up, beware of dishes bearing the words caval or cavallo unless you are hungry enough to eat a horse: it’s a regional delicacy.

If (like me) you are a chronic bill checker, you might notice a €1 to €5 per person coperto tacked on in addition to the standard 10 per cent service charge. It covers things like bread or olives that we’d typically consider complimentary.

Just roll with it

Verona is ideal for walking, but biking is a fine alternative when your feet need a break. In fact, Time magazine ranks an eight-kilometre loop here among its "Top 10 Urban Biking Trips,” pointing to the way city walls and the River Adige neatly contain Verona’s compact historic core. As an added bonus, a civic bike-sharing program Verona Bike (bikeverona.it) launched last spring makes cycling easy by providing access to bikes 24/7 at 20 convenient “cyclostations.”

To take advantage of the service, subscribe online (subscriptions cost €2 for one day, €5 for 7); then simply pick out a bike from any station, ride away and return it to any station after you’re finished. Individual trips lasting less than 30 minutes are free; a two-hour twirl will set you back €2.

The official website offers suggested routes throughout the city, and more are available in the tourism board’s “Cycling Routes in the Province of Verona” pamphlet which can be purchased for €1 at tourist bureaus. Note that the latter outlines itineraries for outlying areas like lovely Lake Garda and the Soave Wine Route, which will appeal to dedicated pedal pushers. The catch is that you will be required to rent a bike through a commercial operator as Verona Bike is designed for short-term local jaunts only.

When riding a train sounds more enticing than riding a two-wheeler, remember that you're well positioned to explore two of the country’s other top cities. Venice is just 70 minutes east, while Milan lies 85 minutes west.

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