Set between the enchanting Lake Garda and the vine-covered hills of Valpolicella,Verona is an outstanding destination with many aspects: a lively city with plenty going on, it also has a remarkable heritage: founded as a Roman colony, it also was a wealthy centre under the lordship of the Scaliger family in the Middle Ages, then a Venetian, French and Austrian dominion before being finally added to the Italian Kingdom in 1866.
Well preserved archaeological ruins, historic buildings, richly decorated churches and of course the stunning Arena – a Roman amphitheatre, still hosting concerts and opera shows – are precious evidence of Verona's past; its old town, called Ancient Verona, is part of the UNESCO Heritage. Yet the Italian city is mostly known for having witnessed – in fiction if not in reality – one of the most romantic and ill-fated love stories that ever existed: Romeo and Juliet’s.
The doomed love story between the 13-year-old girl and the boy was written in the XVI century by William Shakespeare; this year the 400th anniversary of this death is celebrated with a number of events in Verona and its surroundings, and these include Romeo & Juliet plays and wine tastings in the cloisters of Juliet's Tomb.
The protagonists came from two of the city's most distinguished families: the Montagues and Capulets, whose bitter rivalry is an obstacle to their love and generates a series of brutalities, tricks and killings, eventually leading to the lovers' death.
Borrowing inspiration from an old Italian tale as well as from real history – though he never visited the city himself – Shakespeare set his drama in “Fair Verona”. Here, there had been fights and conspiracies between the rival factions of Guelphs and Ghibellines, supporting the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor respectively. Today, most of Verona's attractions are related to the story of the young lovers.
Ancient Verona is scattered with plaques commemorating Shakespeare's drama and its main scenes and many ongoing initiatives are directly linked to their story. In February, for Valentine's Day, the Verona in Love event offers a wide range of themed tours, romantic dinners and evocative set-ups, looping the city in a romantic madness. Juliet's birthday has been agreed upon to be on September 16, and every year different celebrations are held in this month. This year, the huge open air Romeo & Juliet gala dinner was held in Piazza Erbe on the 14th.
At any time, though, visitors can trace back the symbols of romantic love. At number 23 of via Cappello, a few minute walk from the picturesque Piazza delle Erbe (Market Square), there is what is universally recognised as the House of Juliet. An engraving of a hat on the archway would be the coat of arms of the del Cappello family, who are related to the Capulets. A passage with walls that are completely covered with writings left by visitors, leads to an inner courtyard within the medieval house. The beautiful XIII-century balcony, similar to the one where Juliet listened to Romeo's love vows was put there in the twenties to foster the belief that this really was Juliet's house. Yet people patiently queue to visit the three-storey dwelling to admire a display of costumes and furnishings from the 1968 Romeo and Juliet movie by Zeffirelli. “People come here as if it were a real pilgrimage,” Monica Viviani, from the Verona Tourism Office, told hiEurope. “The locals are quite incredulous.”
Just a few doors down in via Cappello there is Cordioli, an adorably old-fashioned bakery and café where Silvana Scolari serves good coffee and the iconic Juliet's (black) and Romeo's (white) Kisses, heart-shaped sugary biscuits made with chocolate and hazelnuts or almonds, made by her husband. Not too far from here stands Romeo's House: the real Montagues' home, a castellated building right opposite the wonderful Scaliger Tombs. Today it is a private house and a rustic trattoria serving local fare.
A little further down is the Juliet's Club in Corso Santa Anastasia: a volunteer organization, it was started by a former employee of Verona's municipality who decided to reply to the most touching love letters people had sent to “Juliet, Verona”, often asking for advice or comfort their longing for love. Having inspired a movie (Letters to Juliet, 2010), the Club has many volunteers – they call themselves Juliet's secretaries – guiding themed tours and responding to letters (which can also be posted in the mailbox in Juliet's house) and emails.
Ancient Verona has one more address dedicated to the unfortunate girl: Juliet's Tomb. It is located in the former monastery of San Francesco al Corso, the only one set out of the city walls at the time of the story, and the place where, in the story, the wretched lovers take their lives. Here, an empty red marble sarcophagus stands in a vaulted room under the church, now converted into the Cavalcaselle Museum of Frescoes and another of the Sposamiaverona locations. Nearby, a plaque commemorates the tragic epilogue of the story.
Don't let the tragic ending spoil your romantic mood, however, and walk North towards the pretty via Sottoriva, with its porticoes full of cozy bars and trattorias (opt for the Osteria Sottoriva at street number 9a), and join the river Adige's bank. From here you can enjoy the lovely view of the Veronetta area over the Roman arch bridge Ponte Pietra, with the Saint Peter's Castle – an Austrian stronghold – and the remaining of the Roman Theatre. This was the original settlement of the ancient city of Verona, centuries before Romeo and Juliet consecrated it to love.
The Top Romantic Places in Verona and Nearby:
Il Sogno di Giulietta: A luxury, charming relais right in Juliet's House courtyard. www.sognodigiulietta.it
Il Desco: Verona's most elegant restaurant, ideal for a romantic fine-dining experience. www.ristoranteildesco.it
The Belvedere at Saint Peter's Castle: Climb up to the castle and reach the panoramic viewpoint at sunset, to enjoy a stunning view over Ancient Verona and the river Adige
Giusti Gardens: The secluded, beautiful Italian Renaissance Garden of the XVI century palace – with its statues, terraces and the hedge maze – is perfect for a romantic stroll. www.giardinogiusti.com
Locanda San Vigilio: This charming hotel with its own harbour on the shores of the Lake Garda, is the ideal destination for a short love getaway from Verona. www.locanda-sanvigilio.it
Verona Tourism Office: www.tourism.verona.it