From Verona with love

Sat, Apr 28, 2012, 01:00

CITY BREAK:Culture, architecture, and great food and wine. The Italian city of Verona has it all, writes TONY CLAYTON-LEA

A GAGGLE OF TEENAGE schoolboys are giggling, their hands reaching up to the statue of Juliet to stroke her right breast – a breast that, by this stage, has been rubbed so many times it glints in the sunshine. The schoolgirls are laughing, too. It’s for luck, they are told by their patient teachers, standing beside the statue whose character has been immortalised as one of literature’s most tragic female figures.

We are, of course, in Verona. To be precise, we are standing in the small courtyard of the House of Juliet Museum, which is accessed via a narrow portal off Via Capello. You really can’t miss it – crowds of schoolkids and other assorted visitors mill around the opening, gawking at the virtually impenetrable graffiti-laced walls where pens and markers of every colour have, over the centuries, been used to scrawl messages of undying love. The associated museum (entrance fee €8) harbours little of interest – stills of movies, quotes from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – but the metal gates that lie unopened beside the statue of Juliet provide the hope if not tangibility of love: it is festooned with multicoloured locks, each bearing a pair of names.

As we know, lasting love didn’t work out for Romeo and Juliet, but for the likes of Graziano and Elisa, Carlos and Arantza, Guerino and Eugenia, and Dominique and Christian – well, we hope you’re all still together, and that you fondly recall that day in Verona when you clicked shut your lock and threw away the key.

There is, let it be said, an almost urgent romantic sensibility to Verona, a factor enhanced by its status as a Unesco world heritage site. There are good reasons why the northern Italian city of just over a quarter-of-a-million inhabitants has come to represent such sensibilities and, indeed, why Verona itself has come to be so well loved.

Unlike Rome, Verona has all the history, culture, architectural splendour and visitor sights in a neat, compact area – it isn’t known as Little Rome for nothing – so you can easily get from one to the next without need of a foot rub at the end of your walk. It’s also a definite bonus that so much of Verona’s architecture has been so impressively conserved.

This is brought home when you get to the end of the primary shopping street, Via Mazzini. Piazza Bra, the place of rest for the majority of tourists, may be in your direct line of vision, but you don’t need to turn your head to be caught off guard by the Verona Arena. After Rome’s Colosseum and the Capua Arena, it is the third-largest arena amphitheatre in Italy.

Completed in or around AD 30, the arena interior is virtually intact; so intact, in fact, that the structure, which can accommodate 20,000 spectators, is used for arts and music-related events, including concerts by the likes of Björk and Duran Duran, but more notably its annual summer opera festival (celebrating its 90th birthday this year). If you can’t manage to nab a ticket, don’t worry – do as hundreds of other visitors to the city do, and order dinner at any of the nearby cafes and restaurants. Pasta, pizza and wine as a summer’s evening breeze wafts arias from the arena – there isn’t much wrong with that, is there?

There’s a lot to admire about Verona’s other sights, not least the Roman Theatre, which is on the other side of the city, across the river Adige. Direct access is via the Ponte di Pietra, which is itself another beautifully extant ancient Roman landmark. The Roman Theatre Museum houses a treasure trove of artefacts – from frescoes to statues to coins, and so on – but if culture of this kind is a tad dry for you, there is always somewhere close by to sit down for a cappuccino or something stronger, during which you can plan your next move.

There are houses, churches and buildings – made from a variegated mix of honey, white and pink limestone from the nearby Valpolicella region – of every age and style. There are alleys, corners, nooks, crannies, portals and porches. There is the elegant (Mercato Vecchio courtyard), the picturesque (Piazza Erbe), the panoramic (Torre dei Lamberti) and the aristocratic (Piazza dei Signoro), and dappled throughout are many osterias, trattorias, gelaterias, cafes and wine bars. In a short visit, you’ll be lucky if you have the time (let alone the appetite) to pop into more than a handful of them, but whichever ones you do visit, you’ll notice one important aspect: how reasonably priced they are. The easy availability of good food and drink is one of Verona’s strongest points.

Even if a two- or three-day trip is all you can manage, you’ll be able to get your bearings quickly, so that Verona will become something of a second home – you’ll know exactly where you are, where you want to go, and how to make it back to your hotel.

If you’re lucky enough to be able to spend more time here, the surrounding area is rich in history and a testimony to its past. In the hills of Lessinia, which rise to the north of the city, you’ll discover waterfalls and forests. The region is also famous for its production of Valpolicella, Soave and Bardolino wines.

And, last but not least, why not make a day trip to the beaches of Lake Garda? If you have kids with you, a trip to Italy’s largest amusement park, Gardaland ( gardaland.it), is a must. Five hours of rollercoaster heaven and hell there, however, will have you aching to return to Verona in search of food where the only twists and turns you’ll find are in the pasta.

VERONA Where to . . .

STAY

Due Torri, Piazza Santa Anastasia, 4-37121. Tel: 0039-045-595044, duetorrihotels.com. A five-star hotel located less than five minutes from Piazza Erbe. The rooms are understated luxury; warm-toned marble and parquet predominate, while its internal courtyard and lounge area are stunning. Doubles from €210 (seasonal and event rates apply).

Hotel Torcolo, Vicolo Listone, 3. Tel: 0039-045-8007512, hoteltorcolo.it. Located a few minutes from the arena and Piazza Bra, this family-run, two-star hotel (19 rooms) is ideal for those who wish to stay close to everything. Doubles from €70 (seasonal and event rates apply). Breakfast not included (€14 supplement).

Hotel Trieste, Corso Porta Nuova, 57-37122. Tel: 0039-045-596022, hotel-trieste.it. A certified budget option located 300m from the arena and Piazza Bra. Doubles from €70 (seasonal and event rates apply). Breakfast included.

EAT/DRINK

Osteria Dal Cavaliere, Piazzeta Scala, 3-37121. Tel: 0039-045-2227785. Just off Via Scala, this blink-and-you-miss-it place is tiny, narrow and very cost-effective.

Caffe Tubino, Corso Portoni Borsari. Tel: 0039-045-8032296. You might have trouble finding this, as there is no signage, but this teensy cafe (it seats six at a push) is full to the brim with more than 120 types of tea and a similarly lengthy coffee menu.

Beauty Food Wellness Cafe Restaurant, Galleria Pellicciai, off Via Quattro Spade. Tel: 0039-045-8000803, beautyfood.com. A sleek, minimalist, contemporary spot that specialises in organic fare. Free wifi.

HOW TO GET THERE

Aer Lingus ( aerlingus.com) operates direct flights from Dublin to Verona’s Valerio Catullo airport, Wednesday and Saturday. Ryanair operates direct flights from Dublin to Verona, Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday. Verona’s central railway/bus station is less than 15 minutes from the airport (via shuttle bus, €6, single). Unless you know exactly where you’re going, you’ll need to get a taxi from the station to your hotel in central Verona (approximately €10).