Falling in love with Verona

Famous as the setting for one of the greatest romantic tragedies of all time, Verona is known as a place for lovers, but for me Romeo and Juliet were bit players in a city that offers a lot more to love than a fake balcony and tomb.

For starters it’s incredibly pretty. The pink buildings, red rooftops, Renaissance architecture and stunning piazzas are all a joy to walk around. And don’t even get me started on the Arena. A fabulous Roman amphitheatre right in the heart of the city.

We chose to visit during Verona’s opera festival, not because any of us were particular fans of opera, but why wouldn’t you when you can see it in t  a Roman arena. That’s where we spent our first evening watching Aida and it was absolutely spectacular. With such a vast stage at their disposal they make full use of it with fabulous sets, a great orchestra and a huge cast. I think I counted 150 people on the stage at one point.

Aida was the first opera performed when the festival started in Verona in 1913 and has been included in the programme every year since, along with three or four other famous operas. We saw the evidence of these the next day when we walked around to the back of the Arena and found the sets which are wheeled in or lifted over the top of the amphitheatre walls by crane as and when they’re needed.

Its easy to book tickets online in advance and there’s a variety of seating prices. For opera buffs there is stalls seating in front of the stage and then some rows of reserved seating on the stones steps. But we were happy being in the cheap seats (€26), which are the higher stones steps where the seats are unreserved but you get a fabulous view of the whole Arena. Needless to say the steps are hard to sit on but there are plenty of cushions available for hire.

The following morning we had breakfast on the terrace of our lovely Hotel Aurora and watched the bustling Piazza Delle Erbe below. The market stalls used to sell vegetables but are now packed with souvenirs, leather bags, scarves and the mouthwatering takeaway macedonie, otherwise known as fruit salad.

All around the square are wonderful buildings. At one end is Palazzo Maffei topped with Roman statues while on one side of it is Torre del Gardello and on the other is Casa Mazzanti, a long building with amazing frescoes sitting above a row of busy restaurants and cafes.

Opposite our hotel was the 84m high Torre dei Lamberti and as it was a dominant feature in the view from our room and breakfast terrace we decided to start our sightseeing there. Saying that the visit is more about the view from the top than the tower itself. A brilliant place to get a feel for the city and your fill of those glorious red rooftops.

The entrance to the tower is on the way into another square, the very lovely Piazza dei Signori. Its quieter than Piazza delle Erbe and has some gorgeous buildings including the Loggia del Consiglio, said to be Verona’s best Renaissance building and formerly the city council assembly hall. Next to it the Palazzo degli Scaligeri is topped with swallow-tail battlements. Swallows are a regular feature in Verona.

Scaligeri is also a regular feature in Verona as the family ruled the city in the 13th and 14th centuries, so we took a quick walk from the square to see the Arche Scaligere, a collection of Gothic funeral monuments outside the small Santa Maria Antica church. Then it was time to retrace our steps through Piazza delle Erbe to head for the dreaded Juliet’s balcony.

I say dreaded because it is of course all nonsense. Romeo and Juliet was a fictional tale and there’s no evidence to say that Case di Giulietta (Juliet’s House) was even connected to the Cappelletti family which may or may not have been Shakespeare’s inspiration for the Capuelts. But tourists want somewhere to go so Verona has obliged and we too felt obliged to at least take a look, although we drew the line at climbing up to stand on the balcony!

The bits I found most interesting were the wall of ‘Letters to Juliet’ which you’ll know all about if you’ve seen the film of the same name. It was mostly a collection of post it notes but the messages were genuine enough. There’s also a rather nice shop where a group of friendly ladies stitch names on a huge array of items. I just got mine stitched on a piece of paper which they do for free to show you how it looks.

Next we headed for one of Verona’s many beautiful churches and also its largest, the Sant’Anastasia. The outside is quite plain but inside there’s a 15th century marble floor and frescoes on the vaulting. There are lots of artworks and I particularly liked the gobbi, two hunchback statues supporting the holy water basins on their shoulders.

It’s a lovely walk from here towards Ponte Pietra, a bridge that was blown up by the retreating Nazis in 1945, but the local people pulled every stone out of the river and rebuilt it. We found a great spot for lunch nearby at Terrazza Bar Al Ponte where we had fab views of the bridge and the buildings on the other side of the not very appealing looking River Adige.

Refuelled with paninis and Hugos (the elderflower and prosecco drink that’s taking over from Aperol Spritz) we headed for Verona’s red and white striped Duomo. The cathedral is filled with many chapels and columns with lovely details and some really interesting and very modern looking choir seats made from polychrome marble.

The cathedral is at the centre of a complex which also includes mosaic remains under St Elena church and the baptistry, San Giovanni in Fonte. The impressive octagonal font was carved from one block of marble and features scenes from the Gospel.

A 20 minute stroll along the river from here gets you to the Arco de Gavi, a Roman triumphal arch that was rebuilt in 1930 after the original was demolished by Napoleon’s troops. This is a great spot to see Ponte Scaligero, a fortified bridge with those distinctive swallow-tail battlements. Like the Ponte Pietra the Nazis blew this one up, but again those resilient Veronese pulled up the stones and rebuilt it.

The bridge leads from the Castlevecchio, a fortress that was part of the city walls and now houses Verona’s art museum. We didn’t have time for a visit inside but its one to go back for. Instead we headed across to Piazza Bra, one of Italy’s largest squares and home to the Arena where we’d spent the previous evening. It’s a great place to hang out with gardens in the middle, huge buildings and the Liston, a sweeping terrace of cafes and restaurants.

It seemed rude not to stop for a glass of prosecco at Vittorio Emanuele, a grand old cafe with a fabulous interior. Not that we sat inside, the weather was too nice for that. We enjoyed it so much we came back the next evening on our way home from a day trip to Lake Garda and enjoyed more Hugos with apertivo snacks as the sun went down.

Shopping seemed like a good plan after prosecco so we headed out of Piazza Bra and up traffic free Via Mazzini which has plenty of opportunities for window shopping and buying, as do the streets running off it and nearby.

That was the end of our sightseeing, but falling in love with Verona continued in the evening when we went to the brilliant Ristorante Maffei. Its inside the Palazzo Maffei that I mentioned earlier is in Piazza delle Erbe, so only a two minute walk from our hotel. We sat outside in the courtyard and had the most delicious food. We were lucky to get a table so I’d recommend booking as its a huge notch up from most of the eating places in the piazza and not much more expensive.

There are lots of places to drink after dinner in Piazza delle Erbe. We had great cocktails at Osteria Al Canton and Casa Mazzanti Cafe. And Inamo in Piazza Signori is nice too, we had a nice cheese plate after our apertivo on Sunday. I’d also recommend Osteria Punto Rosa in Via Frata, its near the Arena so we had dinner there before going to the opera. Great pasta but I really loved the simple anchovy starter with super fresh bread and salted butter.

As I said at the start there’s a lot to love about Verona and a lot to recommend. Its small but perfectly formed for a weekend break with a great blend of sightseeing, shopping, eating, drinking and of course opera. It’s also very handy for a day trip to Lake Garda which I’ll write about in another post coming soon.

Click on an image below to scroll through the gallery and visit the Europe section of the blog for other great city break ideas.


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