Sunday, May 4, 2008
The Italian city of Verona is a sort of Disneyland of Eternal Love. Inspired by Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers, hundreds of thousands of visitors flock yearly to places said to have been associated with "Romeo and Juliet."
Never mind that the couple may not even have existed. "Juliet's House," actually a 13th-century building and stables redone by the city after the release of George Cukor's 1936 movie, is Mecca to tourists who have covered it with so many scribblings and love notes affixed with chewing gum that it all had to be sandblasted off early this year. Hard-core sentimentalists have been known to leave in tears after visiting "Juliet's tomb" in a nearby church. A local volunteer group accepts "letters to Juliet" and awards a prize for the best letter every Valentine's Day. And the city, eager to milk this industry, celebrates the heroine's "birthday" with a festival every Sept. 16.
Happily, there is a lot more to Verona, which happens to be one of northern Italy's most historic, attractive and stylish cities. Built in the crook of a bend in the Adige River about 70 miles west of Venice, the city offers a couple of thousand years of real ambiance: ornate palaces, archways and footbridges designed with a mix of northern European orderliness and Italian flair; intimate pedestrian stone streets punctuated with an impressive collection of antique brick and marble bell towers; and one of the world's largest and best-preserved Roman arenas.
Verona's architectural treasures led it to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, but it is by no means just another European outdoor museum. It is a lively town with a big local social life, a refined restaurant and regional wine scene, and some of the most inviting public squares and outdoor cafes anywhere. The Roman Arena (built to hold 25,000 people) hosts a thriving summer opera series.
In short, Verona is an ideal destination for a short (two-day) stopover. And it's much easier to visit than Italy's tourist-mobbed blockbuster cities: safer than Rome, cheaper than Venice and more authentic-feeling than Florence.
A Center of the Universe
In the past 20 years, I'd driven past Verona about a dozen times on the way to other destinations in the upper back thigh of Italy's boot. But I'd never stopped there -- mostly an aversion to the "Romeo and Juliet" hype. That changed on a recent vacation when my wife, teenage son and I stayed overnight on our way north to the Dolomites.
We arrived in the early afternoon. Our hotel, the Gabbia D'Oro, is a centuries-old townhouse with a collection of drawing rooms decorated with antiques and crystal chandeliers. I chose it not for the chic comforts but for practicalities: a central location with valet parking in the middle of a city where cars are restricted.
Leaving the car at the hotel, we walked a few steps to the Piazza delle Erbe (Square of the Herbs), one of the most beautiful and evocative squares in all of Italy. This vast rectangular piazza, which in Roman times served as the public forum and remains a center of Verona social life, is lined with stately, colorful townhouses. In between the buildings' iron balconies and painted shutters are the remnants of 15th-century frescoes depicting religious and mythological themes. At ground level, the outdoor tables of cafes and restaurants carpet the edges of the place.
Running down the center of the square is a series of antique stone monuments including a market column, a 16th-century public rostrum, a Venetian column with a winged lion and the so-called "Madonna of Verona" fountain showcasing a Roman statue. An ornate baroque mansion, the Palazzo Maffei, forms the north end of the piazza.
It was already past our lunchtime and we were hungry, but it's easy to get sucked into Verona's dramatic grid. We walked off the square through an archway where a blackened whale rib has, curiously, hung for about 500 years. Immediately to our right was Verona's most impressive bell and clock tower, the brick and stone Torre dei Lamberti. We continued ahead to the Piazza dei Signori, lined with the palaces that served as the seat of power during Verona's heyday as a city-state in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Like all great cities, Verona has a way of conveying its conceit as the center of a universe -- even if the center has long since moved away. "There is no world without Verona walls" is a quote that pretty much sums up that conceit -- even if it was Romeo who said it, at a time when he wasn't thinking clearly.
As we crossed back through the Piazza delle Erbe, the significance of the place was completed by a detail that attracted my son and every teenager in view. Parked on a small side street was a pristine, brilliant-red Ferrari F430. There is something about the sight of a sleek Pininfarina body wrapped around a 490-horsepower machine in the middle of all the tired and majestic stone that is Verona --something close to poetry.