February 2007 Verona

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Verona panoramaLike the romance inherent in the name and apparent around every street corner, the water is inescapable in Verona.

Just in case anyone thought you could avoid the river, it decided to rush in an S-shape through the city, pretending it is a mountain brook. Its sound is everywhere, sneaking up on you when you least expect it.

Young lovers stroll hand in hand through the streets of the city of love, bringing a non chalant air of joy with them. To add to the atmosphere, in summer the city bustles with the paraphernalia of the most famous outdoor opera festival of them all.

It is as if the ancient town is a giant extra required for the second act of a Verdi spectacular.

Verona is bursting with emotion. But then it should.

Those young couples fill the streets at every time of the year. People marry and remarry at Juliet’s grave. Pilgrims pin notes to the walls of the Casa di Giulietta, Juliet’s house.

An anarchic graffiti-strewn side street has become one of Europe’s great cultural icons, dedicated to a couple that may never have existed.

The man who made Romeo and Juliet famous was Matteo Bandello, a local scribe who wrote a short scene-set in the 14th century.

It was Luigi Da Porto who picked up the threads of the story and turned it into a famous medieval poem.

Shakespeare got hold of the plot line from a 1562 poem by Arthur Brooke, The Tragicall Historye Of Romeus And Iulie and by the 19th century tourists had begun to refashion Verona in their own imagination.

They found a merchant’s house with a simple coat of arms, the hats made by the hatter family (literally the Capuleti, Dal Cappello, Cappelletti).

Charles Dickens came to look and his heart was won. Even the skeptics are forced to stop by.

The site has a balcony (two of them in fact),  and to avoid confusion they added a busty statue of Juliet here in the 1970s under one of them.

It is in the style of Molly Malone (in Dublin it would have a nickname – perhaps the tart in the yard).

They say if you touch Juliet’s breast and make a wish it will come true. But it was impossible to do so discreetly, on front of a horde of camera-happy Japanese tourists, so your correspondent declined the invitation.

Juliet’s grave in a medieval monastery is just as popular, if even more unverifiable. One-and-a-half million tourists visit Juliet’s tomb every year. The chapter house nearby is a favourite wedding venue.

Romeo has fared less well. The home of the Montecchi, or Monticoli hasn’t been clearly identified to give Romeo a tourist attraction of his own. But in Verona of the imagination, it scarcely matters.

 

This being Verona, the romance does not end there.

Verona’s huge amphitheatre, solidly towering into the sky 2,000 years and two major earthquakes later, is in better shape than Rome’s Coliseum, which was built seventy years later.

In winter it is a quiet and reflective ancient monument, mindful of the days when civilisation oozed like olive oil from this landscape of Northern Italy.

In summer it becomes a playground, a set for five major operas, staged nightly before 15,060 guests who pay between Eu12 and Eu130 to watch from the ancient seats.

The perennial favourite is Aida, a magnificent production with huge props and a passing parade that would have done the Pharaohs proud.

Verona’s opera festival runs June 24 to August 26, has been going for over a century and at this stage is an institution more than a festival. The dressing rooms amid dribbling ancient rooms enhance the atmosphere.

Critics note it is obliged to present the big safe bets, Verdi and Puccini in particular,  lavish presentations using acclaimed singers from the international star circuit, supported by youngsters at the start of their careers.

The purists say that the sublime and the kitsch are never far apart here, the size of the stage, that the distance between the performers and the audience leads to vocal and visual excesses, that the singing is more a test of strength than class. But the critics are missing the point. The very nature of these excesses makes a Verona Arena opera one of the great tourist experiences.

Directors emphasise every visual detail. The spectacle is as important as the sound.

Verona’s amphitheatre has a long tradition of performance, animal fights and bullfights form Roman times, medieval games and pageants, and since 1903 the opera festival every July and August.

The festival run by the Fondazione Arena is a major event, with a huge staff and a backstage operation which is a bit of an opera in itself.

Nowadays leading directors flock to get the opportunity to stage operas in one of Italy’s most ancient, most famous and most demanding destinations.

Two of the performances get rained off each year, on average, but the open air festival has become one of the Europe’s must-dos. Characters exploded through the ramps on to the huge stage that takes up half the auditorium.

No amplification is used. And the arias echo into the clear night sky like a cry from ancient times.

 

  • Verona has much more to offer than mythical couple and scaled up opera. There is terrific shopping and beautiful churches, such as San Zeno, with its amazing Last Supper mural with cockroaches crawling along the table, Sant’Anastasia and San Fermothe.
  • The ubiquitous river flows through castellated heights and under the ancient Roman Bridge of Ponte Pietra. The craftsman quarter, the Carega (“chair” in local dialect) are all worth a visit.
  • You can spend your time admiring the Fountain of the Verona Madonna and the symbols of the Scala family’s power, strolling the ancient streets of the Corte Regia, and the  ancient homes with frescoes overlooking Piazza delle Erbe.
  • The street that begins at Piazza delle Erbe and winds along the narrow alleyways of the old city centre past the Church of Sant’Anastasia is flanked by ancient antique shops.
  • Hotels in Verona are booked pretty solidly throughout the opera season (July and August), mostly with German opera-lovers. But with Lago Garda on one side and Venice on the other, there is no shortage of accommodation for those who search.
  • Like Romeo and Juliet, if Verona did not exist, we would have had to invent.
  • Ryanair and Aer Lingus fly Dublin to Milan, Linate and Malpensa. Ryanair flies Dublin-Treviso.
  • Topflight are the tour operators who specialize in Italy.
  • Opera tickets are available from lagodigarda.tv/viaggi-molinari/arena-verona.htm. The Verona opera festival runs June 21-August 31. For a seating plan, see arena.it.
  • Italian Tourist Board (www.enit.it.)
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