I suppose that for most people, the person who introduced them to the city of Verona is William Shakespeare, but not for me. For me, it was Lars Preben Elkjaer, a star striker for the Danish team that took the early part of the 1986 World Cup by surprise – and by storm. Elkjaer played for Verona at the time, and as a football-crazy kid that piece of useless trivia found a permanent place in my head.
Verona is probably an easy place to overlook when considering the superstar cities of Italy (Rome, Milan, Naples, Venice etc), but we decided to give it a go and have spent the best part of 3 days exploring the city and the surrounding area. In a word: stunning.
The city has a beautiful geographical setting, with distant hills serving as a backdrop to the north and the surprisingly-clean Adige River hugging the oldest part of the city in a U-shape. The centre of the city is just gorgeous, with beautiful old buildings, attractive piazzas, classy shops and enticing restaurants all round. The star of the show is the incredible Verona Arena, a 1st century AD Roman amphitheater still in use today (more on that in a second). It dominates the wonderful and spacious Piazza Brà and inspires a little awe and head-shaking every single time you look at it, from whichever angle.
Piazza Erbe is the old heart of the city and still bustles with restaurants and stalls today. A stone’s throw away sits the most visited site in the city (sadly) – Casa Giulietta. This is a museum dedicated to Shakespeare’s creation and one of Verona’s most famous (fictional) inhabitants, Juliet. The house has about as much to do with the star-crossed lovers as I have, but I guess it’s a money-spinner for someone. We were advised to go and see the balcony (‘it’s a nice balcony’, said our friendly local) and to ignore the house. The throng of people was a bit depressing, as was the preening of those who posed on the balcony. Not my scene, but it’s such an iconic place and was right beside where we were headed, so no great loss!
Just across the river, north-east of the historic centre, is Castel San Pietro. It is normally accessed by about 6,000 steps, but, mercifully, a funicular was opened about a month ago. We happily paid a couple of euros to save hours of time (and probably a hospital visit) climbing the steps in baking heat, and it was the best value ever! Castro San Pietro overlooks the city – and what a sensational view it offers. The red-tiled roofs of the city spread out beneath you; the clear water of the river races by; the lush trees add colour. You really could spend ages just drinking it in.
So, back to the Arena. It is used to host operas and concerts, and every summer there is a programme of operas held there, with thousands of visitors attending. You could write what I know about opera on a very tiny post-it with crayon, but it was an experience not to be missed. We went to see Verdi’s Nabucco, which is very loosely based on Nebuchadnezzar II and the Jewish captivity in Babylon. I have no idea how the opera was set by Verdi, but in the Arena it was cleverly set in the 19th century with the Italians representing the oppressed Jews. The sets were incredible, especially the theatre that represented the king’s council chamber.
We were right at the back of the Arena, yet the sound from the orchestra and singers was so clear. The soloists were incredible, especially Abigaille (the stereotypical ‘fat lady’ who fairly sang) and Nabucco, who filled the Arena with his singing, even when sitting down or lying on the ground. Absolutely amazing. The highlight of the night was the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’, which drew massive applause from the audience.
I was surprised to see the reception for the conductor – he was treated like a rock star! And there were a few audience members who kept shouting ‘bravo!’, not unlike the clowns you hear shouting ‘get in the hole’ at a golf competition, I thought.
The area around Verona is absolutely stunning. About 10 miles east lies the town of Soave, with an ancient boundary wall and accompanying castle perched above the town. Soave is a type of wine (apparently!) and the area is absolutely covered with vineyards; it’s a spectacular site. Driving a little north of Soave takes you through more hectares of vineyards and higher into the hills, round crazy hairpin bends and narrow country roads. But the main danger is the view – it becomes ever more spectacular with each bend and with each metre climbed that there’s a real risk of toppling into a ditch whilst gawping at the natural beauty below. At the top of the hill (at least, the one we went up) the view is astounding, seeing for miles around on every side – and most of the area you can see used as vineyards.
It would be wrong to talk about Verona without mentioning the food. The city has loads of restaurants, all looking appealing and providing a good range of cuisine. We had three dinners in three very different restaurants, and all three were fantastic. The highlight was probably risotto with champagne and prawns, a very memorable flavour sensation.
Verona probably has much more to offer than we discovered, but for our visit the aim was to wander around with no major plans (other than the opera). It is a perfect place for such a visit, and I’d recommend adding it to your travel wish list.