My visit to Verona last summer was almost an accident—but a lucky one. It wasn’t on the original plan for our three weeks in Northern Italy, but online recommendations from friends landed it on the list. It was our last city, after Venice, Ravenna and Bologna, and in its own way it is just as unique as Venice.
For a start, Verona is wrapped around its river, the Adige, one of the main historical routes through the Alps. Historically a trading center between north and south, it is today both a busy commercial city and a center for tourism. Its Roman theatre and amphitheatre—still in use—its stunning churches and beautiful piazzas and river walks have made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
And on top of that, it has another industry: cheesy souvenirs and sites focused on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, whose fictional lives are a big source of souvenir sales. But put that aside and enjoy the city.
The Ponte Pietra, or Stone Bridge, in the picture above, is one of two unique Verona bridges; it was built around 100 BC to connect the city to its Roman Theatre and to carry trader traffic headed toward the Brenner Pass. A close look at it today shows a checkered history. It was partly rebuilt in the 13th century, modified in the 19th, and destroyed by retreating German troops in 1945. It was rebuilt after the war, and all three styles show.
The other unique bridge is this fortified structure connecting the fortifications of the Castelvecchio to the north bank of the river. The castle was the stronghold of Verona’s often-unpopular ruling family, the Scaglieris, and the bridge gave them an escape route in case of revolt.
The Scaglieris, incidentally, were obsessed not with the ladders that gave the family its name, but with dogs—and many of them took dog names such as Cangrande (Big Dog) and Mastino (Mastiff). Their family crest and armor took both dogs and ladders as symbols, and they appear prominently on their tombs and monuments.
Verona mixes the past and the present with what might be the world’s oldest opera house; the summer opera season in Verona uses the Roman Arena. The Roman Theatre is also used for performances, but on a smaller scale. The Opera’s sets are huge, and are lifted in over the walls by a crane. During the opera season, the edges of Piazza Bra near the Amphitheatre are full of scenery.
The sets themselves are quite large, and an afternoon visit to watch the stage technicians assembling props and scenery can make a pleasant break in the day.
Piazza Bra, the area near the Arena, is one of my favorite public spaces anywhere. It’s marked off by the Arena and public buildings along two side; another side is a long colonnaded building with a wide variety of restaurants and cafes spilling out onto the street, and the last side is marked off by the old city wall. In the center is a sizable tree-filled park with benches and shade. Day and night, the Piazza is full of people out for a stroll, a show or a meal. Here’s a portion of the Roman wall at one exit from the Piazza.
Past the wall, and over toward the river, stands the Castelvecchio (Old Castle) which was actually a new fortification when it was built in the 1300s. It served as a military post into the 20th century. Today it’s a museum of its own past, as well as a museum of medieval and Renaissance art.
The art on display ranges from tremendously affecting scenes of the crucifixion, with Jesus and onlookers portrayed with real emotion (samples in the slide show below) to an amusing 15th-century portrait of a grinning boy holding a paper with a stick figure he’s just drawn. There are also displays of Scalieri armor with helmets shaped like a dog’s head.
Verona’s also a food city, with a sizable variety of restaurants, especially along Sottariva, an area along the river in the historic center. Restaurants are clustered under a colonnade on one side of the street; more are on the other side, facing the river. Water-view seats can be at a premium, but the prices range from moderate to…well…pricey. At the end of the street, near the Ponte Pietra, is the Gelateria della Ponte Pietra. After three weeks of gelato at least twice a day, we called this one the winner. We had to stand in line behind Hello Kitty to get our treat, though.
Also just near the Ponte Pietra is one of Verona’s remarkable churches, St. Anastasia. The exterior is brick, rather than stone; its design makes it seem even larger than its huge size and the light-filled interior just knocked us out. But we recovered enough to admire the two hard-working fellows who hold up the baptismal fonts! More pictures of this church and also of St. Zeno in the slideshow below.
Ah, but you can’t get away with talking about Verona and completely ignore Romeo and Juliet. The interest is so strong that about 100 years ago the city government decided that the best way to answer the question “Where is Juliet’s house” was to provide one. They bought a derelict mansion that may once have been a brothel and started selling tickets. About 20 years later, when tourists complained there was no balcony for Juliet to stand on and Romeo to stand below, the city fastened most of an old sarcophagus under a window, and presto! Juliet’s balcony. Those less interested in the house have made their mark on the wall outside…
Like to see more? Check out the picture gallery below for a slideshow.
And for more information on visiting Verona, click HERE for a link to the official tourism site of Verona.