view of the river and city
Photo: Fotolia

Verona

You’ll fall for this charming northern Italian where Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet  takes place.

As we walked down Via Cappello, one of Verona, Italy’s lovely cobblestone streets, we noticed a stream of tourists funneling into an alcove like ants to a mound. My husband, daughter, and I followed them into a courtyard, where we maneuvered through the throngs flanking Casa di Giulietta (Juliet’s House), a 13th century palazzo. Women stood on men’s shoulders to graffiti the higher, less-scrawled stone walls with hearts and proclamations of love. Others used gum to stick missives to the walls or adhered bandages adorned with hearts and initials over dense, overlapping graffiti. Girls posed and waved from a small balcony above the fray.

A lodestone for tourists and the lonely hearted, Casa di Giulietta is one of Verona’s most popular—and kitschy—tourist attractions. It stands as a tribute to William Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet, which is set in Verona and reportedly based on two feuding local families. Crowds circle a bronze statue of the tragic heroine, waiting to take selfies or pose for photos while grabbing her breasts. (If you grasp the right one, it’s supposed to bring luck in love.)

piazza
Photo: Tom Flanagan

Watching the spectacle (reportedly a debacle in the eyes of the approximately 260,000 Veronese who live here year-round), I could see why Verona is dubbed “the city of love”—and ultimately misunderstood. It is beautiful and romantic, but its heart is urbane and multifaceted. The northern Italian city is an architectural, cultural, and gastronomic powerhouse, with Roman ruins running beneath its floors and esteemed Amarone wine flowing from its surrounding vineyards.

At the foot of the Lessini Mountains on the River Adige, Verona has been seducing travelers for more than 2,000 years. It charmed Julius Caesar, who regularly vacationed here, and coddled Dante, who called Verona his “earliest refuge” and spent six years holed up in exile in the city while editing Inferno.

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One of the major perks of staying in Verona is that it provides a base to see the other Italian cities and landmarks that are within an hour’s drive of the city.

Part of its appeal is that unlike the many Italian destinations that are overrun with tourists, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is still relatively underrated. Tourists certainly come here, but most of the time, they blend with the locals rather than outnumbering them. During a stay late last August, we ran into few Americans.

Though many vacationers have yet to discover Verona, it is achingly beautiful. You can’t help but succumb to its magic. I was smitten the minute I passed under the double arches of Portoni della Bra and into the knots of postcard-worthy side streets, each showcasing mustard and melon-pink medieval buildings, balconies drizzling ivy, faded frescos, and Romanesque and Gothic structures.

One of the best ways to soak in such sights and the Veronese culture is to wander the city’s navigable streets. There are the obvious landmarks worthy of touring, such as the quartet of Romanesque and Gothic churches, including a stunning, red-striped duomo. There’s also the imposing Castelvecchio—a brick medieval castle built in 1354 that houses a museum with paintings, sculptures, and weapons.

I was more enamored of the serendipitous finds without a map. During an evening stroll (nightly walks are a revered Veronese tradition called passeggiata), we headed into the bustling Piazza Bra and stumbled upon queues of families waiting to look through one of four impromptu telescope stations that local astronomy aficionados had set up to view Saturn and the moon.

Another day, walking along a street called Corso Porta Borsari, which is intersected by enchanting courtyards and alcoves, I wandered into a discrete entrance of a diminutive church called San Giovanni in Foro. It had a small nave and altar and a narrow side room exposing extensive Roman relics covered in glass. Roman ruins run throughout the city and many hotels and businesses unearth them during construction and make them part of their design. The basement floor of the United Colors of Benetton retail store on Via Giuseppe Mazzini, for example, looks like a museum. Clothes are sparsely arranged around an entire floor of preserved ruins.

If you continue east on Corso Porta Borsari, the narrow street will open onto Piazza delle Erbe, the epicenter of Verona and the site of the original Roman Forum. Vendors in white-tented stalls hawking everything from T-shirts to tomatoes crowd a section of it. Restaurants line some of the perimeter, their tables filled with people sipping the signature orange-hued Italian aperitivo, Aperol spritz, through a straw. The rest of the square is lined with buildings and monuments, some with frescos, and an arch with a whalebone rib dangling from it. (No one knows where it came from or why it’s there.) At the center is a fountain from the 14th century with a 4th century Madonna Verona statue.

The city’s prime attraction, however, is the Arena di Verona, a coliseum-like, 1st century amphitheater in the café-packed Piazza Bra. Once the site of entertainment ranging from gladiator fights to jousts and tournaments. the circular, open-air theater now features year-round performances and a summer-long opera season with productions that can last four hours. We saw Verdi’s Aida 1913, which ran about three and a half hours with several intermissions. (A woman dramatically strikes a hand held gong to signal the end of each one.) The arena, which holds 15,000 people, also hosts shows ranging from rock concerts to ballets. If you’re looking for comfort, get tickets well in advance and opt for reserved seats (with backs) rather than the non-reserved stone seating along the upper ring.

view of the city
Photo: Fotolia

Pasta and prosciutto may prevail in some parts of Italy, but menus in Verona are dramatically different. We routinely saw horsemeat as an entrée—as a steak, shredded, braised, tartare, even meatballs. The gastronomic tradition dates back to barbaric invasions at the end of the Roman Empire. I like horses too much to eat them, so I opted for the bollito misto (boiled meats) with peara sauce (breadcrumbs and bone-marrow mix), a Sunday tradition in Verona. You can find it in restaurants such as Torcolo. The less adventurous would do well with a plate of the signature risotto all’Amarone, a rich, russet-hued, creamy dish mixing the region’s pricey, powerhouse wine—Amarone—with locally cultivated rice.

For a casual lunch or light dinner, the local wine store, Signorvino, has a delightful adjoining cafe with glass-topped tables on wine barrels and simple, yet delicious offerings such as olive and cheese plates and wine tastings by the glass. (It’s also a great place to buy local wine.)

One of my favorite restaurants was Antica Bottega del Vino, which is known for its risotto all’Amarone. You can feel the history the minute you enter the warm, wood-paneled restaurant. Wine bottles line the walls—and for good reason: the wine menu, which represents a cellar valued at $1 million, is huge. Another standout is Locanda 4 Cuochi, which serves Italian cuisine with a modern twist. The open kitchen and adjoining dining room are bright and sophisticated.

For one of the best bird’s-eye views of Verona, hike to Re Teodorico, a hilltop restaurant and bar, and quench your thirst on its outdoor patio while enjoying the simple, well-prepared menu.

One of the major perks of staying in Verona is that it provides a base to see the other Italian cities and landmarks that are within an hour’s drive of the city. Directly north, there’s the 25,000-acre Lessinia Natural Regional Park. To the west sits Italy’s largest lake, Lake Garda, and miles of vineyards churning out the esteemed Amarone wine. To the east, there’s Padua, home to Italy’s second-oldest university (Galileo taught math here), and gondola-laden Venice. Directly south are olive groves and olive-oil tastings, a balsamic vinegar region in Modena, and rice fields that supply Verona’s signature food, risotto.

We opted for a trip to the Soave and Valpolicella wine regions with Veronality, an upscale tour company that customizes experiences to individual tastes. We visited Soave, a popular, white-wine producer with acres of hearty Garganaga grapes on stunning volcanic hills that have supported vineyards since the Roman times. Soave has revamped its wine—and its cheap, jug-wine image from the 1970s—and produces highly rated white wines, often under the Coffele label.

outdoor market
Photo: Fotolia

We also ventured to the king of Amarone wine production, Dal Forno. Located in Val d’Illasi, the winery is run by owner Romano Dal Forno and his three sons. When we pulled up to the electronic gates, Romano’s wife, Loretta, rode up on an old bicycle with a basket. “These are people who are proud to be farmers,” said our guide. “They are willing to get their hands dirty.”

Both a passionate innovator and an entrepreneur, Romano led a tour of his facility and explained the painstaking process of producing world-class Amarone (which runs more than $200 a bottle) with fickle grapes and loads of variables. “Every bottle is different,” he said. “It’s something alive. It’s not just Coca Cola.”

Another day, we headed to the country’s largest lake, Lake Garda, which is often eclipsed by nearby Lake Como’s popularity, but equally beautiful. Trains and buses can get you there, but there’s no direct stop at one of the nicest—albeit most-crowded—towns along the lake: Sirmione. Hire a driver or rent a car and pause on the way in Borghetto sul Mincio for a bowl of the town specialty—freshly made nodo d’amore (love-knot) tortellini.

While most tourists choose to visit Verona in the summer, each season offers something unique. Fall is best for olive-oil tastings and the wine harvest, while winter is a cozier time with fewer crowds. Spring brings warmer temperatures, but also a slew of festivals.

One night, we asked a local what to see and do in Verona. He shrugged and said, “You can find whatever you want.”    

Traveler Fast Facts

WHAT IT IS:

The historic city of Verona, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in northern Italy’s Veneto region, is an architectural, cultural, and gastronomic powerhouse. It boasts one of the richest collections of Roman relics in northern Italy and Amarone wine flowing from its surrounding vineyards.

CLIMATE:

Verona has moderately hot summers and cool, foggy winters. November is the rainiest month.

GETTING THERE:

Verona International Airport is about six miles outside the city center. It’s suitable for a variety of private jets and also caters to several international airlines, such as Aer Lingus and British Airways.

WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:

To get a ticket to one of the summer opera performances, you’ll need to book in advance (www.arena.it/arena/en). If you don’t like crowds, steer clear of dates around Valentine’s Day, when there’s a four-day “Verona in Love” festival, and in April, when Vinitaly, a major wine event, draws oenophiles from around the world.

Traveler Report Card

ACCOMMODATIONS:

We stayed at Palazzo Victoria (A+), an elegant, villa-like hotel in Verona’s historic center. Its 74 rooms are both medieval and modern, and showcase Roman ruins and remnants from the villa into which the hotel is built and the three 14th century houses that later occupied the site. Opt for the Victoria suite with an original fresco on the ceiling, or the alfresco suite, with its velvet door, wooden ceiling, and frescoed walls. Rooms can be adjoined to create a private floor for up to eight guests. Breakfast is served in a lovely courtyard. Another luxury option is Due Torri Hotel (A), which is about a 10-minute walk from the arena and a member of Leading Hotels of the World.

hotel suite
Courtesy of Palazzo Victoria

FOOD (A):

Risotto, not pasta, is the signature entree here, thanks to the neighboring rice fields. Don’t leave Verona without trying the risotto all’Amarone, a creamy dish flavored with the region’s pricey, powerhouse wine—Amarone. Local cheeses, such as Monte Veronese, are excellent. For the adventurous, cavallo (horsemeat) can be found on many menus. Boiled meat with peara sauce (breadcrumbs and bone-marrow mix) is also a traditional Veronese dish. Restaurant options (see main story) include the historic Antica Bottega del Vino (A+), which features an extensive wine list and risotto all’Amarone; Locanda 4 Cuochi (A), which offers items such as gorgonzola gnocchi and suckling pig; and Re Teodorico (A-), for a stellar view and dishes like Florentine steak and baccala.

wine barrels
Photo: Tom Flanagan

ACTIVITIES (A+):

Verona is a year-round destination, with activities and events to suit varied interests. Within the city are Roman ruins, churches, castles, high-end shops on Via Mazzini, a coliseum-like arena with summer-long opera performances, a Roman theater (built in the 1st century B.C.), and the kitschy Juliet’s House. Verona’s viniculture is thousands of years old and its vineyards, including the noble Amarone, are a must-see. Several companies offer vineyard and wine-tasting tours.

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