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Verona, the ideal Italian city Part 1

Piazza delle Erbe, Verona
Piazza delle Erbe with the four-columned medieval Tribuna in the foreground

If you’re an opera lover, Verona means the ultimate summer opera experience under starry skies in the Roman amphitheater, sitting on a giant slab of stone put there over 2,000 years ago before the much more famous Colosseum had even broken ground in Rome.

Opera posters from years past displayed near the arena

If you’re a wine lover, Verona means VinItaly, when in April every year winemakers from all across Italy and buyers from over 100 countries descend on the town in a massive gathering of more than a 100,000 people sampling, discussing and buying and selling wine.

If you’re a bit of a dope who can’t separate fact from fiction, Verona means queuing to see a lump of stone attached to a wall centuries after Shakespeare’s death that pretends to be Juliet’s balcony.

Waiting in line to take a photograph of a piece of obvious fiction in a city so full of real history strikes me as a little odd and reminds me of the time I happened to be passing through the small town of Ottumwa in the middle of Iowa. The sign at the railway station said 'Welcome to Ottumwa, the fictional home of Radar O’Reilly'. For those who don’t know or don't remember probably the best and certainly the most watched 1970s American television series, M*A*S*H, Radar was the clerk with the uncanny knack of always knowing what his boss wanted before he asked.

Don't think for a second that I queued for this photo, it was taken from shin height outside

Anyhow, at least Ottumwa was honest about the show being fiction and was probably short of real things to boast about, but I’m not sure what Verona’s excuse is for the ridiculous balcony. There’s even a bronze statue of Juliet below it and if you want to actually stand on the balcony there’s a separate line and a fee of course.

Shakespeare apparently never visited Verona, but it was a city of sufficient charm and renown for him to base two of his other plays here, one (Two Gentlemen of Verona) with a happier if slightly odd ending and the other a comedy (the Taming of the Shrew) which probably wouldn't find a publisher today.

And if you don't happen to fit any of the above descriptions but are just a curious and discerning traveler (which goes without saying of course if you’re reading this website) then Verona simply means a fascinating Italian city, drenched in history and culture with great food and wine that is the ideal size for walking everywhere and perfect in the off season. My kind of Italy so to speak, or as Elena said after our second visit here:

"È l'unica città Italiana che non mi fa rimpiangere Firenze".

High praise indeed and probably something the most famous son of Florence (Dante) also would have said, or at least felt, given the amount of time he spent here.

Ponte Pietra, verona
A quiet Ponte Pietra at dawn

Born and already dead before Julius Caesar even crossed the Rubicon, the first accomplished Roman poet, Catullus, was from Verona and is also associated with the Roman villa at Sirmione, though his villa there likely predated the ruins subsequently discovered and visible today. Not only did Catullus influence the more famous Ovid and Cicero who came after him, but Catullus was revered by a series of English poets including Milton, Wordsworth and Tennyson, the latter of whom made a pilgrimage to Sirmione in homage.

When you visit Verona for the first time, especially if it’s in the summer, my suggestion would be to get up very early the first morning and take a walk so you can enjoy Verona without crowds. First, go straight to the old Roman bridge, Ponte Pietra. In 148 B.C. this was the only bridge over the Adige river and the road across it at that time entered Verona through the Arco dei Gavi and was in fact the same Via Postumia that started in Genoa, went north to the Roman town of Derthona (where La Colombera winery is located) before turning east to Verona along the Po Valley.

Verona's location on a navigable and fairly flat part of the river Adige in an area of strategic importance heightened its relevance to Rome and today it calls itself the Italian city with the best preserved Roman ruins after Rome itself.

The Teatro Romano below the Castel San Pietro, Verona
The Teatro Romano below the Castel San Pietro

That may well be true but certainly outside Italy there are equally impressive Roman ruins in places like Croatia, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, the south of France and Spain, especially Merida as well as the splendid aqueduct in Segovia, which is the only one on this list that I've personally visited.

In Verona itself the Arena of course is the most visible Roman structure, but as well as the Ponte Pietra and the Arco dei Gavi (painstakingly rebuilt from rubble in the 1930s after being demolished by Napoleon's troops) there's the famous Porta Borsari on the west side and another gate, the Porta Leoni, on the east side near the river and the Teatro Romano; Roman discoveries are still being made today, most recently under an abandoned cinema right in the center of Verona.

Go through the archway (above photo left), cross over the Ponte Pietra and almost directly opposite climb up the steps past the strange carving of the head of a beast (above right) to Castel San Pietro.

Verona from Castel San Pietro
Verona in the early morning from Castel San Pietro

From the top of Castel San Pietro all of Verona is laid out before you. I hardly saw anyone else between 6.00 and 7.00 am in early July and walking back through all the famous piazze of Verona and seeing everything without throngs of tourists is a much better experience, at least for me.

Piazza Bra is at the opposite end of the centro storico from Castel San Pietro but it’s a good place to start your walking tour of Verona because it contains the Roman amphitheater, known as the Arena; still an impressive building today even without almost its entire third tier which was lost to an earthquake 900 years ago.

However there's still a very small section of the original third tier that remains intact, just visible in the above photo and shown also below. The stones for the Arena were quarried close to the Adige river further north where the famous rosso veronese marble is still extracted today and then transported down the river to Verona.

Verona Arena

Unlike so many other Roman remains around Italy, which are often just a pile of stones to be observed from a roped-off distance, the Arena in Verona is in continual use today.

Including the opera festival and summer music concerts, so hats off to the city authorities here who obviously have a more enlightened outlook in keeping their heritage relevant to modern life and accessible to all. I haven’t yet been to a show in the Arena but 40 years ago I saw an outdoor evening performance at the Egyptian temple in Luxor and there’s no modern stage that can rival any of these ancient arenas for atmosphere.

The rest of Piazza Bra is a bit of a mishmash architecturally and despite the presence of the Arena it’s not the most interesting piazza in Verona.

Garibaldi made a stop here in 1867 when Rome was still under the Pope's control and from a balcony in Piazza Bra in front of cheering crowds he repeated his famous slogan 'Roma o Morte'.

Between the Arena and the heart of Verona at Piazza delle Erbe is the main pedestrianized shopping street in Verona, Via Mazzini, but before going in that direction the best wine shop in Verona is very close to the Arena at 10, Via Roma.

Enoteca Baraldi in Verona

We poked our heads into Enoteca Baraldi on our second morning here before a late breakfast, just to take a quick peek at the wine on their shelves because we were trying to find a good bottle of Lugana white wine for the article covering the Veneto wine region.

The owner’s son, Bruno, intercepted us very quickly and proceeded to give us the benefit of his extensive knowledge on Lugana and his recommendations for Valpolicella Ripasso wines after listening to our misgivings about that particular category of wine. Bruno is a qualified sommelier so I was happy to let him advise us and as he wouldn't easily let us leave we were there for almost an hour while he opened a few bottles for us to taste.

A super guy and very knowledgable, Bruno gave us fantastic service and though we cautioned him that we were only interested in buying a couple of bottles, he spared no effort on our behalf. His dad runs the other wine shop in a slightly more central location near Piazza delle Erbe but I can't believe his service could be any better than his son's so go to 10 Via Roma for your wine.

But have breakfast first because after our first ever wine tasting before breakfast, we were very happy to finally get a coffee and pastry.

(Two not very gentle-looking Gentlemen of Verona, carved on the wall in Via Abramo Massolongo)

So Piazza delle Erbe will have to wait for a few more paragraphs while we tell you where to buy pastries and coffee. Nothing is very far in the center of Verona so while going in the general direction of Piazza delle Erbe you will come across Pasticceria Flego at 13, Via Stella.

Not being Italian I can be scrupulously fair about the strengths and weaknesses of the various Italian regions and it has to be said that Tuscany is generally not the best place for great pastries, with Lucca in fact being particularly poor, so it's always nice to find a great pasticceria on our travels and Flego was exceptional with excellent coffee and a great choice of freshly made pastries.

My preference is always the cornetto con pistacchi and it's worth knowing that sometimes if they've run out they can be persuaded to take one of the remaining vuoto pastries and instantly fill it with the pistachio cream.

Now on to Piazza delle Erbe, which was the site of the Roman forum and throughout history was the center of commerce, with its name reflecting the traditional herb, spice and fresh produce market located here for centuries. There is still a regular market in the piazza but it is more geared towards tourism today.

When you stand in the middle of Piazza delle Erbe during a quiet part of the day and take in the full panorama there are well-preserved clues all around you that speak to the long and rich history of Verona that you won't see in every medieval city in Italy.

Piazza delle Erbe, Verona
Piazza delle Erbe with the Verona Madonna fountain, St Mark's column, Palazzo Maffei and Torre del Gardello

In the very first photograph at the top of this article, the couple in the middle are sitting in the Tribuna, which is sometimes also referred to as the Capitello or Berlina. It's original purpose was to check the exact measurements of various goods being sold in the market using pre-marked indentations contained within its structure; it was also for new magistrates to be sworn in and where they would announce new decrees affecting the common people.

The fountain in the photo above dates back to 1368 but the figure on top is a Roman sculpture from 1,000 years earlier, known as the Verona Madonna. At the top of the white marble column right in the center is the winged lion symbol of the Republic of Venice placed there in 1524 after Venice had once again gained control of Verona.

The Venetians were to remain in control until Napoleon permanently ended the Venetian Republic 273 years later. This long period of largely peaceful Venetian administration allowed Verona to flourish culturally and economically but like the rest of northern and central Italy its population was decimated in 1630 by the plague, falling by more than half to just 20,000.

Piazza delle Erbe
Much more difficult to enjoy the piazza when the crowds have arrived by 10.00 am

The building at the end of the piazza, Palazzo Maffei, is one of very few in Verona with a baroque facade from the 17th century and after a significant refurbishment of the interior, including a remarkable spiral staircase, it opened to the public a couple of years ago as an important art museum. Along the rooftop there are the figures of Hercules and the Greco-Roman gods Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Apollo and Minerva.

Underneath the Palazzo Maffei there are the remains of the Capitolium (the Roman temple) which demonstrates the importance of Verona as a Roman city because there were only 8 Italian cities outside Rome where there was a Capitolium built. It was discovered little more than a century ago and is described in a very readable way, almost as if in a detective novel, by A. L Frothingham in the American Journal of Archeology published in June 1914 (Discovery of the Capitolium and Forum of Verona - jstor).

In his fascinating account of his research in Verona he describes going down into deep underground cellars with the owners of the houses and shops above unaware and not particularly interested in the fact that the walls and foundations of their basements were of Roman construction. Now of course they'd probably sell you a tour.

he whale bone dangling under the arch in Verona
The whale bone dangling under the arch bottom right

As an alternative to climbing the steps up to Castel San Pietro you can choose instead to walk up the 368 steps of the Torre dei Lamberti overlooking the Piazza delle Erbe. It's 275 feet high and offers more close-up views of Verona.

It also towers over the adjacent Piazza dei Signori which can be reached by walking under the Arco della Costa with its mysterious whale rib bone dangling overhead, from which the name of the arch is derived.

The entrance to the Torre dei Lamberti is on the right hand side as soon as you pass underneath the arch, with the main part of the building below it being the old court of law called appropriately the Palazzo della Ragione. It is instantly recognizable from the alternating tufa and brick stripes in the Romanesque style.

Piazza dei Signori, Verona
The deserted Piazza dei Signori at 7.00 am with the Torre dei Lamberti rising from the Palazzo della Ragione

The Piazza dei Signori is more refined and stately than the Piazza delle Erbe as befits its historical function as a place of government rather than commerce and its buildings are more classically Renaissance. On the left hand side of the photograph below is the late 15th century Loggia del Consiglio, the meeting place for the town council, with an arcade on the ground level and frescoed walls above. Along the top Catullus was finally given a place among the carved figures of Roman nobles.

The brick building in the center of the photograph is the former Palazzo degli Scaligeri, built as their personal palace by the ruling della Scala family dynasty in the 14th century and later used for the magistrates of the Venetian Republic, who added their winged lion above the door and changed the name to the Palazzo del Podestà. (Podestà being the name given to the chief magistrate in northern Italy).

Palazzo del Podestà in Verona
The Loggia del Consiglio on the left and the Palazzo del Podestà in the center

The statue given pride of place in the center of the piazza is Dante Alighieri, perhaps the least controversial and most widely respected person in Italian history. I would probably have put Garibaldi ahead of or at least equal to Dante in that category but Garibaldi still has many detractors in southern Italy, as I discovered recently while chatting alongside another cyclist on the road near Lucca who happened to be from Naples and had nothing good to say about him (or the English I might add, as he jabbed his finger at me complaining about the assistance that the English fleet gave Garibaldi on his crossing from Sicily to Naples).

After we parted company I reflected on the strange fact that being liberated from autocratic Bourbon rule 160 years ago by Garibaldi weighed more heavily on the mind of a Neapolitan than the almost complete destruction of their city by the Germans only 77 years ago. This must be why no other Italians really understand Naples.

Dante statue in Piazza dei Signori, Verona
Behind the pensive Dante is the forgotten but brilliant Veronese physician Fracastoro, who in the early 1500s was the first to comprehend how contagious diseases were transmitted

Dante was made welcome in Verona in 1303 by the ruling della Scala family during his exile from Florence. He stayed only briefly on his first visit but returned in 1312 and stayed for 6 years hosted by Cangrande della Scala, one of the most fascinating characters of the early years of the Renaissance who continually took up arms against all the neighboring cities, leading his troops into battle personally, and always eventually winning thereby establishing Verona as the pre-eminent northern Italian city between Milan and Venice. Dante was grateful for the protection and patronage of Cangrande and dedicated the entirety of his Paradiso (the third and final part of the Divine Comedy) to his benefactor.


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