On a flirting visit
by Sarah Shuckburgh
From her hotel balcony, Sarah Shuckburgh
becomes smitten with the city of Romeo and Juliet.
As I open the shutters in our Verona hotel, a wall of
noise bounces off marble, stucco and stone, and explodes
our room. The reverberating hubbub is high-pitched and
excited, somewhere between a lively cocktail party and a
cage of monkeys.
I lean out of the window and gaze in astonishment at throngs
of pedestrians, flowing like two chattering rivers up and
down the narrow street below. Fur-coated ladies strut on
high heels, accompanied by well-groomed dogs in chic wicker
muzzles. Two gentlemen of Verona stroll arm in arm, in
elegant overcoats and cashmere scarves. I watch hands
gesticulating, bald heads gleaming, coiffed hairdos nodding.
Talkative teenagers in pointy-toed stilettos flick glossy
tresses over warmly clad shoulders, and throw glances at
handsome soldiers in tasselled berets. Occasionally someone
weaves through the ambling crowd as if navigating rapids. I
feel like a middle-aged Juliet at my balcony as a portly
Romeo catches my eye and pretends to be lovestruck. Suddenly
his mobile phone rings and I am forgotten.
On our first evening, I put on a skirt, my smartest shoes,
and try to blend in with the elegant crowds. My friend Guy
and I join the slow pace of the passeggiata, keeping to the
right, while eyeing the extravagant fur coats and shiny
leather shoes. Nobody here wears trainers. Even the nuns are
elegantly shod, in highly polished lace-ups with little
We weave through lively Piazza Erbe, where the weekday
market stalls are being towed away, and pause under the Arco
della Costa, where for hundreds of years a whale rib has
dangled. Legend has it that the person it falls on will rule
Verona – but the bone stays put, and we continue through
tranquil Piazza dei Signori to a tiny family-run restaurant
called Giulietta e Romeo.
Veronese food is heavy, rich and wholesome, and we feast on
cured venison, risotto all'Amarone, plump bigoli pasta with
braised horsemeat, and liver with creamy yellow polenta. I
tell Guy that I think Shakespeare was actually Italian,
perhaps born right here in Verona. The more fruity Bardolino
we drink, the more convinced we become.
Next day, we head for the Casa di Giulietta. In the absence
of Capulets, a house once owned by a family called
Cappello has been officially designated Juliet's. The
balcony was added in the 1930s, and the courtyard has now
become a shrine, completely encrusted with lovers' messages.
Post-it notes are affixed with blobs of chewing gum. Hearts,
torn from diary pages and travel brochures, peel and curl
like filo pastry. Messages are daubed in nail varnish, or
inked on to buttons of Blu Tack. I stare as tourists remove
gum from their mouths and use it to glue billets-doux to
the bulletin board.
We push through the crowds and enter the house, which is
free of graffiti and people. The rambling rooms give a
glimpse of a 14th-century interior, with fragments of
frescoes by Veronese. In the 16th century, Verona was known
as "urbs picta" – the painted city – because of its
colourful façades. On every street in the old town, scraps
of frescoes can be seen – figures enacting mythical scenes,
heads of saints and nobles, friezes of flowers and leaves,
intricate patterns in warm, muted colours.
Verona has enjoyed two Golden Ages, and remnants of both
survive. During the first, 2,000 years ago, the Romans built
the spectacular Arena – a vast amphitheatre where operas are
staged each summer for audiences of 20,000 – and also the
hillside theatre, still impressive despite centuries of
looting and earthquake damage.
The second Golden Age came with the Scaligeri dynasty in the
13th and 14th centuries, and particularly under the clan
leader Cangrande – literally "top dog" – when Verona became
the capital of Gothic art in northern Italy. The dog was a
status symbol in Verona long before the fur-coated ladies
brought their cosseted pets to Via Mazzini.
We wander through Verona's narrow streets and piazzas
catching glimpses of Roman mosaics in pits in the pavement,
admiring Gothic tombs and stately palazzi, revelling in the
glow of terracotta, ochre, mustard, grey-green and dusty
pink stucco, and delighting in still more precious fragments
of Renaissance fresco.
As ever in Italy, there is almost too much to see. We climb
the 12th-century Torre dei Lamberti, Verona's tallest
building. In the crenellated Castelvecchio, once the
Scaligeri stronghold, we have a close look at the equestrian
statue of Cangrande I. We lunch on salumi and cheese at a
tiny osteria under the arcade in the Via Sottoriva.
On the banks of the Adige river, we explore the two
11th-century churches of San Fermo, one built above the
other. And we peep into the luminous interior of the
enormous church of Sant' Anastasia, then admire San
Lorenzo's glowing stripes of red brick and pale stone.
Our favourite church is San Zeno, a glorious 12th-century
basilica built of pale Veronese stone. Inside, a statue of
Zeno, Verona's patron saint, smiles broadly. And we smile
Eventually we fall into bed, exhausted by our sightseeing
and lulled to sleep by street chatter. In the early hours, I
am woken by a new noise – a swishing roar. I go to the
window and lean out. A machine trundles into view, sweeping
and washing the dusty marble slabs, leaving them wet and
gleaming. I return to bed, and it seems only moments later
that the first pedestrians click past our window on their
First published by the Telegraph