back to map >

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 into
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 heels.

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 back.

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 well-heeled shoes.

First published by the Telegraph

back to map >