Blame it on my high school World Literature class and some of the movies I’ve seen through the years. I have always thought that the only thing worth talking about in Verona is it is being the setting for the story of the world’s most popular star-crossed lovers, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
So, when my younger sister planned our visit to the city, as part of our Italian holiday, I immediately told her that half a day would be enough time for us to spend there, as we only have to see Juliet’s house and the balcony.
But as soon as we got off the train, the charm of the city’s ambiance, its laid-back appeal, its distinct character, rich in medieval antiquity, enticed me to discover what else Verona has to offer to first-time visitors like me. Lo and behold, there are a lot, as it turned out.
We started our walking tour with a visit to the beautiful Castelvecchio, an old castle and bridge which spans Verona’s Adige River. This imposing complex made of red bricks served as a fortress built by the then-powerful Scala family to protect themselves from the neighboring clans whom they were at odds with.
The bridge was their family’s escape route to the north, in case of an uprising. When the family finally lost their hold on Verona, the surviving members escaped to Germany. Castelvecchio, with its Gothic architecture and trademark M-shaped parapets, now stands as one of the city’s iconic landmarks.
Next stop was at Piazza Bra, the largest in the city and in the country. This central square is lined with many restaurants and cafés that are always full. There are also three important buildings on this piazza.
The approximately 2000-year-old Verona Arena was an amphitheater patterned after the Roman Colosseum. It is now a venue for large concerts and operas. In fact, during our visit, preparations were being made and promotional materials were displayed for the staging of the popular opera, Aida.
The Neoclassical Palazzo Barbieri is now the town hall. It used to be a palace occupied by the military forces of the Austrian Army. Our tour guide was telling us about this beautiful fresco of the Crucifixion and the Madonna but, unfortunately, the building was closed to tourists at that time.
The imposing and enormous Palazzo della Gran Guardia is another historic building. It used to be a military installation but, because of its sheer size, it is now used as the city’s convention and exhibition center.
Saving the best for last, our tour guide warned us to be ready for the crowds that flocked daily to what is believed to be the residence of the Capulets. In fact, it seemed like all roads led to that particular part of the city because anywhere we would go, we’d see a directional sign that pointed to the “Casa di Giulietta” (House of Juliet).
Marked by a small plaque on the upper left corner, the gate leading to the courtyard of the house was blocked with throngs of tourists inching their way in, while another “battalion” was trying to exit. Both sides of the tunnel-like gate were plastered with small notes from tourists, sharing with Juliet their love problems. The 2010 Hollywood love story, Letters to Juliet was based on this practice.
Tourists, packed like sardines in the courtyard, were busy taking photos of and selfies with the balcony where Juliet, in Shakespeare’s masterpiece, was supposed to have wondered aloud, “Romeo, oh Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?”
Visitors pay an entrance fee if they want to go inside the house, which is now a museum and be able to go up to the balcony.
The other thing I find interesting is that there is a bronze statue of “Juliet” in the courtyard. Considering that Romeo and Juliet are just the product of Shakespeare’s fertile imagination, I wonder who they used as a model for the statue for which tourists line up to have their photos taken while they touch its right breast. It is a common belief that doing so would bring one true and lasting love.
Now, the thing that baffles me is that close to 5 million tourists flocked to Verona last year and I’m sure a big chunk of that total wanted to relive the story of the world’s most popular ill-fated lovers. But the only thing true that Verona can lay claim to is that there were the perennially feuding Montagues and Capulets.
There is no record at all that these families had children named Romeo and Juliet. They are purely products of Shakespeare’s mind. In fact, the supposedly 13th-century “Capulet residence” which tourists flock to now was actually owned by a family named Capello. The house did not even have a balcony when it was built. This was added only in the 20th century when the popularity of Shakespeare’s tragic lovers reached its peak.
However, there is a popular tale of two star-crossed lovers in the outskirts of Verona, who ended their lives in a most pitiful manner. Shakespeare must have taken inspiration from that and added to it the reality of the existence of two feuding families of Verona, thus, “Romeo and Juliet” was born. Whichever way we look at it, the fact remains that tourism has capitalized on the emotions evoked by the story of the world’s most popular tragic lovers.
With or without Romeo and Juliet, I enjoyed Verona for its old-world charm and its small-European-town feel that is rich in history. All these give it a lot of character that transcends any emotion arising from any ill-fated romance.
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