Thanks to Shakespeare, Verona – a sleepy little town tucked in the foothills of the Italian Alps – has become a pilgrimage for everyone from literature enthusiasts to couples dizzy with love. Year-round, visitors to Verona can linger in the courtyard of Juliet’s house, gazing up at the balcony where she and Romeo declared their love or spending 6 euro on a padlock to snap onto the crowded fence. (It’s worth noting that the balcony was not an original feature of the house, but added later to fuel tourism.)
Romantic all year long, Verona is especially blushing around Valentine’s Day when the city is decked out in red for the 4-day Verona In Love festival. Couples can stroll beneath glimmering hearts that dangle along cobblestone streets or sample chocolates near the Arena in Piazza Bra. Lacking only a traveling harpist or street performers donning cupid wings and shooting arrows, the festival caters to every idea of love and romance. Singles, beware.
As the stars would have it, I was destined to visit Verona this Valentine’s Day, and not on my own, either. Instead, I arrived with two fellow teachers and a convoy of bright-eyed fifteen-year-olds whose energy levels were completely unaffected by the 1AM airport arrival and the subsequent 4:30AM flight.
Fortunately, Verona is rather small, and the bus journey from the tiny airport to the hotel was short. This was lucky for a number of reasons, most notably because our tour guide was away with the fairies. (Alex, David, and I later decided that she must have been an imposter or a desk attendant substituted at the last minute.)
“It’s chilly here, but not as cold as where you’re from!” she began, while some of us exchanged puzzled glances. (Egypt? Cold? Come again?) She then went on to draw comparisons between two geographical staples that Verona and “Egypt” shared:
“You’ll notice a lot of lakes here, a lot like you have back home. Was it a long flight from Canada?”
At this point, we leaned over and told her that we’d come from Egypt. She nodded, then continued with her speech:
“Verona is known for a lot of things, like Romeo and Juliet. And we have excellent wine here. You have to try the wine.”
“You’ll find lots of nice restaurants and bars here, too. The bars are great, and we have a beer that you have to try that comes from Verona. Most bars won’t ask for ID or anything. You can walk into a grocery store and buy what you need.”
Again, we leaned forward and mentioned that our students were fifteen and come from a culture where drinking is haram, or forbidden. Looking exasperated, she paused for a few minutes and then offered the best she could:
“Well, Verona is lovely. Apart from the air pollution. But we do have very good water. You can drink the water anywhere here.”
And that was that. I imagine her tour pamphlets are very sparse.
Verona proved itself worthy of a visit very quickly. The Hotel Italia, where we stayed, was cozy and quaint, offering clean rooms and chilled champagne with the all-inclusive breakfast buffet. Downtown, we ducked down winding, cluttered sidestreets to find La Greppia, a hygge (to use my new favorite Danish word) restaurant serving delicious Chianti and rich, melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi, which we’d been instructed to try. (We also sampled donkey meat and horse stew, though I certainly prefer the gnocchi.)
While the view from Lamberti Tower is uncontested on any day, it’s especially rewarding during the Verona in Love festival when the merchants in Piazza Signori organize their booths into a heart shape that throws a splash of bold red into the yellows, ochers, and burnt siennas of the Veronese landscape. On a clear day – without that air pollution we’d been warned about -, you can spot the formidable peaks of the Alps in the distance.
The entire city is easily walkable, so a do-it-yourself Romeo and Juliet tour is in order. Juliet’s house is nearby and easy. Apart from the courtyard and balcony (where you can stand for a total of three minutes before being asked to come back inside and get in line again), the house itself is a museum, boasting costumes and the bed from the Zeffirelli version of the play. If you’re into temporary graffiti, bring a marker and scrawl your messages of love on the walls in the entryway. Alex took a photo of her art as a gift to her boyfriend, which was smart since the graffiti is probably painted over every week. And if you’re feeling down on your luck, be sure to rub the statue of Juliet’s right breast, as someone apparently decided it’s auspicious for your love life. (Or just gives the guys an excuse to be handsy.)
Juliet’s tomb is on the other side of town in a rather seedy area. It took us a while to find it, mostly because Alex and I ignored David’s repeated assertions that the tomb was located in a car park.
It was located in a car park.
Once we entered, we found that we were not in a tomb at all, but in a museum. We were told that the tomb was downstairs, so we eagerly descended only to find a room filled with urns. Disappointed, we explored the area unsuccessfully, prompting us to ask again for the tomb’s secret location.
“Did you take the tour?”
“Um…yes,” I lied.
“Did you see the door? You go to the right. You will see a door that says you can’t go, but you can. The tomb is there.”
The museum attendant said this as if entering through an exit-only door was the most obvious thing in the world. We finally found the tomb, took some photos, and left.
What was probably the highlight of the trip was that last night in Piazza Signori, a small square tucked away from Piazza delle Erbe. To reach it, pass beneath the whale bone arch. Supposedly, the whale bone hanging there will fall when a “person of virtue” strolls beneath it. What better way to celebrate a life of virtue than being crushed by a falling whale bone? (I wonder if some tour guide wandered around Verona making up things about random places to boost tourism.)
Piazza Signori was in full swing, with live music on the stage and free helpings of balloons and wine. The three of us tucked into a small cafe and ordered pizza while the kids trickled in to meet their 6pm curfew and see the “surprise”. A little after six, a dozen cannons positioned around the square went off, exploding thousands of paper hearts into the plaza. The lucky finder of a pink heart would win a car, but no one seemed fortunate as the car was still there when we left.
We left as the city embarked on its “Romeo and Juliet Half-Marathon,” something I vow to return for in the future. We all agreed that Verona was worth spending more time in, but we were off to Rome the next day for a new adventure.
TIP: When visiting Verona, buy the Verona Card. Free admission to a number of sites, though Juliet’s house is free on Valentine’s Day. (Awww.)