Agentle­manof Verona

Un­struc­tured strolls in a city of many pas­sions

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - LUKE SLAT­TERY

STRAT­FORD to Lon­don and back again: such is the known ex­tent of Wil­liam Shake­speare’s trav­els. Though ma­rooned for a life­time on his ‘‘scepter’d isle’’, the Bard knew more than a lit­tle of dis­tant Verona, which in his fa­mous tale of in­flamed teen pas­sion is not only fair but stink­ing hot as well.

‘‘We shall not ’scape a brawl,’’ warns Ben­vo­lio. ‘‘For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stir­ring.’’

It’s sum­mer and I am spend­ing a brace of these hot days in lovely Verona. The heat ra­di­at­ing from mar­ble cob­ble­stones scuffed to a glossy sheen by the foot traf­fic of more than 20 cen­turies is al­most un­bear­able; the evenings, which come on at a lux­u­ri­ant slow­ness, bring lit­tle re­lief. There is noth­ing for it but to stroll, at a ten­der pace, from one cool in­te­rior to an­other: cafe or cathe­dral, it is all the same to me. I do very lit­tle on this visit, and en­joy it all the more.

Aus­tralians, I like to think, are the world’s most cul­ture-fo­cused trav­ellers. This may not be im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent to those who’ve wit­nessed Ok­to­ber­fest or a Lord’s Test match. But con­sider this — we have a mil­lion wild acres and scores of beaches. We don’t need to travel for a tan. So we jour­ney to Europe to eye­ball the things we don’t have al­ready, such as traces of deep his­tory, ar­chi­tec­ture and art. We’re a na­tion of cul­ture vic­tims, rush­ing from one mon­u­ment to an­other like in­spec­tors with in­ven­to­ries to hand: the Lou­vre (tick); Vat­i­can Mu­seum (tick); Prado (tick).

And so I arrive in Verona — a city of 250,000 nes­tled in a bend of the Adige River, a UNESCO World Her­itage site stud­ded with ar­chi­tec­tural jew­els, with a near per­fectly pre­served his­tor­i­cal core — ex­pect­ing to feast on the past. This is a five-star art city, af­ter all. It boasts a Ro­man arena with a ca­pac­ity for 25,000 spec­ta­tors, a num­ber of fine churches aglow with equally fine art, and three pi­az­zas the equal of any­thing in Europe.

Then there is the so-called Casa di Gi­uli­etta, a gothic villa re­plete with bal­cony — per­fect for decla­ma­tions of ju­ve­nile love — be­lieved to have be­longed to the fam­ily of the ill-starred Juliet im­mor­talised by Shake­speare’s quill. Lovers the world over scrawl their earnest pledges on the in­ner walls of the com­pound, fix pad­locks en­graved with their names on its gate, and take iPhone snaps of them­selves just to prove they were here. It’s a carnival of lit­er­ary cul­ture, pop­u­lar cul­ture and ar­chi­tec­tural his­tory.

But on the week I’m in town there’s an­other visi­tor. A Sa­ha­ran an­ti­cy­clone, named Charon af­ter the fer­ry­man of Hades, de­scends on the coun­try as my flight touches down at Venice’s Marco Polo air­port. I arrive on a Fri­day af­ter­noon and on the drive in­land to­wards Verona the traf­fic is stream­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, to the beaches along the Adri­atic with their horticultural rows of um­brel­las. It’s 38C and the fore­cast is for more of the same.

So that af­ter­noon I re­lax. The itin­er­ary with the unticked boxes is shelved, the maps and guides, too. Af­ter a short re­con­noitre of my im­me­di­ate sur­rounds — my wife and I are at a fam­ily-run ho­tel close by the arena — I find I’m per­fectly con­tent to watch the world go by from my bal­cony. In fact, there is not much of any­thing go­ing by. The street scene at 3pm is as sur­re­ally empty as a de Chirico.

It’s a very dif­fer­ent scene that evening when, af­ter an­other leisurely stroll, we stum­ble across the Pi­azza delle Erbe, so named be­cause it once was, and still is in an er­satz kind of way, a pro­duce mar­ket. The place is buzzing with lo­cals milling about the cafes — sit­ting at tables or just stand­ing in groups — with glasses of tan­ger­ine-red spritz. They are tanned and re­laxed. They talk with their hands. They smoke. Ah, Italy.

One of the square’s great charms is its ir­reg­u­lar foot­print and its ab­sence of ar­chi­tec­tural uni­for­mity — it cap­tures not one pe­riod in time but many.

The 14th-cen­tury Torre del Gardello is a stick of bare brick­work whose or­na­men­ta­tion is re­stricted to a bristling crenel­lated roofline. Just be­side it, in se­vere con­trast, is the ex­u­ber­antly baroque 17th-cen­tury Palazzo Maf­fei. The tower is an em­blem of war; the palazzo is all about plea­sure.

The en­tire square, with its cen­tre­piece a Ro­man foun­tain, is a kalei­do­scope of these con­trasts. It’s an

GETTY IM­AGES GETTY IM­AGES THINKSTOCK GETTY IM­AGES

top A view of Vero from Ponte Pie the Adige Rive above Pi­azza delle Er the his­toric hea of Verona left Casa di Gi­uliet with ‘Juliet’s ba bot­tom left The rus­tic Anti Bottega del Vin

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