Unstructured strolls in a city of many passions
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
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