Monday, June 14, 2010

This morning I’m heading to “fair Verona, where we lay our scene.”

William Shakespeare is the world’s most famous poet, and “Romeo and Juliet” arguably his most celebrated play, so I’m about to see if the city lives up to its vaulted description.

It’s 11 AM when I arrive at Porta Nuova station on a train from Milan. I pause at the tabacchi shop inside to buy a Verona Card that will cover my admission fees for the day, as well as local transport, and then grab a bus to Piazza Bra.

It’s a great expanse of space, centered around a circular park, a fountain, and a statue of the ever popular Vittorio Emanuele II. Across the street, a row of elegant buildings follows a graceful arc, most with green awnings for restaurants below, and at the far end, the city’s most notable attraction—a 1st century A.D. Roman arena—stands in proud contrast.

Outside the arena, costumed actors pose for pictures. A man dressed as a Roman soldier attracts attention by thrusting his arms high in the air, pointing an index finger on each hand. A tourist in a straw hat and polo shirt grins sheepishly as a fierce looking female warrior with bleach blond hair and low cut armor holds a dagger to his chest for dramatic effect.

I enter through an archway and climb the stairs to the top row for a better view. An elaborate stage is set and there is a work crew preparing for an upcoming performance of Puccini’s Turandot. It would be wonderful, I think, to see an opera under the stars, but when I cast my eyes across the rows of stone steps—there are very few actual seats—memories of an uncomfortable three hour play at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London come rushing back and I have second thoughts.

I walk down Via Mazzini, a lively street lined with shops, to Piazza delle Erbe, the city’s handsome market square. To get my bearings, I take an elevator, and then spiral stairs, to the top of the adjacent Torre dei Lamberti, which offers a gorgeous view across an ocean of red tiled roofs, from which church steeples rise like lighthouse beacons. I look down at my map and then out again at the city and spot the remains of a Roman theatre across the river on the hill. It seems my itinerary for the day is settled.

But first, there is a bit of tourist nonsense in which to partake. Shakespeare’s characters are fictional, but that doesn’t stop visitors from flocking to what is purported to be Juliet’s house, the Casa di Giulietta. There is a balcony, of course, and people pay to stand there for the thrill of reenacting the play’s most memorable scene:

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!

There is also a statue of Juliet in the courtyard and the lovelorn stand in line for an opportunity to take pictures and to rub Juliet’s breast for luck. Indeed, so many have done so that the bronze has been burnished to a blinding gold. And finally, there are the love notes left behind, affixed to the walls of an archway. There are layers of them, one on top the other, with graffiti underneath. Hannah & Richard. Ira & Kim. Renée & Greg. Where are they now? One note, written on red paper and cut into the shape of a heart, reads: “Wifey, Sorry 4 cheating on you. I love u way more than everyone. Happy to meet you and get married. Love of my life 4 ever and ever. Can’t wait to see u again.” I laugh out loud when I see it. There’s just got to be an interesting story there!

I retrace my steps to Piazza Bra and slip down a narrow alley to Cangrande Osteria and Enoteca for lunch, a spot recommended in my guidebook. The manager is friendly and he helps me select a glass of wine to pair with my antipasto of marinated vegetables and my plate of ravioli.

Feeling refreshed, I set off for the trio of churches I saw earlier from the top of the Lamberti tower. At Sant’ Anastasia I admire the vaulted ceiling, which is richly painted, an unusual pair of 15th century holy water stoups supported by carved hunchbacks, and Pisanello’s well-loved fresco “St. George and the Princess” above the Pellegrini Chapel.

Moving on, the city’s cathedral is a bright, airy space dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta. I especially like the whimsical details in trompe l’oeil. Above the Cartolari-Nichesola chapel, a pair of chubby cupids play music—one a flute, the other a triangle—and still higher on the wall, two pairs of soldiers with spears relax on a cornice, one with a leg slung over the ledge, bare toes pointing out. The effect is so real that it’s hard to distinguish the painted surfaces from the carved.

I cross Ponte Garabaldi to the far side of the river and follow its path past Ponte Pietra, the ancient arch bridge that was nearly destroyed by bombs during World War II, but eventually repaired. From here I climb to the ruins of the Teatro Romano high on the hill. The site is interesting in and of itself—an attractive jumble of exposed stone, topped by a row of cypress trees—but as a bonus it comes with a spectacular view of the city, framed through the remains of an ancient colonnade.

I climb down and wander further along the river under I reach Ponte Navi. The afternoon is starting to wane, so I end my serious exploration of Verona at the church of San Fermo. In the apse there is a fresco that represents each of the gospels—the lion of St. Mark, the calf of Luke, the man of Matthew, and the eagle of John. But the real highlight is the coffered ceiling, which looks like the wooden hull of a boat turned upside down, and on each side of the supports there are tiny Gothic arches that frame medieval paintings of the saints. I haven’t enjoyed such an interesting array of small churches this much since Arezzo.

As I make by way back to Piazza delle Erbe, I stop for gelato, of course—this time ordering scoops of mango and lemon. As I’m eating, I watch an artist on the street. He’s showing off for the crowd, stepping back from his work thoughtfully and then touching up details here and there. I’m marginally impressed until I notice that he’s not really painting at all. The canvas is already dry and his duplicity has me wondering if it was crafted not in Verona but in some Asian sweatshop instead.

I circle back towards Piazza Bra, but this time along Corso Porta Borsari to catch a glimpse of the 1st century AD remains of the city’s original entrance gate. I arrived here by bus in the morning, but now I’m not quite sure where to board for the return trip. In the end, I decide that it would be easier to walk there, down Corso Porta Nuova, through the arches of the “new gate,” and past the city walls to the station, where there’s train at 7:32 PM heading back to Milan.

Along the way, I mull over the ancient Roman sights, and the elegant architecture, and the relaxed pace of the day, and come to the conclusion that with or without its Shakespearean fame, “fair Verona” has been fair indeed.

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