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Saturday February 2, 2013

Romantic getaway in Verona

For a romantic holiday this Valentine, you could visit Verona and follow in the footsteps of a literary pair of lovers!

IT’S that time of the year when couples are reminded once again that Valentine’s Day is around the corner, and they start to wonder how they might celebrate it.

If you are thinking of a romantic getaway this year, perhaps a trip to Verona will fit the bill.

Why Verona, and how does it tie-in with Valentine’s? Well, Verona is the city where the most famous love story of all began. It is also a city replete with romance, history, historical buildings and some of the most beautiful sights in Italy.

When Shakespeare wrote his play Romeo And Juliet back in the 16th century, he probably had no idea that his tragic tale of two star-crossed lovers from rival families in Verona would have such an enduring appeal, right up to the 21st century, in fact.

Written to entertain the common folk in Elizabethan England, the story struck a chord among its audience and touched the hearts of readers across the world. Because of its universal theme, the poignant love story of Romeo and Juliet has inspired many classical music compositions, musicals and films. Some of you may have seen the movie Romeo + Juliet with Leonardo di Caprio and Claire Danes as the unfortunate lovers, while older audiences would have seen the version with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting.

Even the musical and the movie version of West Side Story was an adaptation, with the story transported to the mean streets of 1950s New York, with music composed by Leonard Bernstein. It became an instant hit with memorable songs such as Maria and Tonight.

Letters To Juliet, a movie that came out in 2010, revealed the fact that love-struck women across the world have been writing letters to the fictitious Juliet, imploring for advice on how to find true love. The letters would simply be addressed to Juliet of Verona, and they are replied to – a group of women known as the Secretaries of Juliet would write back on Juliet’s behalf and dole out sensible advice to these troubled women.

Somehow, when it comes to matters of the heart, women around the world are the same – agonising over a thing called love or the lack of it!

Intrigued by all these, I wanted to find out what Verona was all about and get an idea of how Romeo and Juliet would have lived in this city during their time. Happily, I wasn’t disappointed.

Verona is packed with tourists in the summer, so February may be a good time to visit as you do not have to battle the crowds and can have the city all to yourself.

The first stop on every tourist’s list or a tour group’s itinerary must be at La Casa di Julietta, because that’s where you find throngs of people inching their way into the courtyard where Juliet’s house is supposedly located, never mind that she is a fictional character and “her” balcony was only installed in 1935.

There were so many people squeezed into the courtyard that I could hardly move. As I inched my way into the centre of the courtyard to get a better shot of the famous balcony, I was bombarded with excited chatter in every language imaginable. Large groups of excited tourists were waiting for their turn to pose next to the statue of Juliet, cheekily clutching her left breast while they were being photographed.

Poor Juliet, her breast had been rubbed to a golden sheen over the years by amorous men. I had to go there extra early on another morning just to get a better photo of her.

Right above, jutting out over the courtyard from the second floor, was the balcony where Juliet supposedly uttered the immortal line “O Romeo, Romeo, where art thou, Romeo?” on a moonlit night.

The balcony was carved out of stone with patterns on the outside, and there were excited couples stepping out onto it to look down at the crowds below and to have their photos taken.

I noted that some sections of the courtyard walls were densely packed with small locks in various colours, scribbled with the names of couples along with short messages swearing undying love. Those who had not come prepared with locks wrote their pledges on pieces of bubble gum instead.

Juliet’s Tomb was next on my list, and it is located in the basement of Frescos Museum, which showcases wall frescos and religious paintings relocated here from churches elsewhere for better preservation. Her tomb in the basement turned out to be just an open, rectangular coffin, roughly hewn out of stone, without any ornamentation or inscription whatsoever.

Cynically, I concluded that Juliet’s Tomb must have been placed here just to draw tourists to a museum they might otherwise not bother with.

Along the path leading to this museum, I was struck by a monument carved in white marble showing a couple in a beautiful butterfly-like embrace but wearing Chinese period costumes.

This turned out to be a statue depicting the doomed couple, Liang Shan Bo and Tzu Ying Tai from the Chinese classic, the Butterfly Lovers. They are the Chinese equivalent of Romeo and Juliet, another testament to the fact that not all love stories have a happy ending.

This monument was a gift from the Ningbo provincial government in China.

While Juliet’s house and tomb were turned into big tourist attractions, poor Romeo has rather been neglected. Apparently there is a house where he is supposed to have lived in but because it is still a residence and not opened to the public, not much publicity has been given to it.

In any case, the spirit of Romeo and Juliet has infused the city so much that cake shops have taken to        honouring the couple with enticing pastry creations named after them.

The old quarter of the city is located in a loop of the River Adige which is criss-crossed by picturesque old bridges. Walking around the city is a real pleasure as Verona is filled with beautiful medieval churches and many historic buildings. Besides pleasing exteriors, the churches are often filled on the inside with exquisite frescos and paintings.

Four of these churches are especially worthy of mention as they form part of a circuit known as the Associazione “Chiese Vive”. Beautifully renovated and maintained, this group comprises the Duomo (Cathedral), Basilica di Santa Anastasia, Basilica di San Zeno and the Chiesa di San Fermo.

The Chiesa San Fermo, a short walk from Juliet’s house and tomb, is a lovely Romanesque church built in the 11th century that is split into two levels. On the upper level of the church, with its high, vaulted ceilings, a quiet solemnity reigns when there are no tourists around. In the quiet intimacy of this church, I could picture Friar Lawrence conducting the secret marriage between Romeo and Juliet as they vowed undying love to each other.

The lower church is below ground in the crypt and shrouded in gloomy darkness except for a few lighted candles here and there. Here, I imagined Romeo weeping in despair beside the coffin of Juliet. Juliet would then wake up from her 48-hour slumber to find her beloved Romeo dead, and overcome with grief, she would stab herself with his dagger.

As I walked the streets of Verona and admired the palazzos, squares, courtyards, towers and churches that filled the old quarter, I could picture how Romeo and Juliet lived their lives.

In the busy Piazza della Erbe, flanked by historic buildings now filled with stalls selling fruits, vegetables, accessories and souvenirs, I imagined Romeo having friendly duels with his friends and drinking from the fountain or washing off the blood from his sword after fatally wounding Mercutio.

The colossal Roman Arena on Piazza Bra would have been Romeo’s playground where he staged mock fights with wooden swords with his young friends. These days the monumental amphitheatre comes to life – not to the cries of crowds cheering gladiators in bloody duels but – to the dramatic arias of opera singers on warm summer nights.

Operas like Aida, Tosca and Carmen are the perennial favourites.

Across the river at the Teatro Romano, or the old Roman Theatre, Shakespeare’s plays are staged in the open air every summer at night.

For a bird’s eye view of the city, you can hike up to Castel San Pietro (St Peter’s Castle), which is high up on a hill, and enjoy stunning views that make you realise how beautiful this city is.

Perhaps my imagination is too vivid, but I couldn’t help but picture how each place in Verona could have formed a backdrop to the story of Romeo and Juliet. The whole atmosphere in Verona is a throwback to a less harried time, when eyes can meet across a crowded dance floor and ignite the spark of love.

Romance and love are timeless, and these qualities seem to resonate from every old building, street and bridge in Verona. If you have any doubt about this, just ask anyone in the crowd gathered below Juliet’s balcony.

Verona is just two hours away from Milan or Venice by train.

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