Between bustling Milan and touristy Venice — about two hours from each — is Verona, a welcome sip of pure, easygoing Italy. Made famous by Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers, Verona is one of Italy's most-visited cities — second in the Veneto region only to Venice in population and artistic importance. If you don't need world-class sights, this town is a joy.
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet made Verona a household word. The House of Juliet, where the real-life Cappello family once lived, is a crass and throbbing mob scene. The tiny, admittedly romantic courtyard is a spectacle in itself, with visitors from all over the world posing on the almost believable balcony and taking snapshots of each other rubbing Juliet's bronze breast, hoping to get lucky in love.
The city is so famous for love that it gets countless letters addressed simply to "Juliet, Verona, Italy." A volunteer group, the Juliet Club, responds to these mostly lovesick people. (They got particularly busy after the 2010 movie Letters to Juliet, about a girl who finds a letter while visiting the House of Juliet and travels through Italy to help reunite the author with her lost love.)
Despite the romantic fiction, the town is packed with genuine history. Because ancient Romans considered Verona an ideal resting spot before crossing the Alps, the city has a wealth of Roman ruins. The well-preserved amphitheater — the third largest in the Roman world — dates from the first century AD and still retains most of its original stone. Over the centuries, crowds here of up to 25,000 spectators have cheered Roman gladiator battles, medieval executions, and modern plays — including Verona's popular summer opera festival, which takes advantage of the arena's famous acoustics.
Corso Porta Borsari was the main drag of Roman Verona. A stroll here makes for a fun, ancient scavenger hunt. Remnants of the town's illustrious past — chips of Roman columns, medieval reliefs, fine old facades, and fossils in marble — are scattered among modern-day fancy shop windows.
You'll end up at Piazza Erbe, Verona's market square, where vendors come to slice and sell whatever's in season. This bustling piazza is a photographer's delight: Its pastel buildings corral the fountains, pigeons, and people who have congregated here since Roman times, when it was a forum.
Hovering above the square is a column-topping Venetian lion, reminding locals of Venice's conquest of their city in 1405. At that time the square had been ringed by the towers of the city's proud noble families. But the Renaissance nobles who followed their forefathers showed off instead with palaces sporting finely painted facades. By the 16th century, Verona had become known as "the painted city" — and plenty of those Renaissance remnants survive.
Today Piazza Erbe is for the locals, who start their evening with an aperitivo here. It's a trendy scene, as young Veronans fill the bars to enjoy their refreshing spritzes, olives, and chips.
Verona has its share of excellent eateries. One of my happiest Verona memories is eating with my friend Franklin at a popular enoteca (wine bar). The carne cruda (raw beef) was, as Franklin put it, "the smile of a beautiful woman you can still recall after 10 years. You never forget her." The mortadella (Italian-style baloney — not a high-end meat) was served with black truffle…and it was exquisite. (Is spam also just a side-of-truffle away from exquisite?) Then came the best polenta I'd ever tasted, served with anchovies. As it turns out, anchovies and polenta are a "good marriage." For dessert: a plate of voluptuous slices of cheese. "Even if we do not talk," said Franklin, "with these cheeses we have a good conversation." As I held the warm and happy tire of my full tummy, I thought about how Italians live life with abandon — and how they enjoy their food.
Besides eating, for me the highlight of Verona is the evening passeggiata (stroll). It's a multigenerational affair. Like peacocks, the young and nubile spread their wings across the wide sidewalk promenade, made broad by the town's 17th-century Venetian overlords so the town's beautiful people could see and be seen in all their finery.
Whenever I stroll here, I find myself surrounded by little love stories — romantic snapshots fluttering in and out of my world like a butterfly. A guy on a bike pedals gracefully by, his girlfriend sitting on the handlebars embracing him. A woman tells me that her husband is her mezza mela — half an apple. Apparently, when soul mates find each other in Italy, it makes the apple whole.
I don't know if all of this love is related to the Romeo and Juliet hype — or if it's just the natural high that comes from living in such a joyful and highly cultured place.