A Stop in Verona
MOST VISITORS TO Italy this summer will put Rome and Venice at the top of their lists, and it would certainly be a mistake to miss either one on your first trip there. But there are also in-between cities, places that are ideal for walking, have several outstanding hotels and restaurants, and offer enough interesting monuments, museums, and churches to keep you occupied tor a few days without making you feel that you’re racing with an itinerary in the Michel in guide. Verona is one of the most pleasant of these cities.
Verona doesn’t present itself for inspection, the way Renaissance cities do. It is a medieval city (the good times were the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries), and so the best views are enclosed; the courtyards behind the squares, the small streets around the cathedral. Tourists pretty much stick to the two main piazzas, to the Arena (the third largest colosseum built by the Romans), and to the Casa di Giulietta, shrewdly called Juliet’s house because it was built at the time in which Shakespeare set Romeo and Juliet, because it has a balcony, and because it’s smack in the middle of town. But there are superb churches, an ingeniously planned museum of manageable size, and Italy’s biggest lake nearby.
The city is halfway between Milan and Venice (and right off the highway that links the two cities), but the feel of it is Venetian, with lanterns, wroughtiron balconies, windows with pointed arches, narrow streets, and secret alleys. Two days there can either break you in on the way to Venice—which is more Eastern and opulent—or decompress you on the way back. It takes a good day and a half to have a look at the sights, and you’ll want to leave time for shopping: Verona is a good place to buy more cheaply what you’ve admired elsewhere.
Many people come to Verona just to stay at the Due Torri, a converted palazzo furnished with antiques and known for its deluxe service. Rooms are decorated in the styles of fifteen different periods. Some, especially those in the back, can be disconcertingly ordinary. The hotel will tell you which styles are available when you book; rooms in the summer can be hard to come by. Double rooms cost about $110 a night, suites $200. Of the five hotels in the rank below, the Accademia, a simple and modern hotel in the center, is the most reliable, and it’s half the price of the Due Torri.
The Due Torri puts you in the Piazza Sant’Anastasia, next door to the largest church in the city. You might think that the main doorway of the Sant’ Anastasia church, with its bright polychrome stonework and fourteenth-century bas reliefs, was protected during the war and the rest of the outside damaged, but no—the facade was never decorated, for lack of money. The plain front gives a misleading introduction to the vast and imposing interior.
In the streets around this church, behind it along the river Adige, and on the way to the cathedral, you can think you’ve entered a wrinkle in time. Houses and small palazzi crowd one another and block nearly all the light. Few are less than three hundred years old, and the life you glimpse inside them seems not to have changed any more than the neighborhood. Best of all is the walk along the river, with a view of the Castel San Pietro, guarded by a row of poplar trees, in the hills just on the other side. The antiques shops are in this district, and not much else. You can usually have it to yourself.
If from Sant’Anastasia you go in the opposite direction, you hit the two central squares, the Piazza dei Signori and the Piazza Erbe. The Piazza dei Signori is persistently called the Salon of Verona: it is indeed small, surrounded by graceful buildings, and presided over by a statue of Dante, who came during his exile from Florence. His willing host was Cangrande I, the greatest of the rulers in the Scaliger family, which reigned from 1260 to 1387. Their castle, with its fairy-tale crenellations along the top, is on one side of the piazza. The Scaligeri are the only people you have to remember as you walk around Verona, because the best part of the city was built during their rule. In 1405 Verona fell to Venice and lost its will (and its ability) to be independent until the unification of Italy, in the late nineteenth century.
The Caffè Dante, in the Piazza dei Signori, is worth a look to see how a nineteenth-century tearoom can stay the same as it was—just the same. The threadbare red banquettes, the mirrors with chipped gilt frames, and the peeling pink walls make the proper old men on fixed incomes and the ladies wearing gloves seem sad. The café does not make the piazza look like the glittering salon it is said to be. Around the corner, however, is a nineteenth-century restaurant, the Nuovo Marconi, that has kept itself plush and is a crowded, cheerful place. The osso buco and the crepes filled with marsala custard—a specialty of the region, the Veneto—are especially good. The Arche, a three-minute walk from the Marconi, is an excellent fish restaurant that uses traditional recipes.
Between the Piazza dei Signori and the Piazza Erbe is the most spectacular of the always interesting hidden spaces: the courtyard of the Mercato Vecchio, or Old Market. On all four sides are the horizontally striped walls of dark red brick and light gray stone that typify the Romanesque buildings in Verona. Going up one corner is an exuberant white Gothic staircase, added in the mid-fifteenth century, which is supported by arches that keep getting taller and wider, as if a child had scrawled them until he ran out of paper.
Through an arch wav is the Piazza Erbe, where a sea of light-gray umbrellas forms a canopy that is punctuated by three stone monuments—the most noticeable is a column surmounted by a winged lion, the symbol of Venice—and surrounded by houses and two medieval towers. At one end is the grandiose baroque Palazzo Maffei, with a parade of pagan gods looking pompous on the balustrade. The kiosks under the umbrellas sell snacks, most of them greasy, and knickknacks. This is the most chaotic piazza in Verona, and you probably won’t want to stay and be jostled for long.
Luckily, you are at the beginning of the principal shopping street, the Via Mazzini, which is given over to pedestrians. And there are many, especially in the evening between six and eight and between ten and midnight, when the entire population seems to materialize to look in the windows. The displays are not as sleek or high-fashion as the ones in other Italian cities are, but many perfectly stylish Americans prefer the merchandise in them on the grounds that it is more wearable.
The Via Mazzini leads to the Piazza Bra, the biggest public space in Verona. On one side is the Arena, which was built in the first century A.D. and faced with rose-colored stone from quarries nearby. Only a small section of the original perimeter wall remains, leaving an oval of double arches that are open to the city. A 1913 performance of Aida in the Arena was such a hit that an annual opera festival there soon became an established tourist attraction. Aida is produced every summer; in this year’s season, which runs from July 4 through September 2, there will be Tosca and Carmen and Verdi’s I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata as well as the ballet Excelsior. Tickets cost from $7 to $50, and the best ones are sold well in advance (you can write ahead for them). Veronese dress up for the opera and buy small candles from vendors outside the arches as they go in at dusk. Just as the overture begins, hundreds of tiny flames appear around the stadium.
IT IS NEVER a bad idea in Italy to stop for a bite of pizza or an ice cream, and the Piazza Bra is ideal for sitting and staring. The gentle curve of the wide sidewalk called the Listone is where the window-shoppers from the Via Mazzini end their promenades. The Cavour is a good choice among the cafes on the Listone. A few awnings down, in an alleyway, is the Nastro Azzurro, the best place for a pizza. Near the end of the Listone, to the right, is the Savoia, the gelateria where the crowds carrying little plastic cups have bought their ice cream. Try the grapefruit or the gianduia, chocolate hazelnut.
Through the two huge Roman arches of the Portoni della Bra, at the far end of the piazza, is the Corso Porta Nuova. Since the two remaining must-sees are a longish walk away, it might be wise to buy the makings of a picnic at Spega, a salumeria, or delicatessen, on the right, before the first cross street. There are oval dishes of roasted green, yellow, and red peppers, baked caramelized purple onions, grilled eggplant with oil and garlic, and many more vegetable, meat, and fish dishes in gleaming aluminum cases; sausages, salamis, and prosciutto hanging from the white-tiled ceiling; cheeses and breads on the shelves. A stop at Spega, in fact, is probably an essential beginning to any journey.
The most logical place to dig in is on a bench at the Castelvecchio, a ten-minute walk from Spega. The castle was built by Cangrande II in 1355, and in one of the courtyards is a miniature fort built by Napoleon. Transplanted windows and doors rescued from houses about to be torn down make the fort look like a pavilion; deciding how it complements the medieval fortress would be a worthwhile picnic activity. Walk off lunch in the museum inside, which has wonderful Romanesque sculptures, charming early-Renaissance panels, and sumptuous high-Renaissance altarpieces (the baroque, where the collection ends, is of the most overblown variety). The museum is an important stop, no matter what your feelings about Italian art, because of the use it makes of the castle itself and of the city walls along the river. Many of the rooms have white stucco walls and high, beamed ceilings; all are unusually light and spacious. One set of doors ieads to a long walkway outside, atop a battlement overlooking the river.
The church you shouldn’t miss is San Zeno, farther away from the center than anything else and worth the trip however you get there (it’s a twenty-minute walk from the Castelvecchio). Built from 1120 through the fourteenth century, San Zeno is one of the finest Romanesque churches in Italy. The roof and apse were redecorated in the Gothic style; the portal and the rose window are from 1138. But it is the twenty-four bronze panels on the doors, also from the early twelfth century, that are the big show. They illustrate biblical scenes with such directness and simplicity that you might well find them more moving than Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, at the cathedral in Florence. Although derived mostly from Byzantine and Ottonian art, the panels look ahead to the rebirth two hundred years later of figurative art.
They wake you up. The simple, grand interior, with its plain walls and Roman arches, has an ideal balance of spaces.
Behind San Zeno are the Giusti Gardens, among the finest examples of Mannerist landscaping in Italy. (They were laid out in 1580.) The elongated statues and the design are worth seeing in any season, but the garden is at its peak in late summer.
The shopping is as good as the sightseeing on the way back into town along the Corso Porta Borsari, named for the portal that is the most elegant and detailed Roman monument in the city. A recent cleaning has restored it to a pure milky white. The stores are bigger (and easier to negotiate) than the boutiques of the Via Mazzini, but of equal quality.
If you have three days in Verona, try to spend the third driving around Lake Garda, the biggest lake in Italy and comparable in beauty to Lake Como. The lake is forty-five minutes from the city, and it takes at least three hours to drive around it. The landscape, hilly, with grape arbors and olive trees, is a mixture of northernand central-Italian terrain. The west side is the most scenic and has the best restaurant on the lake, the Castel Toblino—a restored sixteenth-century castle that looks as if it should be in southern Germany. The food here is heavier than most in Italy: one of the house specialties is boiled beef with crauti, the local version of sauerkraut.
Or you might prefer to spend your last afternoon taking an espresso in the Piazza dei Signori and wondering what would have happened to Romeo and Juliet if their families hadn’t been on the outs. Follow the trail to Juliet’s supposed balcony, a short walk from the Piazza Erbe. Marvel at how small the courtyard is in comparison with the echoing nave of San Zeno, built at the same time, and think how intimate were the stages on which medieval dramas played.