If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the Veneto region of northern Italy on the Gulf of Venice. Venice is its best-known city and one of the most popular tourist destinations on earth. But the Veneto region is a lot more than this great city. There are excellent tourist attractions elsewhere, and you won’t have to fight the huge crowds. With a little luck you’ll avoid tourist traps, and come back home with the feeling that you have truly visited Italy. This article examines tourist attractions in the Shakespearean town of Verona, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Be sure to read our companion articles on northern Veneto, southern Veneto, and the university city of Padua.
Verona. I don’t know about you, but I can’t hear this word without thinking of the phrase, Two Gentlemen of Verona, a not particularly well-known Shakespeare play. Verona was the setting of a particularly well-known Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet. This city of more than a quarter million has a long and bloody history. Its residents are proud that on an Easter Monday more than two hundred years ago they drove out the French occupiers. The German writer Goethe and the French writers Stendhal and Valéry included Verona in their travel diaries. The Roman emperor Julius Caesar spent a lot of time here, and probably enjoyed many of the sights described next.
Verona has quite a collection of vestiges from its Roman days. Let’s start with its Roman amphitheatre, the third largest in Italy. This structure is approximately 400 feet (140 meters) long and 350 feet (110 meters) wide, giving it a seating capacity of about 25,000 spectators in 44 tiers of marble seats. While only fragments of the outer walls remain, its interior is virtually intact. This edifice often hosts fairs, theatre, opera and other public events, especially during the summer.
A First Century B.C. Roman theatre was eventually transformed into a housing site but in the Eighteenth Century the houses were demolished and the site restored. Nearby you’ll find the Ponte di Pietra (Stone Bridge), a Roman arch bridge crossing the Adige River, completed in 100 B.C. Retreating German troops destroyed four of the bridge arches in World War II but the bridge was rebuilt in 1957 using original materials.
You should also see the First Century Arco dei Gavi (Gavi Arch) straddling the Corso Cavour; once the main road into the city. Look for the architect’s signature, a rarity for the times. French troops destroyed this arch in 1805, and it was rebuilt only in 1932.
Porta Borsari, an archway at the end of the Corso Porta Borsari street, is the façade of a Third Century gate within the original Roman city walls. This street is lined with several Renaissance Palaces. Porta Leoni (Leoni Gate) is what remains of a First Century B.C. Roman city gate. Parts of it have been incorporated into a wall of a medieval building. Even in those days some people believed in recycling. You can see the remains of the original Roman street and the gateway foundations if you look slightly below the present street level.
The Twelfth Century Romanesque Basilica of San Zeno Maggiore is quite a masterpiece. It is built upon a Fourth Century shrine to the city’s patron saint, St. Zeno, the first Bishop of Verona. The basilica’s splendid one hundred ten foot (seventy two meter) bell tower is worthy of mention in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Both the doorway and the inner bronze door have multiple panels of biblical scenes and depictions from St. Zeno’s life. Its walls are covered with Twelfth and Fourteenth Century frescoes. Its vaulted crypt contains the tomb of St. Zeno as well as the tombs of several other saints.
The small but attractive Romanesque Twelfth Century Basilica of San Lorenzo is built on the site of a Paleo-Christian church, some fragments of which remain. The huge Eighth Century Romanesque Santa Maria Antica Church was the parish church of the Scaligieri family that ruled Verona for many centuries. Many of them are buried in the complex. Some of these tombs are quite unique and well worth seeing, even if you’re not a habitué of that sort of thing.
The Twelfth Century Romanesque Duomo (Cathedral) was constructed on the site of two Palaeo-Christian churches destroyed by an earthquake much earlier in the century. The site includes an unfinished Sixteenth Century bell tower. Be sure to see the chapel adorned with Titian’s Assumption.
Verona’s largest church is the Fifteenth Century Sant’Anastasia whose interior is considered one of northern Italy’s finest examples of Gothic architecture, and believe me this competition includes many entries. The construction of this magnificent edifice took nearly two hundred years. Among its items of honor are frescoes and hunchback statues that serve to dispense holy water. It is said that touching a hunchback’s hump brings good luck. Maybe next time.
San Fermo Maggiore is in reality two churches. The tomblike lower Romanesque church dates from the Eighth Century. The huge Fourteenth Century Gothic upper church is notable for its ceiling festooned with the paintings of four hundred saints. There are more churches to see in Verona but we are now going to look at castles and palaces.
The Fourteenth Century Castelvecchio (Old Castle) was built on the banks of the Adige River near the Ponte Scaligero (Scaligero Bridge), probably on the site of a Roman fortress. Built to protect against foreign invaders and popular rebellions, it included a fortified bridge in case the owners had to flee north to join their allies in the Tyrol. Over the years the castle has known many renovations and restorations. Make sure to visit its art museum, specializing in Venetian painters and sculptors.
Those Scaligeris spent a lot of their time in the Palazzo degli Scaligeri, their medieval palace, which today, as then, is closed to the general public. But you can go next door to the Arche Scaligere with its Gothic tombs of selected members of the family.
The Italian Piazza is a meeting place. Verona has some special examples. The Piazza delle Erbe (Herb Square) has been around since the days of the Romans. For ages it was a fruit and vegetable market but now is geared to tourists. It still maintains its medieval look and some of the produce stalls. The Piazza dei Signori (Gentlemen’s Square) is Verona’s center of activities as it has been for centuries. This square is right next door to the Scaglieri Palace. Those gentlemen didn’t believe in commuting.
We can’t leave Verona without visiting those star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. The Twelfth Century Casi di Giulietta (Juliet’s House) long belonged to the Dal Cappello family and since it’s not a long way from Cappello to Capulet perhaps… This lovely house even possesses a courtyard balcony. Yes, the house at Via Cappello, 23 probably isn’t the real thing, but crowds come to gawk and dream. This could be the place to propose marriage.
What about food? Verona's cuisine features typical dishes of the Po Valley plains: mixed boiled meats, nervetti (calf’s foot and veal shank salad), and risotto, often prepared with a healthy douse of Amarone wine. The Piazza delle Erbe still has some fruit and vegetable stalls selling local produce such as radicchio and asparagus. Not only the wine is classified. Verona is home to a classified cheese, Monte Veronese. But who would think that rice is also classified? The Riso Nano Vialone Veronese is a laboratory-developed rice first introduced into the area in 1945. It now represents 90% of the local production. Is it better than other rice? Locals obviously think so. I promise that I will taste it on my next trip to Verona.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Gnocchi (Small Potato Dumplings). Then try Pastissada de Caval (Horsemeat Stew, often simmered in wine). For dessert indulge yourself with Pandoro di Verona (Verona Butter Cream Cake). Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We’ll conclude with a quick look at Veneto wine. Veneto ranks 3rd among the 20 Italian regions for the area planted in grape vines and for its total annual wine production. About 45% of Veneto wine is red or rosé, leaving 55% for white. The region produces 24 DOC wines and 3 DOCG wines, Recioto di Soave, Soave Superiore, and Bardolino Superiore. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine The G in DOCG stands for Garantita, but there is in fact no guarantee that such wines are truly superior. Almost 30% of Venetian wine carries the DOC or DOCG designation.
Valpolicella DOC is a world famous wine produced north of Verona from several local red grapes. This wine is usually nothing to write home about and often tastes of cooked cherries. But that is hardly the end of the Valpolicella story. Valpolicella Ripasso is made from young Valpolicella wine put into tanks or barrels containing the lees (one could say dregs, but that might give the wrong impression) of a recioto wine (see below). The mixture undergoes a secondary fermentation and becomes a more interesting wine. Valpolicella Recioto is made from passito grapes, those dried on mats for several months. It may be a still wine, a fizzy wine, or a sparkling wine. Valpolicella Recioto is sweet or bittersweet. Amarone DOC is a type of Valpolicella Recioto whose sugar has been completely transformed into alcohol becoming a powerful tasting wine that packs a punch and ages well. What a difference between Amarone and its source wine, Valipolcella.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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