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Heart and soul

The enchanted Italian home of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has been captivating travellers for centuries.

By Andy Round

Castelvecchio Bridge over the Adige River in Verona, Italy at twilight..jpg

In the digital age love moves at hyper-speed. Students Daniella Katz and Jade Bruni may have only just arrived at the Italian home where Shakespeare’s Romeo sought out his Juliet but they have already uploaded romantic pictures to their boyfriends in South Africa.


They photograph each other writing declarations of love on graffiti-loaded walls and attaching padlocks festooned with hearts to nearby railings. They press ‘send’.


‘I have two keys,’ says Daniella after securing her lock. ‘One is for my boyfriend the other is for me. I’m locking up our love.’


‘Doesn’t everyone read Romeo and Juliet at school?’ laughs Jade. ‘We had to come here, it’s the most romantic place in the world.’


‘Here’ is the 13th century house, said to have been the home of Giulietta Cappelletti, a name later anglicised to become the most famous romantic heroine in history, Shakespeare’s Juliet Capulet.


Two metres above the courtyard, Kate Backhouse and Bas Heerma van Voss laugh as they pose for pictures on the most famous balcony in literary history.


‘I think the appeal of Romeo and Juliet is that they made the ultimate sacrifice for an impossible love,’ says Kate. When she kisses her boyfriend, the tourists below cheer.


Verona does this to people.


‘The city makes you fall in love with love,’ says guide Franklin Baumgarten.


No kidding. Daniele Angelini organises about 600 weddings in Verona every year for the city hall organisation Sposami a Verona (‘Marry me in Verona’). ‘Couples come as far away as Peru and South Africa,’ he says. ‘You have to reserve months in advance because venues like Juliet’s house are extremely popular.


‘Our most unusual request? A couple got married in the crypt of Juliet’s tomb. They wore gothic clothes. And so did their guests.’


The tomb is a gloomy place for a wedding. Featuring a chunky broken sarcophagus in the vaults of the church of San Francesco, this is where, according to local legend, Romeo and Juliet committed suicide.


Upstairs in the Museum of Frescoes the mood is infinitely lighter and the smiles of volunteers working at the Juliet Club are brighter than sunshine.


The club started in 1989 in response to the huge volume of heartbroken letters from all over the world addressed simply to ‘Juliet, Verona’.


‘Today we receive around 100 000 every year and we have a team of 20 volunteers who reply to every letter that has a return address,’ says the club’s secretary Giovanna Tamassia.


She shifts through a pile of hand-written material featuring diaries, wedding invitations, cartoons, items of jewellery and endless stories of unrequited love. ‘For these people Juliet is a muse. I think just the act of writing is a therapy in itself.’


There are plenty of romantic cities in Europe from Paris to Prague, but combined with Shakespeare’s famous romance, Verona offers all the magic of Italy distilled into one irresistible romantic package of glorious chapels, al fresco restaurants, baroque palazzos, cobbled streets, soaring pine trees, romantic bridges, medieval towers and staggeringly beautiful churches.


At the city’s popular Caffé Dante in the medieval Piazza dei Signori, Pierangelo Tommasi sets an atmospheric scene. ‘This restaurant is very popular, but it really comes to life at night. Imagine candlelight glowing, a couple in love, delicious plates of gnocchi with fresh truffle and, of course, a bottle of full-bodied red wine Amarone from the nearby Valopolicella area. You can’t say no to that.’


It’s also impossible to say no to the rustic charms of nearby Osteria al Duca, one of the city’s oldest taverns based in a creaky 13th century crenelated castle. Legend has it that this was the home of the Montecchi or Montague family and the birthplace of Romeo.


‘We see a lot of romance here because we only offer communal seating,’ says chef Alessandro Vignola, over a serving of traditional Veronese horse stew, pastissada de caval. ‘Strangers sit together, chat and before you know it, there’s a spark. We have seen a few romances start here and end in marriage.’


Romance is at the heart of Verona, but the city’s soul is its 2 000-year-old Roman arena and the 58-performance Opera Festival held here every summer. Incredibly, on up to three consecutive nights, there can be three different performances.


‘The festival started in 1913, attracts up 15 000 people a night and is the biggest outdoor opera in the world,’ says the festival’s art director Paolo Gavazzeni, strolling the vast ancient stage.


‘The acoustics are so perfect there are no microphones. But it is not just about music. Beneath a dramatic magical sky at night, you really feel connected to the power of nature.’


But it is the power of love that brings people back to Verona.


Outside the arena, watching the delivery of giant props for Verdi’s Aida, is Monica Viviani from Verona’s tourism organisation:


‘Do you remember the 1990s film version of Romeo and Juliet? Well, the actor who played Romeo, Leonardo DiCaprio, is said to own that beautiful house across the square. It’s wonderful to think that modern day Romeos are still falling in love with Verona.’


Heart and soul: Over four days every February, including Valentine’s Day, the city stages ‘Verona in Love’ a festival of romantic films, plays, music, heart-shaped markets, romantic restaurant menus and hundreds of events. When it started in 2008 there were around 10 000 visitors, today the festival attracts 50 000. ‘Every year we stage a mass synchronised kiss when thousands of people young and old gather together in a romantic Verona location to kiss one another for one minute,’ says festival director Loris Danielli.


Super spa: Verona’s spring waters have attracted visitors for centuries, but today contemporary spa lovers find their way to Aquardens, a giant thermal water centre 20 minutes from Verona. Attracting 300 000 visitors during its first year in 2012, Aquardens is open until midnight and features outdoor and indoor pools, lagoons, waterfalls and whirlpools as well as a dedicated centre for massages and spa treatments.

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