In love with fair Verona

Surrounded by beauty, with the world's best gelato at hand, Julietta Jameson finds the magic moments keep coming.

The holy grail for any traveller is that rare, exquisite moment that etches itself into your memory forever. A week in Verona and I had three of them.

The first was at four in the afternoon on my first day, wandering the pretty cobbled streets between the 1290 Sant'Anastasia church and the river Adige, which was flowing strongly from the spring thaw in the Alps. Up ahead, I saw a line coming out of a small corner shop with no signage. No sign needed. At that time of day, I knew a patient queue like that could only mean one thing – gelato artigianale, Italian ice-cream made traditionally with natural ingredients.

I joined the throng and was rewarded for my wait with a huge helping of the best gelato I have ever had ... and I've had some gelato. (I went back every day for the week I was there.)

Slurping ecstatically and strolling a short distance, I came to the Ponte Pietra, a bridge meticulously rebuilt from its original first-century material after being blown up in World War II.

I stopped on the bridge, which connects the old central city to the even older Roman ruins on the east side of the river, to eat, take in the beauty of the city either side of me and watch the rapids below. A family of musicians were playing piano accordion and fiddle for change.

I giggled at how great life could be. Bellissimo.

The second moment was in Piazza delle Erbe. Though a space with many beautiful baroque features, it has been in use as a square for more than 2000 years.

It was a Sunday morning. I sat alone at a front patio table in one of the cafes, drank two coffees, some water, ate a panino and lingered, blissfully watching the world go by and scribbling in my journal for almost two hours. No one tried to move me on. And they charged me only €6 ($10) for the pleasure. Try doing that at San Marco in Venice.

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The third was being in the audience at the Verona Arena. Completed about 30 AD and the third-largest Roman amphitheatre in the world, it has been used for gladiator fights, public executions and, lately, is most famous for opera.

There was no opera on while I was in Verona but the US rock band The Killers were in town. I got lucky with a great seat. I danced the night away with an enthusiastic, well-behaved, young Italian audience, made new friends and thought I wouldn't want to be anywhere else at that moment. Verona just might be the Italian city of your imaginings.

It ticks all the boxes of expectations without even trying. This is not a city done up for tourists or geared to their dollar, although it does have its touristy pockets; the house and balcony of Shakespeare's fictional Juliet, for example.

By and large, it's simply a city where modern life blends with monuments of the past. Heritage is just an everyday part of life. It is revered and preserved but not put behind glass. Allowing The Killers to play at the Roman amphitheatre is a perfect example of that.

There is money in Verona. The second-largest city in the Veneto region after Venice, it's surrounded by rich wine country and a lively manufacturing industry. But it is not stuffy or pretentious like Milan, to its west, can be, nor is it jaded like Venice, to the east.

It's small enough to feel intimate, big enough to get your money's worth, clean, safe and easily navigable, its monuments will floor you and it is sigh-inducingly pretty.

It's also perfect for people-watching. Maybe the fact there are two football teams in Verona means it's awash with WAGs, or maybe it's just bellissima-mamma central. The young mums of Verona are something to behold. I've never seen so many fine timepieces paired with tattoos, diamond tennis bracelets with denim, sky-high heels with Hummer-sized prams.

Beauty of a more enduring kind is everywhere. Verona has some of Italy's most interesting and history-layered churches – and they can all be seen on the one ticket, which is valid for several days.

My pick was Basilica di San Zeno, one of the finest Romanesque churches surviving in Italy and featuring frescoes by Veronese.

The Duomo, meanwhile, has sculpture by Nicolo, paintings by Titian and a history that goes back to the fourth century.

The river snakes through town so there are a number of interesting bridges, from the much-loved Ponte Pietra to Ponte Vittorio, an art nouveau beauty guarded by heroic statues at either end. Each bridge affords incredible views of a truly beautiful city, made all the more lovely by surrounding green hills.

Castelvecchio Museum, located inside a castle, includes one such bridge, which shows how the castle was protected by water. One of the most important museums in Italy, Castelvecchio contains works by Rubens, Tintoretto, Bellini and Pisano – and none of them are second-rate. These are seriously great works created by the greats.

But Castelvecchio is so much more than that. The building itself is the Scaligeri castle, which was built in the 1300s and adapted brilliantly to show art – dating from the Lombards to the 19th century – as much as it was to give visitors a feel of the original flow of this extraordinarily intact structure.

Ah, the Scaligeri family. They are everywhere, from their ornate graveyard in the middle of town, to the statue of Dante erected because they welcomed him to town after Florence threw him out. Verona owes much to the Scaligeris.

After the Ostrogoths and the Lombards duked it out in the first millennium AD, control of Verona fell to Mastino I della Scala.

For 200 years, the family – and city – prospered and much of the great stuff that you see today in terms of monuments and architecture comes from the Scaligeris.

Then came the Milanese, Venetians, Napoleon and the Austrians. Verona became part of the republic of Italy in 1866.

Nestled near the northern mountain regions, it suffered badly during the world wars but the people also played a role proved to be a stronghold of the resistance movement.

All this history, even the Roman times beforehand, has left its mark. Piazza delle Erbe alone, with its miraculously surviving handsomeness, has a medieval shape taken from a Roman forum, the baroque facade of Palazzo Maffei, 15th-century frescoes and a 1368 statue of a Madonna standing in a Roman bath. And towering over it all, the astonishing, vertiginous Torre dei Lamberti, one of the world's grandest clock towers, built progressively from 1172 to measure 84 metres in height. Climb the tower for incredible vistas of the city.

Across the river is the lovely Giardino Giusti, considered one of the finest Renaissance gardens in Italy. With its mannered, manicured lower reaches, full of statues, lawns and hedges, to its wilder upper reaches, a layout typical of the Renaissance style, it's a peaceful, evocative place for a picnic or just to spend a hot afternoon.

Verona is not all about past culture, though. Importantly, it's a city where there is plenty of fun of the less-worthy kind to be had.

The shopping is phenomenal; those yummy mummies don't have to travel far for designer gear. From Sephora for top-range cosmetics to all the big Italian designers, this is a place to spend some serious cash – or just window shop. There are plenty of cheaper options, too.

It's also a food- and wine-lover's utopia. With stunning local wines on offer from sundown, when apertivo-time gets into full swing, to late-night fun in piazzas and bars down near the river, it's hard to resist a tipple or two.

The restaurants in Verona are terrific, modern, chic but very aware of their local traditions – just the way you want them to be. Again, the city benefits from the fact that these are establishments set up to serve locals, not to sting the visitors.

So gear up your "grazie", polish up your "prego" and prepare to dine as the Veronese do – deliciously and, of course, late.

And if you can get a ticket to absolutely anything that happens to be on at the Arena while you're in town, do so.

The writer was a guest of Singapore Airlines.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney via Singapore to Milan, which is great for visits to northern Italian cities such as Verona. See singaporeairlines.com. From Milan, it's easy to get to Verona by train. Consider Verona also if you are travelling to Venice. Again, a mere train ride away. See raileurope.com.au.

STAYING THERE

Nina Fiorenza is an Italo-Australian who runs a boutique holiday service from Verona. She has access to great properties, which she has hand-picked. If it's luxury you are after (on a budget to match) and a true local's knowledge with an understanding of Australians, contact Nina at italiadeluxe.com.

WHILE THERE

The Verona Card is great value. Valid for one day it costs €8 (about $13.70) or for three days €12. It includes free entry to museums, churches and monuments and free public transport. It's available from tourist offices and the sights. Gelateria Ponte Pietra is at 23 Via Ponte Pietra. It's open from 2.30pm until late, opening earlier on the weekend and closed on Thursdays.

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