Verona: Home to Romeo and Juliet

If you're heading to Verona – "Italy's most romantic city" – do yourself a favour and watch two movies beforehand.

Franco Zeffirelli's incomparable 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet was nominated for two Oscars – though none of it was shot in Verona.

The other movie – Letters to Juliet, a 2010 rom com starring Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero – was never in Oscar contention.

However most of it was shot in and around Verona, and it's a good introduction to the city's fortified 14th Century Ponte Scaligero over the Adige river; the huge Roman Arena that dates back to the first century; and the city's main square, Piazza delle Erbe.

Both plots revolve around Verona's most famous tourist attraction – Juliet's balcony, which just happens to be where I am now.

Casa di Giulietta ("Juliet's house") in Via Cappello has been the city's one must-see sight for at least 80 years.

Six million visitors are drawn here every year, and only a few depart without getting their picture taken with "the balcony".

This, after all, is where Shakespeare's two "star-crossed lovers" confirmed their passion – setting in motion a tragedy that would end in both their deaths.

Some tourists even join the queue to stroke the bizarrely shiny bronze breasts of the courtyard's statue of Juliet (how weird is that?).

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So here's the spoiler alert.

Juliet's balcony – indeed the entire Casa di Giulietta – is a fake, a 20th century fabrication.

Shakespeare could have told us that. His play is a work of fiction, inspired by various other works of fiction, including Dante's Inferno which makes mention of a feud between two warring families in Verona.

The surnames – Montague and Capulet – aren't even Italian, but French. The Bard borrowed his story from Romeus and Juliet, a poem written in 1562 by the British poet Arthur Brooks who in turn relied on a French version of the story.

Oh yes, and a balcony isn't even mentioned in Shakespeare's text because that architectural concept was still alien to Elizabethan England.

The real story of Juliet's balcony, apparently, began in 1936 with the release of Irving Thalberg's Hollywood version, starring his wife Norma Shearer as Juliet. Suddenly international interest in Verona intensified.

The city's then-museum director, Antonio Avena, was a serious archaeologist who is credited with saving much of Verona's heritage. But he seems to have had no ethical problem with inventing an entirely fake house for Juliet.

He chose to renovate a genuine 13th Century home – but added a balcony.

(Avena also removed a medieval sarcophagus from the city's Castelvecchio museum and created "Juliet's Tomb", in the dark crypt beneath the convent of San Francesco al Corso – the only only convent crypt that could possibly pass as being in Shakespeare's imaginary geographical area outside the city walls).

So let's get back to something that really does exist.

The letters to Juliet also began around 1936.

According to the city's official "Juliet Club", Ettore Solimani – "the guardian of Juliet's tomb" – gathered letters people were leaving at Juliet's fake tomb and started replying to them, so becoming the first "Juliet's secretary".

Even in our digital age, thousands of people each year write letters to Juliet. Each letter is read, translated, answered and archived in a unique record of love.

Other visitors compose their own messages and leave them posted around the courtyard. Still more pay the entrance fee for the small museum at Casa di Giulietta – usually so they pose on the 20th century balcony.

All this is completely harmless. If it encourages more of us to see Verona for ourselves, that's a good thing.

But what are the real highlights of Verona?

Well, the food for a start. Not everyone will be keen to try the Verona's most famous speciality, cavallo (horse meat). This possibly dates back to the Battle of Verona in 489AD when Theoderic the Great's victory left hundreds of dead horses on the battlefield. The starving locals tenderised the horse meat in vinegar and wine, then served it stracotto, or long-stewed. Yum!

Today a popular summer dish is sfilacci di cavallo (dried horse meat, cherry tomatoes, parmesan and rocket).

Tongue is another Veronese favourite. As is spaghetti in black squid ink. Or try bollito misto: boiled meats served with peara – a white gravy found only in Verona.

We visited on a Sunday when Piazza Bra, next to the monumental Roman arena, was packed with wonderful food stalls – one of the most spectacular culinary markets I've ever seen.

Brush up on your Shakespeare, by all means.

Me? I ordered another of Verona's great dishes by the side of the market – a spaghetti Cabonara, so egg-yellow and succulent that I savoured each mouthful.

Then I retired for happily for the night, dreaming of Juliet.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

tourism.verona.it/en

GETTING THERE

Emirates/Qantas operate daily flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Venice via Dubai. See emirates.com/au or qantas.com.

TRAVELLING THERE

Verona is included on a 12 day Ultimate Italy trip by Luxury Gold by Insight Vacations from $7325 per person. It includes 11 nights in outstanding accommodation, six evening meals including a Michelin starred dinner on the Isle of Capri, a Tuscan cooking demonstration, an exclusive behind the scenes visit to the Uffizi Gallery's private Vasari Corridor in Florence and access to the Vatican's Sistine Chapel before it opens to the general public. Also included are VIP airport transfers, special sightseeing opportunities and the services of a travelling concierge. See insightvacations.com/luxurygold or phone 1800 001 771.

Steve Meacham travelled as guest of Insight Vacations.

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