Feature Italians have always been in love with love. Now, couples can get married in Verona, the home city of Romeo and Juliet.
Romance made easy
In a small courtyard set a few metres back from one of the most exclusive shopping streets in northern Italy is a scene of utter chaos. Densely packed crowds of backpacked tourists - Japanese, Americans, Europeans - jostle with one another, cameras in hand, as they compete to take the best picture of an unremarkable-looking balcony attached to the side of a medieval stone house. Despite its appearance, the balcony is world famous as a symbol of forbidden love - it was supposedly here that Juliet, a young Capulet, was wooed by her lover Romeo, the son of her family's arch-enemies, the Montagues in Shakespeare's love tragedy Romeo and Juliet.
Today, scrawls of graffiti cover the walls of the courtyard, consisting almost exclusively of variations on the phrase ti amo - "I love you" - in Italian and other languages, primarily the handiwork of amorous ragazzi and foreign exchange students. Underneath the balcony is a bronze statue of the mythical Juliet, her right breast highly polished by couples touching it for luck. Europe is chock-full of cities laying claim to romance - Paris, Venice and Prague for starters. But Verona, a smallish, somewhat overlooked city of 260,000 people, is a quiet contender for the rose-petal crown. Situated inland between Lake Garda, the wine growing region of Valpolicella and the Dolomite mountains it is a mix of Roman ruins, medieval streets and charming piazzas.
Whether the balcony at La Casa di Giulietta (Juliet's House) really was the site where star-crossed lovers exchanged sweet nothings, no one knows for sure. There is evidence to make it a plausible possibility. Although the characters were fictional, the medieval villa really was home to the Cappello family in the 14th century, which with a degree of artistic licence comes easily to resemble the Capulets, although historians dispute the evidence. It doesn't bother the tourists, who find the mystery adds to the romance - Juliet's house and the nearby Franciscan monastery, San Franciso al Corso, where her "tomb" lies in the cloisters, are Italy's most visited museums after the Roman Vatican and the art museums of Florence, with 250,000 people a year coming to pay tribute to love's all conquering power - in fiction at least.
Thanks to Shakespeare, Verona has always seemed destined for romance. Now the city is attempting to market itself as the ultimate romantic destination, cashing in on its reputation in a huge drive by the tourist board to recast the town as the Italian city of love under the banner "Sposami a Verona" - Marry me in Verona. For around US$1,272 (Dh4,567) couples can hire a frescoed hall for 40 people in la casa di Giulietta for a civil wedding ceremony.
The project is already showing signs of success. Last Wednesday (June 3), the first wedding took place between a footballer for the Italian team Verona Hellas and his fiancé. The smiling newlyweds told the waiting press that they had fallen in love with the courtyard and with Verona itself. An American couple were also scheduled for that week - the whims of Italian bureaucracy notwithstanding - while a Japanese businessman and his Scottish girlfriend are set to be wed here in August.
So is Verona officially the most romantic city in Italy? "It's still a bit early to say," says Roberto Bolis, a spokesman for the tourist board. For many, though, getting permission to wed from the owners of Juliet's House, couldn't come soon enough. Since the announcement in March that the balcony was to be opened for weddings, the tourist board has had enquiries from all over the world. "There was so much demand. People have been asking for years whether they could get married here but until now it wasn't possible," says Bolis.
"Thanks to Shakespeare the city of Verona has always been associated with love. Verona has always been greatly loved by foreigners, especially from Anglo Saxon countries and Asia. It captures people's imagination." He expects half the weddings to be between Italians and half between foreigners - although ceremonies are in Italian, with translation on request. Italians have always been in love with love and cultivate a sense of romance. Unsurprisingly, Verona is not the first Italian city to market itself as a wedding cake and flowers destination. In the nearby capital of the Veneto region, Venice, the tourist board has licensed Palazzo Cavalli, a municipal palace, to hold weddings under the less evocative title Sposarsi a Venezia - "Get married in Venice". Venice is undoubtedly a romantic heavyweight but Verona tourist chiefs are convinced that Verona is superior.
"They have a licence for an old building on the Grand Canal. It is nice, but it doesn't have the special symbolism of Juliet's House," Mr Bolis says. The town council has deals with local hotels for guests to stay in. "We want to create an entire wedding journey," he says. Spotting an opportunity, several enterprising holiday operators have started offering wedding packages to the city. It is comparatively cheap, too - a Venice wedding will cost as much as $3,000 (Dh11,017).
Honeymooning couples have plenty of options to choose from - Venice is less than two hours away and Florence or the Italo-Austrian Tyrol three hours - but, in typically Italian style, Bolis says that he "can't think of anywhere better for a honeymoon than right here in Verona". He suggests Lake Garda, only a 20-minute drive, a large blue expanse of water dotted with medieval villages and tiny castles. The lake is infinitely nicer during late afternoon and evening when the tourist thongs have calmed and a quiet descends on the water. It can be very family oriented, though, so choose your village carefully.
The thermal springs of Sirmione, one of the prettiest villages around the lake, are said to have healing properties and there can't be many things more relaxing - or romantic - than unwinding in the velvety natural spa. Malcesine, in the far eastern corner of the lake, is a prime spot for windsurfing. Stop for gelato - the lake has some of the best ice cream shops in the whole of Veneto - then take the ferry over to the mountainous northern side.
Back in Verona, there's plenty of late night hand-holding among couples admiring the fountain in Piazza Bra, a circular piazza in the historic heart of the city, fringed with open air cafes and home to the Arena di Verona. A long-time symbol of the city, the amphitheatre evokes Rome's Coliseum, but smaller and more complete. May to September is opera season, and classical music lovers arrive from all over the world to sample the amazing open-air acoustics - this years line-up includes Carmen, Aida and Turandot. When it gets dark the audience are handed thousands of tiny candles, the classical equivalent of waving lighters in the air a rock concert.
If you've not had your fill of Shakespeare, at the nearby Teatro Romano, his plays are performed throughout the year. Meanwhile, Verona's back streets are perfect for picking up quirky presents or second hand jewellery. For those who like to display their love in more ostentatious style, Via Mazzini is a parade of impossibly expensive designer shops leading off from Piazza Bra where Italian girls measure love by the number of zeros on price tags, the weight of their diamonds and the height of their heels.
Shakespeare may have considered music the food of love, but Ristorante Maffei, one of the best restaurants in the city, would probably give the playwright reason to reconsider - after all, even the most starry-eyed lovers need to eat. In an open-air courtyard set back from Piazza Erbe, the oldest square in the city, lit with strings of miniature lanterns, it serves up consistently fabulous Italian cuisine.
Marriage proposals are not uncommon here, according to Luisa, the restaurant's owner. Perhaps it's the menu's aphrodisiac potency: starters of asparagus wrapped in parma ham with poached egg, braised beef in Valpolicella red wine sauce and chocolate fondant for dessert. There's a well-stocked wine cellar to match the faultless food, ranging from the sumptuous Amarone red to go with rich meats, to a $14,000 (Dh51,900) bottle of vintage Chateau d'Yquem, the French sweet wine - a grand gesture by any account. The restaurant's idea of romance is somewhat atypical, however. In the basement next to Roman ruins discovered in 1983 and now covered by glass, the lone "Romeo and Juliet table" is reserved for couples on romantic occasions. Intimate it may be, but there's something slightly eerie about eating in the cold dank air amid the ancient ruins.
For a genuine Italian gastronomic experience away from the tourist bustle, Ristorante Re Teodorico is hard to beat. Set on a hill high above the Adige river and reached by a climb of almost 100 steep steps, it has a summer terrace looking out across the city, a dreamy spot for an aperitivo as the light fades to dusk. Popular with local Veronese, it doesn't operate with tourists in mind - the menu is exclusively in Italian, although the waiters speak a little English - but the food is so good that it doesn't matter.
Try the black squid ink tagliolini (angel hair spaghetti) and a plate of regional cheeses paired with fruit pickles and marmalades before ending the evening with a walk along the Adige river that winds through the town, crossing over Ponte di Castel Vecchio, the old bridge with the best vantage points over the water. While Verona undoubtedly breathes romance, superstitious newlyweds-to-be may be understandably wary of tying the knot here. After all, despite the tourist board's best efforts to gloss over the obvious, Romeo and Juliet are the protagonists in a tragedy that ends with one lover poisoned, the other stabbed through the heart. If your name ends in Montague or Capulet, it may be as well to leave a trip for an anniversary outing, just to be sure.