Sweat, fear, noise, blood and anguish. Not much has changed in Verona’s giant amphitheatre over the last 2,000 years. Where once gladiators fought to the death, now mighty tenors and sopranos writhe with the appearance of every tortured passion. And the emotion isn’t just limited to the performers; the audience have always been wracked with it too. Back in Roman times, 20,000 spectators jeered and roared with bloodlust in this place. Today glamorous aficionados sit in silent rapture before exploding into frenzied applause. “Bravo, Marcelo!” they scream as the fat man finishes a particularly tricky aria. “Brava, Sofia!” they holler as she sings a last exquisite note and slumps death-like to the stage. Now as long ago, feelings here are running high.
It’s fitting that the world’s largest open-air opera festival should be held every year in Verona. Thanks to Shakespeare’s pair of star-crossed lovers, this little city is forever linked with idealistic love and doomed passion – two of opera’s perennial themes. Perpetuating the city’s loved-up atmosphere, Verona’s pretty, pink-hued streets are filled each summer weekend with moony-eyed couples of every age and nationality, dutifully making their pilgrimage to this famous città dell’amore.
But forget the city’s fake Romeo and Juliet locales; the most genuinely romantic building in Verona is its ‘Arena’ – the third largest and best preserved of all surviving Roman amphitheatres. Undeniably lovely in its white and pink limestone, the gigantic oval dominates the city centre, and remains Verona’s single most impressive sight. Now occupying a grand piazza edged by lovely outdoor cafés and restaurants, the Arena has survived the ravages of time (and of earthquakes) to become one of the world’s most arresting event venues.
Of course it no longer hosts the gory combats, duels, public executions, bullfights and bear-baitings of its past (many of which continued to take place here until the 1890s). Today the venerable ring is most famed for its annual opera festival. Half a million spectators roll up every summer to revel in sublime music and sumptuous on-stage spectacle – nabbing seats that range from a mere €20 to almost ten times as much. This wide range of prices reflects that fact that, in Italy, opera is a normal enthusiasm, irrespective of earnings or social class. It’s not just an entertainment for the elite.
And the Arena is an ideal place for it. It has astonishingly good acoustics – something discovered almost by accident in the 1850s when someone first thought of staging an opera here. Even now, singers perform free from microphones. So when that barrel-shaped woman down on the stage thrillingly fills the entire space with noise, she’s doing it for real. The unusually large stage (23 metres wide by 30 deep) is particularly well-suited to grand opera, encouraging lavish set-design and spectacular production. Dancers, horses, camels, big cats, elephants – all have sported across this immense stage-space. Temples, pyramids, the reedy banks of the Nile – all have been constructed here.
Because its ancient Egyptian setting provides such scope for magnificent stage-sets, Verdi’s Aida is on the Arena’s opera festival menu every year, and is always the first performance to kick off the season. The summer list also includes three or four other big crowd-pleasers, typically from among Carmen, Tosca, Turandot, Nabucco, La Traviata, La Bohème, and Madame Butterfly. It was Aida that spawned the whole festival back in 1913, when a triumphant performance was staged here to mark the centenary of Verdi’s birth (with Puccini and Franz Kafka among the audience members that night). Wartimes excepted, the summer music hasn’t stopped since.
But acoustics and stage-sets aside, it’s the sheer atmosphere of the Arena that really knocks you out. From the minute you join the evening queue outside to the moment you exit breathless into the small hours of the morning, the sense of enchantment never really fades. Just going in is a brief mini-drama. You slip through an ancient archway and find yourself in a dark, subterranean-like cavern, with water dripping from the old Roman concrete overhead. Disoriented, you discover plush velvet curtains draped back to guide you, and you suddenly emerge, with dozens of others, into the vast arena. An expanse of red chairs fills its flat centre, and endless tiers of metal seats climb to the distant rim.
You take your seat in the soft evening air and watch people excitedly milling about in their opera-going finery. Behind them, the evening light slowly slips by degrees from pale turquoise to soft blue to starlit black. Banks of golden stadium lights come up, flashbulbs wink across the body of the crowd, and thousands of candleflames are held in flickering salute. And then, the moment the music begins, the lively chatter of 15,000 people turns to a breathless hush.
Obviously Arena performances are of the very highest standard, and if you’ve never experienced grand opera before, this is the perfect place to start. The quality is top-notch. Pavarotti, Domingo and their ilk have all appeared in the festival, and Maria Callas made her debut here. But because tickets are so laudably wide in price range, the spectators are an enjoyably mixed bunch. Refined aficionados who know every word sit alongside Lake-Garda-holidaying daytrippers who’ve been roped-in by their tour reps to see an opera for the first time. And not every newcomer is equally smitten by the art. During one of many intervals in a wonderful performance of Aida, I overheard an English-speaking first-time-operagoer say to his friend, “The male singers are all right; I don’t mind the baritone. But I could do without the women and their high-pitched screaming.” Oooh, Philistine!
But should the performance or the stage-spectacle cease to grip your attention for a moment, there are plenty of pleasing distractions – the soft breath of evening wind that reminds you you’re outside, the bats that light up momentarily as they wing through the beam of stadium lights, the sumptuous outfits in the audience, the long and convivial intervals between the acts. All around, the place and the event never stop feeling exceptional. There’s more to an evening here than just the wonderful stuff on stage.
Which is handy, as an opera can sometimes turn into something of an endurance marathon. If you aren’t aware of this already, operas are very long! Don’t expect to be in bed by midnight, or even by 2am. Arena performances start at about 9pm, and you’re looking at four or five hours of entertainment thereafter. The fat lady can sing and sing, but still it ain’t over. Sitting till the very end, music-dazed and happily drowsy among thousands of other people, is just another part of the romance.
● You’ll enjoy a performance much more if you know the opera’s plot in advance. Don’t expect to be able to follow a convoluted story sung in Italian! Read up on your opera before coming. You’ll be glad you did.
● There’s no strict dress code at the Arena, but why not seize the chance to dress up and make an occasion of it? Audience attire ranges from jeans to black tie. Go for smart casual at the very least.
● Night air can grow surprisingly cool, no matter how hot the day. Play it safe and carry a jacket or shawl with you. Note that there’s no cloakroom.
● Unless you’re in the best seats, there’s no padding to comfort the derriere. Bring a small cushion with you (an inflatable one is ideal), or hire one for a small charge (about €4) inside the Arena.
● Eat well before coming, as operas are not short! Bring food and drink with you if you like, but note that glass containers and metal cutlery are not permitted inside the Arena. Decant wine into a plastic bottle.
● Wheelchair-users are comfortably accommodated at the Arena. Children under four are not allowed in the audience, however.
● After the performance, join the long, orderly taxi rank in Piazza Bra’, or go to a late-night restaurant and carry on with the fun. On opera nights, some nearby restaurants stay open till 4am.
● Tickets and information: www.arena.it, +39 045 800 5151. Ticket prices range from around €20 to €200, depending on the seat and day of the week.
Via Adua, 8
+39 045 590 566
One of Verona’s finest hotels, this elegant four-star occupies three 13th-century buildings merged into a single structure. The handsome and spacious rooms are very richly furnished, and offer every convenience. The marble bathrooms are especially attractive. Historical details such as old frescos and mosaics crop up throughout the building. Breakfasts are lavish.
HOTEL ANTICA PORTA LEONA
Corticella Leoni, 3
+39 045 595 499
This three-star hotel enjoys an excellent location in the heart of Verona, less than a minute from Juliet’s House and the bustling Piazza delle Erbe. The stately old exterior gives way to bright rooms laid out with comfortable modern furniture. Staff are very friendly and ready to help.
Piazzetta XIV Novembre, 2
+39 045 594 717
Offering some great views over Piazza delle Erbe, this lovely little two-star hotel offers small but very pleasant rooms decorated in simple style. Double-glazed windows keep out any noise from the lively piazza below. There’s a wonderful terrace for enjoying evening drinks. Breakfasts are large and very good.
Via Valeria Catullo, 1
+39 045 800 2786
Run by the affable Pollini family for 25 years, this homey, pensione-like one-star is the cheapest hotel in central Verona. The simple rooms are large, comfortable and quiet – often with nice decorative details. There are single, double, and triple rooms, with or without bathrooms. There’s a hotel bar, but no breakfast service.
EUROMOTEL CROCE BIANCA
Via Bresciana, 2
+39 045 890 3890
If all of central Verona’s hotels are full, this thoroughly likeable place just 3km out of town is a very good option. Frequent buses into the centre stop just across the road. The three Panato siblings who run the hotel are exceptionally pleasant and helpful. There’s free internet downstairs, and a small leafy garden out front.
TRE MARCHETTI DA BARCA
Vicolo Tre Marchetti, 19b
+39 045 803 0463
Closed Sundays (and some Mondays)
One minute’s walk from the Arena, this classy little nook is a big hit with opera-goers and performers. Diners have included Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. In summer, the place stays open till 4am – useful when your opera drags on till long after midnight! The high-quality fare is traditionally Veronese. Crowded, cosy and picturesque.
Meal for two about €65
TRATTORIA ALLA COLONNE
Largo Pescheria Vecchia, 4
+39 045 596 718
Hugely popular both with locals and tourists, this reasonably-priced restaurant is relaxing at lunchtime and fantastically lively at night (when you should book ahead). Local dishes dominate the menu: gigantic veal cutlets, polenta with mushrooms and gorgonzola, donkey meat, great tiramisu. The characterful owner usually wears a jacket covered in badges. Give him a new one and he’ll love you.
Meal for two about €40
LA BOTTEGA DEI VINI
Vicolo Scudo di Francia 3a
+39 045 800 4535
This venerable institution – more than 100 years old – is arguably Verona’s best restaurant. With 80,000 bottles, it unarguably has the city’s largest wine cellar. Tables are large and comfortable, the walls lined with wine labels and old maps. The food is superb. Meltingly tender chateaubriand, perfectly indulgent risotto, stunning pasta with duck ragout. Settle down and make a long night of it.
Meal for two about €70
ANTICA TRATTORIA ALLA PIGNA
Via Pigna, 4
+39 045 800 4080
Closed Sundays and Monday lunchtimes
This old osteria offers deeply traditional Veronese fare prepared to the highest quality. It’s an elegant, distinctive sort of place, with very good service – and reasonable prices. The interesting menu takes in variously prepared polenta, pasta, risotto, fish, seafood, meat and salads. There’s a very good wine selection too. Nicely situated between the duomo and Piazza delle Erbe.
Meal for two about €45
Corte Farina, 4
+39 045 800 0440
Closed Mondays in winter
For a stimulating dose of youthful chic, try this lively and well-attended eatery. Dine indoors amidst bright modern decor, or outside at close-set tables buzzing with conversation and the occasional passing Vespa. Pizza is sold by the metre, sizzling Argentinian beef is a house speciality, and the gigantic salads are packed with goodies. Friendly staff, and an inclusive atmosphere.
Meal for two about €35