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Saturday, 26 July 2014

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Verona’s so fair, so good

IT was in fair Verona where William Shakespeare laid his scene for Romeo and Juliet. More than 400 years later, PAUL TURNER travels to the Veneto to discover fair doesn’t even begin to describe the city’s splendour

VERONA, a city of romance, drama and tragedy, certainly in the works of William Shakespeare anyway.

Romeo and Juliet and, of course, The Two Gentlemen of Verona – Shakespeare certainly took a liking to this glorious city in the Veneto.

With families at war, lovers divided and friends reunited, the Bard conjures up a unique world.

I’m not saying Shakespeare had a flair for the dramatic, but we found none of these in the idyllic retreat of the Manor House Delser.

A converted monastic water-tank – though infinitely superior than it sounds – in the hills above Verona, the Manor House is a labour of love for Alberto Delser.

From Austrian stock a long way down the line, but as Italian as pizza or tiramisu, Alberto has spent eight years creating a lodging fit for any of Shakespeare’s kings.

Missing out on being Jarvis Cocker’s dream by a whisker, having studied design rather than sculpture at St Martin’s College, our host has created a unique abode which adapts to its original structure and holds a modernity all its own.

Alberto’s designer training is obvious throughout, with every little thing, from the door hinges to the seating in the lounge, chosen and manufactured with the utmost individual care.

“All my friends and neighbours told me I was mad when I said I wanted to build this place,” says Alberto as we stand in the sun-backed garden terrace with a stunning view of the Dolomites to the north, the valleys to the south. Their claims given some credence by his two dogs, loveable creatures, enjoying the run of the place for the most part, now tethered together and pulling this way and that as we talk.

“I went into the parts of town you do not go into for labour and spoke to the people you do not speak to, but the end result is here now.”

Well, almost – Alberto is always planning what to do next, with corporate events for Cartier set to be followed by other big companies and gay weddings something he feels will set him apart from the crowd.

He needn’t try so hard, he already has a residence superior to just about any four-star hotel on the market – and many five-star ones too.

His personal attention and the family atmosphere give you the felling of a small B&B in the setting of a high-class resort.

If Shakespeare visited Verona today, this is where he would want to stay – far enough away from the madding crowd to get down to his writing, near enough that a short taxi ride has you in the heart of the action.

There is much debate over whether Wills spent time in Italy during his lost years at the end of the 16th century, his predilection for setting his plays here and his knowledge of the area surely too much of a coincidence to suggest otherwise.

If the world’s greatest playwright did spend time in Verona, what he saw then would not be too different to what visitors see today – a historic city, bustling with life, brimming with culture and with a contagious atmosphere.

Thousands come every year just to visit the Casa di Giulietta, stand upon its balcony and call to their lovers below, imagining themselves a young girl denied the chance of happiness by an ancient family feud.

It’s best not to tell them the whole set-up is a fake – manufactured by the city council as a money-making exercise cashing in on the popularity of the play – but this is the only falsehood in a magnificent locale.

Those seeking truth will often head to the church and here they will find among the finest in the whole of Italy.

The Duomo – cathedral – with its grand entrance and dominating presence over the River Adige is just the start.

Sant’ Anastasia is larger still – dwarfing the classic cars setting off on a touring rally from the square in front on the morning of our visit – with carvings of New Testament scenes catching the eye inside.

For the best church, a short walk is required away from the active heart of the city to San Zeno Maggiore, a glorious basilica housing the remains of said saint inside an open and expansive church.

For those seeking a little more life and action, the Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza dei Signori throng with people, market stalls offering up the freshest of fruit and restaurants with fine – if a little overpriced – fayre.

You can take everything in from the top of the Torre Lamberti, which stands over both squares, or from the slopes across the river which play home to the Teatro Romano.

Little publicised before our arrival, it was the theatre which provided one of the highlights of our visit.

I don’t know if Shakespeare ever took in a play here, but if he did, he had a treat indeed, with the original amphitheatre and seating from centuries ago still standing.

Go further up and reach the Museo Archeologico in an old convent above the theatre and you are not only able to absorb the splendour of the historic artefacts but also soak up the best view in town over the city across the river.

From here you can see the Duomo, the Torre Lamberti and the art gallery housed in Castelvecchio, the building alone a spectacle and what is inside, enough to divert you for a whole afternoon.

If you want to see where Shakespeare is occasionally performed today, you can head to the Roman arena, remarkably intact, vast in its presence and surely one of the best places to catch a show in the world.

Even without performers on stage, there is a still a real theatrical atmosphere and it is easy to imagine Romeo and Juliet coming to life on the streets around and heading inside to reveal their lives to the audience.

We may never know if Wills visited Verona when he went AWOL as a youngster, but I’d like to think he did.

He certainly wrote well about the city in his works and inspired millions to come here over the years and discover its charms.

What they find today may not be exactly as he described it in his plays, but they won’t leave disappointed.

Who could from a city so fair?

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