Travel: Wherefore art thou Romeo?

Looking for signs of Shakespeare, John Walsh encounters music, food and love on an idyllic weekend trip to Verona
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The Independent Culture
In the Piazza Erbe, an old Italian nun is waving a white cheer- leader's pompom to summon her troop of stragglers. They gather round respectfully, gazing at the washed-out orange walls and olive shutters, letting a 2,000- year-old history lesson go in one ear and out the other. The nun looks a tough old bird, full of advice, repressive by instinct, suspicious of the impulses of the young. It's impossible not to think of her as Juliet's Nurse in Shakespeare's play, shepherding her 14-year-old charges through the raffish metropolis.

This central piazza - once the city's old herb market - is crammed each day with wooden stalls. Most sell fruit and vegetables of a mildly exotic nature: bolted tomatoes, knobbly zucchini, long white radishes. Others deal promiscuously in tourist stuff from out of town: Roman pasta aprons, Venetian gondola souvenirs, miniature medieval crossbows. The remainder of the piazza is covered with chairs and tables, which fill with visitors well before noon.

The holy sister and her pubescent gaggle moves on through a vaulted archway, the Arca della Costa, from which hangs a talismanic whale-rib, to reach the Piazza del Signori, the epicentre of this ancient city. All four sides of the square throb with monumentalismo: the crumbling slab of the Palazzo del Capitano (a combined museum and barracks) where the Veronan generals used to live; the blank fortress of the Palazzo degli Scaligeri, headquarters of the Scaligeri family who ruled over Verona from 1263-1390 with the benignity of the Borgias and the liberal-mindedness of the Corleones; their grim, white-plaster law court, Orwellianly named the Palazzo del Ragione, or Palace of Reason; and the softer Renaissance lines of the Loggia del Consiglio, its warm orange facade and eight pillared arches all emblematic of the less autocratic period that followed the demise of the Ladder Family.

The schoolchildren gravitate to the statue that gives the square its colloquial name. The figure on the plinth is the crossest-looking schoolmaster they've ever seen. Dante Alighieri, his head swathed in a puritanical headscarf, looks across the square with an expression of cold fury. One of his hands holds a book. The fingers of the other stroke his chin. Here is the Eternal Critic, before whom all human aspirations shrivel, and all children quake.

The elevated and the trashy, the practical and the kitsch all rub shoulders, like the Erbe's thrusting shoppers, right across Verona. That's why it's an ideal weekend break. You can see the place in two days without breaking sweat. You can be Larkin's "ruin-bibber, randy for antique", lost among the greatest collection of ancient Roman ruins outside Rome; or a neo- Shakespearean connoisseur of lurve, visiting the site of the world's greatest semi-fictional romance. You can encounter the Italian haute bourgeoisie, along with Arab pedlars and black hookers.

There's a lot to do. You can bury yourself in pre-Renaissance Madonnas at the prison-like palace of the Castelvecchio for the morning, lunch on a very superior pizza overlooking the Adige river, wander among the formal box-hedge mazes of the lovely Giardino Giusti where all Veronan brides pose for wedding pictures; burn some fancy plastic in the astoundingly expensive Via Mazzini (Verona's Rodeo Drive) and have time for a siesta, wafted to sleep by the hairdryer roar of Piaggi motor-scooters, before gussying up for the early-evening stroll around the amusingly named Piazza Bra, where you'll try a Negroni or three before gorging on Lake Garda seafood, within sight of the Arena's massive broken wheel.

Verona is the second biggest city, after Venice, in the Veneto and resembles her bigger sister in every respect but the watery thoroughfares. The Lion of St Mark turns up everywhere. The same cuisine of mussels, polenta, sardines and risi e bisi (rice with peas) is much in evidence; but where most Venetian restaurants are too grand to serve pizza in the evenings, Verona has succumbed to consumer pressure (the Quo Vadis in the Via Leoni offers three pages: 00 39 45 8002224).

Verona is less intimidating than Venice: less crowded, less claustrophobic, less shimmery, far less smelly, more solid, more hospitable. The piazzas are airy, wide-open concourses, endlessly traversed by sensible Veneto middle-classes in designer suits and white dresses. The churches are sensational, not for the Tintoretti-on-the-ceiling opulence of La Serenissima, but for the profligacy of devotion that piles sculptures on top of frescos, gilded domes on triumphal arches, pagan gods on Christian burial chambers. They share the same colour scheme, layers of pink rosso di Verona limestone and white tuffo plaster. From the top of the Lamberti Tower (370 steps, but there's a lift) your vision of the city is of terracotta roofs, like scales on some huge orange fish, stretching towards the hills, lit by glimpses of the Adige as it serpentines its way through the town.

The biggest crush is at Juliet's House, Number 23, Via Capello (as in Capulet), where the beautiful stone balcony is supposedly the one onto which Romeo climbed to press his claim on Juliet's heart. It is all complete piffle, of course - the house was originally a 13th-century inn - but it nevertheless attracts millions of teen shag-monsters all year round.

All the girls have their photograph taken on the balcony. All the boys pose beside the life-size bronze statue of Juliet, clamping one saucy hand on her right breast, which has been polished to an unearthly sheen by these attentions. One or both partners will also inscribe their names on the courtyard walls, which are so crammed with graffiti that they now resemble late-period Jackson Pollocks, only much more densely textured. Interestingly, the souvenir T-shirts feature just as many photos of the graffiti as depictions of the star-cross'd lovers.

You will want to get away from them, and from the seething crowds in the Erbe. A taxi (try 0 45 53 26 66) will whizz you out of town through the stockbroker-belt suburbs on the north side to the Cafe de S Mattea, about 6km out of town, where, on a hillside overlooking the city, you can drink aperitifs among the cool ragazzi while sparrows hop around your feet.

Most fun restaurant in town is the Bottega del Vino, an unprepossessing joint off the Via Mazzini (00 39 45 80 45 35), est 1890, with a stunning cellar of Veneto wines, lots of dubious local dishes (tripe, horse and polenta con lardo which is exactly that), vase-sized wine glasses and bags of atmosphere.

Best church is probably the Gothic pile of Sant' Anastasia (open daily), whose hunchbacked holy-water caryatids greet you like a brace of Igors in the doorway, and whose gorgeous frescos (one by Pisanello) make you gasp; though the great draughty basilica of S Zeno Maggiore, Verona's patron saint, shouldn't be missed, especially for the 48 dark bronze panels in the West Doors, showing scenes from the Bible and the life of the cheery saint, including what looks like a cartoon version of the fate of John the Baptist.

If you're thinking of visiting Verona soon, be warned that the airport's being renovated, and you'll fly into Breschia, to be coached from there to Verona's Catullo Aeroporto. The trip lasts 45 minutes and is free, but you must build it into your calculations.

Try and spend your last half-hour in the Piazza del Signori, sipping a caffe corretto outside the old-fashioned Casa Dante Ristorante where a little band - piano, double-bass and fiddle - played beside my table, mothers sat and gossiped under the arches of the Loggia del Consiglio, two little girls armed with a camcorder ran about trying to embarrass the mating pigeons and Dante, on his pillar, looked away in disgust.