Valentine: 48 hours in Verona

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The Independent Online
You need a break, and a shortcut to the soul of a city. This week, Andy Bull lives like a gentleman in Verona

Why go now?

Verona - historic, sophisticated and manageably compact - is worth going to simply for the atmosphere of the place itself. And, if you are not coming for the celebrated opera season between June and September, it is perhaps as well to visit in February, when the city is cool and far less crowded with the sort of visitors who hunt in packs, following the scent of an umbrella raised aloft by a harassed tour guide.

Beam down

British Airways (0345 222111) has a monopoly of scheduled flights from the UK to Verona. The lowest fare is a World Offer of pounds 164.10 - if you book by next Wednesday.

Get your bearings

The city, surrounded by cypress-covered hills, and with the river Adige curling through its ancient centre, glows gently with the red, ochre and pink of its distinctive marble. Verona is still largely enclosed by its 16th-century fortifications, and wears its past - Roman ruins, tall, slim towers that speak of the Venetian empire, and bulbous Baroque churches - with easy pride.

The tourist office is at 38 Piazza Erbe; its telephone number, like many in the city, has just changed; dial 00 39 45 806 8680.

Watch out for ...

Vespa riders. The town centre is largely pedestrianised, something that has not been fully explained to these motorised masters of style who claim the narrow streets squeezed between the towering buildings as their own.

Check in

Cheap and cheerful: Villa Francescatti Youth Hotel (00 39 45 590 360) at Salita Fontana del Ferro 15; dormitory and family-room accommodation only, but the price is just pounds 7 per person per night, including breakfast.

Moderate and merry: Antica Porta Leone (00 39 45 595 499) at Corticella Leoni 3. Doubles from pounds 40, including breakfast.

Ritzy and romantic: Due Torri Hotel Baglioni (00 39 45 595 044) at Piazza Sant'Anastasia 4. Doubles from pounds 100.

Take a hike

Verona is best explored on foot. The most central starting-point for a tour of the city is Piazza Bra, which flanks the southern sweep of the oval Roman arena. There is parking close by at Cittadella, where you can pick up a useful free map, courtesy of McDonald's.

From here the arena really is impressive. It measures 150m by 130m, seats 25,000 and has perfect acoustics. And, despite clearly having been knocked about a bit, it still rises to 30m, dwarfing everything around it. During the opera season you can enter only in the mornings, but all day the rest of the year.

From the arena take the Via Mazzini to the heart of the old city. Here, two wonderful squares - the Piazza dei Signori and the Piazza delle Erbe, form the centrepiece. The former is soberly elegant, flanked by the 12th- century town hall and the 13th-century Governors' Palace, and with a statue of Dante in the centre. The latter, crammed with the flower, fruit and vegetable stalls of the market, is full of noise and colour. As it should be: this was once the Roman forum, where chariot races were held.

Up five steps and under an arch from Piazza dei Signori, you reach Piazza Mazzanti. It is surrounded with houses from which balconies thrust, making it feel like another open-air theatre, except that the focus of attention is not a stage but an ornate, pink marble well. Let's hear it for the bucket. And the bucket-hauler.

Lunch on the run

Via Mazzini has many inexpensive but perfectly good places to eat, including La Bottega, Del Vino and Le Tre Corone.

Cultural afternoon

Though the Arena and the churches are the real treasures of Verona, you should come to terms with the dynasty that made the city. North of the Piazza Mazzanti you come to the tombs of the Scaligere, Princes of the Scala, who lorded it here from 1260 to 1387, before the Venetians took over, and left a considerable mark on the city.

To reach their castle, which guards the bridge they built over the Adige, walk to the northern end of the Piazza delle Erbe and turn left into the Corso Porta Borsari. This leads into the Corso Cavour; the castle, with its distinctive swallow-tail battlements, is a few hundred metres ahead on your right. It contains the city's museum of art, with frescoes from the 12th to the 16th centuries, and works by the Veronese and Venetian schools. It is open daily except Monday, 9am to 7pm, admission pounds 4.

Window shopping

Walk along Via Mazzini and look longingly at Duca d'Aosta and Emporio Armani.

An aperitif

Piazza Bra has gardens shaded by mighty cedars and a swath of the most fashionable - and expensive - cafe terraces in town. If you prefer coffee and cakes to Campari, try Al Teatro Filarmonico, off Porta Nuova, at about pounds 3 a head.

Demure dinner

At I Dodici Apostoli (the 12 apostles) at Corticello San Marco 3, you get Renaissance frescoes on the walls and Renaissance dishes on the table - including horsemeat stew. Cost, around pounds 20 a head.

Sunday morning: go to church

You now need a voucher (6,000 lire, pounds 2.50) to visit Verona's churches. Buy it at the first one you visit; it entitles you to see four more as well. Best of the churches: San Zeno, with its altarpiece by Mantegna, the Duomo, and Sant'Anastasia with wonderful frescoes.

Bracing brunch

Brek, in Piazza Bra, offers mountains of self-service food and wine for pounds 5.

A walk in the park

Verona turns its back on the Adige, but a walk across the Ponte Nuova to the left bank ushers you to one of Europe's most monumental city gardens. Behind the Palazzo Giusti a blaze of green struggles to retain its formality as it battles up the hillside terraces, rewarding those who persevere this far with the finest view of Verona.

The romantic icing on the cake

Leading off Piazzi delle Erbe is Via Capello. At No 23 is Casa di Giulietta, the 13th-century palace of the Capuleti, with Juliet's balcony looking like a tough climb in tights. The house is open to the public daily, except Monday, from 9am to 7pm, admission pounds 3.

If the story of the star-crossed lovers - whose families were divided because Romeo's supported the Pope while Juliet's rooted for Emperor Frederick I - grips you sufficiently, you may like to take a one-mile detour to Juliet's tomb, which is in the Capuchin Cloisters - off the Via del Pontiere to the south of the arena and close to the Adige river.