A short break in... Verona

Excellent food, fabulous palaces, medieval piazzas - and the balcony from which Juliet allegedly called out to Romeo. It may not be as entrenched on the tourist map as Venice, but get to know Verona and you really will fall in love with it, as Gareth Lloyd discovered .

WHY GO THERE

Set on the lingering River Adige at the foot of the Italian Alps, Verona is the shy, heart-melting sister of Venice. Despite being hopelessly entwined with Romeo and Juliet, any visitor soon discovers that Verona has much more to offer than the sad remains of a romantic tragedy. Among its riches are fabulous palaces adorned with faded frescoes, peaceful medieval piazzas with dribbling fountains, the crenellated castle of the ruthless Scagligeri family, and one of the finest Roman amphitheatres in the world - which appropriately plays host to worldclass opera. It is often said that to know Verona is to love her. But getting to know her is even better.

WHEN TO GO

Summer is the most popular time for visitors, many of whom come just to see the opera. But during this time the city becomes swamped with tour groups and prices rise sharply along with the temperature. In winter, however, the weather is relatively mild, there's lots to see and do, and you can have the city - along with its beautiful sights and people - practically all to yourself.

HOW TO GET THERE

Air: British Airways is the only airline which has direct scheduled flights to Verona. Tickets should cost from around pounds 210 return when bought through your local high street travel agent.

Rail: Train travel from London costs between pounds 172 and pounds 219 return and takes between 17 and 23hrs. Call International Rail Enquiries on 0990 848848.

GETTING AROUND

Buses bound for the city's train and bus stations leave the airport at intervals of approximately 20 minutes from 6am to 11pm, with the half- hour journey costing around pounds 2.50.

Metered taxis into and around town should cost no more than pounds 15.

Walking is by far the most pleasant way to explore the city centre, much of which has been pedestrianised. All the main sights are within less than half an hour's walk of each other.

WHAT TO SEE

q Roman Arena (open Tues to Sun 9am-7pm; adults pounds 4, children pounds 2). Built in 1bc from attractive pink and white stones, Verona's Arena is one of the world's largest surviving Roman amphitheatres. It is in an excellent state of preservation (despite several earthquakes). Unlike 2,000 years ago, these days the blood and gore entertainment is purely operatic.

q Piazza delle Erbe was the core of medieval Verona and remains the heart of the city today. Among the market stalls are a number of interesting monuments including a 16th-century loggia called the "Berlina", where miscreants were once tied up and pelted with rotten produce. The many charming buildings which enclose the square include the colourful Casa Mazzanti - part of an old Scaglieri palace whose facade is covered in 16th century frescoes.

q Casa di Giulietta (open Tues to Sun 9am-7pm; adults pounds 2.90, children 70p) is at 23 Via Cappello. No one is certain whether the feud between the Cappello and Montecchi families on which Shakespeare based Romeo and Juliet actually happened, but romantics are welcome to stand beneath the fabled balcony and rub the right breast of Juliet's statue for good luck.

q Piazza dei Signori. This monumental civic centre of the old Veronese city state is presided over by a rather unflattering 19th-century statue of Dante. Just over Dante's shoulder is the 15th-century Loggia del Consiglio.

Teatro Romano & Museo Archeological (open Tues to Sun 9am-7pm; adults pounds 1.70, children 70p). In the shadow of the Castel San Pietro, the Roman theatre is a picturesque jumble of ruins dating from 1ad. Amidst the cypresses, many of the arches, columns and tiers remain, though little is left of the actual stage. The adjacent Archaeological Museum has an interesting exhibition of statues, bronzes and mosaics dating from Greek and Roman times.

Castelvecchio & Civico Museo d'Arte (open Tues to Sun; adults pounds 2.75, children pounds 1.40). This splendid 14th-century fortress of Cangrande (Big Dog) II has weathered use by several top dogs (including Napoleon and the Nazis) to become Verona's Art Museum. Among the high quality exhibits is the famous statue of Cangrande I (with his mad dog grin) and works by Giovanni, Bellini, Carpaccio and Veronese.

Basilica di San Zeno Maggiore (open daily 8.30am-12pm and 3-6.30pm approx). This masterpiece of Italian Romanesque architecture, to the west of Castelvecchio, is one of Verona's most celebrated monuments. Originating from the 4th century, the basilica's rich facade is dominated by the "Wheel of Fortune" rose window by Maestro Brioloto, while the interior boasts a beautiful Gothic ceiling and Medieval frescoes.

FOOD AND DRINK

Verona is perhaps best known for its crisp Soave (a dry white wine) and tall, light Pandoro cake. As in the rest of Italy, mealtimes are about enjoying good food while socialising. To be asked to vacate your table in a Veronese restaurant for the next customer is simply unheard of.

Al Teatro Filarmonico, just beyond Porta Nuova, has the best cakes and coffee in town - along with the smartest clientele. Don't be put off by all the wealthy middle-aged women clad in fur coats and clutching pet poodles. Your treat will set you back little more than pounds 1.

Brek, in Piazza Bra, is a bustling self- service restaurant where you should come for a delicious belly-busting three-course meal with wine, for only a fiver. Pots of pasta and giant pizzas are made right in front of you, with low calorie options for those worried about their waistlines.

Bottega del Vino, tucked away at Vicolo Scudo di Francia 3, is a small but popular place with some fantastic cigarette- stained frescoes and loads of atmosphere. The menu features traditional recipes using organically grown vegetables and freshly made pasta.

I Dodici Apostoli at Corticella San Marco 3, derived it's name from twelve 18th-century "apostles" of the kitchen who met here to dine. The Renaissance frescoes which adorn the walls are complemented by dishes from the same period, including the pastissada de caval (horse meat stew). A meal for two can be had for around pounds 50, without drinks.

WHERE TO STAY

All the following hotels are conveniently located in or near to the city centre.

Villa Francescatti Youth Hotel (0039 45 590 360), at Salita Fontana del Ferro 15, is a fabulous crumbling 16th-century mansion with lovely gardens and dark corners to explore. Dorm beds or family rooms cost just pounds 7 per person including breakfast (membership not essential).

Antica Porta Leona (0039 45 595 499), at Corticella Leoni 3, is an atmospheric little place tucked away in the old quarter, just a stone's throw from Juliet's balcony. The rooms on the first floor overlooking the street are the best. Singles go from pounds 30 and doubles from pounds 45 with breakfast included.

Due Torri Hotel Baglioni (0039 45 595 044), at Piazza San Anastasia 4, is Verona's most exceptional hotel. Goethe and Mozart have stayed here. Singles go from pounds 60 to pounds 190 and doubles from pounds 93 to pounds 225. All rooms come with breakfast included.

ENTERTAINMENT

Throughout the year the city hosts cultural events, culminating in the season of opera and drama from July to September at the Arena. (Page & Moy organise special opera holidays (tel. 0116 250 7747.) In the winter there is ballet and opera at the 18th-century Teatro Filarmonico (800 2880) at Via dei Mutilati 4, just south of Piazza Bra. In the summer, Shakespeare's plays are performed (in Italian) at the Teatro Romano. Information and tickets for these events is available by writing to: Ente Lirico Arena de Verona, Piazza Bra 28, Verona.

In the evenings the Veronese like to be out and about in town. The quarterly Passport Verona, available from city tourist information offices and hotels, has a potted history of the city, along with what's on in terms of galleries, museums, plays, concerts, etc. For discos, films and more casual artistic events keep your eyes peeled for Sira-Sera - a weekly broadsheet which is fly-posted in cafes and around town.

PACKAGE TOURS

Simply Travel (0181 987 6108) offers a range of short breaks in Verona. Prices start from as little as pounds 274 per person, with a two-night stay in the Due Torri Hotel Baglioni costing pounds 352 per person, including flights, taxes and transfers.

INFORMATION

The Italian State Tourist Board (0171 408 1254) at 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY is only useful for general inquiries and information. The main city tourist office (800 6977) is on the first floor of Palazzo Maffei at the north end of Piazza delle Erbe.

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