WHY GO NOW?
Verona's celebrated summer opera festival has just started. From now until 1 September, the city's magnificent Roman Amphitheatre vibrates to floodlit arias every weekend evening and on select nights during the week. This summer the programme includes performances of Verdi's Aida, Il Trovatore and Nabucco, Bizet's Carmen and Puccini's Tosca. There are still seats available for this Friday's performance of Carmen. For full details, or to book tickets, call the Arena box office (00 39 045 800 5151, www.arena.it) or contact the Italian State Tourist Office (020-7408 1254, www.enit.it) for more information.
British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba. com) flies daily from London Gatwick to Verona's Catullo airport, which is 10km away at Villafranca. Flights for this weekend are filling up fast and, if you want to travel out on Friday, will cost around £330. Buses run every 20 minutes from the airport to the train station in Verona, a journey that takes 20 minutes and costs €3.62/£2.35. The station is some way from the city centre; a taxi to the main square, Piazza Bra costs about €5 (£3). Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Brescia Montichiari airport, 52km from Verona, a journey that this weekend costs £259. A Ryanair bus to the station in Verona costs €11 (£7) one way, €16 (£10) return.
Verona's centre, sitting within a double bend of the Adige River which snakes through the city, is compact and easily walkable. Surrounded by cypress-covered hills, it has rather a small-town feel. Much of the pink-hued marble centre is pedestrianised, and scattered with historic sites from Roman ruins to Baroque churches. Piazza Bra is the main hub: it is lined with expensive pavement cafés, has a small, shady park in the centre and is dominated by the Roman amphitheatre. Dating back to AD30 and measuring a staggering 150m by 130m, the stadium walls soar 30m high. It's here, too, that you'll find the main tourist office (00 39 045 806 8680, www.verona-apt.net, Mon-Sat 9am-7pm, Sun 9am-3pm).
Unsurprisingly, hotel prices reach the high notes during the opera season. The city's traditional five-star option is the Due Torri Hotel Baglioni, Piazza Sant' Anastasia 4, (00 39 045 595 044, www.baglionihotels.com) next to the church of Sant' Anastasia. Once a 14th-century barracks, it's now more luxurious with standard doubles from €434.50 (£280). An equally comfortable but quirkier option is the Gabbia d'Oro ( see Room Service, opposite). For cheaper accommodation, try Hotel Mazzanti, just behind the Piazza dell'Erbe on Via Mazzanti 6 (00 39 045 800 6813), which has doubles from €104 (£67) or Hotel Aurora, Piazzetta XIV Novembre 2 (00 39 045 594 717), which has rooms (some overlooking Piazza dell' Erbe, the old Roman Forum) for €117 (£76)
Apart from the annual opera festival, Verona is most famous for its Romeo and Juliet connection. Shakespeare based not one, but two of his plays in "Fair Verona"; Two Gentlemen of Verona and, of course, that tale of star-crossed lovers. The Casa di Giulietta (23 via Cappello; Tues-Sun 9am-6.30pm, €3.10/£2) is a 13th-century building in a small, cobbled square – packed full of tourists. Trailing wisteria cascade down the high brick walls, while lower down every inch is decorated with multi-coloured graffiti. Beneath the famous balcony, men pose sheepishly beside the bronze statue of Juliet with one hand clasped to her right breast (folklore has it that this will bring a new lover and one extra-shiny bosom on Juliet's front illustrates the popularity of the myth).
For such a compact city, Verona has a surprising number of sights packed within its old walls. Buy one ticket to get into the principal churches, including the Duomo and Sant'Anastasia, for €4.13 /£2.70 from any of the churches that take part in the scheme.
The narrow, pedestrianised Via Mazzini, crammed with Italian designer stores and luxury boutiques, flows north from the Piazza Bra up towards the heart of the historic district, the bustling Piazza dell'Erbe. Here you'll find a vibrant daily market, overflowing with fresh flowers, fruit and veg (and a lot of tacky souvenirs). Instead, look up at the buildings that frame the square, especially the 16th-century murals that decorate the walls of the Casa Mazzanti.
Local specialities include Pastissada de Caval or horsemeat stew, gnocchi or potato dumplings and peperate – boiled beef with pepper sauce and cheese. The city has many old-style trattorias, so for authentic cuisine hunt them out and avoid the cafés lining the Piazza dell'Erbe with their "menus turisticas".
Just behind is the Piazza del Signore, where you can relax with an aperitif on a comfy wicker sofa outside the Antico Caffe Dante. In the early evening children play in the pedestrianised square, cycling round the statue of Dante in the centre while their parents sip a glass of prosecco (Italian sparkling wine). The pizzeria next door is a noticeable favourite with Italian families and businessmen at lunchtime.
The Bottega dei Vini (Vicolo Scudo di Francia 3a, 0039 045 800 4535) down a side street off Via Mazzini, is in all the guidebooks, but when we were there on a Saturday night it was buzzing and packed full of Italians. Resembling an old wine cellar, it has high ceilings, wooden pillars, dark wooden benches – and a contagious atmosphere. A huge blackboard is scrawled with the names of wines sold by the glass, while wine bottles line the beams and shelves. Men stand at the bar drinking glasses of wine from the biggest glasses I've ever seen.
INTO THE NIGHT
Even if you're not an opera buff, there can be few more magical experiences than a night in a starlit Roman amphitheatre. After the huge wooden doors are flung open, the audience rushes up the stairs to emerge into the vast arena, the best-preserved after the Colosseum. The amphitheatre can seat 25,000 and has perfect acoustics.
Vendors sell cushions, candles and refreshments inside. The audience in the cheaper upper-tier seats unpack picnics and light their candles. During the performance the atmosphere is electric; at times the crowds listen with hushed awe, or sing along and jump to their feet cheering. Prices start at €20 (£13) for unreserved seats on the stone steps, rising to €157 (£102) for the poltronissime, the grand red-velvet seats in the front stalls.Reuse content