Travel: Night at the opera

If you're going to Verona for a little Verdi, you can expect to be part of the drama. By Cecily Woolf
The cognoscenti shun Venice in July for the more manageable charms across the far side of the Veneto, in Verona. The home town of Romeo and Juliet, as bestowed to the world by the mad and marvellous Scaglieri family, is a medieval masterpiece imposed on solid Roman foundations.

Shakespeare's lovers were not the only people to be star-crossed in Verona. We arrived in this hot, crowded city proudly clutching tickets to see Verdi's tragic masterpiece Aida at the Opera Festival in the Roman arena. It was an experience that proved to be more comic than tragic.

The trip began badly. Our coach set off late because the normally tranquil lakeside town of Bardolino, where we were staying, had become a living motor museum of honking vehicles. However, at least the weather forecast was good. Two nights before, a performance had been cancelled because of storms. The coach duly deposited our party at a central bar, where we were to reunite after the opera.

At 6pm we were standing in the searing heat at the Piazza Brao, waiting to enter the arena. In normal cirumstances this is a triumphant Italian plaza, full of strutting Romeos and sitting matrons. But in the pre-operatic tension, scuffles soon broke out as the modern Montagues and Capuletes who, like us, had waited more than an hour to reach the head of the queue, were diverted into different queues at other entrances. When we finally arrived at the arena, it was little consolation to discover that our unreserved seats, for which we had paid pounds 28, (admittedly including a 12-mile coach ride) actually cost pounds 15.

Security guards checked our bags - but not for bombs. They were confiscating glass bottles and tin cans lest, as in the past, the plebs should drop them on to the heads of the people in the reserved stalls below. Actually, the atmosphere was jocular with frequent Mexican waves and cheers whenever a wealthy lady's evening dress caught the crowd's approval.

By 7.30pm the ancient redstone arena was packed with some 14,000 people, seemingly glued to each other in the humid heat. We searched desperately for a seat on the steep steps, while harassed ushers gesticulated helplessly.

There was one space beside a German paterfamilias guarding a large picnic box. He insisted, in perfect English, that there was only one space, but I beckoned frantically to my husband. I could not bear to be parted from him for the next six and a half hours - and besides, he was carrying our picnic.

After some classic assertion techniques on our part, the man grudgingly moved up, allowing us to squeeze in like spent toothpaste tubes.

Since the steps feel fiery from the sun (indeed, they were still warm at 2am) it is wise to bring air-cushions; however, ours were constantly in danger of being punctured by brawny men selling food and drink. "Gelati, pannini," they yelled, forcing their way along each row, each one treading on my skirt as they passed. Unnerved, I dropped the fragmented shell from my hard-boiled egg, which became caught in the golden hairs of my neighbour's knees. Fearing to displease him further by setting his beard alight, we decided not to buy the candles, traditionally lit before the performance begins, in this case at 9.10pm.

Once the performance finally started we were mesmerised. The staging and the music were magical, even though, perched high up in the 2,000- year-old arena, we watched the action through binoculars. Although our hands were sticking together with perspiration, we willingly joined in the frequent applause.

When the opera ended at 2am, we were in a comatose state, hardly prepared for a half-hour trek across Verona to a quiet square where our coach was parked. Apparently, there is an ongoing vendetta between coach drivers and the police, who prevent parking or even re-entering central Verona after the perfomance. As a result, opera goers are often trapped in traffic jams for hours. We were lucky, our coach left Verona by a side road and we were back in Bardolino by 3am.

We were also wiser for the experience. We realised that to enjoy the opera in Verona, two precautions are advisable - a reserved seat in the rear stalls (about pounds 75), and a coach driver who is among the cognoscenti. There again, you could economise and go to Glyndebourne. Or use your cash on a few CDs of Pavarotti, and simply visit Verona before the hordes of tourists get there in July.

FIVE CITY ESSENTIALS: VERONA

Fly to Verona on British Airways, which offers the only scheduled service (0345 222111). BA charges pounds 192 including tax for the round-trip from Gatwick if you travel before 2 May. Or try for a cheap ticket to nearby Venice through agents such as Lupus Travel (0171-306 3000).

Book an opera package, a selection of which are available from numerous operators, such as Martin Randall Travel (0181-742 3355) and Travel for the Arts (0171-483 4466).

Ask the Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY (0171-408 1254) for details of accommodation.

Avoid Juliet's House on via Cappello, unless the idea of rowdy Australian tourists adopting unusual poses beside the statue of Romeo's lover appeals.

Beware the money-changing machines attached to several banks in Verona. Although they offer the useful prospect of after-hours currency transactions, the rates of exchange would make the average merchant of Venice or Verona blanch. Try cash or credit card instead.

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