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Discovering Verona and its Famous Opera

arena di verona in the sunshine

This year, Plácido Domingo will be the star of the Verona Opera.

The Arena of Verona will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his debut here. During this event, Domingo will perform in La Traviata and will conduct the orchestra, chorus and cast of Aida.

It’s 106 years since a famous local tenor, Giovanni Zenatello, sang an aria at the arena, showing off its amazing acoustics. A performance of the Aida took place there a few months later to celebrate the centenary of the birth of its composer, Verdi. This single performance represented the start of the annual opera season.

At the Opera

The evening begins with the four gates into the Arena opening and those with tickets for the gradinate (steps) go inside early, rent a cushion and then lounge on the steps eating a picnic.

Those with numbered seats and poltrone (armchairs) will take their places shortly before the performance begins. During Roman times the Arena accommodated thirty thousand spectators from all over the surrounding territory. They had flocked to Verona to watch gladiators fighting each other or wild animals including lions and bulls. This massive arena was also used during medieval times for bull fights, jousting and mock battles. Today, one quarter of the Arena is dedicated to the stage and the orchestra pit the Arena which reduces the size of the audience to 16,000.

Every year a production of Aida is featured in the programme – a replica of the original performance or a modern version. Whatever the production, it is a thrilling experience. On entering, the audience on the Gradinate each collects a small candle. These candles are lit just before the auditorium is plunged into darkness. This tradition began over eighty years ago when the audience lit candles to read their programmes. It’s magical watching beams of light dancing around the arena.

This amazing monument built by the Romans has truly been integrated into our modern culture.

Roman Verona

Apart from the Arena, Verona still celebrates several monuments to its Roman period including two of the original gates into the city. Porta Leoni, not just a gate but a larger structure including two towers and barracks, has been incorporated into more modern buildings. All that remains of Porta Borsari is the façade that arches over the entrance to the old town.

Only one of the original bridges still proudly spans the River Adige. On the far side of this river is the Teatro Romano (Roman Theatre) which is older than the Arena and is still used to stage events such as ballets and concerts. This theatre is also the site of a very important archaeological museum. The only remaining Roman arch in Verona, Arco dei Gavi was dismantled by Napoleon as it impeded his advance into the city in 1795. The locals collected the stones and it was rebuilt in its present position on the river bank.

Medieval Verona

During the Middle Ages the della Scala family brought stability and prosperity to Verona. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Mastino della Scala was elected the captain of the citizens of Verona in 1259. When the citizens refused to re-elect him he took the position by force and his family ruled the city for more than a century. Cangrande, the most famous head of the family, loved his city and its people loved him. During his rule Dante Alighieri and Giotto stayed in Verona. His tomb was the first to be built in the family’s private cemetery and is now considered to be one of the most beautiful examples of gothic art in Italy.

The Castelvecchio, whose reddish bricks and swallow-tailed battlements are typical of Gothic architecture, was built by the della Scala family. It was divided into two parts, two thirds were occupied by the family’s army and the other third was residential, possibly a place of safety during invasions or local uprisings.

The castle has a moat (now dry) and a drawbridge. The fortified bridge, Ponte della Scala, at the back allowed them to escape when the French invaded the area. The castle was restored in the 1950s using modern materials and now houses a museum.

Cangrande II devoted himself to the embellishment of the city with aqueducts and bridges including the fountain of Madonna Verona that adorns Piazza Erbe. Today, this fountain is a symbol of the city. Another famous monument of Verona built during this period is its beautiful cathedral, fronted by a marble façade. Behind the cathedral are some lovely twelfth century cloisters with arcades on double colonnades.

Venetian Verona

Verona became part of the Venetian Republic in 1405. This alliance continued until the end of the eighteenth century when Napoleon marched into the city. The Venetians rebuilt the city walls and defences during the sixteenth century. The work was undertaken by the Veronese architect Michele Sanmicheli. Visitors can walk on the remains of these walls starting at Porta Nuova, the main entrance to the city.

Porta Palio is one of the most important architectural works of Michele Sanmicheli. This entrance became the starting point of the Verona Palio, a race on foot and horseback. Dating back to 1208 it is the world’s oldest running event and was run every year until the end of the eighteenth century. Dante Alighieri referred to this event as the Race of the Green Cloth a reference to the prize. The consolation prize, a leg of pork, had more substance. This race was revived in 2008 and a green cloth is still awarded to the fastest man and woman.

The grassy areas on top of the walls are now part of the Parco del Mura which has opened up this historic area of the city. Porta San Zeno, the third of Michele Sanmicheli’s city gates, is still joined to these walls on one side. The building that once housed the guard is now the headquarters of the organizer of the Veronese Carnival. This has been an annual Easter event since 1531 and is one of the oldest carnivals in Italy.

Piazza dei Signori is dominated by the stunning façade of the Loggia del Consiglio. A Renaissance palace built in the second half of the fifteenth century and considered to be one of the most beautiful Renaissance palaces in Northern Italy. It houses the Provincial Administration so is rarely open to the public.

As its name suggests, Palazzo della Gran Guardia in Piazza Bra was designed for military purposes by a pupil of Michele Sanmicheli. In bad weather the troops could be reviewed beneath the building’s wide porch. It took nearly one hundred years to build this baroque style building which, following its restoration, is now an important venue for exhibitions, cultural affairs and other events.

Austrian Verona

The period where Verona was part of the Austro-Hapsburg Empire (1815 to 1866), is sometimes referred to as Hidden Verona thanks to subsequent efforts to conceal the monuments of this period of Verona’s history. This was not a happy time for the Veronese, and when they joined the new Italian Republic in 1866 they tried to hide some of the Austrian buildings in the city.

The Austrians had coveted Verona for its strategic position and turned it into a fortress town. The city walls were extended to incorporate the new Fort San Leonardo on the summit of San Leonardo Hill. This fort was built on the site of the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. The fort was damaged during World War II and in 1952 it was given back to the church. The church has been re-built incorporating some features of the old fort. The wide terrace that was once used to drill the troops is now the best place to enjoy panoramic views of Verona below.

Castel San Pietro on the left bank of the River Adige was also built by the Austrians on the site of the original fourteenth century fort. Ceded to the City of Verona in 1932 it is in such poor state of repair it is not open to the public. However, it is worth going up there (on foot or in the funicular) to see the views from its large terrace.

The architects from Vienna were also inspired by the different styles of Verona, in particular Romanesque and Gothic. Some of their buildings blended perfectly with the existing architecture. Palazzo Barbieri, an elegant, neoclassical building on the north side of Piazza Bra, was originally constructed to house the soldiers of the Civil Guard Corps. Today it is the Town Hall and an impressive venue for weddings.

Verona Today

The military importance of Verona ended when the Austrians gave the city to the Kingdom of Italy in 1866. There was very little industry in the city and it was a difficult period worsened by a great flood in 1882 which destroyed many buildings and washed away two of the main bridges. But, the town did have a wealth of history, art and culture and today is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy, enhanced by the increasingly popular Verona Opera.

Getting There

British Airways operates a daily service from Gatwick to Verona. There is a regular airport shuttle (every twenty minutes) from the airport to Verona Railway Station and Bus Station.

Read more from Valery at experiencedtraveller.com