The tawny stone seats of Verona's arena are smooth, polished to a shine by being sat upon by thousands of bottoms. I sit in one of the higher tiers, the giant oval loops below me, and I try to imagine the scene when the Romans opened the arena in 30AD, almost 2000 years ago.
Romans were fond of large public spectacles - and shows were funded by emperors, and their representatives, to celebrate victories, marriages and funerals and in honour of particular gods.
Theatre was popular - the acoustics in this arena are superb - as were circuses, executions and gladiatorial games, where specially trained slaves fought each other to death or, for added titillation, fought wild animals including leopards, lions, hippos and elephants. The shows were accompanied by music, drinking and feasting and sometimes lasted for days.
Most of what went on in Arena di Verona - the arena below me - was bloody and debauched, and Tiberius, the emperor who reigned when the Verona arena was built, would probably find today's activities yawnfully tedious. And, not being an opera buff, I find La Traviata fairly hard going, too.
Because of this arena, its 2000-year-old beauty, ability to seat 20,000 people and that it's almost sonically perfect, Verona has evolved to be a world centre for opera. There are 50 shows in the season, which lasts from June to August, and they feature many of the world's top names.
Placido Domingo made his debut here. Romeo and Juliet, Aida, Barber of Seville, La Traviata, Tosca, La Boheme, and Nabucco all get numerous airings during the season, so opera fans can satiate themselves on different shows over a couple of weeks. It's affordable, too, with the high cheap seats selling for €20 (NZ$30.90) - bring your own cushion.
Opera is the biggest of Verona's attractions and it seems extraordinary that an arena created so long ago still contributes to the creativity, ambience and wealth of a community in a way that the people who built it could have never imagined.
Verona began as a village in a loop in the Adige River and was claimed by the Romans in 300BC - the river made it easily defendable and it was on the intersection of several trading roads. By the time the arena was built it was a large and prosperous city. As well as the arena, a theatre in a half-circle hugging a hill, a bridge over the Adige and parts of the city wall remain from Roman times.
A severe magnitude 7 earthquake in 1117 demolished many of the city's other Roman buildings. Although broken, Verona wasn't beaten and this led to a massive Romanesque rebuilding of the city including the construction of two glorious churches, Sant'Anastasia and San Zeno Maggiore.
San Zeno Maggiore was the first to rise from the rubble (1123 to 1153) and is considered one of the greatest achievements of Romanesque architecture, but, glorious though it is, it doesn't pull my heartstrings as much as Anastasia.
The first time I visit Sant'Anastasia (started in the 13th century and taking over a century to complete) is during Sunday morning Mass. I sit at the back and enjoy the ambience created by incense, prayer and preaching, heavenly light from stained glass windows, flickering candles and the glimmer of gold from giant candelabras.
Frescoes telling stories cover the walls; the Annunciation, the battle between St George and the dragon, the three saints and the virgin, and Jesus as a chubby baby, a compassionate-faced man and a bloodily crucified prophet. This is Verona's largest church, and by gradual proliferation over centuries it showcases the evolution of religious art including such art history greats as Pisanello, Bellini and Tintoretto. It takes a second visit with a guidebook to get a rudimentary understanding of the art treasure held here.
Another of Verona's claims to fame is that this is the home of Romeo and Juliet. I walk under an old archway into the courtyard of Juliet's house, and the stone balcony is just above on the first floor. On this balcony Juliet professed her love of Romeo to a friend, and he, lurking around in the courtyard, overheard. This was the beginning of a star-crossed romance that ended in the tragic deaths of both of them but their story became one of the most enduring love stories of all time.
In 1553 Shakespeare wrote the romantic tragedy, setting it in Verona, and based on a story of events that happened a hundred years before. Never mind that Romeo and Juliet are fictional characters, and that this house was the 13th-century home of the Capello family, and they may have had a daughter called Julieta, no-one is quite sure of precisely where fact and fiction blend.
No matter, young lovers flock here from all over the world to vow love until death. Many buy a lock and scratch their names on it then bolt it to the downstairs door and others write their names in love hearts inside the archway leading to the courtyard. In the courtyard there is a bronze statue of Juliet with its right breast shining bright because millions of hands have stroked it. This is supposed to bring luck to love.
The city centre, that part within the river's loop, is a Unesco World Heritage site because of the importance of its heritage build ings from the Roman, Roman esque, medieval and Gothic eras. The cobbled streets and heritage architecture give it old-world ambience, but the Veronese, who live and work here, are very 2012.
Piazza delle Erbe, for instance, originally the Roman forum and the city heart since, is ringed with medieval buildings but, at ground level, it's abuzz with cafes.
Elderly gentlemen meet for espresso and chat while glancing at their newspaper. Stylishly dressed women, often with cute little dogs, stand and gossip by the ancient fountain while their furry friends sniff each other and drink the water.
The main shopping street that links the piazza to the arena is awash with designer shops and the summer sales are on. I'm fascinated with Prada, Armani, Versace, Dolce and Gabbana and Moschina, but their products are expensive, even at half price, and are rather silly. But shoes, hand bags and lingerie are beautifully designed and on-sale-affordable.
It's slightly dislocating to attend a Sunday service in a 700-year-old church, to have a late breakfast in a trendy cafe area surrounded by medieval buildings and then buy stylish shoes and feminine lingerie in the summer sales. My shopping excursion ends outside the arena where I revive myself with a pistachio gelato.
The massive pink-brown stone arena, 2000 years of it, reminds me that Tiberius and his cronies, and the monks who envisioned, then built sublime Sant'Anastasia, created buildings of strength and beauty that have lasted in a useful and beloved way far into an unim aginable future. It's a reminder that the marks we make now can potentially last until eternity.
Flights: Cathay Pacific flies every day from Auckland to Milan via Hong Kong; see website cathaypacific.com.
Trains: Depart Milan Central for Verona every half hour and cost €22 ($34).
Ease of walking: The old city is almost a car-free zone so is a joy to walk around. Verona is also a great base for exploring the surrounding countryside. The tourism information office is opposite the arena; see tourismverona.it
- © Fairfax NZ News
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