48 hours in: Verona
Autumn is the perfect time to make the most of this Italian city's al fresco cafes, Roman architecture and Shakespearean sights, says Simon Calder.
Why go now?
October is the optimum time to visit this fine northern Italian city. The summer heat has eased, and the crowds have melted away with the end of the opera season, leaving the city's collusion of grandeur and gastronomy refreshingly uncrowded. And rates for flights and hotels have dwindled along with the temperature.
Sadly, Verona isn't served directly from Ireland, but Bologna and Venice, both within a two-hour drive of the city, have scheduled services from Dublin.
British Airways flies direct from Gatwick to Verona's main airport, Valerio Catullo, 10km west of the city. The Aerobus runs every 20 minutes from outside the terminal of the main railway station (1), Verona Porta Nuova. The journey takes about 20 minutes, for a one-way fare of €4.50.
A rather more elegant way to arrive is aboard the Venice- Simplon-Orient Express (0044 845 077 2222; orient-express.com), which calls at Verona on its way from London and Paris to Venice.
Get your bearings
Verona sits astride the Adige river (which has in its time acted as an international frontier), at the foot of the Brenner Pass -- the trans-Alpine route to Innsbruck and Munich.
The main railway station (1) is a 15-minute walk south-west of the core of the city, which begins at the arch of the Portoni della Brà (2). Beyond here the Piazza Brà opens up: a vast, green space dominated by the Roman Arena (3), and lined with cafés on its west side, known as the Liston.
Verona's main square is a five-minute walk north-east from here along via Mazzini (or longer if the evening passegiata is in full flow). The Piazza delle Erbe (4) is the hub of the city, while, just beyond it, the Piazza dei Signori (5) is less cluttered.
Of the many river crossings, the Roman-designed Ponte Pietra (6) is the most attractive. Like all the city's bridges, it was destroyed by the Germans during their retreat in the closing stages of the Second World War -- but the stones were painstakingly recovered to rebuild the bridge in the 1950s.
The two-star Hotel Torcolo (7) at Vicolo Listone 3 (0039 045 800 7512; hoteltorcolo.it) scores highly for its excellent location (tucked away a block west of Piazza Brà), its cheerful rooms and the lovely breakfast terrace. Double rooms range from €70 to €132, with breakfast an extra €10 per person.
Just opposite, the four-star Colomba d'Oro (0039 045 595 300; colombahotel.com) is far more grand. The foyer is theatrical, while the 51 rooms are classically furnished. Doubles this month are priced at €170 and just €136 in November, including a generous buffet breakfast.
Design Rooms (8), almost within touching distance of the Arena at via Patuzzi 1 (0039 346 363 0128; designrooms.it), is a recent addition to the city's accommodation options. Behind a fairly anonymous door, the public areas are colourful, while the half-dozen chambers that give the place its name are simple and stylish.
Take a hike
Start your exploration of a city comprising many elegant arches at the Arco di Gavi (9). Right alongside stands the bulk of the Castelvecchio (10), the 13th-century fortress built for the Scaligeri family, with pieces of history on display in the grounds.
Follow Via Roma to the Portoni della Brà (2), the arch that introduces you to the heart of the city. Note the bust of Shakespeare on the wall to the right of the gate, and heed the warning from Romeo and Juliet that: "There is no world without Verona walls, but purgatory, torture, hell itself." So turn around and aim deeper into the city.
Thread through the crowds on Via Mazzini, the first street in Italy to be pedestrianised. At the end turn right for a glimpse of the Casa di Giulietta (11) ('Juliet's House') at 23 Via Cappello, the approach to which is indicated by a frenzy of graffiti and a queue of people waiting to be photographed touching the left breast of a sculpture of Shakespeare's tragic heroine. You could spend €7 on admission to the building, but there is no historical significance in yonder window and balcony.
The Piazza delle Erbe (4) marks the location of the original Roman forum, but the 21st-century ambience is dampened by the tourist tat on sale from the many stalls in the middle. However, step beneath the Arco della Costa -- from which a whalebone dangles -- and you emerge in the elegant Piazza dei Signori (5), dominated by a gloomy statue of Dante.
Lunch on the run
Continue the north-east trajectory of the hike and you end up at the river. Close by is Trattoria Trota da Luciano (12) at via Trota 7 (0039 045 800 4757) offering everything from a €6.50 salad to horse stew with polenta (€8.50). Equestrian dishes are often trotted out on Veronese menus, usually in the form of pastissada de caval (horse stew).
Take a view
The 84m-high Torre dei Lamberti stands in a corner of the Piazza dei Signori (5), just beside the Scaligeri tombs. Between 8.30am and 8.30pm daily (Fridays to 11pm) you can ascend by lift for some stirring views over northern Italy, possibly as far as Austria, for a modest €4.
The Salumeria Grande (13), tucked into the Piazza just west of the Ponte Pietra, is one of those traditional delicatessens that you smell before you see. In the short, stylish Via Stella, there are still some other individual stores, such as Gastronomia (14) at number 11.
Almost every visitor succumbs to the appeal of an outdoor table at one of the cafés on the Liston. For comparison (and economy) make at least one visit to a locals' haunt such as the Locandina Cappello (15) at 16 Via Cappello.
Dining with the locals
The setting and service are sublime at the Maffei (0039 458 010 015; ristorantemaffei.it), in the open-air courtyard at the north-west end of the Piazza delle Erbe. Alternatively, for a tasty, filling meal on a budget, aim for Marechiaro (16) at 15 Via Sant' Antonia (0039 045 800 4506), which is basically a pizzeria but also does a very good €10 steak (beef, not horse).
go to church
Verona is blessed with two elaborately embellished churches. The Duomo (17), or cathedral, has 12th-century roots and the tomb of a pope: for four years until his death in 1185, Lucius III lived in Verona, preferring it to Rome. The biggest church in town, however, is Sant' Anastasia (18), with bold marble columns and fabulous frescoes that echo the city's good fortune.
Out to brunch
Sundays start slowly in Verona, but an excellent alternative to a slightly off-hand coffee served at one of the cafés on the Liston is the Hotel Torcolo (7) at 3 Vicolo Listone (0039 045 800 7512; hoteltorcolo.it), which allows non-residents to breakfast on its beautiful terrace for the same price as guests -- €10.
The Caffè Coloniale (19), on the Piazza Francesco Viviani at the foot of Via Nizza, opens at 8.30am even on Sundays and offers a range of teas as well as excellent coffee.
A walk in the park
The 'wrong' side of the river in Verona has plenty of interest, but keeps them well hidden. The Giardino Giusti (20), a fiercely formal garden decorating an entire hillside, is remarkably difficult to find: the entrance is at 2 Via Giusti.
Once you track it down, the rewards are considerable: the rigidity feels English, while the embellishments are pure Italian. Opening hours are 8.30am-7.30pm daily (Mondays from 1.30pm), admission is €6.
In one sense, all you need do is stare at the Arena to recognise the achievements of the Romans, but the Archaeological Museum (21) on the north bank of the Adige will provide many fascinating extra dimensions. The collection emphasises the importance of Verona at the intersection of trading routes and provides a valuable connection between present and past. Admission is a very reasonable €4.50, and the museum opens 8.30am-7.30pm daily (Mondays from 1.30pm)
Take a ride
Verona is an ideal base for exploring the rest of the Veneto, with the Palladian villas of Vicenza 25 minutes away by train from the main railway station (1). Padua, with its Giotto frescoes, is 40 minutes away, while Venice itself is just over an hour.
The icing on the cake
Two millennia after its original construction, the Arena (3) -- which was actually built just outside the original Roman city -- continues as an entertainment venue; it has staged opera in summer since 1913. Any day from 8.30am to 7.30pm (Mondays from 1.30pm), you can visit the Arena by going to Gate 4 and paying €8.
Only by perching on one of the cheap seats at the top can you properly appreciate the scale of the Romans' achievement. They created a venue for 20,000 (limited today to 15,000 for reasons of health and safety) that has transcended public executions and spoof naval battles to become the place where tourism meets opera.