Feel the love
As the June sun rises over the walled city of Verona, a middle-aged Beijing businessman is locked in an amorous embrace outside medieval San Pietro castle. Golden sunlight seeps out across the streets below.
Thousands of miles from home, dawn in the Italian city where Romeo and Juliet were consumed by their death-marked love might seem like the ideal setting for secret passion but there is nothing illicit in this encounter, the businessman assures me afterwards, when I ask about his visit.
'I travel to Milan for business and my wife has always wanted to visit Verona, so this time I took her with me,' he explains.
There's clearly something about Verona that rouses people's passions. It might lack the scale and grandeur of Rome, the cultural richness of Florence or the waterways of nearby Venice, but as a destination it has made itself greater than the sum of its parts by adding an irresistible ingredient: romance.
Wherever you look in the compact city, which can be walked or cycled in a matter of minutes, there seems to be a whole lot of loving going on. In the piazzas, the riverside restaurants, the castles and the museums, there is the whiff of romantic possibility. It's an aura that is drawing increasing numbers of mainland and Hong Kong visitors. This year, Cathay Pacific began daily flights to Milan, two hours' drive from Verona, meaning it's possible to leave the office in Central on a Friday, enjoy a loved-up weekend and be back at your desk by Tuesday.
Verona's reputation for romance is built not on the friendly eccentricity of its locals but on the masterpieces of two titans of Western culture: William Shakespeare, who made fair Verona the setting for Romeo and Juliet, and Giuseppe Verdi, whose opera, Aida, has for the past 100 years been performed every summer in the Arena di Verona, a magnificent first-century Roman amphitheatre. It's an intoxicating combination, and the city's appeal was further boosted by the sugary 2010 movie Letters to Juliet, which tells the story of an American woman who goes in search of the lovers mentioned in a decades-old unanswered letter left in the courtyard of Shakespeare's heroine.
Romeo and Juliet may have been fictional but there was a Capuleti family in Verona at the time the play was set and their home has become a shrine to the star-crossed lovers. Juliet's balcony (built three centuries after the play was written) stands above a courtyard, in which crowds of tourists queue to be pictured with a life-size bronze statue of the heroine. The statue was erected in the 1970s, to cash in on the success of Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet film.
In a dubious ritual apparently intended to make people lucky in love, visitors are encouraged to place their hand over the right breast of 13-year-old Juliet. It looks odd enough when done by women and children but downright indecent when performed by grinning, middle-aged men.
Fans of the 2010 chick-flick will be crestfallen to find no letters stuck to the wall of the courtyard. Today's anguished lovers are instead asked to leave their letters to Juliet inside the museum, after having paid an admission fee.
The museum itself is an odd collection of household items from the 16th and 17th centuries, none of which actually belonged to the Capuleti family. But after groping Juliet's breast in the courtyard outside, most visitors are presumably too love-struck to care.
The true highlight of any visit to Verona, apart from the idle pleasure of ambling its streets and piazzas and dipping into coffee shops, ice-cream parlours and pizza restaurants, is a night at the opera in what must count as one of the most spectacular settings anywhere. Performances begin shortly after 9pm through the summer, as the sun sets over the city.
A seat close to the stage can cost up to Euro180 (HK$2,000), but the best way to watch it by far is from the stone steps high up in the amphitheatre, for a mere Euro25.50. Here, with a glorious backdrop of Verona's spires and rooftops, you can spread yourself out and buy bottles of wine from the vendors who walk back and forth between acts. Unlike Juliet's balcony and statue, this is the real thing.
You don't have to be an opera buff to be bewitched by the experience, according to Arena di Verona's artistic director, Umberto Fanni.
'To love the opera, one doesn't have be a melomaniac,' he says. 'You can be fascinated by the story, or the beauty of the costumes or the majesty of the sets as much as by a musical passage or the libretto. It is within everyone's reach and every one of us can live it in our own way, passionately, without being an expert.'
Small groups of Chinese tourists are among those about to be bewitched by a magical performance as night falls and Aida begins.
'Verdi's music has always had an international reach and I am sure he would be happily surprised to see such a mixed geographic audience today,' says Fanni. 'Verdi loved travelling in search of inspiration for his work, and I am sure that if he had had the chance, he would have been fascinated by Far Eastern culture.'
The Saturday night audience at Aida includes the Beijing businessman and his wife. Afterwards, while clearly enamoured with Verona, he finds his experience of the four-hour Italian opera a little harder to articulate.
'It was good, but it was also very long,' he says, with a slight wince.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) flies daily to Milan. From there, Verona is a two-hour drive by taxi or hire car. As an alternative to hotels, apartments can be booked in central Verona on a nightly basis, at: www.flipkey.com. Tickets for Arena di Verona can be booked through www.arena.it.