An Introduction to Verona

Travel poster from the 1930s

Travel poster from the 1930s

My idea of a perfect trip to Italy involves time spent in my home base of Lucca along with a visit to a place that is entirely new to me. On my latest trip, that place was Verona.

Verona, in the Veneto region of northern Italy, is less well known to visitors (at least to American visitors) than nearby Venice. The two cities have distinctly different characters and it's fun to experience both of them when visiting the Veneto region. Verona may not have Venice's famous canals, but it has a charm all its own and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most of the historic old town is nestled into a bend of the Adige River, with some of the old city lying just across the river.

Historically, Verona was a Roman settlement. It has a long history of rule by various invaders (Visigoths, Longobards, Venetians, as well as by France and Austria), all of whom influenced Verona's art, architecture, and culture. Parts of the city were destroyed over time - by floods, earthquakes, conquering armies and, most recently, World War II bombs. Fortunately, many reconstructions  maintained much of the structure and character of the old city.  It is still possible to see everything from Roman ruins to Medieval and Renaissance structures. But Verona is not just a living history museum; it is a thriving city combining history, tradition, and modern life (including some high-end shopping).

With just three days in Verona I barely scratched the surface, but I did find much to love about this historic, thriving city.

Some highlights:

The fountain in Piazza Bra with the Roman arena in the background

The fountain in Piazza Bra with the Roman arena in the background

Piazza Bra and Piazza delle Erbe are  beautiful spaces, full of activity and history. Piazza Bra is remarkable for the beautiful arches that mark its entrance and the well-preserved Roman Arena (amphitheater), which dominates the piazza. The piazza is lined with cafes and includes a green space that provides a perfect oasis of calm in the busy square.

Piazza Erbe is the place to feel the city's Medieval vibe. It is a thriving marketplace and the busy hub of the old city. Here you will find beautiful old buildings, the tall Torre Lamberto, and the ornate Palazzo Maffei.

While these piazze are the two main squares, there are many smaller ones that are also lovely. In fact, I think the piazze of Verona deserve a future post of their very own!

Busy Piazza Erbe

Busy Piazza Erbe

The city of Verona, viewed from an opening in the Ponte Scaligero. 

The city of Verona, viewed from an opening in the Ponte Scaligero. 

The River Adige flows through the heart of the city. Its bridges (ponti), including the Ponte Pietra and the Ponte Scaligero, have interesting histories, great beauty, and provide wonderful views of the city. The river also defines the city boundaries and helps make Verona a very walkable city. 

Verona is full of arches. Some are grand portas (doorways) through old city gates, others are small and mark entry into a piazza or a small vicolo (lane). Strung from them often are stunning light fixtures or cascading plants, which give the city a graceful air. 

There were more interesting churches than I could see in a short visit. The two I visited - the Chiesa del Duomo and the Cathedral of San Zeno - were architectural masterpieces filled with fascinating art and history.  . 

Cathedral of San Zeno, Verona

Cathedral of San Zeno, Verona

I can't talk about Verona without mentioning the fabulous dining. There is great variety in the dishes found here, and lots of seafood. My friends and I had several fabulous meals, including grilled shrimp, delicate pumpkin-filled ravioli, and a fabulous guanciale di manzo (beef cheek). The local white wines were similar to those of Bologna (slightly fizzy Chardonnay and Trebbiano) and there were full-bodied reds too (Amarone and Valpolicella). And of course there is great gelato to be enjoyed! 

Fine dining at Ristorante Torcolo, Verona. 

Fine dining at Ristorante Torcolo, Verona. 

That's just a snapshot of my quick visit to Verona - there is so much more to see and experience that I can't wait to return!   -Post by JB

The Seven Churches of Santo Stefano

Church of the Crucifix, Basilica of Santo Stefano, Bologna.

Church of the Crucifix, Basilica of Santo Stefano, Bologna.

I'm drawn to churches in Italy. There is something peaceful and spiritual about them. The coolness, the quiet, the dim light, the candles - all invoke a sense of calm and of one's place in the greater universe. I've probably lit 1,000 candles in churches big and small all across Italy - a nod to my Catholic upbringing - somehow those small flames seem to guide hopes and prayers on their way.

And then there is the art. I love the fading frescoes, the sculptures, the biblical stories told in paintings, the carved crucifixes, the Madonnas. And while I don't consider myself particularly religious, I find all of these tremendously meaningful.

Intricate brickwork in the Pilate's Courtyard, between two of the churches in the Santo Stefano complex.

Intricate brickwork in the Pilate's Courtyard, between two of the churches in the Santo Stefano complex.

Perhaps the most amazing church I've visited in Italy isn't a single church at all but rather the Sette Chiese (Seven Churches) of the Basilica of Santo Stefano in Bologna. Parts of this series of interconnected chapels date to the 5th century and were likely built on the site of a fresh water spring and over a former temple to the Goddess Isis. Originally seven churches, changes throughout the centuries have resulted in the current four churches: Church of the Crucifix (the largest in the complex), Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Church of Saints Vitale & Agricola (local martyrs), and Church of the Trinity (or Martyrium).

Along with the four churches there are smaller chapels, the Pilate's courtyard with its intricate brickwork, a cloister with a central well and arcaded second story logia, and a small museum/gift shop.

Cloister Courtyard, Santo Stefano, Bologna

Cloister Courtyard, Santo Stefano, Bologna

The whole series of churches is fascinating and each one is unique, but it was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (the oldest part of the complex) that most intrigued me. It is a dark space, small and round yet quite tall with rising columns, arched windows high up in the cylindrical walls, and a domed brick ceiling. In the center is a carved stone structure that is part tomb (intended for the now absent Saint Petronio), part altar, part spiral staircase, all topped with a simple crucifix. There are beautiful stone carvings and a small opening into the tomb space itself (I actually watched a tourist climb into the tomb opening but I decided not to follow!). This space is mystical and somewhat eerie - the air just feels different in here, filled with a presence that is not quite visible. Perhaps it is the distant echos of those early worshipers. 

Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Church of the Holy Sepulcher

The Basilica of Santo Stefano is about a 10-minute walk from Piazza Maggiore and sits on a lovely triangular piazza at the end of Via Santo Stefano. It offers a unique experience, different from some of the more famous churches in Italy which get considerably more visitors. Its a worthwhile stop on any visit to Bologna.                                                                                -post by JB