You don’t have to be an opera buff to enjoy the pageantry of an open-air performance in Verona’s historic amphitheatre - the home city of Romeo and Juliet makes for a perfect romantic weekend
Everything seemed to be big - really big. Large ladies with booming voices. A huge stage set with what seemed like a cast of thousands. And a rather resplendent red velvet cushion separating my bottom from polished stone steps and years of Roman history, when this amphitheatre was the set for a more bloodthirsty entertainment, as gladiators mauled with lions to the delight of the baying crowds.
You don’t just have to be mad about opera to find yourself enticed by the grand pageantry and over-the-top extravagance of an open-air show, especially when it's at one of the oldest Roman sites in the world. The Arena amphitheatre is at the heart of the chic Italian city of Verona, and every summer this ancient site is brought to life, with its world-renowned opera season offering a different performance every night.
Take your pick from Carmen, Tosca, The Barber of Seville, Turandot and Aida. There’s something intensely magical about entering this grand outdoor theatre with its stepped seating area, columns and ornate façade. Measuring 139 by 109 metres, it is second only in size and importance to Rome’s Colosseum.
But the pre-opera performance of promenading is every bit as important as the stage production, and all the action is to be found in Piazza Bra, the cobbled central square in front of the Arena. Take some guidance from the locals, who make an effort to don some finery in a low-key but typically stylish way. Dark glasses remain firmly on, and hair for women is swept imaginatively and for men slicked lovingly. The surrounding pavement cafes, like Tre Corone with its comfy wicker chairs, fill to overflowing and the ambience mounts as the piazza takes on a new lively character, bustling with anticipation.
As the summer evening turns to dusk and the show begins, a quaking sea of colour, light and sound is thrown across the night’s sky. You may well not understand a word of it but buy the guidebook translation and you will be able to follow all the drama-loaded action as it flies thick and fast. It’s hard not to be carried by the atmosphere when the fulsome voices of a thronging cast and a full-blown orchestra really start to get going - never mind the twinkling stars, an audience of 15,000 and the bobbing lanterns lighting up the stage.
But a visit to Verona need not just be about opera. This was one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire and a wealth of classical architecture remains. You can idly wander its marble flagged streets, take a seat in a café in any one of its elegant piazzas or explore its many shady narrow alleyways where chic boutiques and art galleries preside.
Perhaps one of the city's greatest trump cards is its growing claim as the ‘city of love’. For those planning Valentine weekends to Paris or Venice, move on. Verona is now trading in romance. The world’s greatest lovers can stake a claim to the city - Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet were born and died here. The most popular tourist destination is Juliet’s house complete with balcony that’s ripe for a re-enactment of that most famous love scene.
This is a city that really does storytelling well. It just seems to pull you along with its fanciful, ornate lust for a good yarn. After all, that’s what opera really offers to us all, a great story with some marvellous spin. By the time you enter the arena gates to find your seat among the masses of people, and the fading sun brings a special sort of intimacy, you’ll happily hold a lighter aloft to join the flickering sea of light and wait for the resounding rumble of the gong. It will all be hitting just the right note.
Opera tickets: Arena di Verona
Hotel: Hotel Bologna (only a few minutes walk from the Arena)