City of love

Sheila Kumar goes to Verona to gaze upon Juliet’s balcony

We are in Verona, it is a sunny day and we are set to go gawp at Juliet’s house. Gulietta, daughter of the house of Capuleti, who happened to fall unsuitably in love with a certain Romeo, remember? Even as I try and call to mind lines from the play dealing with these immortal lovers, Maria, our tour guide, tells us there probably was no Romeo, no fabled and doomed romance at all. I contemplate asking for my money back, then gaze around me and decide I want to see Verona, after all; surely it has a history beyond Shakespeare.
Verona in northern Italy, is the second biggest city after Venice in the Veneto area. It is also a discreetly prosperous city, that much I can see from the Baroque buildings and monuments, all kept in excellent condition, the well-clad and even better shod citizenry who walk past us, with nary a glance of acknowledgement. The river Adige runs through Verona, a silent unobtrusive presence.
We walk past myriad winding lanes, down via the Mazzini with its haute shops and boutiques, down alleys to where an ancient arch proclaims itself the gateway to the Capuleti household. Okay, let’s sift the grain from the chaff, now. The Capulets were a well-to-do merchant family and Gulietta was of their house, a construction dating back to the 13th century, that much has been established. Did she fall in love improvidently? Did she tryst with him? Did she have a nurse? Let me put it this way: your belief will out you for a cynic or a believer. Your call.
At Verona, today, though, there are no cynics. As the Bard may or may not have said, ‘All the world loves a lover’ and when we enter the courtyard of the Capulet house, it would seem that most of the world’s lovers are gathered there at the spot. The place is swarming with couples, families with shrieking kids, with tourists groups, with people, actually.

The balcony itself is just a balcony, small and unremarkable, with a worked balustrade. And of course, people are up there, too, to proclaim, disclaim, to strike a dramatic pose, get themselves snapped at the spot where the hapless lovelorn teenager once stood, questioning the veracity of a birdcall.
To one side of the house is an alcove with a hundred thousand little billet doux pinned or stuck to every available space, love letters, pledges, pleadings, prayers. This is the place lovers ask the spirit of Juliet to bless them and smile upon the affairs of their hearts. Juliet also gets thousands of love letters every year; and, of course, they are addressed to: Juliet, Verona, Italy. Did you really doubt these letters would reach their destinations?
Just below the balcony stands a bronze statue of a comely lass… Gulietta herself, one presumes. Bizarrely, her right breast shines brighter than the tarnished left one. We soon see why; tourists go up to the statue and grab poor Juliet’s shining breast for the mandatory photo, in a truly brazen fashion. Appalled, I turn to Maria who smiles soothingly. "It is a tradition," she says. Well, refusing to thus abuse the poor dead girl, I get a snapshot taken standing with an almost nun-like solemnity besides the coy figure.
The Capulet house was set up as a tourist attraction around 1935. Just another winding alleyway away stands a more modest dwelling, the Casa Montecchi, rumoured to be Romeo’s house. Here, though, we can do is stand and stare up at the house, since it has not been renovated or opened to tourists. I look keenly at the bricks in the high wall, perchance to spy "Romeo Montecchi loves Gulietta Capuleti" graffiti there. No such luck, though.
The main event over, we head for the Piazza delle Erbe (the Square of Herbs) and lose ourselves in the fascinating open market there. Knick- knacks, foodstuff, fresh veggies, fruits galore, herbs, plants, bottles of wine, posters, books, T-shirts, you name it, it's all there, kitschy replicas of The Balcony included. I watch a portly Italian trying to placate his visibly annoyed wife; the conversation is pure Italian but the gestures could well be Indian.
Lunch is in the town’s main square, the Piazza Bra, which overlooks Verona’s Roman amphitheatre, dating back to the first century, a scaled down model of the famous Colosseum.
Famous operas are performed here every summer, attracting thousands of fans. The Palazzo Barbieri, now serving as Town Hall, gleams a dull gold in the afternoon sun. Appropriately enough for a town dedicated to love, the formerly squabbling Italian couple walks past me, arms interlinked, the woman’s head resting on her companion’s shoulder. Lunch over, I sit over a glass of table wine, soaking in the atmosphere. This is bliss, R and J notwithstanding.
Did I say R and J notwithstanding? Verona is a lovely town indeed, but what I take away from the visit is the overwhelming need of people the world over, to believe in love and lovers. Regardless of how the love stories end. Regardless of whether the lovers really lived or whether men named Shakespeare conjured them up.  

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