Travelling through Northern Italy with two of my best friends was a standout moment of my gap year. While not being a conventional gap-year trip, I loved every single minute of it (even the ugly times). I now have such a strong emotional tie to certain places in the world because of the people I travelled with, the experiences shared, and the lessons learned. In particular, the city of Verona stands out as an impactful and sentimental place for me, despite being there for little over 24 hours.
Our journey to Verona was the second stop on our tour of Italy, and having just left Venice, we were pumped full of energy. After 4 days soaking up the culture, dealing with the hordes of people, and coming to terms with the absolute absurdity of a floating city we were ready to spend a couple of days in Verona. Before arriving I knew very little about the city; even the fact that Romeo & Juliet was based here had somehow vanished from my head. So departing the train and entering the city was like a breath of fresh (blistering hot) air… bear in mind it was peak summer and I am a ginger i.e. not made for the heat. I will spare all of the details about the arduous walk to the apartment we stayed in, or the severe sunburn that the back of my neck suffered but in short the flat was beautiful and in a fantastic location.
We knew we had very limited time to work with (and to be honest we didn’t think we would need any more time there), so pretty quickly after settling in, a plan was established like a scene from mission impossible. Our target? Piazzale Castel San Pietro; a vantage point looking out across the whole of the city. Location? Other side of town. The route? Who knows. Suncream? Definitely. The decision to go all the way to the Piazzale was a wise one (thank you Caleb), as it took us all the way across town. That way, we could see all of the other sites of the city on the way to or from the Piazzale.
En route, we stopped at the Castelvecchio, only a stone’s throw away from where we were staying. A stunning construct, the castle housed a beautiful courtyard, complete with fountain. Nearby, there is the Arco Dei Gavi: a stone archway with an interesting story in amongst its bricks. The archway was erected in the distant past, and had at one point acted as an entrance gate into the city of Verona. During its lifetime it had been demolished, moved and reconstructed many times; the structure that we saw was definitely not the same one that was the entrance gate, built it was a nice replica nonetheless. But we moved on, we had more important things to explore…
On our very rapid tour of Verona, we wanted to see the vantage point, Juliet’s house, and one of many hundreds of churches we would take pictures of on our holiday. And so we crossed a bridge and headed along what was (thankfully) the more shaded side of the river
Every corner we turned seemed to have another interesting story to tell. One bridge of mis-matched brickwork was partially destroyed in World War II, and had been reconstructed using a brickwork entirely different to the one first used. It seemed so bizarre to me, that Verona showed no other “scars” of war. The idea that something seemingly so simple as a disjointed brick type could represent such an important part of the city’s history seemed odd, and yet it was comforting; healing had taken place and the city had recovered. But alas, we moved forward, it was too hot to be standing around gawking at a bridge.
Reaching the vantage point gave us a spectacular view of city. The streets in front of us seemed to fold onto one another, and seamlessly blend into terracotta roof lines, and the rooflines themselves merged in direction towards the church spires. A very fine heat haze gently lay on top of the city and we watched life pass us by from underneath an olive tree.
The Piazzale was a treat itself, and definitely worth the walk. You feel removed from the city, as an observer of the blissful life. A small writing on a wall read “we were here and we were young and we were alive” and I think that aptly summarises my feelings looking back at that moment: pure sentimentality and understanding what it means to feel alive.
Questions of the reality of Juliet’s house have flown around for years. The house that is thought to be Juliet’s from Shakespeare’s famous play supposedly belonged to a family known as the “Cappelletti” during the 13th Century, and there is a particularly pronounced balcony that overlooks the courtyard of the family house. It is speculated that any connection to the Shakespeare play is purely coincidental, and not based on any truth. The story may in fact all be fictitious, with the house never being owned by a ‘Capulet’ family. However, I realised during my visit that the truth behind the story is less important than what it represents.
To many travellers, the house of Juliet represents a commitment to everlasting love. It is said that those who rub the statue of Juliet will be blessed with eternal love, and so a tradition has come about wherein the statue of Juliet poses with thousands of strangers for pictures every day. Interesting choice, making Juliet a symbol of love, as her romance story didn’t exactly end well. But let’s pretend that doesn’t happen. What is important is all of these people bringing their hopes of happiness to Juliet, hoping for something to come true, no matter how insignificant it may seem.
Despite the hordes of tourists crammed into a tiny space, there was a magical energy that seemed to fill the air. There was a mutual idea between all of these different tourists from hundreds of countries. Most of us could not speak the same language, and yet something was shared: the essence of hope. The only way I could describe it would be as a non-religious prayer. As cheesy and romantic as it sounds, this changed me. The understanding that there was something incommunicable that connected me to thousands of other people every day shocked me. I was part of a much wider web than just myself.
The Letters to Juliet
By far, my favourite part of the house of Juliet was the archway walking into the courtyard. Plastered on the brickwork were hundreds on letters, all varying in language, length and sentiment. Of the ones I understood, some said simple statements: “Forever, my dear”; others asked Juliet for true love: “Hallo Juliet, bring me please true love, love that I’ve wish for a long time. For Douglas.”
But a personal favourite of mine:
I am so fortunate to have 7 years with the love of my life.
I wish that you could help spread love to all the people who feel the need to hate & that by the time I visit here again we live in a world filled with love & peaceful people encouraging acceptance & diversity.”
I understood that Juliet stood to some people as more than just a character in a love story. To some people she was a symbol of compassion; an eternal and all-encompassing love. Juliet may not be a god that can answer prayers for love, kindness and acceptance but her existence has changed the world. Juliet’s House acts both as a tourist destination, and as a place to present your hopes, dreams and prayers for the world. My whole outlook was changed from this moment onwards, and I would say my current positive mentality is all thanks to the messages left at Juliet’s House. The world can manifest beauty in the strangest and most tourist-trapping of ways, but as long as we can find some way into universal love, we are moving forward. If you have the chance to visit this wonderful city, go to Juliet’s House and present your hopes, dreams and prayers to the symbol of love. For restoring my faith in humanity, I have you to thank, Juliet.