There’s a quirky tradition in Verona at Christmas time; typically, rooted in tragedy but spun into lore and given an upbeat, festive twist over time. Back in 13th century, a terrible epidemic struck the city’s children. The city rallied, seeking the grace of Santa Lucia and pilgrimaging barefoot to the S.Agnese church, now the Barbieri Palace, in the city centre.
Unsurprisingly, the prospect of walking barefoot anywhere in winter didn’t sit too enthusiastically with the little ones, so reluctant children were coaxed with the idea St Lucy would bring them gifts, flying in on a donkey accompanied by her manservant, Castaldo.
Today, Santa Lucia competes with Santa Claus for the affections of Verona’s children, who get two bites of the cherry with gift-giving on the 13th as well as the 25th December. The parallels don’t end there; the night before, kids leave coffee for Lucia, a carrot for her donkey and a glass of wine for Castaldo as they do their rounds.
As traditions go it’s arguably a better, more cultured way to kick off Yuletide than Black Friday sales and Slade piping out of supermarket speakers, and its aided along by the city embracing the festive season. Italians seem to add an air of sophistication to many things, and Christmas is no exception.
Shopping is not the ordeal it is in Oxford Street; Verona’s high street, the delightful cobbled Corso Porta Borsari, bustles rather than becomes a battleground, its shops void of cheap chains in favour of Italian boutiques, Christmas lights twinkling, and is adorned with a tastefully decorated tree at either end, one at the ancient Borsari gate (the Roman entrance to the old city), the other in Piazza delle Erbe, their principal market square.
Speaking of which, where Germany may have cornered the market in Christmas markets, with poor imitations now ubiquitous in most cities across Europe, Verona, too, has its own. Just off Erbe in Piazza dei Signori, theirs isn’t so different, considering its proximity to its Austrian neighbours, but there are pleasant quirks; stalls serve warming vin brulè (mulled wine made with the local Valpolicella) and star-shaped nadalin and pandoro, or ‘golden bread’, a sort of panettone without the fruit.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Verona at Christmas, however, is just how pleasant it is. To wander the city, from its Roman origins to its medieval and Renaissance offspring is, literally, to immerse oneself in history, sans tourists. Small enough to wander happily, the prospect of getting lost being a thrill rather than a fear, it’s easily navigable by the landmarks of the Duomo, the Castelvecchio castle’s tower and the (still-working) Roman arena in Piazza Bra, all wrapped up by the river Adige weaving, ribbon-like through the centre.
Right in the centre of the city, a hop and a skip from the original Roman gates is Palazzo Victoria. If ever there was a more vivid example of contemporary-meets-classical, I’ve rarely seen it. A former 14th century palace, it’s essentially three terraced houses folded into one, displaying much of its palatial charm and, like much of Verona, featuring many ruins of the original Roman building integrated into its current incarnation. In Victoria’s case, glass panels in the floor of the restaurant and the Orangerie courtyard look down on 2000-year old stone walls, columns and mosaics.
Everything about the rooms is elegant, classical. The 13ft ceiling presents satin-draped full-height windows, motif-embroidered silk-covered walls feature ornate gilded frames of fine still lifes, and the furniture wouldn’t look out of place in a Paduan ducal estate – and that’s before I stepped into the bathroom; floor to ceiling in rich, Veronese marble with a basin big enough to bathe in. And, if you’re lucky, you may be in one where the elements of the original Renaissance frescoes are preserved and integrated into the décor. One can feel princely in such a place – and one should; it was, after all, the former residence of the ruling Scala family.
Verona is, of course, known for its more famous families, the Montagues and Capulets, they of Romeo and Juliet fame. Drawn from real 16th c residents, their story is as much a draw for the city as its Roman history, and their houses exist intact. Down an understated side street is an otherwise unremarkable building, save its arched, gated coach entrance. This is No.4 Via Arche Scaligere, the Montagues’ former house.
The Capulets’, by contrast, just 200 yards away, is mobbed, mainly by tourists scrawling love notes on the walls of the cloister (routinely whitewashed) to the courtyard inside where Juliet’s balcony is situated, illuminated, and opposite the gift shop. Except it’s not Juliet’s balcony, of course, which doesn’t seem to matter to the only mob of jostling tourists I found in the city, all jockeying for the definitive romantic shot. It’s about as romantic as a cement factory. There are far better in this city of balconies.
But to truly embrace this this sophisticated city and its surrounds, it’s important to venture beyond its medieval walls, and there are several ways to see what Verona has to offer. Touring specialists, Veronality, provide riveting city tours on foot (with shoes), bikes, Segways and, in true Italian style, on a Vespa.
Tours also go out into Valpolicella, the hilly wine region to the north of the city. But at this time of year, better than a bike or a scooter, there’s only one way to experience it; in the back of a 1960 Rolls Royce Phantom. Within minutes of leaving the city, we were weaving through misty hillsides awash with rich autumn colours, our guide the magnetic Irene, furnishing us with facts on the area through a beaming smile. Coffee stops in quaint village cafes and possibly the finest ricotta cheese and ragu I’ve ever experienced over lunch in the eponymous Enoteca Valpolicella, it’s not simply the city that’s appealing.
The more I learned, the more I liked, and the more I’d wondered how I’d ever not visited until now. Less than an hour from the mountains and Lake Garda, a little over an hour by train to Venice or Milan, it could be a stopping point year-round; ski the mountains in winter, swim the lake in summer; this ‘little Rome’, steeped in history, brimming with culture, was fast becoming somewhere to which I’d happily move. Clearly Verona is for life, not just for Christmas.
But Christmas is a good start.
Italy specialist Classic Collection Holidays (0800 047 1064; classic-collection.co.uk) offers 3 nights at Hotel Palazzo Victoria, Verona at prices from £444 (low season) to £1189 (high season) per person during 2018. Prices based on 2 adults sharing on a bed & breakfast basis and includes return flights from London Gatwick to Verona and private transfers.
Palazzo Victoria is the perfect base from which to explore all that Verona and its surrounding areas have to offer at Christmas and are taking bookings for 2018. To book, call +39 045 590 566 or visit palazzovictoria.com. More importantly, the hotel provides in-room gifts for all children staying at the hotel over the Santa Lucia dates.
As well as group and private tours of the city and its surrounds, Veronality offer cooking classes and food & wine experiences. For more information, visit www.veronality.com.