"O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?" The raven-haired girl standing on the balcony has the words down pat, and the throng in the courtyard below is lapping it up. Applause ripples through the crowd as she clutches her hands to her chest and looks skywards. "Hey, Juliet, Juliet, over here, baby!" shouts a guy in an A.C. Milan shirt, and the crowd goes wild.
The balcony where Juliet stood when Shakespeare had her deliver her famous speech has become the numero uno tourist attraction in the northern Italian city of Verona. The Casa di Giulietta, the house where she supposedly lived, lies at the end of a covered passageway, where every star-crossed lover has glued a message to the walls with chewing gum. At the end of the passage, a jostling crowd fills the courtyard beneath the stone facade of the house, with the famous balcony on the upper storey.
Such is the pulling power of the world's greatest love story that every year more than half a million tourists pack into the courtyard. The theatrically inclined might pay the admission fee to the house, step out onto the balcony and strike a pose for the crowd. A few bold souls in the courtyard might have their photo taken while cupping the breast of the bronze statue of Juliet, said to bring love one's way. Some ardent couples might even click a lovelock, purchased from the souvenir shop just a few steps away, to the gate – but not if the hovering police catch them in the act.
It's all make believe, of course. Just like Romeo and Juliet, the balcony and the house are a pretty piece of fiction. It was not until 1905 that the city decided to rev up its tourism industry by grafting the story of Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers onto what was formerly an abandoned, overgrown garden off Via Cappello.
Not that Verona needed a fictitious love story to bolster its romantic credentials. Set on the River Adige in the Veneto region, 100 kilometres west of Venice, Verona is one of the loveliest of northern Italian cities. The walk from my hotel into the old city takes me past a 14th-century bridge and citadel, a 1st-century Roman arch, a string of Renaissance palaces, a Romanesque church and finally the feisty Piazza delle Erbe, once the site of the Roman forum and now home to a mediaeval fountain, a Roman statue and several cafes where waiters insult the tourists with cheerful gusto.
Verona is also the home of the Arena Opera Festival, the world's largest, a 12-week spectacular with more than 50 performances that attracts swooning opera buffs from all over the world. In 2013, the festival begins with Aida on June 14 and works its way through Nabucco, La Traviata, Il Trovatore and Rigoletto, with Charles Gounod's Romeo and Juliet as the grand finale on September 7.
The festival is an upmarket affair, with champagne cocktails, sparkly dresses and more dark suits than a Mafia funeral. Although the event scarcely needs added drama, candles are handed to the audience before each performance begins, lighting the inky darkness with tiny dancing flames.
Despite its fame, the Verona Opera Festival opens its arms to all. As little as €21 ($27) will buy you an unreserved seat on one of the upper tiers, although you'll pay €183 ($239) for one of the Poltronissime gold seats on the floor of the arena, front and centre of the stage. If you go for one of the cheaper seats you'll be sitting on the stonework, so do as the locals do and buy an inflatable cushion.
When the Arena was built, gladiators were slaughtering one another in the ring, which tended to distract spectators from the bottom-numbing effect of cold, hard stone far more than a three-hour opera performance.
You could not hope to find a lovelier setting for opera than the open-air Arena. Built in the 1st century AD, this is the third-largest Roman amphitheatre in Italy. The centuries have blurred its contours and most of the upper arches collapsed in an earthquake, but it still holds an audience of 15,000.
Elsewhere, Verona serves up the usual northern Italian concoction of medieval and renaissance artistic treasures, fine food and fashionable good taste. From the Arena in Piazza Bra, a short walk along chic Via Mazzini leads to the Piazza del Erbe. From there, a narrow archway, Arco della Costa, leads to the glorious Piazza dei Signori, a square with a Renaissance loggia, several palaces and the Tombs of the Scaligeri. Or take a hike across the river to the glorious Giusti Gardens.
Despite its cultural high notes, it is the vignettes from everyday life that really make Verona sing: the nun on a bicycle, habit swirling as she navigates the market stalls in Piazza del Erbe, or, most memorable of all, the teenager standing on the seat of his Vespa to hand a flower to a girl in a window – a modern-day Romeo if ever there was.
TIPS FOR YOUR TRIP
Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com) has one-stop flights from Melbourne and Sydney to Milan, from where there are several train services daily to Verona.
Where to stay
Hotel Aurora (hotelaurora.biz) is a budget hotel overlooking Piazza delle Erbe with rooms for under $120 a night and a flower-filled terrace. The Hotel Accademia Verona (hotelaccademiaverona.it) is an old-fashioned place on Via Mazzini and close to the heart of the action. Rooms start at about $190 a night.
What to wear
Locals are snappy dressers. If you want to blend in, pay attention to your footwear. Scarves are good. Men: think George Clooney.
What to drink
Vino ambro (or "orange wine") is essentially white wine that has been made by leaving freshly crushed juice in contact with the grape skins for a prolonged period. Delicious as a chilled aperitif.
Is this your Ferrari? È la tua Ferrari?
Is your villa empty? La vostra villa vacante?
How about a discount? C'è uno sconto?
We can be Facebook friends. Possiamo essere amici di Facebook.
Watching Aida in the Arena.
A night in Il Sogno di Giulietta (juliet-dream.com), a luxury boutique hotel overlooking Juliet's balcony.
Shoes from Fratelli Rossetti, Via Mazzini.
Italian Neighbors, or a Lapsed Anglo-Saxon in Verona by Tim Parks.