Regular readers of this blog will know that I love old walls. I’ve explored walled cities like Girona and Lucca, and I’ve walked the whole 84 miles of England’s Hadrian’s Wall. So I was intrigued to discover that Verona’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site rested partly upon its walls and fortifications. I had to go and look for myself, but it proved more of a challenge than I had expected. The walls are hardly mentioned in the guidebooks and what I found was a confusion of defensive structures, of all shapes, sizes and historical periods.
A Long History of Fortification
The UNESCO inscription states that Verona’s walls and fortifications “represent the concept of the fortified town at several seminal stages of European history”. This isn’t really surprising, given the city’s long and varied history. From settlement by early tribes to Roman colony to independent city state. Then occupation by Venice and subsequently by Austria before joining the newly created state of Italy. Successive settlers and occupiers each built their own defences, causing a headache for the 21st century tourist trying to make sense of them all!
There were rather more walls than I had anticipated. Verona’s location, surrounded on three sides by the Adige river, suggests that defence has always been an important consideration. The Romans actually built two separate walls at different times. They fell into disuse when the Commune of Verona built its own walls in the 12th century, and today there is little left of the Roman walls apart from two gates: the Porta Borsari and the Porta dei Leoni. A new wall joined the two banks of the river, from the Castelvecchio to the Ponte Aleardi. Parts of this wall, including the Portoni della Bra, a gateway that was added later, are still visible today.
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Expanding the City
At the same time the Commune built new city walls, taking in a much larger area. This is where I got confused. I’d already noticed the big moat to the south of the city, and I started to wonder how many walls the city needed. I later discovered that the moat is part of the Parco delle Mura which traces the route of the walls to the south of the city. These were built in the 12th century, extended in the 14th century, reconstructed by the Venetians, partially destroyed by Napoleon’s troops and restored by the Austrians! Apart from the moat all you can see today is some Austrian bastions, fragments of wall and three Venetian gates.
The northern walls have a similar history, but long stretches of the Austrian walls remain in the hills above the town. You could walk along these defences for miles, but be warned that it is easy to lose your way. There are several missing sections and walls branching off to additional fortifications. But despite getting lost we had a pleasant walk here one hot afternoon, the high walls providing some welcome shade.
Of course, where you have fortifications you tend to find castles as well. We visited two of Verona’s three castles (the third, San Felice, is further away from the town). The hilltop Castel San Pietro was built in the 19th century as an Austrian barracks: it is largely abandoned and not particularly impressive. However the climb up to the castle is popular with both tourists and locals because of the views from the top. In one direction you have the river and the historic centre of Verona; in the other you can see the old walls snaking off through the hills.
Castelvecchio, on the other hand, is not to be missed. Originally called the Castello San Martino in Aquaro, this was Verona’s first castle. It was built in the 14th century, on the site of earlier Roman defences. It is said that its first owner, Cangrande della Scala, built it as much to shield himself from the Veronese people as from any outsider. He also constructed a new bridge across the river, presumably to allow an easy escape if necessary. The castle was used for military purposes in the Venetian, Napoleonic and Austrian periods, and later given to the city to use as a museum. Today it is visited as much for the castle itself as for the museum (although it contains some interesting artworks); the itinerary winds its way through the old castle and onto the battlements.
Standing on the battlements, watching the crowds on the the Castelvecchio Bridge, I pondered the fact that Verona’s historic defences seem to be somewhat overlooked in the tourist literature. Perhaps because, with coachloads of tourists pouring into the town every day, the aim is now to encourage visitors rather than to keep them out!