In 2000 UNESCO enrolled Verona as a World Heritage City not only for the beauty of its architecture over two millennia of history but also because it “represents par excellence the concept of a fortified city characteristic of European history over several ages.”
Three distinct city walls were built around Verona over the centuries. First there were the Roman walls to shut off the city protected on three sides by the loop of the River Adige. Then, in the 12th century, the walls of the Comune to the south of the Arena which are still clearly visible along via Pallone. Finally, the impressive fortifications during the Scaliger Lordship in the early 14th century which surrounded the historic centre, the neighbouring city districts and the hills. This construction, which runs for nine kilometres, was then strengthened first by the Venetians and then by the Austrians who gave the walls their modernday character.
Of course, nowadays the walls no longer have their original function. There are no enemy armies or invaders to protect against and the city has developed well beyond their perimeter. But nevertheless their presence continues to be felt and seen. Also, unlike many other Verona sites and monuments, they have not yet been exploited for tourists. This, of course, is all to the good for those who appreciate the authenticity of the walls.
The most ancient walls, the Roman ones, have now disappeared except for a small stretch visible just behind the Arena. Not to worry, there are still two magnificent, perfectly preserved gates giving access to the Roman city, the Porta Leoni and especially the Porta Borsari. The latter was located on an important consular road, the Via Postumia, and was so called because here the money bag-carrier (borsari) soldiers levied the duty on goods entering the city to go to the Piazza Erbe market.
The walls that everyone notices when they come to Verona today are the “masterful” walls, surrounding the perimeter of the city at the time of the Scaliger Lordship and the subsequent rule of Venice. The majestic gates designed by the Renaissance architect Michele Sanmicheli are still the main entrances into the city.
The main ones are Porta Vescovo, Porta Nuova, Porta Palio e Porta San Zeno. The latter is my favourite, not because of the quality of the architecture, but rather for its context. In fact, while the other gates appear now to be incorporated into the road junctions, at San Zeno the gate is still visibly connected to the well-preserved massive ramparts.
The best way to appreciate the ramparts is not to look at them from below but rather to climb to the top and enjoy them from above. Getting there is easy, there are many points of access at street level. On top, there is a whole world above the street to be discovered, an informal urban park where the Veronese stroll and go jogging. Walking the walls you will discover, for example, that in the shadow of the walls a sports complex with soccer fields, tennis courts and swimming pools has arisen. You can come across an abandoned zoo where only the empty cages of animals are left. You can discover the many shelters where – so our teachers at school told us – Veronese evacuees took shelter from the bombs in World War II.
The most spectacular part of the walls is where they climb the hills. It is perhaps the best urban trekking stretch you can find in Verona but, if you want to try it out, you better have a good pair of shoes, plenty of time and a bit of training under your belt because the climb is very steep in places. My advice is to start from the steps of via San Nazaro and go to the magnificent terrace of the Don Calabria Institute, continuing to the Forte San Felice fortress built by the Habsburgs. From there you can go down to the quaint neighbourhood of San Giovanni in Valle via via Nazareth or continue to Castel San Pietro. Keep your camera handy for shots of breathtaking views, medieval walls, gardens and olive groves.