Searching for Catullus in Paradise

I’m not gonna lie, Verona was a little disappointing. The town is lovely and especially the Palazzo Vecchio (I really loved the art collection there), but the hordes tourists and the 90-degree heat just made the place unbearable.

After escaping the chaos at the Casa di Giulietta, I went to the main square to sit for a bit and have an iced coffee. Flipping through my little Verona guidebook, I found a mention that Catullus was born there. But looking further, I could find NO evidence of his commemoration in Verona – not a statue, a street, a piazza, a museum. Nothing. How like the tourist industry, to make millions off of a made-up Shakespearean site, and barely acknowledge the fact that Verona is the hometown of one of the best-known and widely-read Latin poets. Don’t people care about Latin poetry?!?!?! Stupid question, maybe.

But anyway, this connection with Catullus confirmed my disgust with the gimmicky Juliet’s House and made me determined to track down something associated with him. Anything.

I miraculously discovered some free wifi, and wikipedia informed me that Verona apparently does not have a single thing associated with Catullus. Bummer. BUT, Sirmione, where Catullus had a summer villa and which he mentions in several poems, is only an hour or so away. There is an archaeological site at the villa, and a beautiful bust of the poet to take a picture of!

According to Google-maps, this is what Sirmione looks like:

A teeny-tiny spit of land sticking out into the lake. There’s not even a train station. I figured it would be a tiny little village, where I would be the only person, and the only feature of note would be this Catullus site. Instead, I found a massive and crowded vacation spot. It’s like, the Myrtle Beach of norther Italy, apparently:

Actually the place was gorgeous and I would have loved to spend a while there just walking around, lying on the beach, looking at the picturesque castle. But I had to be in Venice that night, and if I didn’t catch the 6:30 bus, I’d be stranded without my backpack (which I’d left in Verona). That gave me… one hour to find Catullus. Shouldn’t be a problem, this place is pretty small, right? Wrong. Looks small on the map, but huge when you’re lost and walking in the heat. I probably asked 20 people where to find the Grotto of Catullus (what the site is called) and they just kept gesturing, like “Keep going that way” “Keep going” “Farther yet…” and I just kept walking and walking to the end of the island. But at some point, I passed the half-hour mark, and I had to turn back or I would miss my bus.

So in summary: I spent an hour powerwalking through a beautiful beautiful town looking for something I never found. Alas, Catullus. My efforts were in vain!

However, I did find lemons as big as my head.

But I found Catullus 31 entirely fitting to this little jewel of a town stuck out in the middle of a turquoise lake surrounded by mountains:

Juliet’s House in Verona – some strange traditions

In 2010 a movie came out starring Amanda Seyfried and Vanessa Redgrave called “Letters to Juliet.” In this movie, an idealistic American girl (Amanda Seyfried) visits Verona, where she finds a letter to Juliet from the 1950s that was never answered. She tracks down the sender of the letter (Vanessa Redgrave), who arrives on the scene with her incredibly attractive grandson, and together all three search all of Tuscany for Vanessa Redgrave’s long-lost love, Lorenzo.

Trailer here:

It was a very cute movie, but just like hollywood simplifies and idealizes things like love, redemption, and road trips through the Italian countryside, the film’s picture of Verona as a quiet, sleepy town is not quite accurate.

In this beautiful screenshot, a handful of composed, meditative people sit quietly and compose their heartfelt letters to Juliet by hand in a picturesque Italian courtyard.

Everything is so peaceful…

Here’s what it really looks like:

] Absolute chaos.

But really, the place is so crammed with people it was hard to get from one end of the courtyard to another. The people are loud, and the gimmicks are… gimmicky. Everyone was stampeding each other to participate in the various traditions that have grown up around the Casa di Giulietta.

Tradition 1: Scrawl the name of your lover on the walls in sharpie.

Tradition 2: Stick a piece of gum on the wall, then have someone take a picture of you stretching it out between your fingers. This means that the walls around Juliet’s courtyard actually look like this:


Tradition 3: Write the name of you and your boyfriend on a padlock, and lock it somewhere. Anywhere. It means your love is eternal because no one can unlock a padlock, right…

A padlock is forever… Every kiss begins with a padlock… Padlocks are a girl’s best friend… Now you have a friend in the padlock business, the Shane Company… Etc.

I snark, but actually I kind of like this tradition. There’s something very un-graffiti-like about a padlock. Also they sell them in lots of pretty colors 🙂 But it does lead to some obnoxious tourist stunts…

Must find…. empty spot… for padlock….!

Tradition 4: Juliet’s breasts bring good luck/fertility/longevity/better orgasms. We must touch them and take pictures of it!!!

No but actually, they sell breast-shaped keychains in the massive giftshop just off the courtyard. Maybe it’s the modern equivalent of a holy relic… makes about as much sense as the idea that rubbing Woolsey’s toe will help you get into Yale. Not that it stopped me from doing so. Multiple times.

The “Letters to Juliet” is a real thing, though. People all write letters to Juliet discussing their happiness, their unhappiness, their luck, their bad luck in love, and a group of volunteers called Juliet’s Secretaries answer every single letter. There’s a box in the courtyard where people can drop their letters (not a beautiful billboard of artsy love notes, like in the movie), but most people opt to email theirs in.

You can’t see it, but the tops of the computers are engraved with hearts. Very cute.

After the chaos in the courtyard, Juliet’s house was actually pretty nice. It was five floors of a house furnished to look like that of a Renaissance merchant, and decorated with various artistic representations of Romeo and Juliet through the centuries. The house, of course, is not actually Juliet’s house or Capulet’s house or anything – some guy in the 19th century thought the little balcony over the courtyard looked pretty and started calling it “Juliet’s balcony” as a tourist gimmick. And how it has endured.

Probably the only *genuine* piece of Romeo and Juliet memorabilia in this whole city, is the actual bed from the Zeffirelli movie. You have to admit, that’s kind of neat:

Yeahhhh… get it.