Dear Juliet, writes 32-year-old Davide. Im writing to tell you about a love story that has filled my heart for the last ten years. Only you can understand Davide goes on to define himself as a worker, poor and a bit unfortunate. He complains that no woman has ever given him all her love maybe because Im old-fashioned and I believe in true love.

Elena, instead, is anxious for the man she loves: Juliet dear, be near my love, I beg you to protect him and defend him from ill will Whitney begs Juliet to help her pass her exams, while the romantic Richard from California wants advice on how to declare his love in the Italian way.

These touching extracts come from just a handful of the 4,000 letters that flow into Verona every year from all over the world, addressed simply to Juliet, Verona. They are all delivered to the same address

and they all receive a personal reply, penned by a dedicated group

of volunteers.

Giulio Tamassia, a businessman who founded the Club di Giulietta in 1975, is proud of the fact that his team of Juliets secretaries is able to cope with almost any language, including Japanese and Russian. Most letters come from lovelorn adolescents, who identify with the star-crossed lovers in Shakespeares tragedy Romeo and Juliet. Typically, they ask for advice on how to attract a boy or a girl, how to overcome parental opposition to a relationship or how to get over a broken heart. When there are particularly difficult problems to deal with like unwanted pregnancies or a violent partner the club calls on the services of a professional counsellor. Occasionally, a letter comes in addressed to Romeo.

The tradition dates back to 1937, when the very first letter arrived probably inspired by the success of George Cukors film version of Shakespeares play, starring Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer. The letter was delivered to Ettore Solimani, who was at that time the custodian of the lovers alleged tomb. Solimani took the trouble to reply. Later, he was succeeded by Gino Beltramini, a local poet and journalist. When Beltramini died, Verona town council stepped in to fill the gap, but the letters kept coming thicker and faster until the valiant secretary could cope no longer. In 1975 the newly-founded Club di Giulietta took over and has been doing the job ever since.

Tamassia runs the operation from a busy little office in Via Galileo, just across the river Adige from the church of S. Francesco, where the 14-year-old Juliet is said to be buried. His desk is typically piled with papers, with a cat, Romeo, sprawled happily in the middle. The rooms are crammed with memorabilia collected over the years: mediaeval period costumes, banners, a silver and red heart in glass and gemstones donated by Murano glass-makers, and the worlds longest plait, a 4-metre-long plait of human hair weighing 300 grams, which was entered last year in the Guinness Book of World Records.

The clubs activities are not confined to answering correspondence. It produces a three-monthly magazine, and every St Valentines Day awards a prize for the best love-letter received. This is presented each year by a celebrity who has some connection with the Juliet myth, such as the late Giulietta Masini, the actress wife of Federico Fellini, dancer Carla Fracci, film director Franco Zeffirelli and opera singer Cecilia Gasdia.

In 1996 the club launched an international literary prize. The Scrivere per Amore (Writing for Love) award is given to the best published love story of the year. Past winners have included Catherine Spaak, Meir Shalev, Giampaolo Pansa and Simon Mawer, the British author who lives in Italy, for Mendels Dwarf.

Another key event is the annual mediaeval fair, which celebrates Juliets presumed birthday. Tamassia explains that a local historian was able to pinpoint the date as St Euphemias Day, 16 September 1284, by following clues in a 16th-century novella written by Italian count Luigi Da Porta, credited with being the main source for Shakespeares celebrated tragedy.

Although there is no proof that Romeo and Juliet ever actually existed, the story has done wonders for Veronas tourist industry. Long queues wait daily to enter the house alleged to have belonged to the Capulets on Via Cappello, and couples jostle to have their photograph taken on the stone balcony high up on the faade. No one cares that this balcony was actually brought from another building and set up by an astute town council in 1938. Down in the courtyard, where the walls are covered with scrawled messages and plastered with notes stuck on with chewing gum and sticky tape, the focal point is the life-sized bronze statue of Juliet by the sculptor Nereo Costantini. Her right breast is rubbed smooth by the thousands of hands that stroke her for luck.

Juliets tomb in the crypt of the church of S. Francesco (where she and Romeo were also secretly married, according to the story) is another place of pilgrimage. Lord Byron, Napoleons widow Marie Louise of Austria and Charles Dickens have all paid their respects. Past visitors thought nothing of chipping pieces off the stone sarcophagus as souvenirs. Fortunately, modern visitors confine themselves to strewing the spot with flowers and attaching hundreds of fluttering notes to the wishing tree standing at the entrance to the churchs garden.

For information about Club di Giulietta,

see www.julietclub.com or e-mail: info@julietclub.com.

Picture: The wishing tree near Juliet's tomb in Verona.