VERONA, Italy – An aspiring poet in search of true love. A student who has found it. And a young woman on the cusp of a major life change.
All three confided their true hearts to Juliet, writing to Shakespeare's fictional heroine seeking consolation, encouragement and friendship. The three women were honored Sunday, the eve of Valentine's Day, with awards for the best letters of the last 12 months — and a banner year for the lovelorn it was.
For decades, real-life volunteers have been responding to spontaneous treaties from the lovelorn. But after the release of last year's film "Letters to Juliet," a fictional story of a young love lost, letters to Juliet have skyrocketed to 100 a day, nearing 40,000 a year, stretching the resources of the Juliet Club that responds to each and every missive, when possible in the language received.
Sarah George, 21, of London, one of the winners, said she found in Juliet a confidant who would not heap scorn on her belief in romantic love.
"My friends are very practical," said the philosophy student, whose dream is to become a poet. "I never felt I could completely open up to my friends. But Juliet, she is the epitome of love. If there is anyone I can open up to, it is her."
Winning the prize, however, was fraught with complications for one winner, Beth Gillespie, 28, of New York. Her letter was meant as "anonymous" treatise.
Winning, she said, "is my worst nightmare," because it exposes her very private feelings for the world. "At the same time, it is an honor," she acknowledged.
In her letter, she sought reassurance for a decision to quit her job in the fashion industry and move to Spain for a year to teach English, learn Spanish, and perhaps re-ignite in Europe an old romance, fondly remembered.
"Am I crazy?" she wrote. "Should I blow all of my savings and go?"
A few weeks after hitting send on her e-mail to Juliet, Juliet's secretaries' reply landed — quite unexpectedly — in her inbox saying to go for it.
"I had already made the decision to move, so when I got the answer it was an affirmation," she said.
Valentina Zilocchi, 19, of Piacenza in northern Italy, attended the ceremony with her boyfriend. Like the other winners, she decided to write to Juliet after seeing the film, to see what would happen.
"I write to you as a friend," Zilocchi said in her letter, "to tell you that true happy love, big like yours, really exists."
Winners received a sculpture of an old-fashioned ink well, with a colored quill stuck inside, and the weekend trip to Verona to receive the prize.
Verona is increasingly capitalizing on its status as the home to Juliet, the tragic heroine of Shakespeare fame who took her own life after she discovers Romeo dead, having killed himself in grief believing she had died. The city celebrates its status as "the city of love," with events centered around Valentine's Day.
Tourists on Sunday packed the small courtyard beneath Juliet's balcony, lining up for tours of a house that historically belongs to the period in which Shakespeare set "Romeo and Juliet" and may have belonged to the real-life Capulet family. Besides snapping photos of the balcony, they pose alongside a bronze statue of Juliet, rubbing the right breast in what has become a gesture of good luck.