Rich in culture and with stunning landscapes, northeastern Italy offers fascinating diversity. There are opportunities for exploring the Dolomites, Italy’s most dramatically beautiful mountain range, while further south the lovely cities of Verona and Venice, “the floating city”, are steeped in history, art and intrigue. Garda, Italy’s largest lake, and the Adriatic Coast beaches are the best places for cooling off.
The area fanning out to the west of Venice is a fertile plain traversed by three rivers: the Po, the Adige and the Brenta, which all flow into the Adriatic Sea. Water has always been part of people’s lives in the Veneto, and this is especially true of Venice, which is built on it. To the east along the coast is the cultural melting pot of Trieste, while to the north, in Trentino- Alto Adige, is the stunning Dolomite mountain range.
1. Basilica di San Marco
Piazza San Marco was once the epicentre of the wealthiest, most powerful city in Europe, a maritime power at the crossroads of the medieval world between Byzantium and Rome.
Like something out of Aladdin, the Oriental splendour of the Basilica di San Marco (St Mark’s) is like almost nothing else in Western Europe. Founded in AD 828, its interior surfaces are covered by more than 4 square kilometres (1½ square miles) of beautiful mosaics – the fruit of 600 years of labour.
2. Doge’s Palace
The seat of Venetian government from the 9th century until the fall of the Republic in 1797, the Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale) was the official residence of the Venetian ruler, known as the doge. An airy Gothic masterpiece of the 14th and 15th centuries, the bulk of the pink Veronese marble building appears perched on loggias and arcades of white Istrian stone. It is full of superb paintings and sculpture, but as well as being a showcase for Venetian supremacy, it also had a sinister side as a hotbed of spies and inquisitors. Take the 15th-century Giants’ Stairway (Scala dei Giganti) to the upper loggia, passing lavish sculptures of Neptune and Mars – symbols of Venice’s power – by the influential Venetian architect and sculptor Jacopo d’Antonio Sansovino (1486–1570). In the gloomy Sala del Consiglio dei Dieci, the loathed Council of Ten, set up in 1310, would assemble to decide who it wanted to execute. In the antechamber were lions’ heads, where citizens could post anonymous bills denouncing others for their crimes, real or imaginary.
In the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, the meeting place for Venice’s Grand Council, hangs Tintoretto’s Paradise (1590), said to be the world’s largest oil painting. Linking the Doge’s Palace to its prisons is the covered Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri). It takes its name from the laments of prisoners forced to walk across it to certain torture and probable death in prison; through its tiny windows they could catch a glimpse of the lagoon – and freedom. The “Terrible Ten” inquisitors were notorious for their severe sentences. The bridge allowed them to slip back and forth unobserved from the ”old” prisons in the Doge’s Palace to the “new” prisons and torture chambers. Adventurer and seducer Giacomo Casanova was imprisoned here in 1755, but managed to escape using an iron bar and a piece of polished marble.
For those with strong stomachs, a Secret Itineraries (Itinerari Segreti) tour follows a murky maze to parts of the palace normally out of bounds to visitors, including the torture chambers and the cell from which Casanova escaped.
3. Teatro La Fenice
In classical mythology, a fenice (phoenix) was a bird resembling an eagle that lived for 500 years in the Arabian desert and then burned itself to death on a funeral pyre, rising from the ashes with renewed youth to live through another cycle – and so it is with La Fenice. Originally built to replace the San Benedetto theatre, which burned down in a devastating fire in 1774, it was abandoned during construction due to a legal dispute between the opera company and the theatre’s owners. La Fenice finally opened in 1792, only to be engulfed in flames in 1836. It was brought back to its original glory within a year, but tragedy struck again in 1996 when arson destroyed the theatre, with fire brigades fighting the blaze for the entire night of 29 January.
Two electricians were later found guilty of maliciously starting the fire to avoid fines for not finishing their work in time. The theatrical world was in mourning for the loss of one of its most beautiful theatres, known for its outstanding acoustics. It remained closed for eight long years. In November 2004, La Fenice officially re-opened with a celebratory performance of Romantic composer Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, which had premiered at this very theatre in 1853. If a night at the opera with kids is impractical, take a tour of this delightful jewel-box of a theatre to see the ornate Foyer and Sala Grande (auditorium).
The Rialto has always been the commercial centre of Venice, and this can be seen in many of the fascinating street names: Ruga degli Orefici (Goldsmiths’ Street); Ruga degli Speziali (Spice Traders’ Street); Calle dei Boteri (Coopers’ Alley); Calle de le Beccarie (Butchers’ Alley) and Calle dei Saoneri (Soapmakers’ Alley). You may not be able to buy these goods here anymore, but there are now many colourful food markets and pasta shops in the area.
Venice’s oldest district, tucked into the Grand Canal’s middle bend, the Rialto was the original crossroads between East and West, where spices and silks were traded; the Rialto Bridge was the only bridge linking the two banks of the Grand Canal until 1854.
Its alleyways are filled with hole-inthe- wall bacari (hostelries) and markets that have changed little since the time of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (1596–8). In that play, merchant Antonio enquires, “What’s new on the Rialto?” The answer is, not much.