Venice Side-trips: the Best of Veneto
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves with more of the best of Europe. This time we're back in Venice. But this great city's only our springboard for exploring the gems of the mainland surrounding Venice — the Veneto. It's one of the overlooked corners of Italy.
In its heyday Venice ruled an empire with trading posts stretching all the way to Greece. It controlled this lagoon and a good part of the Italian mainland as well — and that's where we're heading.
After jetting about the Venetian lagoon, we'll witness the restoration of precious Giotto frescos in Padova, go on a Palladian pilgrimage in Vicenza, pay our respects to Juliet in Verona, and drink a little grappa. Our finale: Ravenna's mosaics — the best of Byzantium anywhere in Europe.
Italy's Venice sits at the top of the Adriatic Sea. From this homebase, day-tripping by train, we'll explore the region called Veneto, visiting Padova, Vicenza, and Verona, and then on to Ravenna. But first we'll explore the Venetian Lagoon.
Venice was born in mud like this. After Rome fell, farmers on the mainland were sick and tired of being overrun by barbarians and moved out into this lagoon and hoped the barbarians didn't like water.
Today's lagoon comes with reminders of its first inhabitants, those farmers who became sea-faring merchants, dredging canals, pounding in millions of timbers for foundations, and building communities that ultimately coalesced around what became the economic superpower of the Middle Ages — Venice.
But those first settlements were humble. Torcello — about a half hour by boat from Venice — is where mainlanders first settled. Once a thriving community of thousands, it was decimated by malaria and today only its fine church remains.
This is the oldest church in the Venice. It's from the 7th century and it was the seat of the bishop of Torcello.
Earlier today, this place was busy with tourists. I am here at 5:30 p.m. — I've got it nearly to myself. All over Italy, to enjoy peace and quiet, sightsee late in the day.
While tour boats zip quickly from island to island, regular ferryboats connect Venice with neighboring lagoon communities in a more relaxed and less expensive way.
The next island over, Burano, was first a fishing town. Later it thrived as a lace-making center and now it's popular with side-trippers for its lace and pastel ambience. Once sleepy, its main center is now pretty crowded with tourists. With the island's shrinking population down to about 4,000, locals say anything with a door is a shop.
Burano's lace making heritage goes back 500 years. And Lady Emma — with eyes sharp as ever — has been tying knots for 70. Rather than using bobbins, women make Burano's beautiful handmade lace with only needles and thread.
The town's back lanes give you a candid peek at a peaceful slice of the Venetian lagoon most visitors miss. When I asked Senora Emma about Burano's leaning tower. She said, "I will fall and you will fall, but our tower will stand forever."
Rick: So if you want to go around the island, how long does it take at this speed?
Piero: It takes twenty to twenty five minutes.
Rick: When you have a boat you have freedom, it gives you a different Venice you know?
Piero: Yes, it gives you another way.
My friend Piero is giving me a quick but circuitous trip back to Venice...Venetians still love their boats. Piero spends his free time in what he always calls his "parallel Venice."
Piero: Ok this is the Moreno faro stop. It is near the faro.
Rick: What is faro?
Piero: It is this one.
Rick: Oh, it's the lighthouse!
Piero: Yes, precisely. We are in Moreno now. It is the glass blowing factory highland.
Rick: So this is all the glass.
Piero: This is just a glass blowing factory. There are many here, but people come from all over to buy glass and see the show.
Until modern times, Venice was accessible only by boat. Then in 1846 this two-mile-long causeway with train tracks — and a highway added later by Mussolini — connected it to the rest of Italy.
Venice's train station is one of the city's few modern buildings. While it has all the services, it's generally packed. I get my train tickets and tourist information in the town center with fewer lines. Right now we're day-tripping to the mainland.
Four great cities — Padova, Vicenza, Verona, and Ravenna — are each within an hour or so of our homebase in Venice. While Venice seems to be sinking under its crowds of tourists, these towns are generally overlooked.
This part of Italy — the mainland around Venice — is called the Veneto. It's basically the land Venice ruled from about the 15th century until Napoleon came.
Padova has long been a university town. Living under Venetian rule for four centuries seemed only to sharpen its independent spirit. Nicknamed "the brain of Veneto," Padova's prestigious university, founded in 1222, is one of the first, greatest, and most progressive in Europe. Long a haven for free thinking, it attracted intellectuals from far and wide.
The great astronomer Copernicus made some of his important discoveries here. And Galileo — notorious for disagreeing with the Church's views on science — called his 18 years on the faculty here the best of his life.
These students are surrounded by memories of illustrious alumni — including the first women ever to receive a university degree — in 1678.
And just upstairs is Europe's first great anatomy theater from the 1500s. While strictly forbidden by the Church, students would pack this theater to watch professors dissect human cadavers. If the Church came a- knockin', the table could be flipped, allowing the human corpse to fall into the river below and be replaced with an animal instead.
Padova's old town, even when crowded with today's students, is a colonnaded time-tunnel experience. And Padova's museums and churches hold their own in Italy's artistic big league.
The Scrovegni Chapel is the art treasure of Padova. During our visit it's closed. But we're allowed a peek inside while a painstaking restoration project is stripping away the dirt and repairing bad restoration jobs of the past in order to bring back the brilliance of Giotto's most complete and mature work.
Before restoration, these frescoes looked...like hell. But after all this careful work, we'll once again enjoy the genius of Giotto. His groundbreaking ability to tell a story showing physical and psychological depth back in the 1300s provided a foundation for the great artists of the Renaissance to build upon.
All over Europe, huge efforts like this are returning gloomy and crumbled masterpieces to their original splendor. The Scrovegni Chapel will join the ranks of Europe's most prized works of art. Considered too fragile to be seen by huge numbers of people, sites like this are open only to small groups of visitors that must call in advance to make a viewing appointment.
Padova's other top sight is the Basilica of St. Anthony. For nearly 800 years this church — with the tomb of Friar Anthony of Padova — has been one of Christianity's most popular shrines. The church — begun a year after he died, in 1232, is filled with magnificent art. A group of bronze statues by Donatello — the Crucifixion, Mary, and Padova's six favorite saints — graces the high altar.
And the side chapel containing St Anthony's tomb is a Renaissance masterpiece from 1500 with nine marble reliefs showing scenes and miracles from the life of the saint. The pilgrims believe Anthony is their protector, a confidant — an intercessor for the poor. Votives from the faithful ask for help or give thanks for miracles they believe he's performed. By placing their hand on his tomb while saying a silent prayer, pilgrims show devotion to Anthony and feel the saint's presence.
Next, behind the high altar, pilgrims visit the relics of the saint — these are considered miraculously preserved: his jawbone, tongue and vocal chords. These relics befit the saint who couldn't stop teaching, preaching, and praying.
Even military commanders — like this powerful Venetian, just outside the basilica — wanted to be close to St. Anthony. This statue — also by the innovative Donatello — is famous as the first equestrian statue of its size cast out of bronze since ancient Roman times.
Padova's vast 13th-century Palazzo della Ragione — once the town's medieval law courts — now hosts a sprawling market. The misty morning set-up has changed little over the centuries as merchants prepare to sell their goods. For 800 years shoppers have come here for the best Veneto produce.
A highlight in public markets at this time of the year is the wild mushrooms, which seem to come in endless shapes and sizes. And look at the varieties of rice, they are a Veneto specialty — ideal to give your risotto that special twist. The lineage of these merchants stretches back centuries to a time when Venice was the regional powerhouse.
Around the 15th century, as new competition began biting into their trade profits, Venetian merchants began investing in agriculture and built lavish homes on the mainland. The countryside just outside Padova and throughout Veneto is ornamented with graceful villas like this.
The Brenta Riviera, a canal stretching from Venice to Padova, is lined with these dreamy villas of Venetian nobles. Most were designed by or in the style of Andrea Palladio.
Palladio followed the ancient Roman style — temple-like pediments and columns...all symmetrical and with a classical dignity. Often considered by many the last great architect of the Renaissance, Palladio's influence stretched far and wide — even Tomas Jefferson took note.
If this looks familiar it's because it inspired the building on the back of our nickel — Jefferson's Monticello. Palladio, who considered nature a theater for his work, had a knack for using the setting for dramatic effect. His Rotunda is one of the most imitated buildings in the world.
Vicenza is the city of Palladio — and to many architects a visit here is almost a pilgrimage.
Walking down Vicenza's main drag, Corso Andrea Palladio, you'll see why they call Vicenza "Venezia on terra firma" — Venice on solid ground. It's a stately string of Renaissance palaces and Palladian facades.
Piazza Signori has been Vicenza's main square since Roman times. The two 15th-century columns — one topped by the winged lion — were built by the Venetians when they took over Vicenza in the early 1400s. The commanding Basilica Palladiana dominates the square.
When Palladio was just getting started, this was a dilapidated Gothic palace of justice. Redoing it with a grand neo-Greek facade established the young Palladio as Vicenza's favorite architect.
The rest of Palladio's career was a one-man construction boom.
His last work was one of his greatest — the Olympic Theater. Begun in 1580, it was modeled after the theaters of antiquity. It's built of wood and stucco with classical columns, statues, and plenty of perspective tricks. Statues of the theater's original patrons seem to admire the art their money made possible.
The theater was inaugurated in 1585 with a performance of Oedipus Rex. Eventually it fell into disuse. But centuries later, in the 1930s, it was restored and now is popular as one of the oldest and finest theaters in Europe.
Vicenza serves more than just graceful architecture. The romantic Zi Teresa — or Auntie Teresa's restaurant — dishes up local specialties. Seafood is popular here and I'm having the classic Vicenzan dish, baccala alla Vicentina — marinated cod with polenta. Polenta — a cornmeal staple in the Veneto, was traditionally a favorite of peasants, but now it's served in restaurants throughout Northern Italy. And it makes for a hearty lunch.
Padova, Vicenza and Verona are all on the main Venice-Milan train line. Each are connected by frequent trains. We are heading to Verona — second in the Veneto only to Venice in population and artistic importance.
When arriving by train you can assume buses are standing by to whisk you to the town center. Wherever you are, learn the word for town center. Verify which bus you want while picking up a ticket. As you hop on, confirm your stop with the driver...punch your ticket to validate it. And, a few minutes later, you're in the old center.
Verona's main attractions are its wealth of Roman ruins — this bridge dates from the first century; remnants of its 13th- and 14th-century boom time; and its 21st-century quiet, pedestrian-only ambience. After Venice's mass tourism, Verona is a cool and welcome sip of pure, easy-going Italy. If you like Italy but don't need world-class sights, this town's a joy.
Ancient Romans considered Verona an ideal resting spot before crossing the Alps. This well-preserved amphitheater — the third largest in the Roman world — is a popular venue for events even today. Over the centuries, crowds of up to 25,000 spectators have cheered Roman gladiator battles, medieval executions, and modern plays — including Verona's popular summer opera festival. Climb to the top for a fine view.
Sooner or later, those wandering Verona's streets will be flushed into a very crowded courtyard. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet made Verona a household word — and this is supposedly the balcony. But, alas, a visit here has nothing to do with those two star-crossed lovers, and Juliet never lived in this house. Still, busloads of tourists gaze at the almost believable balcony, add a love note to the walls, and take part in the tradition of rubbing the breast of Juliet's statue. Why? For a better love life.
Despite the fiction, the town has been an important crossroads for 2,000 years and it is packed with genuine history. Romeo and Juliet fans will be happy to note that two real feuding families, the Montecchi and the Capellos, were the models for Shakespeare's Montagues and Capulets. And, if Romeo and Juliet had existed and were alive today, they would recognize much of their "hometown."
Verona's market square is Piazza Erbe. The 15th-century frescoes — characteristic of this region — earned Verona a nickname: "the painted city." People have gathered here since Roman times, when this was a forum. And for over 40 years, these friends have sliced and sold whatever's in season — today, in late September...it's artichokes.
The Venetian Lion has hovered above this square since 1405, reminding locals of their conquerors. During medieval times, this stone canopy held the scales used by merchants. A fountain has bubbled here for 2,000 years. This statue, originally Roman, lost its head and arms. When a sculptor replaced them, she became Verona's Madonna. And what's with this whale's rib? It's a souvenir — brought home from the orient by spice traders — it's hung here for 500 years.
Medieval Italian cities were often dominated by a single powerful family. Just as the Medici family ruled Florence, the Scaligeri family ruled Verona through much of the 14th century.
Their castle is reminiscent of Verona's golden age when the city was larger than London and ranked among Europe's great economic powers. And, if these ornate family tombs are any indication, the Scaligeris had no problem with self-esteem.
We're popping into a wine bar to learn about grappa. Veneto is the capital of grappa, and Oreste, who runs this bar, introduces his favorite drink with passion. With help from new friends, I learn that grappa is distilling the skins, seeds and stems of grapes — the waste of the winemaking process — into a potent after-dinner drink.
Woman: this is a light grappa.
Rick: Isn't that a contradiction in terms?
Woman: Do you want to taste a little bit?
Rick: Yes, I would.
A two-hour train ride south takes us to Ravenna.
Quiet Ravenna, a city of 140,000 with a car-free center, masks a fascinating history stretching back long before its stint as part of the Venetian Empire.
Ravenna, once an ancient Roman port and capital, later a barbarian stronghold, was taken in the year 540 into the Byzantine Empire — the pinnacle of civilization in that age. As the westernmost pillar of that empire, Ravenna was a light in Europe's dark ages.
This square, Piazza del Popolo — or the people's square — was built around 1500 during a sixty-year period when the city was ruled by Venice. Today, in the shadow of these Venetian facades, the people of Ravenna gather. They've treated this as their communal living room for centuries.
The bustling town center is Italy's most bicycle friendly. Bike paths are in the middle of pedestrian streets, subtly indicated by white bricks.
Ca' de' Ven, or House of Wine, serves food typical of this area. Under 16th-century vaults, the place is atmospheric. We're having some great local wine and two kinds of local pasta. Waiters are usually happy to split orders. Piadina is traditional unleavened bread served with proscuitto and cheese.
The rich and unique food of this region is one reason to come to Ravenna; another is to enjoy the best look at the glories of Byzantium this side of Istanbul.
Imagine...it's 500 AD. The city of Rome had been sacked, the land was crawling with barbarians, and the infrastructure of Rome's thousand-year empire was crumbling fast. Into this chaotic world comes the emperor of the East, Justinian, bringing order and stability, briefly reassembling the empire, and making Ravenna a beacon of civilization.
His church of San Vitale — standing as a sanctuary of order in the midst of all that chaos — is covered with lavish mosaics — countless vibrantly-colored chips the size of your fingernail.
High above the altar, Christ is in heaven — sitting on a celestial orb — overseeing creation — symbolized by the green earth and four rivers below his feet.
And running things here on earth is Emperor Justinian — sporting both a halo and a crown to show he's leader of the church and the state. Justinian brings together both military and church leaders — all united by the straight line of eyes.
Facing the Emperor is his wife Theodora and her entourage. Decked out in jewels and pearls, the former dancer who became his mistress, then empress, carries a chalice to consecrate the new church.
The walls and ceilings sparkle with colorful Bible scenes told with a sixth-century exuberance. This was a time of transition — and many consider these mosaics both the last ancient Roman and the first medieval European works of art. For instance, the image of Christ above the altar is beardless - the style of the ancient Romans, and nearby, decorating this arch, is the standard medieval portrayal of a bearded Jesus. Yet each were created by artists of the same generation.
The church's octagonal design — very much an Eastern style — actually inspired the construction of the magnificent church of St. Sofia built a few years later in Constantinople.
Just across the courtyard, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is reputed to be the burial place of the daughter of an emperor who ruled Ravenna for 25 years. Its mosaics — a hundred years older than those in San Vitale — are, to many, the finest mosaics in Ravenna. The light that sneaks through the thin alabaster panels brings a glow and a twinkle to the early Christian symbolism that fills the chamber. Here again, we see the standard ancient Roman portrayal of Christ — beardless and as the Good Shepherd. The eastern influence is apparent in the carpet-like decorative patterns.
The art of mosaic making is still alive and well in Ravenna. This woman is making a piece which will adorn a church in Atlanta. The process is much the same today as in ancient times. The tiny colored glass and gold leaf pieces are broken with a hammer to fit a design derived from a pattern and set in cement. The results are almost as brilliant and beautiful today as they were in Justinian's time.
So much sightseeing greatness hides in the shadows of Europe's most popular sights. While you'll probably see Venice first, don't overlook the gems of the Veneto...
...Its architecture — Palladio's classic designs and timeless buildings; its cuisine — and, with a loose interpretation, that includes grappa; its history — mosaics taking us back to the dawn of Europe; and its people — linking their rich past with a promising future.
I hope you've enjoyed our look at Venice's lagoon and the highlights of the Veneto. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling. Ciao.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.