Things to Do in Veneto
There's nothing quite like sitting where you know others have sat and watched performances for two thousand years. The lovely pink marble Roman amphitheatre built in 1AD still proudly dominates the piazza in the middle of Verona, and people still travel from miles around to witness a spectacle; these days it's opera rather than sports, games and gladiatorial battles. The third largest amphitheatre in Italy, Arena di Verona could once seat 30,000, these days its capacity is 15,000.
With the decline of the Roman Empire, the outer walls were ripped down and used for building materials. In the twelfth century, an earthquake damaged the place and it wasn't really until the nineteenth century that there was an interest in using it once more to stage performances. The current incarnation as a major outdoor opera venue began in 1913 with a celebratory mounting of Verdi's Aida to mark 100 years since his birth.
Basilica di San Marco (St Mark's Cathedral) is magnificent. It is both a wonderful architectural flurry of Gothic, Byzantine, Romanesque and Renaissance styles declaring the wealth of Venice over centuries, and a spiritual place of worship. Its domes and turrets, and gold mosaic stand out over the square and over Venice, and four ancient classical horses top the entrance, taken from Constantinople (Istanbul) when Venice sacked that city around 1200. Inside the church is dazzling.
The church was begun in 828 when the body of St Mark was returned to Venice, smuggled by merchants from its resting place in Alexandria, Egypt. An angel had told St Mark his final resting place would be Venice (which did not even exist at the time) and the Venetian leaders were keen to make it happen. Over the years, churches were built, burnt, rebuilt and expanded resulting in the incredible building we see today.
Tucked away in the northeastern corner of Italy and snuggled up against the Austrian border is a collection of rock formations called Cinque Torri. These five tower-like rocks each have their own name, along with a collection of smaller peaks and boulders that skirt around their base. The captivating crags are part of the Dolomites mountain range, and sit not far from the alpine town of Cortina d’Ampezzo.
They’re not just pretty to look at, either. During wintertime, this area becomes quite the ski destination. Meanwhile, during summertime, it’s an outdoor playground for hikers, bikers and rock climbers. While visiting, explore the different trails, many of which connect and circle back; visit the various refugios, or refuges, where you can grab a bite to eat or even stay the night; and take in a bit of history while exploring the outdoor museum composed of restored war trenches from World War I (indeed, this was the site of major battle).
Until 1797, the Doges ruled the Venetian Empire and the Palazzo Ducale was where they ruled from. It was one of the first things those arriving in Venice saw as their ships sailed through the lagoon and landed at Saint Mark's Square. The Doges lived here and the government offices were also in this building. Justice was meted out here and the Golden Book, listing all the important families of Venice, was housed here. No one whose family was not in the Golden Book would ever be made Doge. It was an extremely political process ruling Venice and residents could accuse others of wrong doing by anonymously slipping a note into the Mouth of Truth.
Inside the palace is wonderful art (paintings by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese), majestic staircases, the Doge's apartments, the government chambers, the prison cells and the Bridge of Sighs. Outside, along the piazzetta, each column is different.
St. Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco) is filled with centuries of history and is still the symbolic heart of Venice; it has even been referred to as the drawing room of Europe. With the grand St Mark's Church at one end, the Campanile bell tower rising in the middle and the elegant colonnaded arcade of famous cafes on three sides, it is a wonderful place to be - and the hundreds of pigeons think so too.
Sit and have coffee (you'll only be able to afford one) and watch the whole world pass by while a tuxedoed band plays. Then plunge north into the narrow streets full of shops leading towards the Rialto Bridge, or west into the city's pocket of high fashion designer stores finishing with an extremely expensive Bellini at Harry's Bar, the place that invented the peach/champagne drink. Alternately, head out of San Marco to the east and stroll the waterfront on the Riva.
The Grand Canal is the main street of Venice. Lined with beautiful, if aging, palazzo, you can hop aboard a gondola and imagine a time when these boats were the main means of transport (once there was 10,000 now there are 400). The impressive palazzo, homes to all the wealthy families, had highly decorated exteriors with colorful paintings and mosaics. These days they tend to have faded to one color but many still have the ornate, oriental facades influenced by the merchant trading with the East which made Venice rich.
Only a few bridges cross the Grand Canal: the Accademia Bridge, the Rialto Bridge and the bridge near the station at Ferrovia. Stand on these and watch boats pass by filled with fruit and vegetables, slabs of soft drink, building materials etc because Venice is still a city without cars and everything the city needs has to be transported by water or handcart.
The power of storytelling should never be underestimated. Every year hundreds of thousands of us trek to Verona to see the balcony where Juliet stood while Romeo declared his love. None of us care that it's very possible that Romeo and Juliet were only figments of Shakespeare's imagination. This is the most powerful love story in western culture and we all want to live a little part of its dream – though not its tragic ending.
The house in Verona known as Juliet's house was owned by the family dell Capello, a name not too far from Capulet, right? The house dates from the 13th century and the family coat of arms can still be seen on the wall. A slight problem is the balcony itself, which overlooks the courtyard – it was added in the 20th century. But that's of no matter to the hundreds of girls who every year step out onto it and gaze below seeking their Romeo among the milling tourists.
Piazza Bra, Verona’s largest piazza, is also among the largest in Italy. Today, the piazza is the heart of Verona, anchored by some of the city’s most famous buildings. Most notable is the Verona Arena, a Roman amphitheater built from pink marble during the first century; during the summer months, the 2,000-year-old theater — the best preserved in the world — still hosts operatic and musical performances.
Palazzo Barbieri, Verona’s town hall, is also situated in Piazza Bra, as well as Gran Guardia Palace, a nineteenth century structure now used as a conference venue. Il Liston runs along the western edge of the piazza and is lined by cafes, pizzerias and trattorie.
Murano is one of 118 islands in the lagoon of Venice, famous for its glass factories. This is where the unique colored glass of Venice is made, in family-owned factories. Once located in the main city of Venice, they caused too many fires and were exiled to Murano in 1291 - that's how long the industry has been going.
It takes ten years to master the art of making proper Venetian glass. It's such a specialized art that in centuries past glass-makers were forbidden to leave Venice, and if they looked likely to betray industry secrets they were killed! These days the handmade glass is expensive and the industry is dying out - you are enthusiastically encouraged to purchase when you visit. Murano is home to 4,000 people. In its heyday it had 30,000 residents and the rich Venetians built their summer houses with lush gardens on the island. In fact, Murano had Italy's first botanical gardens.
More Things to Do in Veneto
Piazza delle Erbe is the central square in Verona. The name translates to Square of Herbs and is the site of the local market. It has been the center of political and economic life in Verona for centuries. It was also once the site of a Roman forum. Tower Lamberti, the tallest tower in Verona, is located on the piazza. It stands at 272 feet high and has an octagon shaped structure at the top which holds the Rengo and Marangona bells dating back to 1464. Palazzo Commune, Verona's town hall building, is also located here. It was built in the Middle Ages, but renovations in the 19th century added a neoclassical facade.
Also located in Piazza delle Erbe is Torre Gardello, which was built in 1370 but not finished until 1626. Palazzo Mafei is a Baroque building on top of which are sculptures of the gods Jupiter, Venus, Apollo, Hercules, and Minerva. The most popular attraction in the square is the 14th century Madonna Verona Fountain, also known as the Virgin of Verona..
Rialto Bridge or Ponte di Rialto was the city's first bridge over the Grand Canal. Connecting the highest points on the lagoon islands settlement, the first bridge was built in 1180 and this more solid marble one in 1588-92. The bridge is an elegant arch with steps and shops, a mass of water traffic passing underneath, and huge numbers of tourists and Venetians heading across it.
The area around the bridge was, and still is, full of important city functions. Nearby are the city's markets: the fresh produce and the fish market. They have been there for 700 years. This area was also where the first banks were established, where the traders who made Venice rich set sail from and sold their goods on return, where courts met, prisoners were held and punished, and new laws were declared.
Built in 1602, the Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) connected the interrogation rooms in the Doges Palace with the prison cells. It got its name from the fact that prisoners passing across it sighed for their lost freedom and their final view of Venice through the barred windows. The prison cells were small, dank and often a final stop before death. You can see them on a tour of the Palazzo Ducale (Doges Palace).
Designed by Antoni Contino whose uncle designed the Rialto Bridge, the Bridge of Sighs is covered-in, with bars on the windows, made of white limestone. From the outside it is lovely, from the inside not so pretty.
The Venetian building that was once the supposed home of famous explorer Marco Polo and his family is now easily missable to passers-by. The nearby square is known as the Corte Seconda del Milion, pointing to the title of Marco Polo's travel memoirs—Il Milione.
Located near the San Giovanni Crisostomo Church and just behind the Teatro Malibran, the building is not open to the public, but there is a small marble plaque on the wall commemorating the site's significance.
The civic and political heart of Verona is the Piazza dei Signori where the former city hall, the Loggia del Consiglio, still graces the square. Next door, the city's most powerful family, the Scaligeri, built their palazzo - not that they were trying to intimidate the councilors at all. It may after all have just been a matter of convenience, as the Scaligeri most often held the title of Lord of Verona and got to sit in the big chair anyway. Even in death they didn't like to be too far away and the tombs of the Scaligeri clan are at the far end of the piazza in Arche Scaligere.
While not huge, architecturally the Piazza dei Signori is significant, with a mixture of styles, all joined by a series of arches. One of these leads to the nearby Piazza delle Erbe, a marketplace. The arch, the Arco della Costa, contains a whale's rib which is said in legend to fall on the first just person to walk under it. So far it remains firmly in place.
Not far from the scenic beauty of Peschiera del Garda on Lake Garda is the sprawling Parco Giardino Sigurtà, or Sigurtà Park.
The park covers 60 hectares, and was originally the private grounds of the 17th century Villa Maffei. Later, the land was cultivated into the beautiful gardens we see today. Attractions include a large maze of hedgerows, the long Avenue of Roses, the Stone of Eternal Youth, and some historic buildings in the park.
In the early spring, Sigurtà Park's million tulips bloom in profusion, during an always-anticipated event known as “Tulip Mania.”
Prosecco has grown world famous as the sparkling wine of Italy. Grown in the Prosecco Hills just north of Venice, a visit to the wine region is not only tasty but excessively scenic. As opposed to champagne which refers to a region, the name ‘prosecco’ refers to the grape itself, though it is also called ‘glera.’ It is grown in this lush valley of Italy, surrounded by green hills and framed by the Dolomite Mountains. Prosecco has been grown here for more than ten centuries.
Three main towns can be found in the region: Valdobbiadene, Conegliano and Vittorio Veneto. Mild climate and rich soils make this the Vineyards, tasting rooms, and local restaurants all offer opportunities to taste the dry, light sparkling wine at its source. Many of the vineyards have small terraces on steep slopes that offer great views of the surrounding countryside. Wine-centered events take place during the summer months.
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