Visiting the Veneto: Venice and Verona

“Home” for me in Italy is Padova, in the Veneto region, so that area is the part of Italy I know best. Venice is of course visited by tourists from all over the world, but I think Verona is quite worthwhile too, as a place to spend several days.

Venice

Truth be told, I don’t have as much to say about Venice as other places. I like it, it’s beautiful, and most of all, it’s worth seeing because it’s unique in the world, but it’s not someplace I go too often. It’s often quite crowded with tourists, at any time of the year, and I’m a bit more of a “hills, mountains, nature” kind of guy.

  • Avoid the main routes to and from Piazza San Marco. Definitely see the square, the cathedral there, and the Doge’s palace, but once you’re done, get a good map, find the main thoroughfares, and go straight away from them. There are plenty of very attractive corners of Venice that aren’t so overrun by tourists.

  • The Universita` di Ca` Foscari is near Campo Santa Margherita, so that area has a slightly younger and more local crowd, and feels a bit more lively and ‘real’.

  • For a bit of fresh air, the Chiesa della Madonna della Salute is nice. It’s on a slice of land that sticks out into a bit of more open water, so it often gets a nice breeze, and has great views.

  • If you can’t spend the night in Venice, you can still stay somewhere like Padova, and take one of the late trains back, so you can eat dinner, after drinking a spritz somewhere. If you’re up for it, you can also do some nice “bar crawls” (known locally as a baccarata), although of course, being in Italy, the point is not to get stinking drunk, which is likely to get you kicked out as an annoying tourist, but simply to have a nice tour of some of the places the locals go to and sample some wine, and eat a little something at each one.

  • Venice is pretty in the summer, with a blue sky, but pretty in a sort of “Disney” way. In some ways, it’s more appealing in the winter, with fog, and a dark, thick atmosphere that adds some depth to the setting, with the boats gliding along in the cold, humid air. Also, there are fewer tourists.

  • Carnevale is popular with the tourists for a good reason: it’s lots of fun.

  • I am not sure where to look up the information, but on several occasions I’ve been on chartered boat cruises that start south of Venice, stop in the city, then wind their way back, at night. Not so much a touristy thing, but a great way to spend an evening, and I don’t think they’re actually all that expensive if you go on one with a relatively full boat.

Verona

Verona is, in my opinion, one of the best tourist destinations in Italy if you don’t have a lot of time. It has a little bit of everything, a mixture that ranges from Roman ruins to modern times, which is a nice contrast with Venice, which, while beautiful, tends towards only a few styles that you see repeated.

  • The Arena built by the Romans, it still stands tall in the center of Verona. I will always remember the first time I saw it: having grown more or less used to the older buildings that are everywhere in Italy, I was floored when I walked around a corner and saw this massive, very obviously ancient construction, built with massive chunks of marble. Even more impressive, it’s still used for a summer opera series (I’ll admit, at the risk of looking like a philistine, that I went once and got a bit bored after 2+ hours) after nearly two thousand years of existence.

  • Roman theater. I have to admit, I’m deeply impressed by Roman artifacts. Where I’m from, Eugene, is so new that there is barely anything more than 100 years old. The frat house used in Animal House is more along the lines of what Eugene has, except that it was torn down. To be looking at something constructed two thousand years ago and still standing is truly amazing.

  • Castelvecchio and the Ponte Scaligeri – these date back to Verona’s time as an independent city state, before it fell to the Venetian Republic in 1405.

None of these attractions are “off the beaten path” kinds of things, but they’re still very much worth your time.

Beyond the historic aspects, I also like Verona’s natural setting, with the hills to the north, and the broad, full Adige river encompassing the oldest part of town. The area to the north is great to explore with a car, sampling some of the Valpolicella wines produced in the area, or if it’s hot, going further up into the mountains. The few times I ventured into the hills, they also seemed relatively free of tourists. Watch out for the Lago di Garda though: hordes of German and Austrian tourists descend on it during the summer, hoping to take in some sun before returning to their dark, cold, rainy homes.

If you want to get a feel for what living in modern Italy, Tim Parks’ books are the best I’ve read: Italian Neighbors and An Italian Education and are set in nearby Montecchio Maggiore.

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