First published in The Journal, Newcastle, October 2010

LA SERENISSIMA – the city of Venice – is my favourite destination. I’ve Inter-railed there, honeymooned there and introduced my daughter to her beauty. What I hadn’t done, until recently, was venture beyond the city.

And there is a whole region surrounding that remarkable city in the lagoon – operatic Verona excepted – that remains relatively untouched by tourism.

The Veneto region – the Venetian Republic of history – only became part of Italy in 1866. To this day many of its people consider themselves Venetian first and Italian second and the Lion of Venice appears everywhere.

Marco Tiozzo's bragozzo, featuring the Lion of Venice motif seen everywhere in the Veneto

Marco Tiozzo’s bragozzo, featuring the Lion of Venice motif seen everywhere in the Veneto

Venice is the region’s capital but several of its towns reward the visitor.

Chioggia stands on the shores of the lagoon, south of Venice. The town is very much in the mould of its bigger neighbour. There are grand palazzos, narrow streets, massive churches, a waterfront and canals. It has definite charm but it’s a working town, fishing mainly, and feels all together more real than Venice itself.

By Piazzetta Vigo stands a small bridge over a canal. Our local guide, Michela Marangon, explains that it is older than any bridge in Venice. Therefore, she says, proud locals prefer to think not of Chioggia as Little Venice, but of Venice as Big Chioggia. Here also stands a pillar topped by the ever-present Lion, and woe betide anyone who says it looks more like a cat. Some out-of-towners heard to do so returned from their meal to find their car floating in the lagoon. See, told you they were proud locals.

Piazzetta Vigo was the boarding point for a boat tour of the lagoon in the company of Michela and an amiable ex-fisherman, Marco Tiozzo, in his lovingly restored lagoon barge, known as a bragozzo.

Marco took us through the town’s canals, past its fishing fleet, explaining how clams are scraped from the lagoon floor, before navigating out into the lagoon itself, following channels determined centuries ago and marked with the characteristic pencil-shaped poles.

A clam fishing platform in the lagoon of Venice, off Chioggia

A clam fishing platform in the lagoon of Venice, off Chioggia

More than cod and tuna... the fish market in Chioggia

More than cod and tuna… the fish market in Chioggia

We visited friends of his on a platform in the lagoon where the clams are cleaned. In the fishing season the workers live out here and now there are plans to turn one or two of the structures into restaurants where people will dine above the very waters where the fish were caught. It can’t get much fresher than that.

And even if you can’t dine like that you won’t want for a choice of fish or seafood as the town hosts a daily fish market. The abundance and variety  was fascinating when compared to  supermarket cabinets offering not much more than cod, salmon or tuna.

After a day in Chioggia a water taxi whisked us the length of the lagoon to Venice while we sipped Bellinis, the cocktail of prosecco and peach invented at the famous Harry’s Bar, near St Mark’s Square. More of the city later, because this trip also took in Treviso and Vicenza.

Treviso is a quiet, prosperous city. It is the home of Benetton and the company’s name and colours are everywhere. It’s a pleasant place to stroll around, you’re spared any tourist tat and, as always in Italy, you’re never far away from an impressive church. The Piazza dei Signori, rebuilt and restored after terrible damage sustained in the Second World War, is the heart of the city and a great place to sit and watch Treviso go about its daily business.

Now here’s a bit of Treviso trivia: when the fish market was recently rebuilt they designed it to be odour-free so that it could be converted into a concert venue in the evenings, playing host to bands such as the marvellously named Peter Roastbeef and the Trippers.

And so to Vicenza, my new second favourite Italian city. It’s been a World Heritage Site since 1994 and is simply stunning.

The centre of the city is mostly free of vehicles so is ideal for strolling, stopping and  gawping at its remarkable architecture. Rarely will you see a city which looks so at ease with itself, where buildings harmonise perfectly. And that is because much of the city centre is the work of one of the most influential architects of all time – Andrea Palladio.

Palladio was a miller’s son who became a stonecutter and came under the wing of a famous scholar who led him to study architecture and gave him his new name.

Everywhere are palaces, villas, churches, public buildings bearing Palladio’s trademarks: porticos, classical columns, perfectly proportioned windows.

Facing each other in the Piazza dei Signori are two of the most important of his public buildings. They provide a frame for a dramatic public space in which people meet, embrace, talk, eat and drink.

The city of Vicenza, Palladio's masterpiece

The city of Vicenza, Palladio’s masterpiece

Best of all of his buildings is the Teatro Olimpico – the first permanent covered theatre of the Renaissance. It was commissioned by a kind of cultural co-op of rich patrons in 1580 and survives, amazingly, intact. Sadly, Palladio did not live to see the theatre completed.

I knew nothing of the building and was entirely unprepared for how dramatic the theatre space would be. Entry is via a grand, marbled, high-ceilinged reception room, leading to a corridor and stairs familiar from any theatre.

And then you’re in the auditorium where a glance to your right reveals the stage. It is filled with a remarkable set of seven streets, unchanged from opening night. In order to preserve the illusion of the streets going off into the distance children were used to represent crowds at the back of the stage. It is truly remarkable.

And so, back to Venice. We lunched not far from St Mark’s, in the Metropole (though not in its Met restaurant) where the chef has Venice’s only two Michelin starred establishment. Then, passing the Bridge of Sighs, we set off for a walking tour through the sestiere of Cannaregio with guide Luisa Sala.

We start in St Mark’s Square in front of the basilica, cross the piazza and head up to the church of SS Giovanni e Paolo before winding through the tightly  packed shopping streets to the Rialto bridge and the markets area.

The waters of the Grand Canal are lapping at the very edge of the banks, occasionally spilling over the top. The boards and trestles are piled up, ready for acqua alta, the floods which threaten for longer each year.

Venice is constantly under repair and restoration with the Bridge of Sighs surrounded by hoardings generating funds to help pay for the work. They’re calling it the Bridge of Signs.

Venice under renovation - the Bridge of Signs

Venice under renovation – the Bridge of Signs

The city is ever more prone to flooding as the work to protect it from the lagoon that gave it life – and constantly threatens to reclaim it – drags on without an end in sight.

But Venice is still beautiful and magical, more so if you can see it without the crowds.

Venice – still my favourite place in the world. But not, it turns out, the be-all and end-all of this corner of Italy. Parts of her once-Republic are pretty impressive too.

  • This article was researched and written in October 2010 and first appeared in The Journal, Newcastle, http://www.journallive.co.uk The trip was organised by Jet2.com
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