Venice may be a small island but it’s by no means isolated; look beyond the lagoon and there’s a wealth of dolce vita to experience in nearby towns and cities. Board a train at Santa Lucia station and in just a couple of hours you can be musing over mosaics in the medieval city of Ravenna, whispering sweet nothings to your true love in Verona, or roaming the Dolomites.
Many travellers will overlook the quiet cobbled streets and winding canals of Treviso in favour of the more popular city of Padua, but we’d encourage you to go against the tide. Especially because taking the path less travelled requires only a 30-minute train ride from Venice.
While in Treviso, don’t miss Titian’s Annunciation in the Duomo. Taking pride of place in the Cappella di Malchiostro, this altarpiece shows the master of the Venetian school experimenting with perspective and trompe l’oeil techniques. It offers an interesting comparison to his later, more dramatic depictions of the same scene on display in Venice (Scuola Grande di San Rocco and San Salvador if you want to check them out when you’re back).
Head slightly further out of the town centre to San Nicoló to view Tommaso da Modena’s wonderfully expressive frescoes of monks at study. Spot the pair of paintings where one studious man seems to be having a stern word with a rather fed-up looking friar – reading the same page for almost 700 years must get dull…
This area is known for its prosecco so be sure to take a long lunch at one of the many laid-back trattorie and wash down a plate of risotto al radicchio with a glass or two of Treviso’s finest. Toni del Spin or Trattoria all’Oca Bianca are both ideal options. Alternatively, make a picnic from the goods at Hosteria Dai Naneti, a local favourite, where you’ll find a vineyard’s worth of wine, hanging hams and a selection of the area’s finest cheeses. Then, eat alfresco at the riverside park off viale Frá Giocondo.
Thirsty for more? Head straight to the source for a tasting at one of the nearby vineyards. The grand gardens and manor house of Castello di Roncade are less than 30 minutes away, but if you’re happy to travel for your tipple, Follador winery in Col San Martino has been producing some of the province’s finest fizz since 1769.
It takes just over two hours to get to Ravenna from Venice, but once you arrive, it may feel like you’ve travelled several hundred years back in time. Between the fifth and eighth centuries, Ravenna was the capital of the Western Roman Empire, the seat of the Ostrogoths and the Italian capital of the Byzantine Empire. You can trace the early history of Ravenna through the glittering fifth- and sixth-century mosaics in seven of the city’s eight Unesco-listed churches. Here are some highlights to get you going…
Start at the beginning, at the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia which dates back to around 450AD. Although it’s known as the resting place of the Galla Placidia – the daughter, wife and mother of emperors, and a political force to be reckoned with in her own right – it’s unknown when, or even if, her body last lay in one of the three stone sarcophagi inside. Historians know there was a body inside one of the tombs in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but it’s widely believed it was a fake to attract pilgrims and raise funds for the church. This so-called reliquary ruse came to a fiery end in the late 16th century when a group of local boys, trying to get a closer look, accidentally set the body alight; the tomb has stood empty ever since. The church is covered in vivid mosaics depicting early Christian imagery which reveal the influence of Greece and Byzantium on the city – if you have time, and patience, try counting the stars on the crossing, estimates range between 500 and 800.
Move ever so slightly forward in time, to the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, built by King Theodoric at the start of the sixth century. The church was once covered, aisle to apse, in glistening gold mosaics, but between earthquakes and invasions much of the original artwork was lost. Most will just follow the procession depicted down the aisle and back again, but the most observant eyes will spot a couple of floating hands on the pillars of Theodoric’s palace – bring your binoculars for a closer look. These anachronistic appendages offer a glimpse at the original design; this part of the mosaic first depicted Theodoric and his court, but when the city was taken over by the Catholic eastern Roman Empire, these scenes were replaced with the floral curtains we see today – the artists clearly didn’t think this hand was worth the effort of retiling.
Finally, head to the Byzantine Basilica of San Vitale, built between 526 and 548, to see some rather regal images of emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora, sporting some stylish sixth-century headwear…
History builds a hearty appetite and Ravenna has plenty of eateries to choose from. For something light, pick up a piadina (essentially a wrap stuffed with Italian meats) at La Piada di Ale. Additionally, two world wars and a bomb couldn’t stop the Turicchia family from serving homemade pasta with local truffles, as well as wild asparagus from the surrounding Romagna hills, at their restaurant Antica Trattoria al Gallo 1909.
Shakespeare immortalised fair Verona in Romeo and Juliet, but long before the star-crossed lovers locked eyes here the Romans called the city Domus. Direct trains run several times every hour and take under 90 minutes.
Make like a Capulet and head to the Casa di Giulietta museum, the former home of the Dal Cappello family, who became Shakespeare’s inspiration. Get a feel for 13th-century life while exploring the house and its artworks, before stopping off at the balcony where ‘light through yonder window breaks’ in the playwright’s most famous love scene. After exploring the home, head to the Fresco Museum on Via Luigi da Porto to see what’s believed to be Juliet’s tomb.
For lunch, there’s Pescheria I Masenini, a seafood spot that’s on the site of Verona’s old fish market. Or, venture over to Tigella Bella for tigella (naturally), which is flatbread made with fillings such as cheese, creamed mushroom, aioli and tapenade. Let your lunch settle before attempting to climb the 84m-high Torre dei Lamberti. But don’t worry, a lift takes you two-thirds of the way up, and you’ll be rewarded for your climb with panoramic views over the city.
If you’ve had your fill of frescoes, spend the afternoon outdoors, in the peaceful Giardino Giusti gardens. Otherwise, cram in more culture at the Museo di Castelvecchio. This 14-century castle holds around 100,000 works of art from the early medieval to modern periods.
For a day off from the museums, churches and palazzos of Venice, hire a car on the mainland and drive to one of the nearby mountain ranges. The nature reserve of Parco Nazionale delle Dolomiti Bellunesi in the Dolomites is just 90 minutes away. Walk, mountain bike or horse ride through almost 8,000 acres of untouched natural beauty, taking a break for an authentic local lunch in one of the hillside trattorie.
Monte Baldo is a two-hour drive away and has the added perk of overlooking Lake Garda. Park your car in Malcesine and take one of the footpaths up the mountain for breathtaking (not just because of the ascent) views of the surrounding mountain ranges and the lake below. There’s also a cable car that’ll take you to the summit much quicker, in just 20 minutes. Depending on the time of year you visit, there are a variety of daring ways to descend Monte Baldo; if visiting in winter, you can ski or snowboard down the slopes, and in spring and summer you can either mountain bike back down, or for the best view, paraglide off the side of the hill, soaring to heights of 3,000 metres.
From Petrarch to Feltre and Verdi to Rubens, the towers, turrets and domes of Mantua have attracted many a famous face over the years; Romeo even called it home for a few days.
Hire a Vespa and you can whizz around the city’s main sites in the morning; or for a closer look at the historic hotspots, explore on foot. Start your day trip at the morning market in Piazza Erbe, where you can practically get a contact caffeine buzz just from all the coffee smells coming off the surrounding cafes. Also worth a visit in Piazza Erbe is the Torre dell’Orologio, a 13th-century clock by famed mechanic Bartolomeo Manfredi. The legendary timepiece also tracks the position of the planets, moon and stars, so try to decide if all the celestial bodies have aligned to ensure you’ll have an extraordinary trip (we’re pretty sure they have). Later, splurge on souvenirs along the Corso Umberto and Corso Vittorio, or bag a bargain at one of the outlet stores in Palma Abbigliamento.
At the bottom of the square, the 11th-century Rotonda di San Lorenzo is worth a quick visit on your way to Piazza Sordello where you’ll find the Duomo and Casa del Rigoletto (home of the jester in Verdi’s opera) and the Gonzaga’s royal residence, the Palazzo Ducale. This 500-room palace (don’t worry, you don’t have to view them all) is a majestic maze of frescoes, painting galleries, sculpture halls and chapels filled with works by artists including Pisanello, Perugino and Mantegna.
Once you’ve taken in enough history, it’s time to concentrate on what the city is really famous for – its food. Mantua is the home of tortelli di zucca (pumpkin tortelli flavoured with fillings such as parmesan and amaretto crumbs) and stracotto d’asino, a rich stew made with donkey meat marinated in red wine. Learn to cook like a local in a private cooking class with chef Elisabetta Arcari at Peccati di Gola. Or, let the masters do the hard work for you and dine at one of the city’s many restaurants. Top spots include Il Cigno Trattoria dei Martini, as well as the low-key Quattro Tette. If you’re feeling ambitious, put together a picnic with cheeses and meats from Bacchi Giovanni Salumeria on Via Orefici, and sweet treats from Panificio Freddi in Piazza Cavallotti, then hire a bike and cycle along the Mincio to a picturesque lakeside spot and dig in.
Featured image is Verona