Heritage & Culture in Tuscany

 

     by Bard Sullenger

Perhaps you’re thinking of a first trip to Italy? Or have been before? Why not indulge again or for the first time, in the art and history, the sights and tastes of the Veneto and Lombardy regions of Northern Italy. Endowed with more than its share of beautiful scenery, artistic treasures and mouth watering food and wine, the northern tip of the “Boot” has long been a haven for travelers seeking charm and romance in a more tranquil setting.   

From its glacier carved foundations, the canvas of Northern Italy has been shaped by Roman occupation, marauding tribes from Germany and Gaul, ill intentioned Popes and Doges, the rise of powerful city-states and age of enlightenment. Today however, the centuries old towns and buildings preserve a glimpse of life gone by, such that we might glimpse Dante or Machiavelli stalking the cobbled streets.

In Roman times, conquered peoples were absorbed into the empire and their lands converted to outposts and garrisons, often to serve as a buffer against marauding tribes or provide goods to Rome. 

The development and importance of Venice sprang from the invasion of Attila the Hun and other tribes sweeping the mainland in the waning years of Rome’s dominion. The local inhabitants were forced to seek shelter on the inhospitable islands and lagoons of the northwestern tip of the Adriatic Sea, and thus Venice was born. Needless to say, she grew and thrived, and owing to her unique location at the fulcrum of civilizations, was soon riding the coattails of an ever-expanding trade and commerce between East and West.

Strolling through its narrow streets and over the wonderful arched bridges, Venice can be calm and quiet, but enter into the Piazza San Marco, “the drawing room of Europe” according to Napoleon, and the bustling city springs to life. Watchful and silent, the Basilica of St. Mark’s Byzantine arches and domes gaze over the busy piazza and Grand Canal that are the very heart of this city. Once inside, the twilight interior is pierced by the brilliant use of gold mosaic tiles adorning the walls and domes in fascinating decoration.

While Venice was growing, so too were the towns of Verona, Mantua and Padua. Verona was always a favorite of the Romans for its strategic location on the River Adige and even Shakespeare used it as the setting for his unlucky lovers, Romeo and Juliet. Today this lively city lures travelers with its delicate piazzas, tradition of fine art and cobblestone streets - but don’t forget the boutique shopping and dining. Coiling its way through the heart of the city, the Adige reflects the rose-colored buildings and lovely bridges in its lazy currents. The city is centered around the oval shaped Piazza delle Erbe, which on market days is busy with local venders selling goods, gossip and delicacies.

Padua, just a hop on the A4 from Venice, is home to one of Europe’s oldest and most important universities, which has educated such figures as Dante, Galileo and Petrarch. Padua’s streets in the old city are porticoed, a medieval look offering shelter and the chance to tuck into a wide variety of shops, cafes and restaurants.

Nestled between Padua and Verona is the town of Vicenza, known as “the city of Palladio”, from  the legacy of magnificent villas he created for the leading families of the day. To add another feather in Vicenza’s growing cap, it was listed a few years ago on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.

Less then three hours drive west from the world of art and intrigue that kept Dukes and Doges alike on their toes for centuries, lies a placid world of verdant semi-isolation. The city of Como, situated at the southern tip of Lake Como’s left arm, has enjoyed a position of prestige and fancy since Roman times. It has inspired poets and composers such as Verdi, Rossini and Liszt, enjoyed top billing as a Roman retreat, and today, is a beautiful setting for travelers touring the lake region. The town’s historic center is little changed from antiquity and abounds with cafes, shops and gorgeous views from the Piazza Cavour. Tucked in along the shores of the lake are magnificent 17th and 18th century villas and gardens created for royalty and the well heeled. The Villa Carlotta, a wedding gift to Princess Carlotta of the Netherlands, and a highlight of our Northern Italy tour, is just a short boat trip across the lake.

As can be imagined, there are just too many visits to list and no way to describe all the beautiful sights and delightful towns that lie between mountain and plain along the route from Venice to Lake Como. Nevertheless, this is another region that we have visited for years and found to offer a high level of art, historic and intriguing towns and delights of the table. For any aficionado of Italian life, countryside and la Dolce Vita, the north is a visit to be sought after with all the relish and grit it required to put it on the map.