Virtually every acre of the Veneto bears the imprint of Venetian rule – Venice dominated this region for centuries and is still the capital of the province today. In Belluno, right under the crags of the Dolomites, the style of the buildings declares the town’s former allegiance, while the Lion of St Mark looks over the market square of Verona, on the Veneto’s western edge. On the flatlands of the Po basin (the southern border of the region) and on farming estates all over the Veneto, the elegant villas of the Venetian nobility are still standing.
Yet the Veneto is as diverse culturally as it is geographically. The aspects of Verona that make the city so attractive were created long before the expansion of Venice’s terra firma empire, and in Padua – a university seat since the thirteenth century – the civilization of the Renaissance displays a character quite distinct from that which evolved in Venice. Even in Vicenza, which reached its present form mainly during its long period of subservience, the very appearance of the streets is proof of a fundamental independence.
Nowadays this is one of Italy’s wealthiest regions. Verona, Padua, Vicenza and Treviso, 30km north of Venice, are all major industrial and commercial centres, while intensive dairies, fruit farms and vineyards (around Conegliano, for example) have made the Veneto a leading agricultural producer too.
The Veneto’s densest concentration of industry is at Mestre and Marghera, the grim conurbation through which road and rail lines from Venice pass before spreading out over the mainland. It’s less a city than an economic life-support system for Venice, and the negative impression you get on your way through is entirely valid. Some people trim their holiday expenses by staying in Mestre’s cheaper hotels (Venice’s tourist offices will supply addresses), but venturing further inland is a more pleasurable cost-cutting exercise.
The southernmost of the three main rivers that empty into the Venetian lagoon, the Brenta caused no end of trouble for the earliest settlers in the area, with its frequent flooding and its deposits of silt. By the sixteenth century, though, the canalization of the river had brought it under control, and it became a favoured building site for the Venetian aristocracy. Some villas were built as a combination of summer residence and farmhouse – many, however, were intended solely for the former function. Around one hundred villas are left on the river between Padua and Venice, though only a handful are open to the public, of which two are outstanding: the Villa Fóscari and the Villa Pisani – both accessible by bus from Venice.
One of the overlooked gems of the Veneto, Treviso makes an ideal jumping-off point for the northern Veneto. Treviso was an important town long before its assimilation by Venice in 1389, and plenty of evidence of its early status survives in the form of Gothic churches, public buildings and, most dramatically of all, the paintings of Tomaso da Modena (1325–79), the major artist in northern Italy in the years immediately after Giotto’s death. The general townscape within Treviso’s sixteenth-century walls is appealing too – long porticoes and frescoed house facades give many of the streets an appearance quite distinct from that of other towns in the region, and wandering the maze of backstreets and canals is a pleasant way to while away an hour or two. Treviso was pounded during both world wars and on Good Friday 1944 was half destroyed in a single bombing raid, but enough survived or was rebuilt to restore the atmosphere of the old streets.
Castelfranco Veneto once stood on the western edge of Treviso’s territory, and the battlemented brick walls the Trevisans threw round the town in 1199 to protect it against the Paduans still encircle most of the old centre (or castello). Of all the walled towns of the Veneto, few bear comparison with Castelfranco, and the place would merit a visit on the strength of this alone, even without the magnificent painting by Giorgione that it also possesses.
When Treviso turned Castelfranco into a garrison, the Paduans promptly retaliated by reinforcing the defences of Cittadella, 15km to the west, on the train line to Vicenza. The fortified walls of Cittadella were built in the first quarter of the thirteenth century, and are even more impressive than those of its neighbour. You enter the town through one of four rugged brick gateways; if you’re coming from the train station it’ll be the Porta Padova, the most daunting of the four, flanked by the Torre di Malta. The tower was built as a prison and torture chamber by the monstrous Ezzelino da Romano, known to those he terrorized in this region in the mid-thirteenth century as “The Son of Satan”. His atrocities earned him a place in the seventh circle of Dante’s Inferno, where he’s condemned to boil eternally in a river of blood.
Situated on the River Brenta, Bassano has expanded rapidly over the last few decades, though its historic centre – the area between the Brenta and the train station – remains largely unspoiled. For centuries a major producer of ceramics and wrought iron, Bassano is also renowned for its grappa distilleries and its culinary delicacies such as porcini mushrooms, white asparagus and honey. Although it has few outstanding monuments or fine architecture, Bassano’s airy situation on the edge of the mountains and the quiet charm of the old streets make it well worth the trip.
East of Bassano, the medieval hilltop town of Asolo presides over a tightly grouped range of gentle peaks in the foothills of the Dolomites. Known as la città dei cento orizzonti (“the city of the hundred horizons”), the town has proved convivial to many writers and artists: at the end of the fifteenth century Cardinal Bembo, one of the most eminent literary figures of his day, coined the verb asolare to describe the experience of spending one's time in pleasurable aimlessness; Gabriele d'Annunzio wrote about the town; and Robert Browning’s last published work – Asolando – was written here.
The hills surrounding Conegliano are patched with vineyards, and the production of wine – prosecco in particular – is central to the economy of the town. Italy’s first wine-growers’ college was set up in Conegliano in 1876, and a couple of well-established wine routes meet here: the Strada dei Vini del Piave, which runs for 68km southeast to Oderzo and concentrates on the region’s red wines; and the more rewarding Strada del Prosecco, a 42km journey west to Valdobbiadene. The main square is given over to a medieval pageant in mid-June, the Dama Castellana, and the streets of Conegliano host a major wine festival on the last weekend in September.
Some 13km north of Conegliano, Vittorio Veneto first appeared on the map in 1866 when the towns of Ceneda and Serravalle were knotted together and rechristened in honour of Italy’s new king. A town hall was built midway between the two, with a new train station opposite, in a sort of no-man’s-land.
Belluno was once a strategically important ally of Venice, and today is the capital of a province that extends mainly over the eastern Dolomites. Belluno's main attraction is its position, in the lee of the mountains, but the old centre calls for an hour or two’s exploration if you’re passing through. The hub of the modern town is the wide Piazza dei Martiri.
Top image: Colorful houses of beautiful Belluno town in Veneto province, northern Italy © leoks/Shutterstock