Veneto, one of the northeastern regions of Italy, is mostly known for Venice and Prosecco. Fair enough. But the northeast of Italy spans from the Adriatic Sea, to Lake Garda, to the Dolomites. In the shadow of La Serenissima are unique towns that are star-shaped; are much older than Venice and still inhabited; or simply offer sweeping views of the land.
1. Torcello and Burano
Sparsely-populated Torcello was an important port for centuries, benefiting from close ties with Byzantium. There’s even a Venetian-Byzantine-style Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, founded in 639. The Basilica contains the earliest mosaics in the Venice area on top of being one of the most historic religious edifices in Veneto. On top of the recently restored bell-tower the view of the archipelago is unobstructed, the land virtually free of settlements except for the tiny yet eye-catching Burano.
Burano (not to be confused with the Murano) is the ferry stop before Torcello. Also of Roman founding, it is actually four tightly-packed islands connected by bridges. Burano is notable for two features: lace making by hand-and-needle, and the tiny houses’ brightly-colored patterns.
Zig-zag among the alleys of Burano, stop on the bridges (which might not have a parapet, like the Ponte del Diavolo in Torcello), and enjoy the buildings colors especially at sunset. In Torcello and Burano you’ll be immersed in history, canals, colors, but you’ll see few tourists.
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On the southeastern corner of the Venice Lagoon is Chioggia, a small island which resembles a miniature Venice. Calli (narrow alleys) are alternated by canals with bridges, with perfectly laid slab pavement. Some tiny roads allow (tiny) cars, but the island is virtually pedestrians only. Stop-and-go at the several Medieval churches along your walk. You can’t get lost (I tried), because the streets running east-west are uninterrupted.
If you want to walk for longer, cross the bridge connecting to Sottomarina. One of Chioggia’s frazioni (nowadays a quarter), Sottomarina sits on a triangle of land that closes the lagoon. The area is a bit more modern. It overlooks the Adriatic Sea on the west and the Lagoon on the east, which gradually part from each other as you go south. The two sights are pretty different. The Adriatic coast is straight, windy, with sandy beaches and an unobstructed view. The Lagoon coast is jagged, with calmer waters and no beaches. You can walk the long and very wide sandy beach on one side, and along a green car-free path on the other.
3. Arquà Petrarca
Moving inland east from the Venice Lagoon is the Colli Euganei Regional Park. These hills stand isolated within the Po Valley (Pianura Padana). Arquà Petrarca sits on top of the hills. The town doesn’t have a proper center, it’s all jagged and developed between the parte alta (high side) and parte bassa (lower side). Walking along the steep narrow roads includes a lot of going-and-coming from short streets but it is quite interesting. Medieval buildings open up to the green land without notice, such as at the XI century Santa Maria Assunta church. The almost-white stone-walled church stands over you on one side, the hills tower over you on the other side, and yet you have a sweeping view of the Colli. At one of the town’s highest points, the elegant Restaurant Montanella, you can see all the way to the Pianura Padana. It’s green all around you and very quiet (unless the restaurant is busy).
4. Valeggio sul Mincio
Just under the south-east corner of Lake Garda is Valeggio sul Mincio. This tiny town packs a punch in terms of history, architecture, and locations for visitors. It has been at the center of rivalling factions, empires, and armies since the Bronze Age, and the current town sports a variety of buildings and fortifications from the Medieval period onwards. They are all well-kept and open to the public, such as the Scaligero Castle, which overlooks the green countryside from the top of a mound. The town is just north of the Parco sul Mincio Nature Reserve and is the best urban stop along the 27-mile-long cycle path that runs north-south from Lake Garda to Mantova along the river.
The town’s hotspot is the frazione Borghetto sul Mincio, especially the cluster of water-mills (some still functioning) that sit in the river. You can visit them because they now host cafes, guestrooms, and restaurants. From there you have a great view of the still-in-use Visconti Bridge, which breaks the viewline of the river Mincio and is a favorite photo subject.
Walking through Valeggio you’ll pass narrow streets, archways and countless wooden shutters, but Borghetto is a perfectly restored Medieval town immersed in a lush countryside.
5. Bassano del Grappa
Bassano sits at the feet of the Venetian Prealps. Its name is inherently connected with the all-Italian Grappa, but the town offers more. Always look up while walking the narrow streets in the historic center. You have views of the rising green hills, a lovely backdrop for the lightly toned buildings, mostly white and ivory. You’ll also notice the various Venetian-style windows, such as the tripartite, or the more ornate Venetian-Gothic.
The snaking River Brenta, on the east side of town, is flanked by buildings which creates ever-changing views of the hills and the bridges, especially the Ponte Vecchio. Also called Ponte degli Alpini, just around the corner from the main square Piazza Libertà, it was originally designed by none other than Palladio and it’s one of the few (only one?) covered wooden pontoon bridges in Italy.
Right by the Ponte Vecchio are many grapperia, if you fancy grappa-tasting, while many osteria around the main square will satisfy your appetite.
Called by G. Carducci, “La Città dei Cento Orizzonti” (The City of a Hundred Horizons), Asolo sits on the hills at foot of the Alps, not far east from Bassano del Grappa. It is a fortified town with a small stronghold. The streets are narrow and all the buildings are historic with quite a few portici. The cobblestone paving is a feature just as much as the narrow streets. This atmosphere contrasts with the 360° view of the land from the Rocca (the stronghold). It is quite spectacular from up there. The towering Dolomites are north, the Venetian Plain is south and green all around. It is very quiet, unless you hear cheering and laughing from the osteria in town.
Palmanova (in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region) is simply the only town in Italy planned and shaped as a 9-pointed star. Originally a citadel, its walls are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although the low buildings are not particularly decorated, the plan’s geometry has an interesting appeal because you feel its regular pattern while walking through the streets, and soon end up in the big central nine-sided square. The geometric plan is a nice contrast with the walk around the walls, because you catch a glimpse of the buildings on one side while you have a view of the sparsely populated, undulating green countryside on the other. Walk or bike the path, which also has a number of detours to wander around the fields. It’s never really busy.