For centuries the Venetian Republic ruled most of the northeastern region called the Veneto, but many of those inland cities had been around for centuries when the city of Venice was officially founded with the election of its first doge in A.D. 726. As ancient Roman strongholds, these cities had already lived through a glorious period. Verona has even been called "Little Rome" for its wealth of Roman sites and magnificent ancient amphitheater.
Until Napoleon arrived in 1797 -- whereupon he donated Venice to Austria (where it would remain until 1866) and broke up the regional power structure -- the Veneto shared in the bounty of the Serene Republic, its countryside a mixture of vineyards, fields, and summer villas. Many of the Palladian villas that dot the hills of the Veneto were once the extravagant legacy of wealthy Venetian merchants whose urban palazzi-cum-warehouses lined Venice's Grand Canal. The Veneto also boasts buildings that show the Byzantine-Oriental influence so prominent in Venice's Gothic architecture, some adorned with frescoes by Giotto, and later by the Venetian masters Tiepolo, Veronese, Titian, and Tintoretto. Columns topped by the winged-lion mascot of St. Mark and representing the Serene Republic -- a symbol of those distant, often glorious times -- still stand in the main squares of the Veneto's three great city centers: Padua, Vicenza, and Verona.
Indeed, the first architectural movement to sweep through the entire Western world has its roots in the Veneto. The geometric and classical form of the High Renaissance that local architect Andrea Palladio practiced became the model for the rest of the world's Renaissance builders -- from England's Inigo Jones to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Throughout the Veneto you'll find a wealth of Venetian Renaissance palazzi, frescoed churches, and basilicas, which makes a tour through the region a rewarding and fascinating trip.
The Veneto even had a hold on those who knew of its enchantments only from afar. Shakespeare may have never set foot in these parts, but "fair Verona" and the surrounding area so fascinated him that he chose to set some of his best works (Romeo and Juliet, Two Gentlemen of Verona) there.
Geographically, the Veneto is a region of great diversity. It abuts the Adriatic Sea to the east and shares Lake Garda with Lombardy to the west. Its northern boundaries reach up to the pale, pink-tinged mountain range of the regal Dolomites that separate Italy from the Austrian Tirol. The southern boundary is the mighty Po River, its relentlessly flat alluvial plains punctuated by the Berici Mountains south of Vicenza and the Euganean Hills near Padua. But the Veneto is really defined by the valleys flowing down from the Dolomites and Alps in the north: The Adige, Brenta, Piave, and other rivers make fertile the Veneto's middle hills, rich with the vineyards, fruit orchards, and small-scale farms that create the agricultural wealth that has been the Veneto's sustenance.
The Veneto's three major cities, Padua, Vicenza, and Verona, hold the most historical and artistic interest in the region, and they are all accessible by public transportation. Trains between these cities run on the Milan-Venice line and, hence, are inexpensive, frequent, and user-friendly. In fact, the distances between the cities are so small that you could very well stay put in Venice and tool into Verona -- the most distant of the three -- for an easy day trip. But this would be a great shame, since each of the cities warrants a slow exploration.
Enjoy the Veneto in the late afternoon and early evening hours when the day-trippers have gone; sip an aperitivo or take a leisurely passeggiata along streets lined with tiny boutiques. End your day with a moderately priced meal of home-cooked regional specialties in a characteristic wine tavern amid much bonhomie and brio, followed by a good night's rest in a small, friendly hotel located just off the postcard-perfect main square.
Spend time in the region's lesser-explored cities and small towns such as Treviso, Bassano del Grappa, and Asolo. All offer a host of excursions into the real countryside, where you need only a car or the slightest sense of adventure to jump on a local bus and enjoy the back roads and backwaters of the Veneto. Top it off with a leisurely cruise down the Brenta Canal to return to Venice.
The Veneto's food products are as diverse as its geography. From the mountains and their foothills come a proliferation of mushrooms and game. The northerly reaches around Treviso produce wild white asparagus and cherries in the spring and, in the late fall, radicchio, a red chicory that was renowned in ancient Roman times. Much of the cuisine is based on the rice and corn grown here; on most menus here you'll find polenta, which is served with a hearty game stew with hints of Austrian influence. Risotto is often served as a first course along with the season's vegetables or, more characteristically, offerings from the Adriatic on the east.
Unlike in Tuscany, olive oil is used sparingly here -- it is not unusual to see butter instead, which is so commonly associated with Emilian food. But above all, it is the Adriatic that dictates even the landlocked cuisines of the Veneto.
The proliferation of desserts is a throwback to when the Veneto was ceded to Austria -- sweet reminders are evident in many pastry shops. Tiramisù (lady fingers soaked in espresso and liqueur, layered with sweetened mascarpone cheese and dusted with cacao), is said to have originated in the Veneto and remains a favorite at Italian restaurants the world over.
The Veneto -- and Verona especially -- plays an all-important role in the production and exportation of wines: Soave, Bardolino, Valpolicella, and Amarone are world-recognized varieties that originate in these acclaimed vineyards. No other region in Italy produces as many DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, zones of controlled name and origin) red wines as the Veneto. The rich volcanic earth of the Colli Euganei produces a good number of these, while a light and fizzy prosecco hails from the hills around Asolo. Wine is an integral element in any meal, and it's no compromise to limit yourself to the local regional wines that are some of Europe's finest.
For more information on the Veneto, check out this good regionwide website: www.venetonet.com.