If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the Veneto region of northern Italy on the Gulf of Venice. Venice is its best-known city and one of the most popular tourist destinations on earth. But the Veneto region is a lot more than this great city. There are excellent tourist attractions elsewhere, and you won’t have to fight the huge crowds. With a little luck you’ll avoid tourist traps, and come back home with the feeling that you have truly visited Italy. This article examines tourist attractions in southern Veneto. Be sure to read our companion articles on northern Veneto, on that Shakespearean city of Verona, and on the university city of Padua.
Our tour of southern Veneto resembles a circle; one that isn’t quite closed. We start our tour in the central Veneto city of Vicenza, one of the wealthiest cities in Italy. We bypass Padua and go southeast to the coastal town of Chioggia. Then we head back southwest to Rovigo, travel west to Lendinara, and then finish our tour by going northwest to Montagnana. We could continue north back to Vicenza. Or we could visit other parts of Veneto.
Vicenza, population one hundred twenty thousand, has had a checkered past. Over the centuries it passed from one occupier to another. Its heyday was in the Sixteenth Century as the home of Andrea Palladio, often said to be the most influential person in the history of Western architecture. He designed many of the city’s buildings and all over the Veneto region. About two dozen of his Veneto villas compose a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Palladio was a major influence on Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and probably on half of the state capitol buildings in the United States. Don’t even think about touring Vicenza without visiting several of his masterpieces.
The Basilica Palladiana is a Fifteenth Century Renaissance building in the central Piazza dei Signori, finally completed thirty years after his death. Its most notable feature is the loggia, an open-sided, roofed or vaulted gallery, either freestanding or along the front or side of a building, often at an upper level. Put simply a loggia is like a veranda but built on the foundation and from the same materials as the building itself. In his honor a loggia is sometimes called a Palladian window.
The Teatro Olimpico (Olympic Theatre) is Palladio’s last work and one of his best. It is widely considered the first modern example of an enclosed theater. Actually he died six months into its construction but this magnificent building was completed from his sketches and drawings. The building includes five hallways designed to look like streets; each spectator has a view of at least one street. Unfortunately the theater was abandoned after a few performances. The Teatro Olimpico now hosts productions, but only in the summer because winter heating might damage its fragile wood structures.
Palazzo Chiericati is a Renaissance palace that took well over a century to complete. It was built in an area called Piazza dell’Isola (Island Square, now Piazza Matteotti), surrounded by two streams. It became the Museo Civico (Town Museum) in 1855 and, more recently, the City’s Art Gallery.
We have left arguably Palladio’s greatest work for last. Villa La Rotunda whose full name is Villa Almerico-Capra in honor of the Capra brothers who finished the building. This villa was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome and has been the inspiration for perhaps a thousand buildings across the globe. Strictly speaking Villa La Rotunda should not be called a rotunda; it isn’t circular but takes the shape of a cross grafted on a square. While the edifice appears completely symmetrical in fact it isn’t. No mistake here, it was designed to fit perfectly into its surroundings and the city of Vicenza on the horizon. Neither Palladio nor its owner lived to see it completed. Villa La Rotunda is in private hands and has belonged to the same family for over two hundred years. Its interior is open to the public on Wednesdays, except in the winter. The grounds are open to the public everyday.
Chioggia, population fifty thousand, was once the center of local salt production. Perhaps that’s why Genoa destroyed it more than six hundred years ago. Chioggia returned as a fishing port and a tourist attraction. It’s on the Venetian Lagoon about an hour’s boat ride from Venice that it resembles with its canals and Venetian architecture. You’ll enjoy strolling on the Corso del Popolo (the People’s Thoroughfare) with its cafes, restaurants and shops. Chioggia’s Cathedral is old enough to have been restored in the Fourteenth Century. Other sites of interest include the Campanile (Bell Tower) about two hundred ten feet (sixty four meters) high and the Fourteenth Century Gothic church of San Martino.
The town of Rovigo, population about fifty thousand, is rich in history and culture. Its most famous cultural institution is the St. Stephen Cathedral built prior to the Eleventh Century and rebuilt in the Fifteenth and the Seventeenth Centuries. Be sure to see its interior artwork. Other churches worth visiting include the Thirteenth Century Immacolata Concezione (Immaculate Conception), the Fourteenth-Fifteenth Century Gothic-Romanesque Church of St. Francis, and the Sixteenth Century Chiesa della Beata Vergine del Soccorso (Church of the Blessed Virgin of Soccorso) with a bell tower over ninety feet (55 meters high).
The Teatro Sociale (Social Theater) is almost two hundred years old. Its exterior has five statutes representing the arts. Inside are paintings of famous opera composers. The season is short from October to April but you need not know Italian to enjoy the performances.
Several Rovigo Piazzas (Squares) have maintained their historic character. The largest is dedicated to Emperor Victor Emmanuel II and is the site of several palaces. Palazzo Nodari has become the city hall. Palazzo Roncale has become Pinacoteca dei Concordi (Concordi Gallery), one of the most important art galleries in Veneto. The building dates back to the end of the Sixteenth Century and many displayed paintings predate the building itself. The Fifteenth Century Gothic Duomo (Cathedral) faces this Piazza. Given its many restorations and renovations Romanesque and Renaissance period features abound. The Piazza has a statue to the emperor and a Saint Mark’s lion.
How can you tell if a Veneto town is peaceful or not? The answer is quite simple; go to its Leone di San Marco (Saint Mark’s Lion) statue. Take a close look at the tail. If the tail points down the town is peaceful. If it points up watch out; there may be trouble. Rovigo’s lion had a tail that pointed down. This call for peace didn’t stop Napoleon’s soldiers from destroying the statue. The statue that you see today was erected in 1881, and its tail still points down.
We finish our tour of Rovigo with a quick look at two other Piazzas. The first is dedicated to the guy who got Victor Emmanuel II his job, so to speak, the Italian revolutionary hero, Giuseppe Garibaldi. The Piazza Merlin, known by locals as Piazza Roma, was built at the site of the city’s Jewish Ghetto, demolished in 1930. The stone inscription at the main gate is now illegible.
Lendinara, population about twelve thousand, sits on the Adigetto river, and boasts beautiful palaces along both banks. Be sure to see its historical center with monuments dating back to the late Middle Ages when the Lendinara was often at war with Verona. Stop in the municipal library to view rare illuminated manuscripts.
The Thirteenth Century Church of San Biago was first built in the Thirteenth Century and renovated in succeeding centuries. Its interior includes some lovely, historic artifacts. The Cathedral of Santa Sofia was built in the Eleventh Century on an existing chapel. Be sure to see its beautiful paintings and frescoes. You can’t miss the early Nineteenth Century bell tower; at 160 feet (100 meters) it’s one of the tallest in Italy. The Santuario Madonna del Pilastrello (Sanctuary of the Madonna of Pilastrello) was built in the late Sixteenth Century to honor some miracles. No matter how you feel about miracles, the buildings and the surroundings are beautiful.
Montagnana, population about nine thousand, is a medieval city surrounded by walls with four gates and twenty-four fortified towers resembling castles.
This city is really unique and you should see it from outside the walls when the sun is setting. Montagnana dates back to the Thirteenth Century when the town was rebuilt. Its highlight is the Castello San Zeno (Saint Zeno Castle) built by the infamous Italian dictator Ezzelino da Romano, who previously ordered the city burnt to the ground. Mister da Romano actually merited mention in Dante’s Divine Comedy where his soul was consigned to you know where. In a sense one has to thank him for one majestic castle, originally set inside a dry moat and built around a center courtyard. The moat, crossed by a drawbridge, was filled in during the 19th century. The Castle’s highest tower, the mastio or donjon, is open to the public and provides fabulous views. Castle San Zeno also houses the Municipal Historical Archive, the town Library, a Theatre Company, and a Study Center devoted to the protection of the castle and its surroundings, with quite a collection of books, maps, artifacts, and other items of historical significance.
The Sixteenth Century Palazzo Pretorio on the town’s main piazza, which is still the town’s municipal hall, was restored during the Seventeenth Century. The Palazzo Magnavin-Fioratti started out as a Gothic style building, but over the years the additions and renovations have given it a more typical Sixteenth Century Venetian Renaissance style.
What about food? In spite of the great variety of food available in this once poor but now fairly well off part of Italy many people often ate foods that we might find strange. I’m not talking about lamb and sheep’s milk cheese from the Rovigo area. Pigeon is a specialty both in Padua and other localities. Padua has a specialty made from salted, dried, and smoked horsemeat that I haven’t tasted. I draw the line at Stracotto d’Asino, a donkey meat recipe often served as a pasta sauce. Some say that you have to simmer this concoction for seven or eight hours to tenderize the meat. I don’t think I want to find out.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Risotto Nero (Risotto with Cuttlefish). If you don’t like Cuttlefish and its ink you won’t have trouble finding many other Risottos. Then try Baccalà Mantecato (Dried Cod with Nutmeg, Parsley, and Olive Oil). For dessert indulge yourself with Salame al Cioccolato (Chocolate Salami, Shortbread Biscuits, Figs, Butter, and Cocoa). Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We’ll conclude with a quick look at Veneto wine. Veneto ranks 3rd among the 20 Italian regions both for the area planted in grape vines and for its total annual wine production. About 45% of Veneto wine is red or rosé, leaving 55% for white. The region produces 24 DOC wines and 3 DOCG wines, Recioto di Soave, Soave Superiore, and Bardolino Superiore. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine The G in DOCG stands for Garantita, but there is in fact no guarantee that such wines are truly superior. Almost 30% of Venetian wine carries the DOC or DOCG designation.
Bardolino Superiore DOCG is produced west and northwest of Verona near Lake Garda from a variety of Italian and international red grapes. This wine is living proof that Garantita is no guarantee of high quality, some are and some are not.