Italy, the North and Venice
Aosta & the Aosta Valley
In the southern shadows of Mont Blanc many towns and villages still have French names and the inhabitants still speak French and other dialects. This region has a special political autonomy and the local economy is focused primarily on pastoral activities and the tourists coming through the tunnels of the Grand Saint Bernard and Mont Blanc. Aost is the capital at the junction of major transalpine roads leading to France and Switzerland. The area is a magnet for ski lovers and alpinists, and is surrounded with the breathtaking scenery of the nearby Mont Blanc, Matterhorn (Cervino), and the Gran Paradiso, which is part of the splendid Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso.
At the foot of the mountains, as the names says, this region is a watershed for the main River Po, which flows over 400 miles towards the Adriatic, and all it small affluents which are flowing across the main valley. Asti wines are produced in Piemonte, as well as the famous gorgonzola cheese.
Torino, crossed by the Po, is much more than an industrial city for housing FIAT or other famous car manufacturers. The historical center is compact and can easily be visited by foot, even under the rain, since elegant covered arcades are aligned along the main streets. Do not miss the Piazza San Carlo, the Museo Egizio, the Galleria Sabauda, and the Palazzo Carignano. Of course for those who love cars you should also visit the Museo dell’Automobile Carlo Biscaretti di Ruffia to see an extraordinary collection of cars exhibited in a vast modern building.
Flowing eastward the River Po also crosses Lombardia, which covers the large plain between the Ticino and the Mincio rivers. With the Adda, these 3 rivers supply the major lakes in Northern Italy: Lake Maggiore, Lake Como and Lake di Garda.
The mulberry bushes, mostly grown in the district of Brianza, are the source of the extensive local silk industry. Rice growing was developed in the district of Lomellina. Banking, which started in the Middle Ages and grew widely during the Renaissance, made the Lombards famous all over Europe.
Many towns have grown and thrived with the development of their industries and specialties: Silk in Como, steel and chemicals in Brescia, textiles in Bergamo, petrochemicals and engineering in Mantua. But these names evoque more than industrial wealth, they all offer to the tourist their centuries old history, architecture and culture.
Pavia is a beautiful fortified city was once the capital of the Lombard kings in the MIddle Ages. It is the site for one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded in the 11th century. Considered the intellectual capital of the region, its most famous alumni were Petrarch and Leonardo de Vinci.
Allow a couple of days for your visit to Milan, which is second largest city by size but the principal center for commerce, industry and banking in Italy. A circle of boulevards surround the old medieval city and have replaced the remparts from which two gates are still standing: Porta Ticinese and Porto Nuovo.
Visiting the Duomo will take several hours divided between the extraordinary flamboyant Gothic exterior of white marble and the severe and bare contrasting interior. Take time to go to the terrazzi and to visit the Museo del Duomo. Many other museums are also worth a visit, among those we recommend the Pinacoteca di Brera and Castello Sforzesco. Even if you do not have the opportunity to spend an evening at the Opera, a visit to the Teatro alla Scala will show why it has become the most famous opera house in the world. Nearby you can relax in the Vittorio Emanuele II Galleria, which is full of cafes and restaurants.
It is not easy to see one of the most important Milanese treasures without advance reservation. The “Last Supper”, painted between 1494 and 1498 by Leonardo da Vinci, is well protected in its original place, on the wall of the dining room of the former convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Group of 25 persons maximum can enter one group at a time to see it, every 15 minutes. Do not count on your luck to get in at the last minute!
The third region located on the Po plain and its delta is Veneto, overlooked by the Venetian prealps and further north by the towering Dolomites. It is a productive agricultural region producing wheat, maize, mulberry bushes, vineyards, and olive and fruit trees. All of the industrial activity is concentrated around Mestre-Marghera, on the mainland side of Venice. The coastline is interspersed with a multitude of lagoons, and Venice is built on piles in one of these lagoons.
This legendary city has been married to the sea for over 1000 years. It is unique as no cars are not permitted within the city limits essentially all transportation is done by boat. Windy winters can be freezing and hot summers may elicit a little smell, but these moments are rare and under every sky Venice will always surprise and enchant you.
If you are on a low budget plan a day visit with an overnight in Mestre or Padova, which are just minutes away on the train. But to experience the true romantic feeling of Venice be prepared to spend at least 2 nights on Venice Island and make your life easy by pre-arranging transfers including luggage and a nice hotel. Learn to use the vaporetti, which are the local ‘busses’ on water, and we recommend you buy on arrival a 1, 2 or 3 day pass which will give you unlimited rides. It is very easy to get lost in the narrow, winding streets, crossing multitudes of bridges…. But you will always return soon or later to the Grand Canal, the Piazza San Marco, or the Rialto Bridge.
On Piazza San Marco you will find the Campanile, the Basilica San Marco and the Palacio Ducale (Dodge Palace). Nearby is the Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs). Later, if time permits you can visit the extensive collection at the Venetian Art Le Gallerie Dell’Accademia, or if you are interested in Jewish history you can go to the Ghetto, or Jewish quarter, and visit the museum and the synagogue.
Other islands forming Venice are also interesting. The Lido has great beaches in the summer. Either with vaporetto or by organizing a private tour you can spend a day excursion to visit Murano and one of its several glass factories; or Burano, a quaint and colorful little island which specialises in lace-making; then Torcello, a lightly populated small island with interesting old buildings and the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta.
For the most romantic experience, don’t be shy to negotiate your Gondola Ride with musicians and singers. And if the price does not go down, then request for a longer ride and don’t forget to time it!
Trentino – Alto Adige
This region is one of the few in Italy to have a special autonomous statute. People here are mostly of Austro-Germanic descent. They speak German and their culture is German. The Brenner pass links Italy to Austria and opens on the Adige Valley. Trentino – Alto adige shares the Dolomite Mountains with Veneto. The “Dolomite Road”, between Bolzano and Cortina is a two day ride covering 130 miles, and is a world famous work of civil engineering. As far back as the Renaissance merchants would travel this road between Venice and Germany.
is the capital of the region. Lovely little houses of Tyrolian style were built in the 16th century between Piazza Walther and Via dei Portici. The pink Duomo roofed with glazed multicolored tiles goes back to the 5th and 6th century. The Otzi Museum is an archeological museum illustrating the history of Alto-Adige. The city surroundings are covered with orchards and vineyards.
Friuli – Venezia Giulia
This also is an autonomous political region of Italy, and is located east of Veneto and stretches to the Slovenian border. Large forests of cover the mountain ranges, which are called the Carnic Alps. Silkworm breeding and spinning is one of the most important economic activities. Udine and Trieste are the two main cities of this region.
The charms of this small city comes from its many Middle Age and Renaissance monuments, the squares and narrow streets often lined under arcades, the Piazza della Libertà, the Castillo, and the Duomo. A terrible earthquake damaged Udine as well as many other places in Friuli in 1976.
The Roman road Via Emilia gave its name to this region as it stretches from Piacenza to Rimini. The area south and east of Bologna is known as Romagna. It is a rich agricultural area with fertile soils producing wheat, beets, and mulberry in the Po Valley, while vineyards thrive along the slopes of the Apennines.
Bologna is mostly known for its university, which along with Paris is considered the oldest university in Europe. Paris was known for its school of Theology while Bologna developed as a School of Law administered directly by its students. Thanks to the wealth of it agricultural base, it is also considered the gastronomic capital of Italy. The city center is formed by three adjoining squares: Piazza Maggiore, Piazza del Nettuno and Piazza di Porta Ravegnana. Palazzo Comunale, Palazzo del Podestà, Basilica de San Petronio and the two leaning towers, Torri Pendenti, are the main monuments in the city center.
Red brick houses, charming piazzas, and severe palaces are part of this quiet town where many artists have lived through the centuries and formed the Ferrarese School of painting. The massive Castello Estense stands in the Old Town and is guarded by moats, fortifications and draw bridges. The 12th century Duomo presents a magnificent facade. The medieval streets, the synagogue, the Palazzo Schifanoia, Casa Romei, Palazzo di Ludovico Il Moro, are also noteworthy parts of the Old Town. Not far away is the Renaissance Town, with Corso Ercolo 1 d’Este, Palazzo Dei Diamanti and Palazzo Massari.
The narrow, sharp valleys of Liguria are all aligned at right angles into the Mediterranean coast. Genoa it situated between the Riviera del Ponente in the West, towards the French border,and the sea resorts of San Remo, Bordighera, Cinque Terre (Five lands) lying southeast in the Gulf of La Spezia. The coastline is best seen from the sea, but there are also rugged rocky corniche roads and numerous footpaths. The scenery is extremely attractive and small fishing villages have developed in the bottom of the small sheltered bays. Portofino is the most famous of these and there are numerous excursions available by boat from Genoa and along scenic roads going to San Lorenzo della Costa, Portofino Vetta, San Fruttuoso, Belvedere di San Rocco or Camogli.