Far from the tourist crowd

VENICE is beautiful but always thronged with visitors. Roger Ratcliffe goes in search of lesser-known jewels nearby.

Venice used to have more praise lavished on it than any other city. The old slogan “See Venice and die” suggested that you would journey home safe in the knowledge that, whatever else may happen, you had just seen the most exquisite place on earth. Truman Capote once said Venice was “like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.”

But ever since those Grand Tours by the European upper-classes a couple of centuries ago the city’s narrow streets and bridges and maze of canals have been crowded for much of the year. Over a century ago the novelist Henry James was complaining that the only thing wrong with visiting Venice was the visitors.

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Which is how I came to find myself avoiding the throngs that fill St. Mark’s Square and browse the famous stalls on the Rialto Bridge. Instead, I headed for Chioggia on the south side of the long Venice lagoon, still near enough to the city to just about make out the belfry atop St. Mark’s Basilica if I squinted hard enough, but far enough removed to feel as though I had gone native and joined the Venetians in their daily lives.

Chioggia – pronounced “key-oh-jah” – sits beside one of the three inlets connecting the Venice lagoon with the Adriatic Sea, and is the region’s biggest fishing port. Although coming here’s a bit like tourists from abroad going on holiday to York but spending their time in Hull, Chioggia does have a unique charm that the vast majority of visitors to Venice will never experience.

The port is seen at its absolute best before lunch, by which time boats and ferries are disgorging a few tourists at the landing stages on Piazzetta Vigo, and then again later in the afternoon when they’ve gone back to the bustle of St. Mark’s and Chioggia is returned to its townsfolk.

You’ll find most locals cramming the pavement cafes in the mile-long main street of Corso del Popolo, which in the late-afternoon sun resembles an open-air party. If you wander off on either side of this street you cannot avoid coming back to water, and from many angles the canals and bridges actually look no different to their Venice cousins. Indeed, since Chioggia is older than Venice it may well be that this was the template used by the Venetian architects.

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Many of the old buildings are a variety of pastel shades, as if they were deliberately painted with watercolour artists in mind, and look stunning against the azure sky and mirror-still canals. Otherwise the port is dominated by two impressive structures: the great 13th century campanile of San Andrea church (wherein is housed Carpaccio’s last known painting, St. Paul), and the cathedral or Duomo.

But the essence of Chioggia is found on its fishing quays, and especially by visiting the pescheria or fish market, which is open every morning except Monday and provides a wonderful treat for the eyes, ears and nose.

Along the quays are moored fishing vessels with distinctive steel baskets used for catching the lagoon’s most valuable commodity – bibarasse, or small clams. You can sample these in any local restaurant but, better still, take one of the boats from the landing stages to any of the dozens of small platforms in the lagoon that specialise in cleaning and serving clams straight from the water. You’ll never taste shellfish fresher than this.

But to see what the Veneto region has to offer away from the Venice lagoon, I went off to explore two cities raved about by guidebook writers, and both of them did not disappoint.

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A thirty-minute train ride from Venice but, like Chioggia, mostly ignored by tourists, is Treviso. It has a lovely medieval core with long porticos over pavements and quiet tree-shaded squares and cafe-filled piazzas.

Treviso is best-known in Italy as the birthplace of the international fashion brand Benetton, and the centre is good for shopping, especially if you want to pick up hard-to-find ingredients for Italian cookery. The most interesting part of town is at the end of Via Carlo Alberton, where the city’s antique sellers reside – Treviso is one of the top bargain-hunting destinations in Northern Italy.

But if you choose just one place for an excursion from Venice it should be the city of Vicenza, just 40 minutes on the train, with street after street filled with the architecture of Andrea Palladio.

That’s Palladio as in “Palladian”, the style of European buildings he popularised in the 16th century based on the classical temple architecture of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and to which York owes the design of its famous Assembly Rooms and Nostell Priory its grand façade. In Vicenza you get to see a city filled with Palladio’s original work and it will come as no surprise to learn that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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The one you can’t really miss is slap in the shopping centre, the imposing Basilica Palladian with a tall tower known as the Torre di Piazza. The city’s most famous individual sight is the Teatro Olimpico, Palladio’s last work. A theatre modelled on those of ancient Rome, it incorporates a fabulous permanent stage set designed for a Greek tragedy.

You can also take a coach tour round some of the many mansions he built for squillionaires on Vicenza’s outskirts, places like the splendid Villa Valmarana ai Nani, which has statues of dwarfs throughout its gardens.

Returning to the centre, it’s worth spending the evening here. The trattorias are excellent, and cheaper than in Venice, and the Palladian buildings should be seen in their floodlit grandeur. If Venice is a box of chocolate liqueurs, then you might think that Vicenza looks like a sumptuously-iced designer wedding cake.


* Jet2.com operates frequent flights from Leeds-Bradford and Manchester Airports to Venice Marco Polo. Prices start from £19.99 one way. For details and bookings visit www.jet2.com

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* In Chioggia Roger Ratcliffe stayed at l’Hotel Grande Italia. For details visit www.hotegrandeitalia.com

* At Treviso he stayed at the Hotel Villa Contarni Nenzi. Further information at www.hotelvillacontarininenzi.com

* At Vicenza he stayed at the Hotel Da Porto. Details on www.hoteldaporto.it

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