Tuesday 23 January 2018

Venice: Venetian Blinder

The Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute
The Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute
Paul at Verona's Roman Arena.
Lido de jesolo

Paul Whitington

Probably because I read too much Thomas Mann at an impressionable age, I always imagined Venice and the beaches that surround it to be gloomy, fog-bound places suffused with an atmosphere of regret.

So when I arrived in the resort of Lido di Jesolo, I was pleasantly confused to find it bustling with noise, colour and life.

Originally a string of islands in an Adriatic lagoon, it was colonised by the Romans then invaded by the Francs. By the early 20th century, extensive land reclamation created new farmland and an embryonic tourist resort.

Now, Lido di Jesolo boasts 15km of fine beaches and is one of the most popular resorts along Italy's northern Adriatic coast. It's not hurt by its proximity to Venice, only 25km away, and the resort has a laid-back charm of its own.

The white-sand beach is long and duneless. Our hotel, the Helios, had free spots by the water, which was pleasantly turbulent and great for swimming.

Hawkers wandered by selling water, panini and gelati, and a burly Thai woman offered massages in a steely tone that made them sound obligatory.

The resort's long main street throngs after dark with lobster-red northern Europeans looking for food and good cheer. There's no shortage of restaurants, including some good seafood joints offering fresh fish, clams and shrimp for prices that bear little relation to those you'll pay in downtown Venice.

There are two easy ways to get to Venice from Jesolo. The first is a bus from the Piazza Drago which will take you directly into the Piazzale Roma. That's the cheapest route, but not the most interesting.

Another bus from the same stop will take you over Jesolo's flat farmlands to the Punta Sabbioni, the ferry terminal, where you can board a small boat that will drop you off at the Piazza San Marco.

I've seen the Venice skyline so often, in everything from Canaletto landscapes to the lids of chocolate boxes, that I was expecting to be underwhelmed. I should have known better.

The city's low, baroque skyline rises slowly but dramatically from the murky waters of the Laguna Veneta, and the Centro Storico is announced by fortified islands which once defended the richest city on the planet.

The Piazza San Marco is one of those iconic places that's overwhelming in its familiarity. As I entered from the quays it was bathed in summer sunshine and hardly changed from its 16th- century heyday, though there has been the odd cosmetic retouch.

In 1902, the magnificent Campanile tower of St Mark's Basilica developed a hairline crack up its north wall and collapsed, crushing the caretaker's unfortunate cat.

The tower was painstakingly rebuilt.

In the late Middle Ages the city state got rich on the trade of silks, rice and spices, and became a major imperial power.

Venice was the New York of its time, the Campanile a modest precursor of the Empire State.

The Piazza San Marco retains a whiff of imperial glory, and certainly hasn't lost its sense of self-importance. A cup of coffee or a beer at one of the square's ritzy cafés may require an advance call to your bank manager, and more affordable pit stops can be found a couple of streets away.

Venice is not a big city: about 270,000 souls inhabit the greater metropolitan region, and only 60,000 or so are lucky enough to live in the Centro Storico itself.

It doesn't feel small, though: on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore alone, you quickly get lost in a maze of back streets as you stumble from one gorgeous baroque landmark to another, and start down promising lanes that end suddenly with a drop to the water.

It's an elusive, mysterious city: getting lost is the only way to truly get a sense of it. There's pretty good food, too. Bar counters serve cicchetti, or hors d'oeuvres of crab claws, spiced meatballs and boiled eggs with anchovies.

Octopus features heavily on menus, and local specialties include risotto, creamed cod, spaghetti with clams or cuttlefish and pasta e fagioli -- a tasty winter soup.

After a few days in Jesolo, we boarded a train inland to Verona. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, this jewel of a city is so overladen with gems of Roman and medieval architecture it's impossible to take it all in on one trip.

A favourite retreat of Julius Caesar, Verona was conquered by Charlemagne and Napoleon, became a stronghold of fascism during the Second World War and is now one of the biggest tourist destinations in northern Italy.

The town's historic centre is dominated by the magnificent Roman arena, built in 30AD. Since the 1850s operas have been performed in the old arena, which is blessed with superb natural acoustics that once transmitted a very different kind of scream.

Every summer the arena hosts a festival that attracts hundreds of thousands of opera lovers (see panel). But booking is essential. I was unlucky enough to arrive at a time when nothing was on, and had to content myself with a stroll around the empty auditorium.

The old city spreads outwards from the arena, and is littered with Romanesque wonders such as the Ponte Scaligero and the magnificent Basilica of San Zeno Maggiore, with its distinctive high bell tower that earned a mention in Dante's 'Divine Comedy'.

There's splendour above ground and beneath. Now and then along Verona's busy streets you'll find a Plexiglass slab that gives you a glimpse of the Roman foundations that sit underneath the modern town.

Sometimes, though, the power of myth trumps architectural beauty, and a lot of visitors to Verona make straight for the so-called Romeo and Juliet house on the Via Cappello.

The 13th-century villa was once owned by the Cappello family, who may have been the bellicose Capulet clan referred to by Dante and shoehorned by Shakespeare into his star-crossed love story.

A tentative link, but it's enough to attract hordes of visitors, some of whom attach messages to the walls dedicated to an imaginary woman who seems to have become the patron saint of hopeless love affairs.

It may be the favourite excuse for a trip to Verona, but I can think of about a hundred others. Such as sitting at one of the excellent restaurants that face the arena along the Piazza Bra and drinking in the intoxicating atmosphere of this stylish and easy-going little city.

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