The Veneto

Tuesday 25th May 2010, Sottomarina, near Chioggia
Tonight we are camping at another typical Italian seaside resort, right beside the sea. There is the usual sandy beach, swimming pool, bar, restaurant etc and some much needed shelter by trees from the relentless heat of the sun. It's been around 32 degrees outside today, hotter still in Modestine. What must it reach in high summer? And how can people bear to leave their comfortable homes to spend a couple of weeks in an internment camp, cheek by jowl with their neighbours? Still, for us it's convenient, enabling us to visit Chioggia on the lagoon of Venice and perhaps take the vaporatti over for the day to once again wander the quays and canals of Venice. The staff at the site here are delightful. Taking one look at us they decided we'd prefer to be away from the seashore in a quiet glade of trees with just a few international campers of much our own age. How right they were! It's been very pleasant so far.

At the campsite last night Ian fell into conversation, with a German lady who was an English teacher. As they chatted in German she moaned about the difficulty of teaching teenage Germans and complained that her English had become bad in the process. She then asked Ian what part of Germany he came from! Ian's sunhat is sufficiently large to droop down over my ears if I try it on. Now though, it's like a pimple on a pumpkin, his head has become so swollen, and he's wandering around with a big grin on his face!

This morning we visited Comacchio, a delightful old town built on a network of canals crossed by old brick bridges, and offering a foretaste of Venice without the crowds, or indeed the prices. It was at Comacchio that Ian's addiction to manhole covers first began when we chanced on an international manhole cover exhibition here in 2006. You can read about the town in our earlier blog of 15th May 2006

In Comacchio this morning we called in at the library, a renaissance building on the banks of one of the canals. The exhibition of manholes had been replaced by one of prize-winning animal photography from around the world. In the library we were given free, unrestricted access to the internet, just as last time. We wonder how they get around the law but are only too happy to take advantage. It was a strange experience sitting beneath a ceiling painted with winged putti, clouds, naked bodies and flowers, to send our email messages.

Having wandered the canals, keeping always to the shady side, we stopped for lunch at a very pleasant waterside bar. Others were dining on the attached floating jetty but we asked to eat in the dark cool interior at the table nearest the electric fan! We'd been wondering what a piadina was so ordered a couple to find out. They are folded rounds of unleavened bread filled with Parma ham, and cream cheese. Perfectly palatable and very filling but, as with most Italian food, still rather boring.

Canal in Comacchio with the public library behind

Canal in Comacchio

We decided not to get our feet wet! Floating restaurant on the other side. Comacchio


We followed much the same route onwards as last time, avoiding the major route and travelling across the wide flat plain of the Po delta, following beside canals, up on straight but narrow dykes with the bread basket of Italy spread out as fields of wheat as far as the eye could see. There also appeared to be areas for rice cultivation. With barely a building or tree to be seen the flat countryside baked in the afternoon sun. It's an interesting area, with the wide Po River flowing sedately through it and the field of wheat scattered with bright red poppies.

Right, we're taking the evening off now to relax with a dvd.

Wednesday 26th May 2010, Sottomarina, near Chioggia
We are suffering somewhat from burn-out. It seems we have been on the go every day for as long as we can remember. The weather is far too hot for us and our brains are weary from overwork. Trying to cope all day, every day, in a language that is not your own can be wearing at times and at every new place we visit there is always so much to learn and discover.

We decided to give ourselves a "rest" and stay at this campsite for a couple of days. So this morning we were up and off nearly a couple of hours earlier than usual! Leaving Modestine chilling out beneath the trees we walked along the lane into town where we caught the bus to Chioggia, just four kilometres away. While Sottomarina is a modern seaside town on the Adriatic, Chioggia is protected from the sea by a land spit and sits on the edge of the lagoon of Venice. There are vaporette (waterbuses) to Venice every hour but today we contented ourselves with exploring the pleasant old fishing town of Chioggia. It, like Venice, is constructed on wooden piles, and sectioned up by canals, the cobbled streets of tall houses festooned with washing branching off from the main canals.

Arriving at Chioggia

Town gate with the lion of St. Mark, Chioggia

Canal in Chioggia

One of the advantages of streets of tall houses and palaces without many piazzas is that there is always shade somewhere. There was also a wonderful, gentle breeze from the lagoon, so we have been able to explore without feeling too sticky and hot. We found Chioggia very pleasant indeed without the crowds that overrun Venice and its neighbouring islands in the lagoon. Chioggia is too far from the excitement for most visitors to bother spending a couple of hours crossing from St. Mark's Square to stroll the streets and look at the fishing boats.

Main street with Venetian houses, Chioggia

Attractive facade on the main street, Chioggia

Fishing boats on the canal, Chioggia

Canal-side houses, Chioggia

Of course there are several very impressive churches in the town – roughly as many as there are bars, pastry shops and restaurants, which is quite a lot. Thankfully the Cathedral had a service on when we called - one less to bore you with. The neighbouring two were locked – my luck was in. Eventually though it ran out at the Chiesa Filippini containing several holy canvases including one, possibly by Tintoretto. This church has taught me to be grateful that Ian collects printers and pictures of manhole covers rather than religious relics! The walls around one of the side altars were covered in cloth of gold to which were decoratively sewn bits of bone, finger joints, teeth, jaws, vertebrae, ribs and femurs of the Great and the Good of the Catholic Church. In addition, from floor to high, arched roof were tiny glass phials holding minute slivers of bone, all neatly labelled with the name of the saintly owners. We even discovered a tiny piece of the skull of our own Thomas-a-Becket of Canterbury! How did they come by them all? It doesn't really encourage one to hope for canonisation. I certainly would never wish for my nail clippings, hair or bones to be displayed in Chioggia, or anywhere else, to be venerated by weeping Italians! Fortunately it's very unlikely to happen.

Cathedral, Chioggia

Holy relics. Arrow indicates Thomas-a-Becket's skull, Chioggia

Example of one of Chioggia's churches – San Giacomo

In complete contrast, we explored a hardware shop searching for a replacement thermos flask. Ours packed up a week ago and we've been searching every since. So for the rest of the day we've been triumphantly carrying around a bright orange thermos! It has also taken us several days to find some coffee filters, which are not generally used here. Now at last we can stop for picnics of decent filter coffee. Italians prefer tiny, very strong espressos. I guess it helps keep them alert when they're driving - overtaking, avoiding potholes and using their mobile phones all at the same time!

We found a shady side street to enjoy a couple of coffees and dolces (sweet cakes) sharing the terrace with local ladies happily chatting together. Next we explored the crowded fish market, piled high with all kinds of fish, squid, octopus and especially eels. These are a speciality of Chioggia, sometimes appearing in huge numbers in the lagoon. Most had been slit open and cleaned but some were still wriggling in their long, thin tank. There were also shell fish, shrimps, prawns, crabs and lobsters.

Entrance to the fish market, Chioggia

In the fish market, Chioggia

Ian was particularly fascinated with work in progress to fill in the Canale Vena, one of the town's main canals. Several streets looked as if they had once been canals and now work was under way, piling huge quantities of sand into the canal. It is apparently a rather drastic measure to save the town against rising sea levels.

A canal in process of disappearing, Chioggia

Bridges like this will be lost, Chioggia

Chioggia is not a huge place and by one pm we'd explored most of the streets, admired the many attractive buildings, sheltered from the sun under every arcade, watched a building being dismantled using heavy equipment operated from a nearby barge, and we were ready to return to Modestine.

Demolition work, Venetian style, Chioggia

First though we found a terrace with a pleasant view across the main street and ordered a carafe of chilled white wine and a mushroom pizza to share. It was a delightful way to relax for an hour. Making or way back to the bus stop in mellow mood we were held up by a luxury yacht making its way along the canal. The swing bridge had to be opened, delaying dozens of cyclists, drivers and pedestrians as it squeezed through a gap never designed to take such a wide craft. The delay meant we missed our bus back. The driver of another bus undertook to drop us off as near as his route went to our destination. This meant a longer walk than expected, but the cool showers when we got back were heavenly!

Thus ends our first day of relaxation. Tomorrow we are planning on going to Venice. You should see us when we are really busy!!!

Thursday 27th May 2010, Sottomarina, near Chioggia
This is not our first visit to Venice, nor indeed our second. As mentioned yesterday, this time we are relaxing so today's photos are simply a few impressions of our day. Our earlier accounts of Venice can be seen on 17th May 2006 and 26th April 2007 We also have some exceptional birds-eye view photos taken in the early morning from the 8th deck of the ferry ship as we returned from Greece on 30th May 2008

We probably wouldn't have chosen to travel to Venice the way we did today had we fully appreciated how long and complicated the journey would be. To start with, bus tickets here are bought in tobacconists. Our bus left at 7.55 but the tobacconist didn't open until 8am. The driver let us on anyway, giving us a free ride to Chioggia. It was market day and already the streets were busy with shoppers as we made our way to the vaporetti jetty. Naively thinking we were going to Venice by boat we settled back to enjoy the trip. Soon the boat docked at a cemetery where we were told the rest of the journey was by bus. We'd simply landed at the furthest tip of the Lido, a long sliver of sand bank that forms the lagoon, cutting Venice off from the sea. The road runs the full length of the spit with the lagoon to one side and the sea to the other. From time to time there are breaches in the sandbank. This does not perturb the bus drivers. Looking out of the window I realised we'd left the road behind and appeared to be travelling through water. The transport infrastructure is so well honed, the bus simply drives onto its special place in the ferry without stopping and the ferry immediately departs. Across the water we were straight off the ferry and tearing on down the next stretch of the Lido. Finally we were disgorged from the bus onto our final ferry to cross the lagoon to St. Mark' Square. It had taken us nearly three hours from leaving Modestine.

Never mind. The day has been very enjoyable. St. Mark's Square was heaving with tourists with long queues to see the Doge's Palace and the Cathedral. When we realised just how expensive they both were we decided we'd simply wander around the city and seek out some of the places we'd missed on earlier visits.

Figures in red porphyry seen on a column of St. Mark's, Venice

Byzantine mosaic and marble columns, St. Mark's, Venice

Soon the crowds thinned out. We stopped for a much needed coffee and shared a slice of pizza while watching the gondolas on the canal. It seemed ages since breakfast! We really don't quite know where we've been. We've climbed dozens of hump-backed brick bridges, discovered little courtyards, followed shady alleyways that suddenly end on the edge of a canal. We've crossed the Rialto Bridge and watched daily life on the Grand Canal. With a scream of sirens an ambulance boat sped up the centre of the Grand Canal on its way to the hospital. Gondolas and tiny sailing craft scattered to make way for it and the wake sent waves up over the sides of the canal!

Quiet corner, Venice

Now which city was this?

Traffic jam in Venice

Venetian canal

Rialto Bridge with poles for mooring gondolas, Venice

On the Grand Canal, Venice

I had a short-lived love affair with Venetian masks until I realised how impossible it would be to get something so fragile and feathery back to England in Modestine undamaged. Instead though, we did buy a couple of pretty blown glass bottle stoppers from the Island of Murano out in the lagoon. They are small and well packed so should survive.

A few of the thousands of masks for sale in Venice

One of the things about simply wandering is making surprising discoveries. We chanced on the Church of the Jesuits with its ornate Baroque façade. It was the inside though that amazed us. The walls were all decorated with intricate white and green inlaid marble while around the altars were frescoes continuing the same colours and pattern. The pulpit had what appeared to be heavy fabric drapes to match but closer inspection showed them to be made in stone! Standing in the centre of this wide-naved church the pattern was overwhelming! The brightly painted baroque ceiling was quite overshadowed by the decoration on the walls. There were also several religious oil paintings including one of the martyrdom of San Lorenzo by Tintoretto.

Church of the Jesuits, Venice

Church of the Jesuits decorated with marble inlay, Venice

Pulpit with marble decoration, Church of the Jesuits, Venice

It has been hot again today and we have been walking pretty well continuously. So we stopped for a beer and a sandwich at a canal side bar, at the foot of a flight of steps up over one of the very many canal bridges. Warning! Don't stay in a hotel in the heart of Venice. It may sound a dream but when you have to heave your luggage over countless bridges between the vaporetti stop and your hotel in the hot sunshine, the dream becomes a nightmare! Never have we seen so many hot and bothered tourists, many far too frail and elderly to cope with the steps even without their luggage.

Our return journey took nearly three hours, even with all the ferries and buses connecting so well. At least we got seats all the way home. After so much walking we were rather weary. The heat wave has broken. The rain poured down and lightening flashed as we crossed the lagoon to the Lido. It was still raining when we reached Chioggia, the cobbled streets running water. When the sea levels are almost the same height as the pavements there is nowhere for the waste water to drain. Indeed, we have wondered how the underground drainage system operates in Venice. After our kilometre long walk back along the lane in the rain we returned to the campsite soaking wet. It had never occurred to us this morning that it might actually rain!

Friday 28th May 2010, Lago del Corlo, Arsiè
We are fast leaving Italy behind. We still have a way to go before we are in Austria but we are already climbing up into the Alps and the atmosphere and scenery are both very different from the Veneto on the flat plains of the Po delta.

This morning we made our way to Padua, bypassing the centre on the ring road, and continuing northwards. At Castelfranco Veneto we stopped for a picnic lunch and a walk around the little town. It is a very pleasant place with a population of some 22,000. The old town is really a fort with four brick-built towers connected by crenulated walls each some 250 metres long. Around the outside there is a moat. Within there is a cathedral with a pink and white classical façade and several of the houses are decorated in the Venetian style with frescoes and incised patterns. The town's most notable son was the painter Giorgioni born in 1478. He taught Titian and died at the age of 32. The town makes much of him with statues and exhibitions.

Inside the city walls, Castelfranco Veneto

City walls and statue of Giorgioni, Castelfranco Veneto

Cathedral, Castelfranco Veneto

As we continued northwards, looming ahead we saw our first glimpse of the Dolomites. There is an abrupt transition from the flat plains to the wooded mountains. The weather too changed, the outline of the mountains just a dark blur through the mizzle.

At Bassano del Grappa we parked beside the Brenta river. In one direction the plains we'd just crossed, in the other, the mountains we have to face. We reached the old town on foot, crossing the massive wooden bridge for which the town is famed. It has been reconstructed many times. The present bridge is a copy of the original, said to have been designed by Palladio, but dates only from 1948.

Wooden bridge across the Brenta, Bassano del Grappa

On the wooden bridge, Bassano del Grappa

View from the wooden bridge, Bassano del Grappa

Bassano is noted for its ceramics, mainly tableware decorated in bright colours. It is also noted for its distilled liquors. Grappa, in the town's name, is a kind of brandy. We liked the town greatly. It has buildings decorated in the Venetian style, several attractive piazzas with shaded arcades, a huge and rather ugly cathedral and a large Franciscan church with attached monastery. This, and its green cloisters are now used to house the town's historical archives, library and museum. Upstairs there is a picture gallery with paintings by the town's best known artist, Jacopo da Ponte who died in 1592. He loved bright colours, was an expert at using the tromp l'oeil effect and was a favourite of Louis XIV.

One of the town's piazzas, Bassano del Grappa

Venetian style house and the Lion of St. Mark – symbol of the Veneto, Bassano del Grappa

Cloisters of the Franciscan monastery, Bassano del Grappa

We were especially impressed though with the ceramics in the town museum. These had nothing to do with the town's pottery activities. They formed a collection of exquisite pieces of Greek decorated ware in red and black. All had been found, gathered or collected down in Apulia, the far south east corner that forms the heel of Italy. Many were Greek in origin but some presumably came from the region. They were all in excellent condition, with lively figures in black and red. There were several large vases, urns and jugs as well as dishes, bowls and plates. The pieces had been collected by an archaeologist working in the area. Why he chose to give them to Bassano, rather than a museum in Apulia, we do not know.

Fresco seen in the town museum, Bassano del Grappa

Ceramic vases found in the far south of Italy, dating from around 3rd century BC, Bassano del Grappa

Ceramic vase found in the far south of Italy, dating from around 3rd century BC, Bassano del Grappa

Almost every shop in Bassano that isn't selling ceramics or grappa is selling ice cream! It all looked delicious. As we tried to decide which flavour we wanted the threatening rain arrived and our enthusiasm for ices evaporated as we sought somewhere for a hot coffee and a chocolate muffin for Ian instead.

The rain didn't last too long and the air felt far fresher afterwards while the steep, green hillsides were now clearer after the rain. We wound our way along the valley floor, still following the Brenta while the Dolomite mountains hemmed us in on either side.

Back in the mountains, north of Bassano del Grappa

The road carried us into a tunnel running for several kilometres through the hillside. Deep in the heart of the mountain were traffic lights! Workmen were resurfacing a stretch of road and we waited in a long queue for our turn to pass. We found it very claustrophobic and it brought it home to us quite forcibly that some people have very unpleasant jobs to do. The workmen must be in there working all day for weeks on end with just a few lamps to see by and the constant roar of passing vehicles. Believe me, the noise in there is very loud indeed! The heavy lorries and motorbikes in particular are quite deafening - and as for the pile driver!!!!

Once out on the far side we were deep in the mountains with flowery meadows and winding side roads leading up into the hills. We followed a lane through a little village to find ourselves on this rural campsite beside a deep green lake, the surrounding hills covered in forest and the grass on this shore filled with blue and yellow flowers. Vines are growing here, there is the constant sound of crickets and swallows dive-bombed us as we ate supper outside this evening.

Lago del Corlo, Arsiè