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Once upon a gondola…

From the dramatic peaks of the Dolomites to the rippling waters of the Venetian Lagoon,Veneto is arguably one of the most diverse and arresting regions of Italy.

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For over a thousand years the area was an independent state ruled over by Venice, and enjoyed the material and reputational benefits of commercial and maritime supremacy.

As such it has attracted both tourists and immigrants for centuries, a trend that continues today; in 2008, almost 10% of the population was foreign. Holidaymakers are enchanted by Veneto’s breath-taking scenery, its mild climate and cultural heritage, all of which create a tantalising formula for adventure.

The scenic route

Veneto is home to the largest lake in Italy, Lake Garda, which draws in visitors from all over Europe to bathe in its clear, cool waters and unwind on its shores. Stretching across three provinces and surrounded by morainic hills, it offers endless opportunities for walking, cycling, sailing and golf, not to mention an abundance of spa facilities designed to provide wellness services and relaxing treatments. For the more adventurous, the region offers lots of sports such as climbing, diving and canyoning; La Rocca Camp (IT63600) in Bardolino is a prime location to try paragliding at Malcesine. A short cable car journey to the top of the mountain is followed by a 6,000ft descent gliding in tandem with an instructor and affords truly spectacular views of lake and its surroundings.

Art and history lovers can explore the various medieval villages, castles and villas dotted along the lake’s shoreline. The Palazzo Bettoni dominates the scenery at Gargnano and is an outstanding example of 18th century architecture. Built by Adrian Cristofori, it is adorned with statues from Roman mythology. The interior features original Rococo staircases and the villa is surrounded by beautiful Italian gardens.

Further north are the powerful Dolomites, rising towards the sky and reflecting its rosy and purple hues at dusk. During the summer they are the perfect hiking location – a palette of greys, browns and deep greens that give way to glacial lakes and the cropped grass of meadows at the valley bottoms. Active holidaymakers will find themselves walking for up to five or six hours, encircled by spectacular views that can’t fail to lift the spirits. When tired feet call for a rest there are plenty of spots to stop for a picnic and admire the landscape.

During winter, the ragged peaks are concealed under a blanket of snow and become a paradise for skiers and snowboarders, with over 1,000km of piste. The Dolomites, however, are not reserved solely for those looking to whizz downhill. Unspoilt hamlets such as Arabba and Corvara provide an antidote to the commercialised ski resorts and there are various opportunities to try alternative activities such as snowshoeing.

While Venice is known for its gondolas, they’re not the most cost effective way to get around. Use the vaporetti (water buses) to get up and down the Grand Canal – it’s best to get a travel card rather than paying for individual trips; these cover land transport on the Lido and in Mestre too.

The carnival city

Standing in Venice’s Piazza San Marco in the company of the magnificent basilica and the Doge’s palace, it’s difficult to reconcile the surrounding grandeur with the city’s somewhat colourful past. Birthplace of the best known carnival in Europe, at which the population hid behind the masks of Columbina and Arlecchino and engaged in gambling, drinking and licentiousness, Venice fell foul of the Catholic church more than once and was excommunicated by several Popes in an effort to control its power.

Today, there are little more than echoes of its former supremacy, or indeed its moral indiscretions. Away from the bustle of the main tourist spots – San Marco, the Rialto, the church of Santa Maria della Salute – Venice is a more sedate labyrinth of multi-coloured facades, secret squares and meandering waterways crossed by stepped bridges. It’s a place where everything is transient, dependent on the mercy of the waters that pervade it, and this impermanence is not lost on its people. From the Tintoretto paintings tucked away in small churches to the painstaking maintenance of the canals, Venice’s inhabitants are all too aware of their precarious position in the lagoon. Winter visitors can’t fail to notice this either, particularly during acqua alta, when the waters rise to flood the squares resulting in the rather comical sight of suited Venetians in bright wellingtons and waders.

Curious visitors are best off discarding their maps, pocketing their guidebooks and simply losing themselves in this wonderful city. The joy of exploring Venice lies in stumbling upon hidden cafés, discovering unknown churches and wandering the streets taking it all in. Stop for a bite to eat in the bacari, small bars that serve snack food and wine, and don’t miss the chance to drink coffee the Italian way, served ready to drink at the bar.

Across the water, the spell of Venice is broken as the shores of the Lido and Cavallino Treporti advance. Separated from the main city, the latter is an ideal place to stay, where visitors can enjoy the sights of Venice and its islands as well as some leisurely strolls along the headland. With several campsites to choose from, families can always find a suitable pitch and plenty to do, from eating out at local restaurants to trying sports activities.
 

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