Milan to Venice

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Milan to Venice

For Padua onwards see route d). This route is entirely motorway A4 for 165 miles. The two regions are Lombardy and the Veneto. It takes the northern plain of the Po, still predominantly flat though at times beginning to give way to the foothills of the mountains to the north. Even though the mountains are close by there is absolutely no Alpine feel to the drive. After Vicenza the landscape becomes totally flat. If you have the time and inclination you might want to stop for a couple of hours to break up the journey in Sirmione on Lake Garda or in Verona. neither is a long detour and both are well worth the effort.

Bergamo (25 miles) off the motorway to the north. The old town or città alta, still surrounded by its medieval walls, sits on a hill; the new town spreads out below it on the plain. A bit of a boom town, the economy is based on clothes manufacture, metal works and tourism. The composer Donizetti was from here, as was the explorer Constantino Beltrami who discovered the source of the Mississipi.

You pass close to Brescia (55 miles) but don't see it. On the way to Verona you cross from Lombardy to the Veneto. This is the plain which comprised the Venetian hinterland from the C16 onwards, including the cities you will pass today like Verona, Vicenza and Padua. The two regions share the lake to the north, Lake Garda. The former border between them is at Peschiera del Garda where you can still see the old Venetain frontier fort, strengthened by Napoleon and used later also by the Austrians. You might just catch a glimpse of the lake itself here, the largest in Italy at 32 miles long and 11 miles wide. It is a famous holiday area. The year-round temperature is perfect and the landscape, which rises in drama as you head up to the mountains, is magnificent, an oasis of Mediterranean climate in Alpine scenery. There are cypress trees, olives, palm trees and citrus orchards (you won't actually see any of these). This is the region of the Valpolicella and Bardolino red wines. Thie great Roman poet Catullus made his home on Lake Garda in the gorgeously sited peninsular town of Sirmione. Many wealthy Romans built holiday homes here, as many wealthy Italians do today (and many wealthy Germans besides).

If you stop at Sirmione it's well worth it. It's a fairly long walk from the bus parking to town but you pass along by the impressive C13 Scaliger castle and when you reach the charmingly picturesque centre there are hundreds of ice-cream places, restaurants, pizzerias, souvenir shops etc. The castle or Rocca Scaligera, once visited by Dante, is still visitable (entrance charge). The view from the top of the tower is magnificent. Otherwise the great attraction is right at the tip of the peninsula, the Grotte di Catullo (entrance charge). This romantic name doesn't actually refer to a cave — that is a pleasant literary conceit in honour of Catullus — but to a vast and ruined Roman villa. It is a romantic place in itself, as well as being very impressive. Again the views on to the lake are superb.

Verona (90 miles)  250,000 inhabitants, situated on a bend of the river Adige. This is one of the most beautiful cities in Italy. An important Roman town, it was one of the main strongholds of Cisalpine Gaul. The Roman amphitheatre here, dating from about 100 AD, is massive and one of the best preserved in Italy. It rests on 74 arches, has 44 tiers of seating and a capacity for 22,000 people. In July and August every year it holds a spectacular opera festival whose perennially popular highlight is Verdi's Aida. Two plays by Shakespeare are set in this town, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and, of course, Romeo and Juliet. The Montagues and Capulets really existed, Montecchi and Capuletti in Italian, and their which came to a head in 1302 was also real. Until the arrival and domination of the Venetians this was a city of feuding families, most notably the Visconti and the Scaligeri who built the great medieval centre that survives today.

If you visit the town you should start at the amphitheatre on Piazza Brà (entrance charge to the amphitheatre), walk down the attractive pedestrian shopping street Via Mazzini and turn right on Via Cappello to the Casa di Giulietta (entrance charge if you want to go in). This may or may not be Juliet's house but it doesn't matter. It's the right date and it has a balcony you can shout "Wherefore art thou?" from. Then head back along Via Cappello to Piazza delle Erbe, a picturesque medieval square with a market, shops, cafes, etc. This was the ancient Forum.

Soon after leaving Verona you will start to see the vimeyards of Soave which produce one of the finest white wines in Italy. The big castle on the hill to the left is C14, a former stronghold of the Scaligeri.

Vicenza (125 miles)  115,000 inhabitants. Another very handsome city, but this time predominantly renaissance. The reason for this is Vicenza's most famous son and the greatest architect of the Italian renaissance, Andrea Palladio (1508-80). He almost single-handedly designed the entire centre of town. You can see some of his buildings in Venice, e.g., San Giorgio Maggiore.

You have now left behind the gentle foothills of the Monti Berici and are entering the heart of the Venetian plain which you now follow past Padua to Venice (165 miles).

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