Lake Garda is a triumph of colours, perfumes, landscapes and tastes so distinctive and original that you’d feel you need a lifetime to discover them all. Whatever the season, you can always find a pretty village to explore, a gourmet restaurant to try, a vineyard to admire or a sport to practice. You should not forget, however, that the lake is surrounded by extraordinary cities that bear witness to the magnificence of Italy, authentic custodians of a unique tradition that you can find only on the peninsula. One treasure after the other, one amazing artwork after the other, one architectural marvel after the other, you will find yourself wondering if this fabulous treasure hunt knows any boundaries. You may call it an embarrassment of riches; we like to define this the land of your dreams.
To the east of Lake Garda, Verona is the quintessential city of love, where the Della Scala family ruled in the Middle Ages, until Venice took control of the city in 1404. Shakespeare gave the city eternal fame by setting his tale of tragic love and family feuds here, and so his play Romeo and Juliet sparks images of romantic adventures the world over. Beyond Juliet’s balcony – most probably nothing more than a tourist attraction – lies a multitude of extraordinary museums and palaces, not to mention the Roman Arena. Built in the 1st century AD, it has survived thought the millennia and is still used to this day for famous operas and concerts, hosting up to 30,000 people. Pay a visit to enter the world of ancient Rome. If modern Italian art takes your fancy, do not miss the Achille Forti Modern Art Gallery, displaying masterpieces by Umberto Boccioni and Giorgio Morandi, as well as Francesco Hayez, among others. And then there are remarkable churches, and many of them. Sant’Anastasia is the biggest of them all, displaying a masterpiece by Pisanello, the fresco portraying Saint George and the Dragon. The Duomo is the first Christian church in the city, built by the patron saint, Saint Zeno. If you want to find his burial place, however, head to San Zeno’s church. This marvel of Romanesque architecture hosts a very beautiful altarpiece by Mantegna, as well as two staggering bronze doors depicting stories from the Old Testament; admire the 13th century rose window and then relax in the cloister. Piazza delle Erbe is where you’ll find market stalls and posh cafes, Piazza Bra one of the biggest squares in Europe and Piazza dei Signori is where you’ll breathe the city’s ancient history, with palazzi aplenty and a statue of Dante to keep a close eye on it all. Walk along one of its 7 bridges, including the Roman Ponte di Pietra, to see the powerful relationship with the river Adige.
Mantua me genuit
The birthplace of the Roman poet Virgil, Mantua is surrounded by three small lakes and its history displays the vicissitudes of one family, the Gonzagas, who reigned from the early 14th to the 18th century. Similar in tastes, climate and atmosphere to neighbouring Emilia, the city hosts several unique masterpieces, chiefly the unparalleled Palazzo Ducale, an immense, 500-room palace. This is where you’ll find Andrea Mantegna’s 15th century Camera degli Sposi fresco. A wonder of trompe-l'œil and spectacular 3D vision, it shows the marquis Ludovico III Gonzaga and his entourage, in a potent rendering of courtly life. Admire the witty and playful ceiling, where putti and courtiers balance precariously on the balcony. Palazzo Te is the mannerist masterpiece you were waiting for: the project of Giulio Romano, pupil of Raphael, it was commissioned by Federico II Gonzaga: explore its many rooms, in particular the Sala di Amore e Psiche and the Sala dei Giganti for exceptional frescoes. Visit the many gardens, such as the Belfiore Gardens, then come back in the spring to admire the many flowers blossoming, especially lotus flowers and water lilies. Head into the centre and peruse along Piazza delle Erbe, Palazzo della Ragione and the many churches, such as Sant’Andrea, designed by the Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti. Finish off with a café and a delicious Sbrisolona or Elvezia cake: a feast for your palate.
The university city
Home to Italy’s second oldest university, Shakespeare set his Taming of the Shrew in Padua, already well known during his time as a place of respectful knowledge. Get lost in the many alleys and streets and step back in time. The city is very close to Venice and this is evident in its architecture, nonetheless it was a very powerful city-state that fought hard for its independence. This is where you’ll find Giotto’s unparalleled masterpiece, the Cappella degli Scrovegni. No matter how scholarly you may be, nothing prepares you for the awe and admiration of this fresco cycle, rendered in such a moving and modern manner by the 14th century Tuscan artist. Scenes from the life of Christ depict strong emotions, rendered with a very vivid approach, aided by exceptionally bright colours. This fresco cycle changed the history of art forever: men no longer saw themselves as vassals, but as vessels for the divine. Caffè Pedrocchi is where you’ll want to be for a stylish aperitivo, then it’s Piazza dei Signori and Piazza delle Erbe for playful gatherings. The immense church of Sant’Antonio is a famous pilgrimage site where you’ll see relics of the patron saint, as well as Renaissance treasures. Above all, this is still a student city, the soul of the university, founded in 1222, still beating very strong: the erudite scholars who attended the university contributed to the development of medicine between the 16th and 18th century, as shown in the Museum of Medical History, containing historical artefacts and an Anatomical Theatre. Do not miss the Musei Civigi agli Eremitani, containing masterpieces by Bellini, Giorgione, Tintoretto and Veronese. Finish off with a nice walk at the Botanical Gardens, which date back to 1545, containing a plant that features in Goethe’s Italian Journey, and is still used as a learning and research centre to this day.
A Palladian dream
Modern, vibrant Vicenza, the fourth largest city in the Veneto region, owes its UNESCO heritage listing to its adoptive son: Andrea Palladio. You can hardly walk anywhere in town without feeling the strong legacy of this brilliant 16th century architect and stage designer. Palladio created some of the most iconic villas and buildings in northern Italy and it’s Vicenza you want to head to, to gain an insight into his artistry. Perhaps the most famous is the Teatro Olimpico, a marvel of perspective and proportions: begun in 1580 by Palladio, inspired by Roman amphitheatres, it was finished by Vincenzo Scamozzi, who added a stage set modelled on the Greek city of Thebes. The clean, orderly proportions of the Basilica Palladiana, which dominates the south-east side of Piazza dei Signori, are impressive. Modelled on a Roman church, it once housed Law Courts and the Council of Four Hundred; it is now a superb venue for events and exhibitions and it hosts the Jewel Museum, displaying a vast array of superb historic and contemporary jewellery. To the north of the central Corso Palladio, Palazzo Chiericati is home to the civic museum, which contains works by the Vicenza School of artists and Venetian masters such as Carpaccio, Veronese, Tintoretto and Tiepolo. It is the Almerico Capra Villa, better known as La Rotonda, however, that perhaps steals the shown on any Palladio tour. Inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, its square structure is entirely symmetrical, with a portico on each side, topped by a dome. The interior displays elaborate frescoes and trompe l’oeil architectural features and it is connected to nearby Villa Valmarana by a 10-minute footpath.
The city of sighs
Made up by 118 islands, Venice seems too good to be true. Shakespeare must have really fallen in love with Italy, as he set his Othello and The Merchant of Venice in the floating city, and countless other painters, writers, film makers and artists could not resist the charm of this impossibly beautiful city. Venice is a triumph of opulence, unique architecture, elaborate palazzi and world-famous views from one of its 400 bridges. The main island is shaped like a fish and the best way to approach it is surely by water: take a vaporetto and marvel at the stunning buildings of this bold city that still stuns and staggers. You cannot miss the beauty of Piazza San Marco and Basilica, with the magnificent campanile – where Galileo tested its telescope in 1609 – that offers superb views of the city. Palazzo Ducale, once the Doge’s official residence, crowns the perfect aestheticism of the square with its imposing, rosy façade and rows of columns. Head to the Accademia for a lesson in Venetian art, or the stupendous Peggy Guggenheim Collection if you fancy a trip down modern art lane, with staggering masterpieces by Magritte, Kandinskij, Picasso, Gino Severini and Constantin Brancusi. Do not miss the 12th century Rialto Bridge: burnt and collapsed a few times, the bridge you see today was completed in 1591. The Jewish Ghetto, to the north of the island, is the oldest in the world and was created in 1516: the word itself – ghetto – stems from here. Amid all this beauty, find time to visit a cicchetteria for quick snack and un’ombra di vino - a glass of wine.