One of northern Italy’s greatest strengths is the diversity of its vibrant cosmopolitan cities. We’re not talking about diversity among their residents but rather in their cultures, customs and ambiance. Each city possesses its own character and soul.
Prior to its unification, Italy was divided into several small kingdoms and republics, more so in the north than in the south. Northern Italy is a mosaic of marvels and has become synonymous with sophistication for precisely that reason. To display the depth of its diversity, we’re casting a spotlight on three northern Italian cities with three very different allures. Stretching from the east coast to the west, Venice, Verona and Viareggio are perfectly placed to help you understand what words cannot. These three V’s are the fruits of history’s toil, and serve a colourful cocktail of cultures to all who visit. So, take a look and we’re sure that you’ll agree – northern Italy exemplifies the word ‘bellissimo!’
This city of over a hundred islands and a wealth of winding waterways needs no introduction. The obvious and even obligatory thing to do while you’re here is to take a ride on an iconic gondola while taking in the city sights, but what else is there to do in Venice? What don’t you already know? Well, we’re glad you asked, because between the canals and colourful canopies of its many waterside bars, Venice contains a whole host of hedonic treasures. From intimate secret wine tours around the city’s cellars, to mouth-watering meals in its numerous eateries and its thriving contemporary art scene, Venice typifies the Italian appetite for enjoying life’s finer things.
As a coastal city, traditional Venetian cuisine centres on seafood, but you won’t be hard pressed to find familiar national dishes from other regions. A useful tip to bear in mind when eating at an Italian restaurant is that in some establishments, it’s customary for pasta and meat dishes to be served as different courses, so if one of you is a meat eater and the other a veggie, be sure to request that your meals are brought out at the same time. Should you visit Venice in late January or early February, then you may just catch one of the city’s oldest traditions, the Carnival of Venice, which traces its roots back to the year 1162. The carnival celebrates Venice’s unique culture of mask wearing and making, and sees the streets filled with masked enthusiasts in elaborate costumes, providing a surreal and spectacular backdrop to what is already one of the world’s most aesthetically pleasing cities.
Shakespeare fans will recognise Verona as the setting of his most famous romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. But this city in the heartland of northern Italy is better known amongst Italians for something similar to Shakespeare’s works but different in a melodic way. During the warm summer months, right in the centre of the city, Verona’s ancient Roman amphitheatre plays host to what has been described as one of the best operatic experiences in the world. Thousands flock to the two thousand year old Arena di Verona every year to catch emphatic performances of classic operas, Aida and Carmen. If this kind of cultural experience sounds like exactly what you’re looking for, then our recommendation is a stay at the Palazzo Victoria Hotel, situated just a few minutes’ walk from the amphitheatre.
Fair Verona is so steeped in Italian history and culture that the whole city has world heritage site status. You’ll find roman ruins, medieval churches and even the fabled Shakespearean balcony of Juliet’s house dotted around the city. Of course, it wouldn’t be an Italian city if it didn’t have a wealth of culinary delights to tempt your taste buds, and one restaurant to look out for in particular is Il Desco, an elegant, atmospheric father and son establishment, which rightly and proudly sports a coveted Michelin star.
Our third and final northern Italian V is Viareggio, a small town just outside of Pisa and home to an extraordinary carnival that takes place throughout February. Consisting of a parade featuring large floats adorned with famous figures, the carnival of Viareggio was first held in 1873, when a number of local citizens decided to stage a protest signifying their refusal to pay newly imposed unfair taxes. Unlike the international tourist-trodden towns of Milan, Rome and Venice, Viareggio draws crowds from all over Italy, making it a great place to gain a sense of Italian people and their culture as a collective. If you’re planning to see the three V’s as part of a self-drive around Italy, it’s interesting to note that the route between Verona and Viareggio makes a large V on the map, as seen below.
Aside from the spectacular array of floats, the festival is filled with food, music, dancing and theatre, capped off at the end with a huge firework display. There are also prizes awarded for the most imaginative floats, but you may want to brush up on your Italian to understand who’s won what. However, language barriers seem to be more like ‘language lines on the ground’ in Italy, which locals traverse often and with ease to make you feel more welcome and included. Most notably, the Nonnas (grandmothers) in Italy have a habit of interacting with strangers and making their experiences of Italy more memorable.
Maybe now, after a brief introduction to three cities of Italy’s intriguing north, you can see what we mean when we talk about diversity in their customs and cultures. They’re just three dots in a magnificent mosaic, each beautiful and captivating in their own right, but what we’ve found with Italy is that the more dots you connect, the more spellbinding the whole country becomes.