Category Archives: Travel Journals

Veneto Adventure Travel Journal – Verona Day 2

19 April 2016

My last day in the Veneto region begins with grey rain, a sombre reminder that soon I return to a damp Britain. Mercifully, since I’m staying right by the amphitheatre, I only have a short walk to the Museo Lapidario Maffeiano. This epigraphic museum was founded by Scipione Maffei in 1714 and the collection has slowly grown ever since. It features inscriptions in Greek as well as Etruscan and Latin. The museum is right next to the Gates of the Bra.

After an hour or so the rain has disappeared and I’m impatient to the amphitheatre, which has been sitting there, tempting me, since I arrived yesterday morning.


The amphitheatre was built in the 1st century AD. There was a further, outer ring that has since been mostly lost following the earthquake of 1117. It reached as far as the lamppost in the right of the photo. By the time of the earthquake, the amphitheatre was already nearly a millennium old.


What is visible here would actually have been enclosed, the arches housed stairways up to the seating and walkways circling the seating areas.


The only existing part of the original facade stands on the side farthest from the Piazza Bra.


The arena is used for performances each summer and I’m lucky that there aren’t more areas shut off for modern staging. Musing as I always do as to why the Romans insisted on making their stairs so bloody steep, it’s time to explore.


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The amphitheatre could hold 30,000 spectators for gladiatorial games and beast hunts (such as the hunt staged by a widower for the funeral of his late wife, much to the approval of his friend Pliny the Younger. Pliny commiserates that the panthers had not arrived from Africa in time due to bad weather.) It was built circa 30 AD making it half a century older than the more famous Colosseum in Rome. It is the third biggest Roman arena, smaller than only the Colosseum and the amphitheatre of Capua (slated to be on my 2017 travel list.) It’s one of the best preserved I’ve yet seen and this apparently is due to uncommonly careful preservation over the centuries and solid construction. Like Rome and Capua, Verona boasted a Gladiator school and Games held here drew crowds from the entire region (useful, as the entire population of Roman Verona could not entirely fill it alone.)

We know the names of some of the gladiators who fought at Verona. A secutor named Aedonius died in his eighth bout, aged 26. A retiarius named Generosus boasts on his tombstone that he, a native of Alexandria, fought 27 times in Verona. He managed to retire with enough money to live well until he died, comfortably in his bed. Another retiarius, Glaucus, was from Modena. He fought eight times, defeated in his last. His tomb was put up by his wife Aurelia and his devoted fans. His funerary inscription warns the reader to thoroughly read their horoscopes. Don’t trust Nemesis, she will deceive you! He died aged 23 years and 5 days.

In 312 AD the forces of Emperor Maxentius barricaded themselves inside the amphitheatre and were besieged by Constantine, fresh from successfully defeating their comrades in Turin and Milan. Ruricius Pompeianus, Maxentius’ praetorian prefect, slipped from the city to raise more troops to defend Verona and returned to fight Constantine on open ground. Even with his new recruits and the large garrison in the amphitheatre, Pompeianus was defeated and killed in the battle. Contantine went on to finally defeat Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Constantine depicted the siege of Verona on his triumphal arch in Rome three years later.

Shortly after Christianity became the official religion, pagan Games were banned and the amphitheatre lay disused until after the fall of the Empire.  The Goths likely used it to stage entertainments, and when Verona was under the rule of the noble Scaliger family (aka Scala) (1226-1387) the arena was used in a more judiciary sense. Legal disputes could be settled with duels, except that instead of sword fights, the two sides chose a wrestler to represent them. Dante attended at least one such event, and described it in The Inferno.

No record exists of Christians being martyred by the Romans in the arena (although it is of course likely,) but Alberto I della Scala had nearly 200 patarini from Sirmione burnt at the stake inside the arena in 1278. Two years before, he made it illegal for anyone but prostitues to live inside the amphitheatre arches (a millennium after their Roman forebears had also plied their trade here,) and closed off the auditorium. In 1310, Alberto made it an offence to break through the doors into the auditorium or to urinate and defecate there, punishable by fine. Later, under Venetian rule, these laws were expanded to include punishment for anyone who tried to remove the fabric of the amphitheatre for building material. It wasn’t until 1537 that prostitutes were evicted from the arches, which now became workshops and stalls for craftsmen. The arena started to be used for tournaments which continued until 1716. The arena was then used by travelling troupes of comedic actors, dancers and musicians. Bull baiting also became popular, although Goethe was of the opinion that the arena was better suited to soccer. Following the French invasion, Napoleon Bonaparte twice watched bulls being hunted by dogs inside the arena (when he wasn’t using the building as a prisoner-of-war camp for captured Austrians.)

In 1820 the craftsmen in the arches were evicted so that restoration work could take place. After this, the arena was used for more genteel entertainments, such as acrobatics, horse racing and music. Opera was first performed in the amphitheatre in 1856. Ten years later Victor Emanuele II visited the arena for a festival celebrating the annexation of the Veneto into the Kingdom of Italy. There is an equestrian statue of him in the Piazza Bra. Operatic performances became more popular and numerous following a performance of Aida in 1913 and continue annually to this day. It also now hosts rock and pop concerts.

It’s a pleasant stroll down the Via Roma to Castelvecchio, the enormous manor house cum fortress built for the Scaliger family in the fourteenth century. It is possibly on the site of a Roman fort. Work was begun under Cangrande II della Scala, ironically the fortress didn’t prevent his assassination at the hands of his own brother. Completed following his death, Castelvecchio was still an effective deterrent against the House of Gonzaga in Mantua and the Sforzas in Milan.

Utilised as a barracks and prison by the Venetians (who added cannon,) French, (Napoleon always stayed here when in Verona,) and Austrians, the building is suitably intimidating. Castelvecchio became a barracks under Italian rule before becoming the home of the Civic museum in 1924.

Castelvecchio just as the sun is starting to set #igers_verona #Verona

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Next to Castelvecchio is the Arco dei Gavi.

Walking north-east along the Corso Cavour I reach the Porta Borsari, a Roman gateway into Verona.

Further along is the Piazza della Erbe. This is the site of the Roman forum and remains the heart of Verona. It’s a truly beautiful space and surrounded by beautiful buildings.

At the thinner end of the Piazza is the late-Renaissance Palazzo Maffei. This was once the site of the Capitolium, hinted at by the statues of Roman divinities decorating the balustrade (the statue of Hercules is thought to be Roman and from the original temple.)


Palazzo Maffei


Domus Mercatorum AKA Casa dei Mercanti

The Merchant House (Domus Mercatorum) was built by Alberto I della Scala in 1301 (although the Gothic crenellations are a a 19thC addition,)  and provided a home for guilds of merchants.

More eyecatching are the tower houses that now feature shops and restaurants on ground level. Look above the parasols and the houses of the Piazza are covered in frescoes.



The rear of the Mazzanti houses


The Fountain of Our Lady of Verona was commissioned by the Scaglieri family in 1368. The statue is originally Roman and was found a few metres away in the ancient Capitolium.The basin is also Roman in origin and comes from a bath complex.


The Berlina (right) was erected in 1207 (although this is not the original,) and is almost impossible to photograph as it is usually a convenient bench for the hot and weary. The new podesta (governor) and judges would sit here to be sworn in. It was also used as a pillory for criminals and the severed heads of executed thieves could be displayed on it.


Il Palazzo Comunale and the Torre dei Lamberti




At the base of the Torre dei Lamberti, head through the Arco della Costa to the Piazza dei Signori

As I wander in, the Piazza dei Signori is as calm as the Piazza delle Erbe is bustling.


The Palazzo del Podestà stands on Roman ruins and was built by the Scaliger family as a residence. Dante stayedhere during his exile from Florence. Under the Venetians it became a seat of the judiciary and a new archway (complete with Lion of St Mark) was built to replace the original entrance.


The Palazzo del Consiglio was built 1475-92 and is usually attributed to a Dominican monk cum architect named Giocondo. Council meetings were held here. The five statues on top represent five famous Veronese men during the Roman period: the poets Catallus and Aemilius Macer, the architect Vitruvius, Pliny the Elder (who died in the 79AD eruption of Vesuvius,) and biographer Cornelius Nepos.


A medieval tower of the  Palazzo di Cansignorio AKA Palazzo Capitano





The facade of the Palazzo della Ragione


The Torre dei Lamberti looks down on the Scala della Ragione


Just off the Piazza dei Signori are the Scaglieri tombs. They’re suitably impressive fro a family that ruled Verona for nearly two centuries.


The top of the tomb of Cansignorio della Scala


The tomb of Cangrande I della Scala is placed above the door of the Church of Santa Maria Antica.

Cangrande I first came into power, aged eighteen, at the suggestion of his brother Alboino. Whereas this does seem young, he had already successfully led Veronese troops into battle aged fourteen during a war against Ferrara and, upon the signing of a peace treaty, offered his little brother co-rulership in 1308. The brothers were allies of the Holy Roman Empire and soon became instrumental in asserting Ghibelline prominence in the region. In 1311 the brothers were chosen to head the Imperial army and successfully liberated Vicenza from Paduan rule. Cangrande was forced to miss the coronation of Emperor Henry VII to be with Alboino, who died of illness later that year. Alboino had two legitimate sons, but Mastino and Alberto were still only toddlers. Cangrande was now the sole ruler of Verona.

Cangrande I was noted for his good nature (although his temper was infamous,) and his ability to befriend people of all backgrounds. He enjoyed debate and fostered a court of poets, painters and academics. He was patron of Dante, who was exiled from Florence and spent a good deal of time in Verona. Dante even heaps praise on Cangrande in his Divine Comedy. Cangrande was deeply religious and devoted to the Virgin Mary, and always fasted for two days and week.

Cangrande I was a great military leader and successfully asserted Veronese control in the region, consolidating and expanding territory. His first act as sole ruler was to assume control of Vicenza with Imperial approval, filling the power vacuum left by the defeating Paduans. When Henry VII died two and a half years later in 1313, the Paduans soon attempted to retake Vicenza, marching overnight to launch a surprise attack in 1314. When Cangrande heard the news he immediately rode out, arriving in Vicenza in a mere three hours. He mounted a war horse and, swinging a mace, led his troops into battle. His lack of hesitation and his courage led to a decisive victory. A peace treaty wherein Padua acknowledged his rule over Vicenza was signed a month later. Hostilities with Padua did continue until 1320 when Cangrande found himself so outnumbered (and himself wounded by an arrow to the leg,) that he signed a peace treaty. A military man at heart, Cangrande was never going to be completely contented living life at court and was back waging war by 1322. In 1328 finally assumed rule over Padua. Less than a year later he was in a solid position to assume control of Treviso, another city that had long been in his crosshairs. A writer named Niccolo de Rossi dryly remarked that Cangrande would be ‘King of Italy within a year.’ Cangrande besieged the city and, low of supplies, the gates were quickly opened. However, Cangrande had fallen ill, and died, aged 38, four days after he triumphantly marched into Treviso.

His body was carried back to Verona where it now lays in the tomb pictured above. With no legitimate sons, his nephews Mastino and Alberto inherited his titles and rule of the cities Cangrande had conquered. Mastino had Cangrande’s doctor hanged shortly afterwards.

In 2004 an autopsy was carried out on the mummified remains of Cangrande. He was 5’8” and had a strong physique. Analysis of faecal matter and liver tissue revealed fatal amounts of digitalis, a poison derived from foxgloves. Stomach samples revealed that the poison had been masked with chamomile and mulberry. Nearly seven centuries after his death, Cangrande I was revealed to be a murder victim. The Duke of Milan and the Republic of Venice both had reasons to curb Verona’s aggressive expansion whilst not wanting an outright war, however Mastino, Cangrande’s own nephew, was himself ruthlessly ambitious. Did he bribe the doctor to poison his uncle, only to hang him before the doctor could implicate him?



Tomb of Mastino II

Whatever the truth, Mastino II della Scala most definitely benefitted from the death of his uncle, and if Venice or Milan were responsible in hopes for a quieter Verona, they were disappointed. Mastino persevered with the policy of Veronese expansion, taking over  Brescia, Parma and Lucca within six years.Unfortunately, although Mastino proved to be a capable general he lacked the eloquence, grace and mercy of Cangrande I.

Florence , Siena , Bologna , Perugia and the Venetian Republic formed an anti-Veronese League shortly after Lucca fell. Mastino was able to defend himself for a year, but the League kept growing, with Milan, Ferrara, Mantua and the Papal States quickly condemning Mastino. In 1337 Padua, the city that Cangrande had taken 16 years to conquer, opened her gates to a Florentine-Venetian army and Mastino’s brother Alberto was taken to Venice as prisoner. Mastino II watched in horror as city after city fell to the League. By April 1338, the armies of the League reached the walls of Verona. Besieged, Mastino started to see traitors and plotters everywhere. In August he murdered his uncle Bartolomeo, Bishop of Verona,running him through with a sword in front of the Bishop’s Palace. A rival of Bartolomeo’s had whispered to Mastino that the Bishop was betraying Verona for Venice.  Mastino, on top of being besieged, now found himself excommunicated.

The walls proved impregnable, but the siege was costly. In 1339 Mastino II had no choice but to sign a peace treaty with humiliating terms. The Scala family would be reduced to ruling Verona and Vicenza, the other cities were distributed to members of the League. His brother Albert was released from his Venetian prison and was allowed to return home. The brothers never did reclaim their former glory, dying in 1351 and 1352 respectively.


Tomb of Cansignorio

Mastino II had three legitimate sons, Cangrande, Paolo Alboino and Cansignorio. Cangrande II inherited Veronese rule upon his father’s death. He has the dubious honour of being the target of assassination not only from his two brothers but his illegitimate half-brother Fregnano as well.

Cangrande II was infamous for his tough rule that nearly crippled an already weakened city. He was ruthless, ambitious and utterly merciless. After three years in power, Cangrande II visited Bolzano. Fregnano took the opportunity to seize power in Verona and proclaim himself ruler with the aid of the Gonzaga family. Cangrande II hastily returned to Veronaand a bloody battle was fought on the Ponte Navi on February 5th, 1354. Fregnano fell into the river Adige and drowned. Days later, his bloated corpse was fished out and put up on display in the Piazza delle Erbe.

Increasingly paranoid, Cangrande II constructed the Castelvecchio and surrounded himself with Teutonic knights loaned to him by his brother-in-law, Ludwig of Brandenburg. It did him no good, in December 1359 Cangrande II was ambushed by his brothers Cansignorio and Paolo Alboino, who murdered him near the church of St Euphemia. The remaining brother ruled together until 1365, when Cansignorio accused Paolo Alboino of treason (likely a trumped up charge,) and had him imprisoned.

Cansignorio now ruled Verona alone, a city now devastated by war, famine and disease. The glittering court of Cangrande I was a distant memory as the bright talents in arts and literature sought patronage elsewhere. He soon set about trying to restore some former glory, with ambitious building plans drawn up and taxes raised to pay for their execution.

Cansignorio was apparently not a physically strong man, and died in 1375 aged only 35. On his death bed, however, he arranged for the assassination of his imprisoned brother Paolo Alboino, so that there would be no obstructions to his own bastard sons assuming control. Bartolomeo, in a mirror of the previous generation, was stabbed 26 times by his younger brother Alberto in 1381.

The three main tombs of the Arche Scaglieri mark the rise and fall of a dynasty, if only all who viewed them now realised how much blood was spilt by their owners.

My fascination with medieval violence sated, I stroll to the nearby Porta Leoni, another roman gate that lies at the end of the old cardo maximus road. Less is left standing than the Porta Borsari, but excavations underneath the modern road have been left uncovered to view.

I have just enough time for a stroll to soak up as much Veronese atmosphere as possible before my final stop.


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Love notes left at 'Juliet's House' #verona #igersverona

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I’ve fallen in love with Verona from ground level so it only makes sense to view the city from above as my time left slips away. For a small fee, it’s possible to get an elevator up the Torre dei Lamberti.

Views from Torre dei Lamberti #igersverona #verona

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And with that, it’s time to walk down the streets that still follow the ancient Roman paths down to the amphitheatre, pick up my backpack and head to the airport. On the plane home I decide that my daughter will be old enough for a trip in October when we will both be celebrating birthdays. And so I start planning a trip to Greece…



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Veneto Adventure Travel Journal – Verona Day 1

18 April 2016

I wake up in a tiny B&B a mere few dozen yards from a huge Roman amphitheatre. Life is good. I don’t usually mention the restaurants and hotels that I use, but the owner of the B&B Principe All’Arena is such a charming gentleman that I will happily endorse him here for any traveller to Verona with a limited budget. He was easily the warmest host this trip.

I was adamant that I was going to include Verona on my trip. The city predates the Romans, becoming a colony around 300 BC. The Romans have lured me here; the architecture left behind from the various rulers who followed are a delightful bonus. It’s a Monday, the day when Italian museums traditionally close. Verona is blessed with numerous beautiful churches for me to explore instead. First however, I need to spend a bit of time soaking up the ancient atmosphere outside the arena.

First church of the day is the Basilica San Zeno. I purchase a Verona Tourist Card instead of delving around for a handful of coins, particularly since the Verona card will grant me access to everything that I’ve come to see.


There has been a religious structure here since the 4th century AD when a small church was built next to the tomb of the eighth Bishop of Verona, a North African man named Zeno. Zeno was made a saint after his death (sources differ on whether his death was a martyrdom,)  and became patron  saint of Verona. The original church was replaced with a romanesque basilica and monastery in the 9th century, but what we see today is the result of a rebuilding and enlargement following an earthquake that hit Verona in 1117.

I can’t recall visiting a church with an open, split level before. The presbytery is higher than the rest of the church, whilst stairs lead down to the crypt beneath. It’s a beautiful effect in an already beautiful church.


13thC  statues of Christ and the Apostles line the balustrade separating the nave and presbytery levels.

I decide to head into the crypt first, optimistically claimed by some to be the wedding chapel of Romeo and Juliet…



The coffin of St Zeno



The crypt is a church within the church and each of the 49 columns has a unique capital.



The basilica is decorated with several frescoes from the 13th and 14th centuries. They depict religious scenes for the benefit of the illiterate congregation.




George and the Dragon

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Bronze panels decorate the door


After San Zeno I walk back east, passing Castelvecchio and the arena on the way to the Church of San Fermo and Rustico.


Firmus and Rusticus were Christian martyrs, tortured and beheaded under Emperor Maximian for refusing to make pagan sacrifices. The church is supposedly built on or near to the site of their execution.


The upper church


The pulpit and frescoes date from 1396


This structure encloses the choir



The lower church is accessed via stairs in the right transept.

Walking north along the River Aldige it’s a short walk to the Basilica Sant’Anastasia. The rather plain ( and technically unfinished) facade hides a truly beautiful interior.


The building of the Basilica began in 1290 and was mainly finished by 1323 with further building completed between 1423 and 1481.


The Basilica of Sant'Anastasia #igersverona #ig_verona

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Look up. #igersverona #ig_verona

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It’s only a short walk to the Cathedral and I’m disappointed to find it temporarily closed to the public. As a consolation, the Baptistery and Church of St Helen are still accessible.

The Chiesa Sant’Elena is on the site that Saint Zeno laid down the first Christian church in Verona.

The Chiesa di San Giovanni in Fonte was originally the cathedral baptistery. The octagonal font is carved from a  single block of stone and dates to the 13th century. The reliefs depict scenes from the Annunciation to the Baptism of Christ.


After a spot of lunch, keeping a wary eye on a grey cloud threatening to turn black, it’s time for the ancient theatre and archaeological museum accompanying it. I’m not surprised to find it closed, it is becoming somewhat of a curse for me whenever I visit Italy to find the things I most want to see shut or covered in scaffolding.

Grumpy, I decide to climb up the Scalinata Castel S Pietro, a stairway up the hill to an Austrian barracks built over an older castle that had been built on the site of a Roman temple. Naturally, to add to my frustration, the Castel is inaccessible behind chain link fences because of some renovation works. The panoramic views from the piazzale and the glimpses of the theatre on the way up are enough to cheer me up, though…

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A few hours now sadly left free, I wander around Verona before choosing a restaurant just off the Piazza Bra by the amphitheatre. The restaurants facing the piazza look touristy and expensive but mine, Le Cantine de l’Arena has al fresco seating tucked in the Piazzetta Scaletti Rubiani where I can happily dine on gnocchi with walnuts in a gooey Monte Veronese cheese sauce whilst gazing at the arena as the night gets darker.

I can’t resist a bit of night time photography on my last night of the trip.



Palazzo Barbieri


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Veneto Adventure Travel Journal – Venice Day 4

15 April 2016

I’ve deliberately left my itinerary for the morning quite bare, every book of Venice I can find advises to wander aimlessly for a few hours. After waving the gulet at Sant Elena goodbye, I board a vaporetto to Ferrovia to drop my backpack off at the train station left luggage office.

After using vaporetti with purpose over the last few days, I decide to use one to simply cruise up and down the Grand Canal and soak up views. I advise any tourist to do the same. My tip is to avoid the No. 1 route. It stops more frequently, is always crowded and seems to be used more often by locals who, let’s face it, only tolerate tourists. Wait for a No.2. Fewer lengthy stops and a greater chance of finding an empty seat with a good view.

Photos in no particular order:

After my little voyage it was time to wander, crossing countless little bridges over the little canals.

With my massive backpack safe at the train station left luggage office, I can happily stroll into the Basilica San Marco.

Photos aren’t allowed inside, so you should JUMP ON A PLANE AND SEE FOR YOURSELF. The Basilica is incredible.


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In 828 AD Stauracius and Theodorus some Greek monks of Alexandria were worried that their most treasured relic, the body of St Mark, would be damaged by Saracens. The monks approached Venetian merchants named Tribunus and Rusticus, asking them to transport the body to safety. The Venetians smuggled the dead Saint (covered with slabs of pork so that the Muslim guards would be unable to thoroughly search the cargo,) and took him to Venice. The delighted Doge set about creating a church attached to his Palace to inter the Saint in and the first version of the Basilica was consecrated a mere 3 years later.

The church was razed in the 97os during a riot and so the new Basilica was started in 1063 and finished some 3 decades later. Following the Venetian sack of Consantinople during the Fourth Crusade the Basilica was adorned with loot. It became tradition for the Venetians seafarers to return from distant ports with statues, columns, mosaics, gold, friezes and marble; all of which went onto and into the Basilica. The result is a dizzying hotchpotch of spoils, almost too elaborate to be elegant. Almost…

It’s almost always busy inside but if you resist the insistent flow of fellow visitors it’s possible to hang back slightly and just relish your time in a beautiful place, which is good advice for the entire trip to Venice.

Nearly everyone will have seen the articles and opinion pieces on the negative aspects of tourism in Venice and it was enough to make me feel slightly guilty about visiting. Tourists are slowly but surely murdering the city.

I saw myself the ‘small’ (but still bloody large) cruise ships moored by the Riva and the thousands of people disembarking. I watched as they swarmed the Piazza. Only about 1 in 10 ever got further into Venice than that, apart from to bob up and down the Grand Canal or clig up the Rialto bridge. I ate lunch in empty restaurants as these people tucked into their cruise ship-prepared packed lunches and suddenly the ban on eating your own food in the public squares made sense. Mountains of rubbish are left behind and local businesses (that aren’t the Café Florian!) have empty table after empty table. Cruise passengers aren’t even providing hotels with business. The little money they bring into the city must barely cover the upkeep of the city structure that large ships are proven to damage.

My advice? Go to Venice. You have to, it’s bewitching. But visit responsibly. Fly in or get a train from the mainland. Stay somewhere that’s preferably independantly owned, my stay on the Freedom Caicco proves that this can be inexpensive. Eat is cute little restaurants (as far away from the Piazza as possible!) and buy snacks in bakeries and at the market. Be as courteous and self aware as possible when travelling by vaperetto and try not to clog up the narrow streets. Don’t be the knob who tries to go for a swim or tries to visit a church wearing little more than underwear. Venice isn’t a theme park designed for your entertainment, it is the home of thousands of long suffering people. Few Venetians want to ban all foreigners. Just the idiots. Don’t be an idiot! 

It’s a wrench to leave Venice and I have a heavy heart and reluctant pace as I head back to Ferrovia to pick up my backpack and hop on a train to Ferrara. I’ll be back one day, just not on a bloody cruise liner.

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Veneto Adventure Travel Journal – Venice Day 3

14 April 2016

It’s a short vaporetto ride from Sant Elena to Salute. The church of Santa Maria della Salute is open earlier than most so it makes sense to start off my day there and it’s wonderfully quiet first thing in the morning.



This church is so ridiculously beautiful that it’s easy to forget that we have bubonic plague to thank for it. The epidemic of 1630 was particularly savage, claiming a third of the population. 46,000 lives were claimed, 16,000 of them in November alone. Doge Nicolo Contarini vowed to build a church to the Virgin Mary as soon as the plague ceased as she was seen to be a protector of the Republic.

An earlier church and monastery on the site were demolished and nearly 1.2 million wooden piles were driven into the clay bed to provide a solid base for the new structure. A competition was held to find the right architect for the job and a 26 year old named Baldassare Longhena was chosen from eleven candidates for his bold, octagonal design, intended to represent a crown for the Virgin Mary. It is the pinnacle of Venetian Baroque architecture. Construction took several decades and sadly, Longhena never lived to see the church complete.

The style and placement of decoration has definitely shifted from earlier Venetian churches. The exterior is undeniably the focus (just ask Canaletto, among other painters,) and is far more elaborately Baroque than much of what was built in Venice before. Longhena manages to stop short of excessive gaud but it’s clear that Venice wanted to convey that a dose of plague would not be enough to diminish its beauty or penchant for extravagance.

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santa maria delle salute (35) - Copysanta maria delle salute (34)

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The high altar beyond the octagon

santa maria delle salute (6)

After admiring the church it’s time to hop back across the water to Piazza San Marco where I have booked a tour for the Doge’s Palace. Looking at the snaking queue, I’m thankful that I booked my ticket in advance online and sashay to the ticket desk with only a hint of smugness. I’ve paid extra for the Secret Itineraries tour, and it is WELL worth the extra euros but I’ll save the details for another post.

piazza san marco (17)

Palazzo Ducale

Today if you google ‘Doge’ the results will all feature a Shibu Inu with a poor grasp of the English language. In Venetian history the Doge was the senior official of the Republic, almost like an elected Duke.

Successive Doges ruled over the Venetian Republic for a thousand years until the 18th century. The Republic was operated by a number of different councils under supervision of the Doge, the most senior being the Great Council. In order to restrict the power of the Doge, the Council could be vetoed by the Doge and the Doge could veto the Council.

The Doge was the only person in the Republic with access to all files and paperwork, many of the councils and committees focusing on a single aspect of government. As such, the Doge was not permitted to talk to any foreigner alone, lest he reveal secrets and betray Venice. The Doge was kept under strict surveillance at all times. His family members were not allowed to hold office during his tenure to avoid nepotism. The Doge could not run any businesses and could not accept gifts in case the Councils accused him of accepting bribes. Neither the Doge nor his immediate family were allowed to leave Venice. As the position was held until death, anyone wanting to be Doge was making a great sacrifice of personal freedom to hold power. What could be offered as a consolation prize? A spectacular residence.

The exterior architecture breaks nearly every rule for a harmonious, attractive building with a mishmash of styles and designs. I’d hardly call it ugly, however. In fact, the effect is beguiling and I can’t wait to see inside. The entrance is in the broglio or arcade on the water-facing side.

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palazzo ducale (80)



palazzo ducale (191)

The exterior staircase

This is a staircase that is seen on dozens of postcards and featured in dozens of guidebooks. What I didn’t hear any tour guides mention was its bloody past.

By all accounts, Marin Falier was an irritable man with a sharp tongue. Nevertheless, he had served Venice with exemplary military service and was elected Doge in 1354 at the grand old age of 76. At the time he had been acting as ambassador to the Pope and was trying to negotiate with him to resolve a long dispute with Genoa.

As Doge, Falier could no longer continue with these aims without consulting various councils and as restricted as to how much he could achieve when the Genoese captured 35 Venetian galleys and took 5,000 prisoners at the Battle of Sapienza a mere few weeks after his election. Falier was forced to sign a humiliating 4 month truce which many Venetian nobles took umbrage to.

Frustrated by the limitations of his role and insulted by pompous young aristocrats, Falier planned to wrest control from the nobility and their numerous councils. The role of Doge would have more freedom and more power.

Rumours were spread that the Genoese were planning an attack in mid April. Amid the panic, his conspirators would arm themselves and kill as many aristocrats as possible in ‘protection of the Doge.’

The Council of Ten caught wind of the plot and swiftly rounded up the plotters and hanged ten of them from the windows of the Palace. The following day Falier was led to the top of this staircase and publicly beheaded. His mutilated body was displayed before the crowds and was later buried in an unmarked grave.

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Every possible inch is decorated. There are uglier places to be executed…


The Palazzo Ducale was a lavish residence, a seat of government and state prison. It was the heart of the Republic and is suitably overwhelming for a first time visitor.

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Sala del Senato

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The Sala del Maggior Consiglio – The Hall of the Great Council

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Neptune stand guard at the top of the exterior staircase

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Scala D’Oro – the Golden Staircase

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Scala D’Oro

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Dante’s Paradise by Tintoretto

I was amused to find that most tourists didn’t realise when they were crossing the Ponte dei Sospiri – the Bridge of Sighs. The bridge was constructed in 1600 to connect the Prigioni Nuove (New Prison) and the interrogation suites within the Palazzo. It was over two hundred years before Lord Byron would give it such a romantic nickname, imagining the sighs that incarcerated Venetians would emit as they crossed the bridge and caught their last glimpses of their city through the stones and iron bars.


View from the Bridge of Sighs #igersvenezia #venice #ig_venice

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Although the interior is plain, the bridge is a beautiful sight from the outside. The view from the Ponte della Paglia allows for some arty shots if you can elbow your way through the crowds…

#pontedeisospiri #igersvenezia #ig_venice #visitveneto

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As tourists leave the Palazzo Ducale many seemed to miss a hidden gem on the corner of the Basilica San Marco:

The Palazzo Ducale is Venetian pride in stone and paint. Popping into a nearby museum is to unwittingly witness its humiliation.

By 1796 the Republic was weakening and a young Napoleon was approaching across the mainland, spending his honeymoon invading the Italian peninsula and fighting the Austrian empire who had controlled parts of Italy since the end of the War of Spanish Succession. Venice, the Papal states and a few other areas had retained independence and Venice was keen to remain neutral whilst the French and Austrians quarrelled on the mainland and rejected an offer from Napoleon to form an alliance, hoping to benefit from trading with both sides.Venice did, however, start to build up military forces. Napoleon was suspicious but Venice replied that neutrality was all that it desired. Napoleon fired off a warning that neutrality did not involve harming the French nor aiding the Austrians.

Venice had grown complacent, the navy had been allowed to shrink to a handful of old fashioned ships. Venice could not afford to make enemies and perhaps underestimated Napoleon, who despised Venetian decadence as much as he had despised the French nobility that had so recently been swept away. Venetian treasures could fund his army for years to come. Venice needed to be cautious and yet demanded compensation every time Napoleon led troops through Venetian territory whilst also allowing Austrian troops passage. Napoleon was getting angry.

At the entrance of the lagoon is Fort Sant’Andrea, a relic of the Venetian military might in the 16th century. In April 1797, three French ships anchored by the fort, possibly seeking shelter. The Venetian commander in the fort decided that the tiny French fleet was a threat and took the fateful decision of opening fire. Two ships sailed away but one decided to remain and the fort commander continued to fire. Even after the French ship raised a white flag, the cannons of the fort kept firing. The French captain was killed along with four of his crew. Napoleon was enraged and proclaimed that he would  be an “Attila to the Venetian State.” French artillery along the shores of the lagoon were trained on Venice.

On the 12th May, in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, the grandest room within the Palazzo Ducale, the Doge, Ludovico Manin, proposed that Venice should dissolve its government and submit to French rule. 512 of the assembled patricians voted for, only 20 voted against. The Venetian Republic was dead. On the 17th May 7,000 troops entered the city. Napoleon stripped the city of treasures and sent them back to France. As a final insult, the Venetians learnt that the French had no intention of occupying the city. They had been signed away to the Austrian Empire in the Treaty of Leoben. The treaty had been signed weeks before the Doge decided to abdicate, Napoleon had been so assured of victory.

It’s a short stroll across the Piazza to the Museo Correr at the opposite end from the Basilica. Even those exhausted with museums should pop into the cafe for a drink and this view of the Piazza…

The two buildings running perpendicular to the Basilica are the Procuratie Vecchie and the Procuratie Nuove and the floors above their arcades were for the offices and apartments for the Procurators of the Republic.

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The building that now joins them is the architectural reminder of the fall of the Republic. It is known as the Napoleonic Wing as it was built on the orders of Napoleon’s stepson Eugene Beauharnais in his role as Viceroy of Italy, the French having temporarily retaken Venice between 1805 until Napoleon’s fall in 1815. The new wing was finished in 1813 as a residence for Beauharnais and after 1815, the Hapsburg court.

As a nation who were so careful to prevent nepotism, Venetians must have hated to see a palace built for a man in power only through his stepfather, however competent Beauharnais turned out to be. It must have been even worse to see the place occupied by inbred Hapsburgs.

The building now houses the Museo Correr which documents Venetian life and culture. The collection was brought together by Venetian aristocrat Teodoro Correr, who donated everything to the city when he died in 1830. Steadily growing ever since, the collection was moved to this location in 1922 and spills into the Procuratie Nuove.

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You can access the National Archaeological Museum from within the Museo Correr. The collection of Greek and Roman antiquities was mostly formed by the Grimani family in the 16th century. It’s easy to see where Venetian sculptors took their inspiration from.

Make sure to pop into the Sala D’Oro or main hall of the Biblioteca Marciana, or national library. The library of Venice is now housed in La Zecca, the old mint, making this room easier to admire.

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Walking between these museums and the pontoon for my next vaporetto, I glance at the exterior of the Biblioteca Marciana which may pop up in some guidebooks as the Libreria Sansoviniana.

After a great fire in 1514 a passion for classical architecture took hold in Venice. An architect called Jacopo Sansovino became the darling of the Venetians. He was a charming Florentine with a quick with and a taste for cucumbers. In 1529 he was made the Protomaestro of the Procurators of San Marco, essentially state architect, as the authorities liking how his classical designs complemented the Venetian Gothic style.

He designed a loggia to adjoin the campanile, the Zecca housing the mint and several grand churches. Above all, his masterpiece was the Biblioteca Marciana.

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The Campanile loggia by Sansovino

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Facing the Ducal Palace across the Piazzetta, creating a beautiful building that blends into the Piazza must have been a daunting task. Sansovino decided to go with a design that could have been lifted from ancient Rome, then gave it a distinctly Venetian twist.

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Biblioteca Marciana

Unfortunately for Sansovino none of his charm could save him when in December 1845 the first floor collapsed, eight years into construction. Whatever the cause (Sansovino blamed anything from frost to distant gunfire,) the Venetian state treated him like a general after a military defeat, holding him personally responsible and throwing him into prison. Sansovino was made to pay for the repairs out of his own funds, which took him 25 years to pay off. He may have been able to hear the hammers from his cell within the Palazzo Ducale opposite. Thankfully for Sansovino, his famous friends Titian and Aretino managed to negotiate his release.

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This career setback paved the way for the rise of his rival, Andrea Palladio. This makes it incredibly fitting that I’m heading to the San Marco pontoon to hop onto a no.2 vaporetto to San Giorgio Maggiore.

Palladio was a man of bold designs that had previously been rejected in Venice in favour of Sansovino. Now, Palladio had a chance to shine. The design for San Giorgio Maggiore is like Roman classicism with a few strong cups of espresso added for punch. The church looks lovely from the Riva degli Schiavoni or the Dogana, up close it is awe inspiring. It’s not enough to see this church from a distance, although it sits so perfectly placed in relation to the Piazza and Santa Maria della Salute that anyone would think Palladio put the island there on purpose. Just ask Marco Boschini, a 17th century painter:

“This island is truly a jewel, set in this crystal which surrounds it

where ebbing and flowing the waves beat.

Doesn’t it look as if it were done with a paintbrush?”

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Initially commissioned to improve some monastery buildings on the tiny island, Palladio was soon asked to come up with a replacement for the old, existing church. The new church was started in 1566 in the presence of the Pope.

It’s clear to see that Palladio had a fascination with the buildings of ancient Rome. Unfortunately for Palladio, ancient temples were a bit too pagan looking to copy outright and Christian churches had aisles to consider. Palladio works around that issue here by layering two temple-esque facades together. The tallest shows the height of the nave and interrupts the wider, lower pediment that shows the width of the aisles.

Palladio can’t resist a good old Roman dome, either. The interior of the church is huge and cool, with lots of light flooding in from high windows.

Palladio lived to see most of the church completed.

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The monastic quire

#StGeorge at the Basilica San Giorgio Maggiore, #venice #igersvenezia

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The campanile is a later addition to replace a tower that collapsed in 1774. For a few euros (about half the price of the San Marco campanile with no queues…) you can whisk up to the top in the elevator. On a clear day, you’ll be rewarded with this…

#Venice #venezia from the Campanile of #SanGiorgioMaggiore

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A quick vaporetto ride back to San Marco later leads to a pleasant walk to find San Zaccaria, a church with odd opening hours but well worth tweaking your itinerary for.

Campo San Zaccaria feels hidden away and even with a map I felt that I stumbled upon it by accident. The quietness of the square belies its rowdy history.

In 864 Doge Pietro Tradonico was stabbed by assassins after attending a service in the church. Riots ensued and the nuns of the convent had to wait until night had fallen before it was calm enough for them to retrieve the body for burial. His successor hunted down the conspirators and within four months they were all executed.

In 1171 Vitale II Michiel led the Venetian navy to attack Constantinople. The attack failed, the lengthy peace negotiations were bungled and all Michiel succeeded in bringing back in 1172 was an outbreak of plague having already lost thousands of Venetian sailors to the disease. Michiel attempted to defend his actions before the increasingly furious crowds and eventually attempted to flee and seek sanctuary in San Zaccaria. He was fatally stabbed before he reached the gates. Afterwards the crowds were ashamed of their violence and turned their rage on the attacker, Marco Casolo. Casolo was executed and his house on the Calle de le Rasse torn down, an edict soon followed that no permanent building should be erected on the site. This edict was upheld until 1948.

Not that San Zaccaria was only notorious for blood spilt and lives lost, of course.

The convent in particular was famous for raucous nuns. Venice was not unique in sending its daughters to convents. Some families could not afford dowries for more than one or two daughters and sent the others away to avert bankruptcy, for some a convent was a dignified alternative for those who failed to find a willing husband. However, this is still Venice. These women were still vivacious, cultured and accustomed to a certain lifestyle. Numerous accounts of Venetian convents mention that nuns didn’t bother to wear habits and instead chose to wear the same daring, sumptuous dresses as their married friends. They curled their hair and wore jewellery, decorated their cells with expensive and comfortable furniture and held parties. Some took lovers, others took several lovers and some managed to have children. Convents hosted masquerade balls and parties with free flowing wine, lots of dancing and attractive male guests. Venetian nuns were, by all accounts, well, Venetian. To be honest, the life of a Venetian nun can even seem enviable compared to the lives of her married relatives. Whilst the government frowned upon licentiousness in convents, many Venetians were sympathetic to these women who had been forced into a life they would not choose, usually due to the financial constraints of her family.

In the sixteenth century officials were sent to San Zaccaria to shut down a particularly rowdy soiree. The nuns responded by pelting the officials with sticks and stones until they gave up and fled.

The exterior of the church is a mish mash of Gothic and Renaissance styles designed by Antonio Gambello and started in the 1440s on the site of an older church. The interior is pure dark, brooding Gothic with Renaissance paintings.

Entry to San Zaccaria is free, but do look for a member of staff at a desk on the right. For a few coins, they will let you in to see the incredible Capella di San Tarasio.

12th century chapel of San Tarasio #igersvenezia #ig_venice #venice

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Even better than the chapel is the crypt beneath, accessed by a pair of tiny staircases. Obviously, crypts are rare in Venice. This one is particularly evocative and one of my favourite places in the city, even with its sad past.


The sun is setting for the final time during my visit, so there is only one place I want to be; the Piazza. A short walk back and I’m back among the crowds, but mercifully there are no queues for the second campanile of the day.

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The Campanile was built in the early 16th century to replace a smaller tower. It collapsed in 1902 (miraculously only killing the caretaker’s cat,) and was rebuilt a decade later to be an exact copy of the original.

A belltower, watchtower, landmark for mariners and subject of dozens of paintings, even the Campanile has a hidden past.

Supplizio dela Cheba was a form of torture. Cheba is Venetian dialect for ‘rabbit hutch.’ A punishment for clergymen guilty of murder, sodomy, blasphemy or forgery was to be hoisted in a small wooden cage up the south side of the Campanile. He was allowed a basket on a rope so that he could haul up dry bread and water. This punishment would last a few days for most, although apparently a sentence passed on Christmas Eve 1391 saw Jacopo So kept in the cage until he died as punishment for murdering a priest. The practice ceased at the end of the 15th century.

The Emperor Frederick III of the Holy Roman Empire apparently didn’t want to climb the stairs to the top in 1452 so instead rode his horse up the winding staircase. The Campanile was also the scene for Galileo to show his newly invented telescope to the Doge in 1609.


#SanGiorgioMaggiore #venezia #Venice #ig_venice #igersvenezia

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I have one night left in Venice. Determined to make it last, I hop across the entrance to the Grand Canal to view some landmarks in the dying light.



The Dogana – The Customs House


With that, all that’s left to do is jump back on a vaporetto to Sant Elena for the final time, staring longingly at the view the entire way…

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My last Venetian sunset (for now…) #venice #igersvenezia #ig_venice

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Veneto Adventure Travel Journal – Venice Day 2

13 April 2016

It would be tempting to take a quick vaporetto to my first museum of the day, but the short walk between Sant Elena and the Arsenale is far too pretty to pass up, even if the weather isn’t overly lovely. Besides, the clouds don’t bother you when you get your first glance at one of the best views of Venetian landmarks. A black and white filter doesn’t hurt either…

#venice #venezia

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It seems fitting to start my explorations of Venice itself with a stroll to the Arsenale. It’s a place that turned Venice from a small town in the middle of a lagoon into an empire.

In true Venetian fashion, the Arsenale Land Gate (Porta di Terra,) is decorated with lions and statues plundered from elsewhere (including lions from Piraeus and Delos.) As a first impression to the area, this gate tells a visitor an awful lot about Venetian history. It was built in 1460, seven years after Venice sacked Constantinople and stirred up Ottoman wrath. Beyond are the greatest shipyards the world has ever seen. The Arsenale produced ships at astonishing rates. Almost 16,000 workers made ships in an assembly line fashion with teams of workers specialising in each stage. By the 17th century the Arsenale could produce and rig one ship each day, a feat that would take other European cities months to achieve. This was aided by the ‘flat pack’ nature of Venetian boat building, with pre-produced elements made in large quantities and kept in storage. There was room and equipment to ensure that 100 galleys could be in production at any one time, with 25 completed warships moored and ready to go immediately. The Arsenale, after several expansions, takes up 45 hectares (15% of Venice.)

Unfortunately for me, the Museo Storico Navale is closed. Mercifully the Ships Pavilion is still open as a substitute introduction to Venetian mastery of the sea.

The building was constructed as a workshop producing oars and provides an atmospheric backdrop to the many vessels on display.

From merchant ships to a merchant’s house. Halfway up the Grand Canal is Ca D’Oro – the Golden House.


This palazzo dates from 1428 and belonged to the influential Contarini family, who could count eight Doges in their lineage. It was built in an architectural style unique to the city known as Venetian Gothic. It’s a style that seamlessly blends Western Gothic architecture with Eastern flourishes that echo the Moorish and Byzantine designs seen by Venetians traders on their travels.

Ca D’Oro, (Palazzo Santa Sofia is the official name,) is a wonderful example of Grand Canal building. The waterside facade is ornate and was once covered in golden detailing as well as deep red and vivid blue details.

The ground floor is consists of a loggia and entrance hall and is particularly spectacular.

In 1894 the Palazzo was bought by an avid art collector called Giorgio Franchetti. He bequeathed the house and his collection to the city in 1916 and it is now open to the public.

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The Palazzo houses this painting of Saint Sebastian, pierced by arrows. It was painted by Andrea Mantegna in 1506.

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Once finished at the Golden House I pop over to Palazzo Mocenigo, which now houses a costume museum. The Mocenigo family were also a prominent fixture in Venice with seven Doges in their family tree.

The museum is a window to the clothing of Venetian nobles in the 17th and 18th centuries as well as the beautiful decoration of their living spaces.

Having viewed some palaces, it was time to turn my attention to sacred architecture. There are 139 churches in Venice and each have their merits, but there are few quite as grand as Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. Built by the Franciscans in 1250 on the site of an older church, work continued until 1338. Almost immediately work resumed to enlarge the building, construction continuing for another century. Monks lived here until 1810 when Napoleon Bonaparte expelled them. His soldiers used the convent building as a barracks.

The exterior of the church is misleadingly plain.

Inside the church houses a selection of ornate tombs and memorials.

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Canova designed this monument as a possible memorial to Titian. When Canova died his friends erected it in the church for him instead. His heart lies here.

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This large monument to Titian was designed by Canova.

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This is the rather ostentatious monument to Doge Giovanni Pesaro who died in 1659

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The only rood screen in Venice

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The Quire

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The High Altar. The painting is by Titian and depicts the Assumption

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The Titian Monument

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Behind the Basilica is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco

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The Scuolo Grande di San Rocco

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The Sale Terra – ground floor

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The Brothers of San Rocco founded the school in 1478 after a particularly deadly spate of plague within the city, San Rocco being the patron of plague victims. The name is misleading as this isn’t a school at all, the term in this case being used to describe a brotherhood of laymen dedicated to providing charitable aid. In subsequent plague years the Scuola would be inundated with donations by those hoping to avert the plague from their homes. This allowed for the exquisite decorations of the hall as well as charity works.

The Upper Hall is the jewel in the San Rocco crown…

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The paintings show the genius of Tintoretto

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#venice #igersvenezia #ig_venice

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Next door is the Chiesa of San Rocco.

Time for another Palazzo turned museum, this time Ca’ Rezzonico which houses the Museum of Venice in the 18th Century.

#carezzonico #venice #venezia #visitveneto #igersvenezia #ig_venice

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The poet Robert Browning died here in 1889.

#carezzonico #igersvenezia #ig_venice #visitveneto

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I had booked on a tour of murders and scandals that was sadly cancelled. I decided to instead spend my evening searching for a famous staircase that was apparently going to feature. I’ll never know if a murder took place here, but the Scala Contarini del Bovolo (‘snail shell’) is definitely worth a look.

Recently opened up after restoration when I visited, I was delighted to be able to climb up to the top. External staircases were a way of saving space inside houses. No external staircase is quite as flamboyant as this, dating to 1500.

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Inside the cupola

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The Cupola

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Roofs of #Venice #igersvenezia #ig_venice

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I decided to take a slow stroll down the Riva degli Schiavoni as the sun sets. This is a walk that gives some of the most iconic views of Venetian landmarks and is characteristically bustling.

#venice #venezia #igersvenezia #ig_venice #visitveneto

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Monument to Victor Emmanuel II




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Veneto Adventure Travel Journal – Padua

16/17 April 2016

For all my pride in prior planning, somehow I missed that I was spending a night in Padua during their marathon. Have you ever visited a large city during a marathon? The route clings tightly to main roads and winds around landmarks and monuments. Scenic if you’re a runner, a problem if you’re a tourist with only 24 hours to spare.

I had arrived in Padua keen to drop off my luggage at the hotel and head straight for the Prato della Valle for sunset. It’s the largest piazza in Italy, with a huge oval island in the centre surrounded by statues and water.

It is renowned as a beautiful spot.

You’ll notice that these photos aren’t mine. When arrived Isola Memmia was covered in marquees, the water was barriered off with tall chain link fences and portaloos blocked the nicest views. The night before the marathon was bustling, but the grass was strewn with litter and the bins were overflowing. I would have to try some imaginative angles to block out the trash and shirtless teenagers…

#padova #pratodellavalle #igerspadova #ig_padova

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Perhaps a gelato and an early night would improve my mood.

In the morning I power walked to the Scrovegni Chapel for which I had timed tickets. If you plan to go (and you should,) BOOK ONLINE IN ADVANCE. I booked my advance ticket through my Padova Tourist Card, an indispensible purchase for a visit to the city.

The chapel was built within the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre in 1300. The Scrovegni family were money lenders and the chapel would be attached to a huge palace intended as a newer, grander family residence. Enrico degli Scrovegni commissioned Giotto di Bondone to paint the chapel interior with fresco cycles of the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ. It was to be the greatest work Giotto ever painted.

I checked online to see whether photography was allowed inside and seeing that it wasn’t checked my camera in with my bag. Apparently the rules changed two weeks prior to my visit and LUCKILY I had my phone in my pocket. The quality isn’t as good, but I have something at least. Visiting times are strictly limited so that each group enters on time. Woe betide the tourist who attempts to sweet talk the custodian for an extra five minutes…

The #scrovegnichapel, painted by #giotto between 1303-5 #padova

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The Kiss of Judas #scrovegnichapel #padova

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The Crucifixion #scrovegnichapel #padova

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Fresco of the Last Judgement by Giotto, 1305 #scrovegnichapel

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The Eremitani Civic Museum is next door (you have to pass through the ticket hall to get to the Scrovegni chapel,) and I’m eager to see what Roman treasures Padua has to offer. There’s a medieval section as well, but we all know my heart lies in more ancient times!

I’m always in a good mood when looking at antiquities, but my day is about to get more frustrating. The marathon is in full swing and easy routes from museum to museum are either blocked or too crowded to navigate. Many churches were closed or inaccessible.

I got some nice photos of architecture, but that was about it.

The Orto Botanico is at least open and a respite from the crowds. It was founded in 1545 by the Ventetian Republic and is the oldest continuous botanical garden in the world.



I take an earlier train than planned to my next destination. I may one day return to Padua and I’ll bloody well make sure it’s a couple of days with nothing major happening in the city!

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Veneto Adventure Travel Journal – Ferrara

15/16 April 2016

I’m taking a detour from the Veneto and briefly crossing into Emilia-Romagna to spend a night in Ferrara. It’s a city not often on a tourist must-see list but I’ve read so much about events there and famous past inhabitants that it’s easily made it onto my itinerary.

Ferrara is only 90 minutes from Venice by train. I’ve lucked out with my hotel, spending a few extra euros to stay in the block next to the Castello Estense. After a shower (living on a boat in Venice was lovely, but it is heavenly to have a proper bathroom again!) and a quick catch up with loved ones at home, it makes sense to head to the Castle first. I love a good fortress and this one is particularly attractive. It’s worth walking around the castle before heading inside. If you’re strapped for time/cash it’s possible to go inside and see the courtyard without paying to see the apartments and prisons. I instead plump for a ridiculously bargainous MyFE Ferrara tourist card, sold at numerous sites. It means I pay one price for access to everything that I want to see in the city as well as receive various discounts. Cards are available for various lengths of stay, I recommend them highly! Card purchased, time to enter the Castello.

The stronghold of the Este family in the heart of #Ferrara. #ig_ferrara

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Niccolo II d’Este, Marquess of Ferrara commissioned the castle in 1385 following an uprising in the city in which his tax advisor Tommaso da Tortona was murdered by the mob.

The stronghold of the Este family in the heart of #Ferrara. #ig_ferrara

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If you read as many books and historical novels set in Renaissance Italy as I do, chances are you’ve read about the Este family in Ferrara if only because Lucrezia Borgia married an Este and lived and died in Ferrara. Visiting her home here is a thrill. I’ve visited the Vatican but the crowds prevent the feeling of intimacy that it’s possible to feel here. There is much more to the Castello than Lucrezia and I really do recommend a tour so that you can see the wonderfully decorated rooms and read about Renaissance drama.

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After a few rooms with introductory maps and information boards, visitors pass through the kitchens and arrive in the dungeons.

The cell pictured above is situated in the basement of the Torre dei Leoni – the Lion’s Tower. The tower was transformed into the most fortified section of the castle having been a watchtower before the castle was constructed.

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Torre dei Leoni

The castle dungeons were specifically created for high ranking prisoners. This cell housed the brothers of Alfonso I (future husband of Lucrezia Borgia.)

Giulio and Ferrante d’Este were the younger brothers of Alfonso and Ippolito, who at the time of these events had recently become Bishop of Ferrara.

It seems that Giulio and Ippolito had always had a rather stormy relationship. In particular, one event stands out. In the year that their brother Alfonso succeeded their father as Duke, both Giulio and Ippolito were attracted to a cousin of their sister-in-law Lucrezia, a lady named Angela. Angela Borgia had been brought to live in Ferrara when Lucrezia had married Alphonso in 1502. She was incredibly beautiful and graceful and the Este brothers were not alone in falling in love with her.

Being bitter rivals already, the brothers competed for her affections. Angela seemed to favour Giulio, which infuriated Ippolito who saw himself as the obvious choice. Angela must have been unaware of the tension, for she publicly mentioned in 1505 that Giulio was so handsome that his eyes alone were worth more than the entire body of Ippolito.

Within a few days Ippolito met his brother outside of Ferrara at the Delizia di Belriguardo , an estate known as the ‘Versailles of the Estense family.’ Gamers among you may recognise it as a location in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Others may know it as a museum.

Ippolito brought his henchman, Giulio arrived alone and powerless. Ippolito ordered his men to kill Giulio and rip out the eyes that were supposedly so bewitching. Giulio survived, but only just. He was covered in scars and permanently lost the sight in one eye. The beating was so severe that he never gained full use of his other. Ippolito seemed content that his brother was alive as he had lost his good looks and could hardly seduce the beautiful women at court anymore.

When their brother the Duke did nothing to punish Ippolito, Giulio was enraged. Giulio recruited their other brother Ferrante into a plot to murder both Alphonso and Ippolito. The plot was hasty and clumsy and easily discovered. Alphonso sentenced them both to death, only to commute their sentences to imprisonment as the brothers mounted the scaffold.

Giulio and Ferrante were kept in the cells of the Lion Tower. Ferrante died there in 1540 having been a prisoner for 34 years, more than half of his lifetime. Giulio was released after 53 years of incarceration by his grandnephew Alphonso II. Giulio was 81 years old. He stunned the people of Ferrara by strolling confidently from the Castello dressed in clothes half a century out of fashion. Giulio had only two years of freedom before his death in 1561.

As an interesting footnote, Giulio had outlived his jealous brother by over four decades. Ippolito had died in 1520 after eating some bad lobsters. Ippolito had fathered two illegitimate children and married his daughter to the son of no other than Angela Borgia.

Other cells are open for viewing.

castello estense (79)castello estense (82)Signage in the first cell gives the information for the entire dungeon complex, but from what I can tell from a little digging is that the top cell housed Laura ‘Parasina’ Malatesta and the cell pictured below it was for Ugo d’Este. Their story would inspire poems and operas.

80 years before Giulio d’Este was spared execution, Parasina and Ugo were not to be so lucky.

Parasina Malatesta came to Ferrara in 1418 aged 14 from her home in Ravenna to marry the Marquess of Ferrara, Niccolo III. Her new husband was in his mid thirties, keen to make an strategic alliance with a grand marriage. Niccolo had been married before to Gigliola da Carrara. In their 15 years of marriage, Gigliola had never had children. She had died of plague in 1416.

That’s not to say that Niccolo was childless. He had many illegitimate children by several mistresses. His chief mistress had been Stella de ‘Tolomei, known as the Star Assassin. Stella had borne Niccolo three sons and no doubt hoped for marriage when Gigliola died.

It must have been galling for Stella to watch Niccolo marry a much younger woman. Stella died shortly after the wedding.

Parasina had been raised to marry a noble and would have been coached on what to expect when she arrived at the Court in Ferrara. She was introduced to nine of her illegitimate stepchildren, some nearly as old as herself.

By all accounts Parasina was bright with a solid education and a passion for horses and travel. She bore Niccolo twin girls Ginevra and Lucia within a year of marriage and a long awaited legitimate male heir in 1421; a boy named Alberto who sadly died aged 39 days.

Parasina was admired by all, except from her step son Ugo.

Ugo was the eldest son of Niccolo and Stella the Star Assassin and seemed to be the favourite child. One year younger than Parasina, he resented her for taking the place he felt belonged to his mother. Any male heir Parasina produced would be also be a threat to Ugo. Parasina returned his hostility. The two constantly fought making life at court particularly tense.

By 1424 Niccolo was desperate for the two teenagers to cease bickering. When Parasina travelled to Ravenna to visit her family, Niccolo sent Ugo as well in order for the pair to get to know each other and hopefully learn to become friends. Ugo was now 18 years old and was no longer a sulking youth, Parasina might even find she had things in common with him.

Niccolo’s plan worked a little too well. Away from Ferrara, Ugo and Parasina not only grew closer, they fell in love. They began a passionate affair. After the pair returned to Ferrara they could not bear to call their clandestine relationship off and continued to meet for secret trysts in the Castello and at a country residence called the Delizia di Belfiore. Niccolo had not had any more illegitimate children since his second marriage but it’s unlikely that he was faithful. It also doesn’t take much imagination to understand why Parasina might enjoy a relationship with a handsome young man, rather than her husband who was twice her age.

The stress of keeping her secret apparently caused Parasina to become irritable and one of her maids, stung by some slight, told Niccolo that his wife and son were cuckolding him within his own castle. Refusing to believe the betrayal, Niccolo spies on his wife’s bedroom himself to catch the lovers together.

Parasina and Ugo were thrown into the cells shown above. Parasina reportedly begged her husband to spare his son, urging Niccolo to punish only herself. Niccolo however was so furious that he ignored her pleas for mercy and the counsel of his advisors. A mere three days after they were discovered, the lovers were taken from the cells to the basement of the Marchesana tower. Parasina was still screaming for mercy on behalf of Ugo, becoming silent only when she was told he had already been beheaded. She also was then led to the block and decapitated.

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The Marchesana Tower (with the clock…) and the Lion Tower further along the walls

The executions in 1425 shocked the citizens of Ferrara and other Italian cities. Niccolo showed some remorse if only for the death of his son.

As an epilogue, Stella de ‘Tolomei would not only provide Niccolo with an hier after all, she would provide two, even if she never lived to see it. After Ugo, Stella had given birth to Leonello and Borso. Niccolo had remarried for a third time and had two sons and yet both illegitimate sons were given precedence.

Leonello became Marquess upon the death of his father in 1441 and died in 1450. Despite the fact that Leonello had a legitimate son (named Niccolo for his grandfather,) power passed to Borso. Borso became the last Marquis and first Duke of Ferrara. Borso tried many times to poison his nephew Niccolo but failed. Borso died childless in 1471. 21 years after the death of Niccolo III his legitimate son, Ercole, became  Duke. His nephew did  try to wrest power away in 1476 (Leonello’s sons had been named heirs in Niccolo II’s will, Borso disregarded this but the younger Niccolo never forgot his stolen inheritance,) and so Ercole had him beheaded in the castle courtyard.

Interestingly, Parasina’s mother had been poisoned by her father and her daughter Ginevra was supposedly poisoned by her husband Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, the cousin of Parasina. Three generations of women, all killed by their husbands.

If the lower floor is a testament to a violent past, the upper floors indicate that Ferrara also became a centre for art and beauty.

If the prisons are a bit claustrophobic, there’s almost immediately a chance for some fresh air at the Orange Loggia on the first floor of the Lion Tower and built under Alphonso I.

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The Marchesana Tower #ig_ferrara #igersferrara #grandeviaggio

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As well as Lucrezia Borgia’s marital home the Castle was the childhood home of her glamorous sisters-in-law Beatrice d’Este (who married Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan) and Isabella d’Este (who married Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua, who had an affair with Lucrezia that only ended when Francesco caught syphilis from a prostitute.) Both sisters were famous for their taste, intellect and love of art and fashion. Their names rightly pop up repeatedly in history books and it’s wonderful to come to their first home.

It’s a short walk from the Castello Estense to the Piazza della Cattedrale. The Cattedrale di San Giorgio was begun in 1135. Work continued for some 500 years. The campanile was never finished even after 42 years of construction in the late 1400s.

Basilica Cattedrale di San Giorgio #igersferrara #ferrara #grandeviaggio

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The Loggia of the Merchants runs along the side of the Cathedral and has housed shops since the medieval era.


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The unfinished campanile


The Loggia of the Merchants

The interior was overhauled in the 17th century.

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The Cathedral Museum is housed a short walk away in what was the church of San Romano.

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Heading back to the Cathedral, I can concentrate on the buildings around it.

Opposite is the Palazzo Municipale.

The statue is a copy. In 1796 Napoleon’s troops melted the original down to make artillery.

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The courtyard of the Palazzo Municipale and the Stairway of Honour


Torre dell’Orologio

Time for a historic house. The Casa Romei is an aristocratic residence from the mid-15th century. It was built for a banker named Giovanni Romei and is suitably decorated in lavish style for his marriage to Polyxena d’Este.

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Decorated ceiling at the Casa Romei in #ferrara #ig_ferrara #casaromei

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The house was left to neighbouring nuns and was incorporated into the Corpus Domini convent to accommodate high ranking guests.

Speaking of the convent, it’s sometimes possible to enter and see the d’Este tombs including the grave of Lucrezia Borgia. Sadly, I missed out. Each website and guidebook I looked at had conflicting instructions and opening times. To save you the same disappointment I felt, here are the official opening times, as nailed to their own wall.


After a lazy dinner I want to try my new tripod out with some night time photography. Ferrara was perhaps not a good place to choose. Tourists from outside Italy seem fairly rare and as a woman alone with a camera I didn’t feel particularly welcome or safe. I gave up before I got to the Cathedral, thank goodness the Castello is two doors down from my hotel.




Never mind, a good night of sleep and some sunshine and I’m ready to go again.

There are a few places I will always be tempted by, archaeological museums are near the top of the list.

On the walk to the museum I make a brief detour to glance at the Monastery of Sant’Antonio in Polesine, which inspired a novel by Sarah Dunant called Sacred Hearts. Nuns still sing here just as they do in the novel, set in the Renaissance.IMG_0241.JPG

The Palazzo Constabili AKA Palazzo di Ludovico il Moro was built beside a lost branch of the River Po in the late 15th century. It seems to have been built by Antonio Constabili, the Este ambassador to the Sforzas in Milan on behalf of Ludovico, who wished to have a home in his wife’s hometown. Today the marvellous palace houses the National Archaeological Museum in Ferrara which holds the treasures of the nearby lost Etruscan city of Spina.

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Spina was founded by the Etruscans in the late 6th century BC in the delta of the Po river. It was an important Mediterranean trading post and may have been Hellenised to a degree. There was certainly a lot of Greek pottery imported to the town. Within three centuries however, Spina was in irretrievable decline. The town was rediscovered in the 1920s.

When not looking at the exhibits, it’s easy to be enchanted by the decor.

There’s also a beautiful garden for when fresh air is required.