Of course you have to see Venice, the queen of the Veneto region. Venice is splendid, from the art and the ambiance to the food and the sense of adventure. You cannot go to Venice without being awestruck and amazed. If you venture down a residential side street, you will be lost amid decadent palazzos that creak and groan as if admonishing you for straying off the tourist path. (To get back to the main square, follow the “San Marco” signs or ask anyone “San Marco?”)
Grumblings about Venice are mainly about the scarcity of accommodations, sticker shock, and crowds. Venice can be a royal pain—particularly when cruise ships, each carrying 5,000 passengers, swell the crowd to a quarter of a million. A royal purse is required for delightful food and a clean hotel.
Savvy travelers stay across the lagoon in Mestre for about half the price. The 10-minute train ride to Venice makes Mestre one of those finds of a lifetime. But the problem of Mestre is the gloom of overnighting in a modern, mainland suburb with nothing to see but factories and not much to do but wait for the morning trains to Venice.
A Smaller, Cleaner City of Art and Water
The secret to affording Venice without sleeping in the Industrial Age is staying in Treviso and commuting to Venice for day trips. Frequent trains from Venice to Mestre stop in Treviso 20 minutes later and round trip tickets are just 6 dollars. This is a smaller, cleaner citta d’acque, or city of water, with canals winding through town, spanned by pedestrian bridges.
One of Treviso’s most impressive views is from Ponte Dante arching over the convergence of the pristine River Sile and the muddy Cagnan. It is called The Bridge of the Impossible because the stone bridge was expected to be swept away by floods like all the wooden bridges before it. Dante mentions this site in his Paradiso, and a pillar commemorates the poet. The bridge and Dante’s monument have withstood floods to this day.
Weeping willows, wooden waterwheels, and little parks add to the tranquility of this medieval town surrounded by decaying defensive walls. A respite from frenetic Venice, Treviso is where you can wander quiet lanes enjoying historical treasures and reasonably priced authentic food. Piazzas are scenic places to have an espresso, and the wine bars are lively. What you will not find are tacky tourist shops and tour buses.
Treviso is known for its art and Venetian style architecture. Medieval and renaissance palazzos are romantically reflected in canals and embrace the piazzas. The work of 14th century artist Tommaso da Modena is in abundant display. In the Chiesa di San Nicolò, de Modena decorated the columns, but his most striking work is in the adjoining monastery.
His portraits of monks reading and illuminating manuscripts—and some looking bored out of their saintly minds—include the earliest known portrayal of a person wearing glasses. Ask permission at the monastery entrance and follow the signs around the cloister. Entrance is free unless you would like to slip a euro in the donation box.
If you did not see enough Titians in Venice, or were too jostled by crowds to enjoy them, Titian’s Annunciazione is in the town’s cathedral, or duomo, that dates back to the 12th Century.
Its Romanesque crypt and neoclassical facade move a visitor through the ages. More of Titian’s work, along with masterpieces by Tiepolo and Bellini, is in the city museum located in a former Jesuit monastery a short walk away. This museum, L. Bailo, displays archeological finds from Ancient Rome and follows the region’s artistic evolution from the Renaissance to the 19th century.
Treviso is tiramisu’s hometown. It was developed by a local pastry chef and first served in 1972 in Le Beccherie, one of Treviso’s oldest restaurants. Tucked into a corner of the cobblestoned Piazza Ancillotto, the restaurant serves patrons under the portico (weather permitting) and in a Venetian-style dining room with wooden beams and floors a highly polished red ochre.
Offered along with the original tiramisu are classic local dishes such as salt cod, polenta, gratin of sea scallops, and—for the bold—a hearty stew braced with calves head and stuffed pigs’ trotters.
Radicchio rosso is prominently featured, for Treviso’s radicchio has IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) status. This means the crispy, wine-red lettuce can be sold under the name only if produced around Treviso and under the supervision of the Radicchio Council. Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79) praised the region’s radicchio and noted that it is good for curing insomnia, possibly a hazard of enjoying too much espresso-soaked tiramisu.
Le Beccherie’s prices are mid-range, acceptable to Italians seeking delicious, regional food with a focus on seasonal fare—meaning the chef selects fresh, locally harvested produce and seafood. Trevisans prefer to dine around 9 p.m. or later, so you can be assured of a seat if you arrive earlier. Like the town, Le Beccherie is still misty on the tourist horizon. When the restaurant appears in prominent type in tourist guides, prices may soar and you may need a reservation.
A Surprising Photo Op
Of course, you will go to Venice, choosing sunny days when cruise ships are at sea. If it is raining in Venice, it probably will be raining in Treviso. In Venice you will need rain gear, and the aqua alta (high water) siren may send you splashing to the train station while water rises above your shoes.
In Treviso, you can walk under the town’s porticos and enjoy the spirit of Venice in Treviso’s many fountains. The Fontana delle Tette, just steps from the Magistrate’s Hall, marks the end of a 14th century drought. It is a marble bust of a woman cupping her breasts, water flowing from her nipples. In the 14th century, for three days a year, red wine spurted from one breast and white from the other. The tradition continued to be a beloved part of Treviso festivities until Napoleon decreed it decadent in 1797.
Treviso’s excellent Website, www.trevisoinfo.com, details a range of accommodations and their locations. Many are just a five-minute walk from the train station and the historical center. The site also notes Treviso’s many attractions and offers a map of the historical center you can download.
The ‘Original’ Tiramisu
Makes 8 servings
6 egg yolks
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 pound Mascarpone cheese
24 lady fingers
1 serving of espresso
Cocoa powder, unsweetened.
Pour the espresso in a shallow bowl to cool. Whip egg yolks with sugar until stiff. Fold in cheese. Arrange half the lady fingers in a bowl, and soak with espresso. Spread half the cheese mixture on it. Layer the rest of the lady fingers on top of the cheese. Soak with espresso. Spread the rest of the cheese mixture on top. Sprinkle with cocoa powder and serve chilled.
Carol Stigger is a Chicago-based writer specializing in developing nation poverty, microfinance, and travel. She lives in India every winter and in Rome every spring.