Riviera del Brenta, Overlooked in the Veneto
Riviera del Brenta is an area of high historical-scenic interest along the Naviglio del Brenta, a branch of Brenta river between the town of Stra and the Brenta outfall in Fusina location. Since XVI century, the richest venetian families began to clean up and organize this vast area by investing in farms. In order to accommodate these wealthy landlords, villas built up with classical style, placed side by side to “barchessa”, the rural building service. Over time, the Villa became the holiday residence, enriched with splendid frescoes and spectacular gardens.
There is a rhythm to life along the Brenta Canal that is distinctly Venetian. Part of a system of waterways known poetically as the Riviera del Brenta, it is still very much of and for the people of the northern Italian province of Veneto, despite it being almost surreally picturesque in places and historically important indeed.
In Italy, that usually equals hordes of international tourists. But it is local comings and goings that dictate the tempo along the Brenta. Crops are grown. Fish are caught and sold. There is industry along its waters and small towns cling to the banks, centres of everyday Italian life. There are no expensive attractions here; the churches are not galleries but still places of worship for communities. There are genuine Italian trattorias and cafes, mostly for working families. There are also trendy boutiques and flashier restaurants and bars. The Brenta population runs the gamut from working class to upper class and is a thriving community.
The Brenta’s importance to the region goes back to Roman times but it was in the 16th century that the river was turned into a 36-kilometre-long canal from Padua to the Adriatic Sea, bypassing the Venetian lagoon. It quickly became an important channel of transport, in addition to the area being fertile crop-farming land. Venice’s noble families bought land, established estates and built extraordinary villas along it, using great architects, such as Palladio and Preti. The houses became the summer escapes for the patricians, who left their regular residences in barges called burchielli, pushed by oarsmen across the lagoon from Venice and then pulled by horses along the canal. In the summer, the Riviera del Brenta became one long place of revelry, with gatherings in villas complemented by the parties on the boats, gliding between the villas, which carried minstrels to entertain the crowds. Famous residents included Galileo, Napoleon, Casanova and various royalty. It was written about by Byron, Goethe and Goldoni, all residents at one point or another, and painted by masters such as Tiepolo and Canaletto.
Today, pleasure boats carrying tourists do the trip, crossing the five locks that negotiate a 10-metre-high water slope from Padua to the Venetian lagoon. They pass through nine swing bridges along the way. The visitors come to admire the remains of the villas – the famous Palladio-designed examples such as Foscari and Pisani – but also the hundreds of less famous but still spectacular mansions, many of which today house Venetian families. Others have been divided into apartments and still others stand empty, boarded up and in disrepair.
The fact is, relatively few tourists ever make their way out of Piazza San Marco and into the delights of the Riviera del Brenta. Even if they do manage to squeeze in a boat trip, there is much to the Brenta that glimpses from the main waterway simply don’t do justice to. Passing through by car also fails to capture the scene. You can be mistaken for thinking there’s not much to see. The road between Venice and Padua is a busy one and the villages are strung out along the banks, so you don’t get that sudden conglomeration of activity and beauty as you do in other places.
Italians from other parts of the country, as well as some German, French and a few savvy American tourists, have realized the flat, scenic stretches of road through the area are wonderful for cycling; this is how you see the hidden pockets of unique charm.Locals themselves are big fans of the bike – the “Hollander” style, no-gears, step-through treadly of old, with a basket on the front, a rack on the back and the freedom to glide along the side of the canals with a minimum of fuss or effort.
You’ll see septuagenarian-plus women as well as teenagers going about their business with groceries in the basket and flowers on the rack over the back wheel. While the serious cyclists don helmets, put their heads down and take advantage of the smooth stretches and fresh air, others opt for the local option: the slow, scenic ride, stopping for coffee or a sandwich, a photo opportunity or a picnic.
It’s easy to get lost but because the landscape is so flat, church bell towers are excellent landmarks to get one back on course. The Palladio villas are undoubtedly the star attraction here. But the Brenta is also about the allure of faded grandeur, crumbling ruins and peeling shutters as much as it is about the villas that have been renovated or preserved. It’s also about riverbanks festooned with wildflowers, willows draping indolently into the gently moving water, stone walls spilling with blousy roses and honeysuckle and surprising vistas around every bend. And it’s about that local life.
IF YOU GO:
The Brenta offers something authentic and, if you want to stay a while, it also offers luxury and boutique charm. The Dal Corso family has been running two hotels and a restaurant at Mira Porte on the Brenta Riviera for generations. In typically Venetian fashion – they are savvy, hard workers in these parts – young brothers Alessandro and Dario not only work behind the scenes to ensure the successful business their parents have built keeps going, you will also find them waiting tables and attending reception in their hotels, where the likes of George Clooney have stayed.
Their flagship, Villa Franceschi, is a five-star example of the gracious villa life of the past and their second property, Villa Margherita, is a less grand, smaller property on the main road but still a historic Venetian villa surrounded by lovely gardens and enormous poplar trees. There are fresh flowers and fruit in the rooms, some of which have balconies and rugs scattered over wooden floors as well as antiques and rich fabrics, fireplaces and plush sofas throughout the salons. Both properties are on the bus routes that operate between Padua and Venice right along the main canal and there are bus tickets for sale at the front desk of each. At €6 ($3.70) a day, the ticket enables you to jump on and off the buses at the villas or anywhere else that takes your fancy along the way.
There are great dining options nearby, with a couple of cheap, good trattorias in Mira Porte proving much better value for money than anything you will find in Venice. There is also a supermarket and facilities such as a laundromat in the village. At Dolo, just a couple of villages up from Mira, is a restaurant named I Molini di Dolo, in a 16th-century mill that sits across one section of the canal, with the old wheels still going while fishermen take advantage of the moving water conditions, which attract certain fish.
Travelling by train is the easiest way to reach the Riviera del Brenta from Milan.
The super-quick Eurostar service is one of several rail options that will take you to Mestre, the best station for villas Franceschi and Margherita.
A: Via Don Minzoni 28, Mira Porte
T#: +39 041 426 6531;
W: www.villafranceschi.com (Rooms from €125 for single ($202.50), €175 for double including breakfast.)
A: Via Nazionale 416, Mira Porte
T#: +39 041 426 5800
W:www.villa-margherita.com (Rooms from €110 for single, €155 for double including breakfast.)
BIKING THE CANAL
> Center Bike di Bartolomiello
A: Via Mocenigo 3, Mira
T#: +39 041 420 110.
> Riviera del Brenta Bike
A: Via Riviera San Pietro, 129/1 – Oriago di Mira (VE)
T#: 320 3289569 P.IVA:
E: : email@example.com