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A tale of three cities

Italy's far northeast corner invites discovery.

Beyond the bustle of Venice and the social cachet of Lake Garda, three fascinating destinations -- Verona, Padua and Gorizia -- anchor the exploration of a region frequently missed out by both American and European travelers. Although linked by common control during the eras of the Roman Empire and the Venetian City State, the region otherwise has had a checkered political history. Today, Verona and Padua are in the province of Veneto; Gorizia situates in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. The two provinces differ strikingly in scenery, culture and cuisine, but their proximity tucks them neatly into a 10-day excursion.

O Romeo

Via William Shakespeare, the western world's most celebrated love story takes place in Verona. It's at the height of conflict between the Guelphs -- who supported the pope -- and the Ghibellines -- who supported the emperor. From rich rival families, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet are doomed from the start, yet their passionate tragedy lives on in the city's most magnetic tourist attraction -- the Casa di Giulietta.

A steep entrance fee and a long line might discourage you from ascending the stairs to the famous balcony, but you can watch maidens of all ages and sizes lean over the railing for a photo-op. Even more amazing are the millions of love notes attached to every square inch of space on the palace and garden walls, frequently with dabs of chewing gum.

Modern Verona is a thriving industrial and trade center, but it has a lengthy lineage of history and art. Absolutely stay in the old city. On one side of the historic center, a Roman arena, second in size only to the Coliseum in Rome, dominates the lively Piazza Bra. Both classical (especially opera) and rock music concerts play here. To the north, the gracious Piazza dei Signori and Piazza delle Erbe -- a market site -- showcase elegant medieval and renaissance buildings. Cafes, wine bars and shops, including high fashion boutiques, line the surrounding streets. The area delivers terrific window-shopping and people watching -- especially during the daily passagiatta, Italy's after-dinner stroll.

Across the river, some distance from the city center, stands 12th-century San Zeno Maggiore, one of the finest Romanesque churches in northern Italy. The wooden cradle roof resembles a ship's keel; 48 magnificent bronze reliefs, representing scenes from the old and new testaments, comprise the massive doors. San Zeno is the patron saint of Verona.

Raised walkways along the banks of the river Adige provide a pleasant stroll between San Zeno and the Castelvecchia, once the fortress of the ruling Scaligero family, now an important art museum. Despite this splendid fortification, Verona lost its independence to Venice in 1405. But scions of the Scaligero family are buried in a group of curious, elaborate sarcophagi just off the Piazza dei Signori.

Palladian splendor

Glorious buildings by the great Renaissance architect Palladio and his followers embellish nearby Vicenza. The central Piazza dei Signori boasts some of his masterpieces, including the Palazzo della Ragione and the Loggia del Capitano. Meander the Corso Andrea Palladio to view his many grand palaces. Take in the amazing Teatro Olimpico, Europe's oldest surviving indoor theater, started by Palladio and finished by Scamozzi, his pupil. One handsome non-Palladian building, sitting on an obscure side street, was the home of Antonio Pigafetta, who circumnavigated the globe in 1519 with Vasco de Gama. Just around the corner, houses bedecked with flower-laden balconies surround Ponte San Michele. Stately Palladian villas also dot the surrounding countryside. South of the city is the famous La Rotonda. Explore the gardens and exterior daily; the interior opens only on Wednesdays.

Many-faceted gem

Padua (Padova) is variously quiet and serene, boisterous and busy, pious and secular. History, tradition, art and modern Italian life intersect here, against a backdrop of handsome buildings, fine piazzas, fascinating loggias and the second oldest university in Italy.

Urban life unfolds on the Piazza della Frutta and the Piazza delle Erbe, separated by the Palazzo Ragione (Hall of Justice), which doubles as a meat and fish market at ground level. As an ensemble, it's arguably one of the largest and most interesting markets in Italy.

In this art-rich town, the Capelli degli Scrovegni reigns supreme. It's said that the Scrovegni family, ruthless moneylenders, generously funded this project to gain indulgence in the afterlife. The chapel's 14th-century cycle of 39 masterpiece frescoes by Giotto, including Judas' kiss and the entombment, unleashes powerful drama. Expect to queue to view these world-famous frescoes. Also, a complex climate-control system, to protect this treasure, abbreviates the time allowed inside the chapel. Close by, in the Chiesa degli Eremitani, sadly only fragments remain of the wonderful Andrea Mantegna frescoes. Both chapels edge on a pretty park. A few stone blocks evidence the long-gone Roman Arena.

Padua also claims importance as a pilgrimage center. The impressive Basilica del Santo, dedicated to St. Anthony the Hermit, a Franciscan monk, houses the magnificently ornate Cappella del Santo. Touch the saint's tomb, built beneath the elevated altar, then pass to the Chapel of Treasure, displaying significant relics. Pilgrims arrive from all over the world to witness St. Anthony's uncorrupted tongue, jaw section and vocal cords, which have somehow survived eight centuries and two disinterments. It's a moving experience even for non-Catholics, and a busy place. Check out the fine artwork throughout the basilica, including sculptures by Donatello, who also created the bronze equestrian statue on the piazza.

A mere 30 minutes from Venice, an interesting option would be to stay comfortably in Padua and visit the frenetic floating city by train or even by canal boat.

Fecund Friuli

Friuli-Venezia Giulia, referred to as Italy's secret garden, has roots extending to Roman times and, pre-Roman, to ancient Celtic rule. Expect a unique and wonderful experience. The entire region differs dramatically from the rest of Italy and from other one-time components of the old Venetian city-state. After Venetian power declined, the Austro-Hungarian Empire took control. The province became part of Italy only in 1918.

Three different heritages underlie the area's contemporary culture and cuisine: Italian, Slovenian and Austrian. Citizens are multilingual, multicultural and proud stewards of their land, producing fabulous food and amazing wine.

Gritty Gorizia

Use Gorizia as a convenient base for exploring Friuli-Venezia Giulia's treasures. Split by the border between Italy and Slovenia -- which became independent of Yugoslavia in 1991 -- the city itself has been intriguingly shaped by its location at the former Iron Curtain between Western Europe and the Communist Bloc. Until the late '70s, the border was delineated by barbed wire. These days it's marked by a solemn stainless steel ground plaque and a green metal fence that snakes through the gray city.

Tempting Trieste

The Italian poet, Umberto Saba, described his hometown as having "surly grace -- like love with jealousy." Indeed, Trieste's tumultuous history and complex, cosmopolitan population -- the result of a succession of rulers and floods of refugees -- define an urban spirit that's difficult to fully grasp. The largest seaport on the Adriatic, the city has historically held a pivotal position as a trading center. It was also strategically important for defense in Roman times. In the Middle Ages, Aquileia took control, then Venice, until the city rebelled, seeking protection under Austria. Trieste enjoyed periods of prosperity as a free port but remained a magnet for conflict, eventually becoming part of Italy in 1919.

The years following World War II were tough as well. Yugoslav dictator Marshall Tito's invasion and countless persecutions tore people from their homes, separated families and created refugees that crossed the border to the west, in many cases as far west as the United States. U.S. military rule intervened, but Trieste did not rejoin Italy until 1954.

It's difficult to focus on the strife that's plagued this city for centuries. It's so civilized, unquestionably one of the world's great small cities. The magnificent Piazza dell'Unita d'Italia, surrounded by three elegant 20th-century palaces, fronts the sea. The fifth-century Basilica di San Giusto, on a high hilltop above the city, has a fine rose window. Several kilometers away, Castello di Miramare, a mid-19th-century palace with a fine exterior and beautifully preserved interior furnishings, tells a poignant tale. The owners, Archduke Maximilian and his wife Princess Charlotte, died tragically -- Max being assassinated in Mexico and Charlotte going insane.

Alluring Aquileia, glorious Grado

Once an important Roman city, Aquileia is only now excavating its ancient architecture. On the other hand, the Basilica is stunning. Rebuilt several times -- on one occasion to reconstruct damage caused by Attila the Hun -- the church boasts spectacular fourth-century floor mosaics. Viewed from modern catwalks, images of animals, plants and people are naturalistically rendered but religion-themed.

When Aquileia's port became unusable because of sedimentation, the residents moved right to the coastline to found the city of Grado. Favored by the Hapsburgs, it's now a charming seaside resort and busy fishing port. The fish market is a daily highlight, and the cathedral has fine floor mosaics. Wander the tangle of narrow streets in old town.

If you go: Verona, Padua and Gorizia

Each season has appeal here -- skiing in winter, beaches in summer, spas. Spring lures, but fall brings white truffles and wine harvests.

Getting there

Venice is the most convenient airport for visits to Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, with most major U.S. and European carriers offering service via Philadelphia, Newark, Kennedy, Detroit or Chicago. All require a change of plane somewhere in Europe. Because of Venice's popularity as a destination, fares are frequently high. As an alternative, consider flying into Verona via a wide choice of carriers.

Ground transportation

When visiting Verona and Padua, a car is not required. There's good train service. As with most Italian cities, driving and parking are difficult, and the historic city centers are best seen on foot anyway. To reach the train station from Venice's Marco Polo airport, take a bus or taxi to Mestre, on the mainland opposite Venice. In Verona, a bus from the airport drops you at a train station just outside the city center. You can take a taxi, but the queue runs long. All major international and European agencies offer rental car service at both airports. If you decide to drive, check that your hotel offers parking and how much it costs. When visiting the area around Gorizia, a car will prove much more convenient. There's no public transportation to many of the must-see places. Either by car or train, travel time from Venice to Verona or Venice to Gorizia is not much more than an hour, from Verona to Gorizia a little more than two hours.

Accommodations

Several Web sites offer hotel reservations in Verona and Padua ( www.verona.hotelsfinder.com ; italy.europe-hotels-accommodations.com/padua ). Two excellent (and expensive) hotels in the heart of Verona: the Gabbia D'Oro and Due Torre.

Slightly less expensive and also recommended: The Victoria and Accamedia. In Vicenza, Hotel Campo Marzio ( www.campomarzio.it ) is comfortably modern and nicely situated next to a park, just outside the historic center.

In Padua, the high-style Methis Hotel ( www.methishotel.com ), just a short walk from city center, offers a quiet canal-side location and free parking.

Near Gorizia, stay conveniently at the Albergo al Ponte, in Gradisca d'Isonzo ( www.albergoalponte.it ), for reasonably priced, beautiful accommodation, great food and service. By next summer you might have another tempting choice: accommodations are now being built inside an old stone barn at the lovely Bastianich vineyard.

Many hotels permit reservations through their Web sites, but do ensure that you receive positive confirmation. Usually, a credit card guarantee holds a reservation, but check individual hotel policy on cancellations and changes.

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