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In praise of Venice’s water transport system

by Alta Macadam

After spending many weeks in Venice preparing the text for a new edition of Blue Guide Venice (out next year), I feel moved to sing the praises of the remarkable transport system run by ACTV in the city and the lagoon. Despite the huge number of passengers involved, the service is amazingly efficient and there is excellent electronic information supplied at the landing stages, telling you when the next boat is due. Although a single ticket is very expensive, there are numerous passes which give you free travel on the entire system for a certain number of days, and the season tickets for those who stay longer are extremely good value.

As an approach to Venice and all its wonders, nothing can be compared to the leisurely trip on vaporetto no. 1, all the way down the Grand Canal from the railway station at one end to the basin of San Marco at the other. It is only like this that you can appreciate the uniqueness of the city, see some of its greatest buildings to their full advantage from the water, and understand how the city functions with its myriad forms of water transport, from boats propelled by oars (gondolas to sandoli),through barges of all shapes and sizes, to motor boats. In addition, it provides the visitor with a glimpse into the way of life of the Venetians. For this reason the Blue Guide—ever since its first edition in 1957—has reserved a whole chapter exclusively to a description of the Grand Canal as seen from this vaporetto:  the left bank from the station to San Marco and the right bank from San Marco to the station.

Those who work on the ACTV boats are all trained sailors from the Italian navy, and one never ceases to wonder at the skill and efficient aplomb with which the boats are docked at every landing stage. The sailors always attend to the unloading of their passengers with great care and kindness, giving their arm to the elderly or infirm (extended to everyone on days of particularly rough water) or helping mothers carry off their prams. They always step off the boat before the passengers to make sure the vessel is securely moored and usually like to announce, with a flourish, the name of the stop as they do so for those on board, and then the name of the destination for those about to board (and at this point they are always patiently ready to give the added explanations unprepared visitors usually require). It is also fun to observe, even in the most crowded boats full of tourists, how the Venetians stand out for their elegant dress and way of greeting each other, and their quickened step the moment they set foot on the landing-stage as they leave the boat. You can often catch visitors almost mesmerized by these rituals as the boat proceeds on its way.

The design of the larger vaporetti has remained virtually unchanged and there is usually a small area where you can sit outside (now almost always in the stern). Although officially they can carry a maximum of around 200 passengers, their capacity seems limitless, and when very crowded everyone seems faintly amused  to feel the boat sink lower and lower into the water as it moves off at a more sedate pace. The ability of manoeuvre by the pilots is astonishing, especially in the crowded traffic on the Grand Canal, where they always manage to give right of way to the gondolas, how ever many of them cross their bows. And after San Marco, they always accelerate and steer out into the basin of San Marco making a wide loop in the water before returning to the quayside at San Zaccaria, simply in order to avoid disturbing the many gondolas moored on the molo at the Piazzetta. But this is always an exhilarating moment in the trip and the chance to catch the best view of all of the Doge’s Palace and the Piazzetta, with the domes of San Marco conspicuous behind.

Whenever you suddenly get tired of walking in Venice it is always worth finding the nearest vaporetto stop. There is nothing more enjoyable than taking a restful boat trip, for the joy of the ride and the wonderful views. Some of best lines are those that serve the many stops on the wide Giudecca canal; the ones that follow the Cannaregio canal out to the Fondamente Nuove on the edge of the northern lagoon; and the ones that leave from the Riva degli Schiavoni for Sant’Elena and San Pietro di Castello on the eastern edge of the city, where you get a unique view of the extensive dry docks of the Arsenale, and where the boat now calls (on request) at the island of Certosa. And then there is the truly wonderful trip (still for the price of a single ticket) via Murano out to Mazzorbo and Burano, where you get the ferry (for no extra fare) across to the remote island of Torcello. This is by far the best way (and the cheapest) of exploring that evocative part of the lagoon, but unfortunately since this ACTV service starts at the Fondamente Nuove, I suspect that the private motor launches which offer tourist excursions to Burano and Torcello from the quayside nearer San Marco often get more custom. Another real bargain is the no. 11 bus service, still offered by ACTV, which runs to the southern tip of the Lido. You then stay on the bus as it boards the ferry across the channel to the island of Pellestrina. After that, the bus takes you the whole length of that island and terminates beside the connecting passenger ferry which continues to Chioggia, where you arrive about an hour and a half later.

The small ACTV motorboat which provides a regular service from near San Zaccaria to the Armenian community on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, just a short distance beyond the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, also calls at San Servolo, where you can get off and have a walk in its walled garden. The view on the return journey, of all the domes of the churches on the Giudecca canal, of the Salute and of San Marco, is spectacular. There are other regular services from Fondamente Nuove to the more remote inhabited islands, very rarely visited, of Le Vignole and Sant’Erasmo. On request, these stop at the Lazzaretto Nuovo, open to visitors by appointment (when you wish to call the boat to get back to Venice, you activate a ‘traffic light’ at the landing stage).

It has to be admitted that there are also some mysteries attached to ACTV. The numbering system of the vaporetti and motoscafi changes every few years, for reasons that are difficult to fathom: in the last few years, for instance, the 51 and 41 and 52 and 42 (which do the circular route in each direction via Murano) have become 5.1. and 4.1. and 5.4 and 4.2. The services to Burano and Torcello have been given completely new numbers. And as for the special summer services, including thevaporetti to the Lido, which take crowds of Venetians there for a swim on hot days, it is never clear what number they will have (nor, in some cases, which route they will take). You can also sometimes be perplexed about the validity of your ticket (all of them last for one hour, so you can use the same ticket if you change boat—but only if it is going in the same direction!). Even if you have a valid pass or season ticket, you are now asked to present your ticket to the machines before you board (although it seems that many Venetians, all with their special passes, quietly refuse to adhere to these new regulations).

Innovations in recent years include illuminated electronic signs in the cabin, showing which stop is coming up next, and also, rather more obtrusively (but usually only in operation in high season) recorded messages in both Italian and English (I once heard a Venetian mother repeating “next stop” to her child, to teach it a little English). The Rialto markets have been given a vaporetto stop for the first time, and the San Marco stop now has a grand new floating shelter which facilitates the flow of tourists (even though many Venetians have complained that it is too big and blocks the view of the Salute from that side of the Grand Canal). A ‘vaporetto dell’arte’ has been introduced at certain times of year, which costs considerably more than a normal vaporetto but which has the advantage that you can get on and off as you wish, and which at present is never crowded. This is particularly helpful to the elderly or those confined to wheelchairs (although of course vaporetti are one of the very easiest forms of transport for wheelchairs).

The transport system has to deal not only with the enormous crowds of visitors at certain times of year, but also the problems of ever more frequent acque alte (flood tides), when some of the services have to be suspended because they can’t get under the bridges, and even the winter fogs which can make navigation treacherous, so that some lines have to be cancelled. But despite all this, ACTV remains to my mind one of the great Venetian institutions, which facilitates a visit to the city in so many ways. It deserves the support and gratitude of all those who go to Venice.

Turin, Pisa and mathematics

What is the connection between the Mole Antonelliana, the great 19th-century landmark on the Turin skyline, and Leonardo da Pisa, born at the end of the 12th century and hailed as one of the greatest mathematicians the west has ever known?

The Mole was begun in 1863 by the architect Alessandro Antonelli. He had been commissioned to build a synagogue by the city’s Jewish community, only a few months after King Vittorio Emanuele had granted freedom of worship to Italian Jews. Antonelli got carried away and instead of the modest structure he had been asked for, he produced something 167m high. The Jewis congregation found an alternative site and the Mole was turned into a monument celebrating the unification of Italy. It is now the Cinema Museum. In 1998 its exterior became host to one variation of Mario Merz’s public light installation known as Flight of Numbers. Merz (1925–2003) was a well-known exponent of the Arte Povera movement. A great part of his oeuvre is dedicated to the numerical sequence known as the Fibonacci sequence, whereby each number is the sum of the previous two. It has been observed to occur very frequently in nature, for instance in the typical number of petals of a flower. The sequence is named after the great north Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci, or Leonardo da Pisa, who set himself the following problem: How many pairs of rabbits will be born in one year, beginning with a single pair, if each pair gives birth to a new pair every month and that new pair begins reproducing from the second month on? The Mole Antonelliana is not the only building to be graced with a Flight of Numbers. There is also one high on a smokestack in Finland, in the city of Turku.

Turin and the Mole Antonelliana are covered in Blue Guide Northern Italy and Blue Guide Concise Italy.

On Canaletto and Guardi and Venetian Light

In the art of the Venetian artist Canaletto (Antonio del Canale, 1697–1768), Venice returned to one of her oldest habits: the depiction and celebration of her own beauty. Unlike the works produced in Venice’s heyday, however, Canaletto’s art and that of his contemporary Francesco Guardi (1712–93), both of whom were at work in the last decades before the end of the Serene Republic, was a depiction without the glorification of earlier times. And the works attained international fame in the artists’ own lifetimes.

Canaletto’s views of Venice and its canals were exported widely, especially to England through the British Consul, Joseph Smith. Their popularity was due in part to the outstandingly rendered light and shadow which suffused the ordered spaces. His works give remarkable delight to the eye both from a distance and from close to. Canaletto came to London between 1746 and 1754 and painted it: in his views of the northern city, he performed the remarkable feat of making the banks of the Thames look as serenely lovely as the Bacino di San Marco. Stillness is all in Canaletto.

Canaletto: The Grand Canal and Church of the Salute viewed from the Bacino

The works of Guardi are far less serene.

Here, the coruscations of light and vibrancy of atmosphere reveal a diametrically different response to the city’s beauty, a response which was only appreciated many generations later, once European sensibilities had been educated to see things differently by the Impressionists. For Canaletto, the light is the vehicle of his passion for the architecture: for Guardi the architecture is a necessary receptacle for his passion for the light.

Guardi: the Church of the Salute and the Bacino treated in less serene, more Romantic way

The works of both these masters remind us that so much of Venetian art, indeed so much of the fascination of the city, has always depended upon its unique light—immediately, tangibly different from anywhere else in Italy because of the surrounding water which constantly modifies it. It is this that explains the primacy of the the visual sensibility in Venice: it has produced no internationally great writers, poets, thinkers or scientists. Venice has no Dante or Leonardo, no Galileo or Machiavelli; but it produced painters whose universal influence has been incomparable, because of one fundamental lesson they imbibed from the endless modulations of their native light. They instinctively understood how light in painting is the vehicle of human empathy.

An extract from the introduction to Blue Guide Venice. © Blue Guides. All rights reserved

The mystery of the veiled virgins

Moulded in stucco above the west doorway of the Lombard Tempietto in Cividale del Friuli is a famous frieze of six graceful female figures appearing in single file on either side of a narrow aperture. Below the aperture is a semicircular door hood carved with Eucharistic symbols of  grapes. On either side of the narrow aperture, the two outermost women are richly clad. Their heads are crowned and in their hands they carry regalia or offerings: a cross and a diadem. The two figures nearest to the aperture are dressed very plainly. Their heads are veiled and they have no crown. Nor do they bear any gifts or royal trappings: they merely extend their hands towards the aperture itself, to show—-what? Are their hands raised in supplication? In adoration? What would the aperture have contained? What would have appeared at its narrow window? The date of this beautiful work of art is the eighth century AD.

Moving to Rome, to the district of Trastevere and the great church dedicated to the Virgin, Santa Maria in Trastevere. The façade of this church is adorned with a long mosaic frieze depicting a procession of ten female figures, five on each side, approaching a central Madonna and Child. The six outermost women are very richly clad in embroidered gowns. Their heads are crowned and they bear lamps, each with a darting vermilion flame. The four women closest to the Virgin, however, are only veiled. They have no crowns and their lamps are unlit. The date of this equally lovely work is the twelfth/thirteenth century.

But what is the significance of it all? I have no answer. Perhaps it is mere coincidence. But I am still sleuthing. Any help or suggestions would be very welcome.

Venice without the crowds

People often worry that a trip to Venice will be marred by excess numbers of their fellow human beings. True, the city gets very crowded at certain times of year, and yes, there are ever fewer Venetians and ever more wretched carnival mask shops. But overcrowding afflicts only St Mark’s Square, the Accademia Bridge (and the route between the two), the Riva degli Schiavoni, Rialto and sometimes the island of Murano. Other parts are as tranquil as they were when Ruskin came to sketch them. Below are my top ten favourites (list still in progress).

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Cividale del Friuli and the Lombards

Charles Freeman, ancient history consultant to the Blue Guides, reports from a recent tour.

I am not good on the Lombards. They hover in northern Italy at a time when not a lot else seems to have been going on, after the fall of the Roman Empire, and were defeated by Charlemagne, after which European civilization gets going again. Yet I had heard of a supposed Lombard chapel, the Tempietto, in Cividale del Friuli, not far from Udine, and it seemed worth visiting.

Cividale del Friuli, attractively set along each side of the river Natisone, was a Roman municipium, a foundation of Julius Caesar’s at the strategic point where two conquered tribes met and the river could be crossed. Its Roman name, Forum Julii, is said to be the origin of the modern name Friuli. The site was not only strategic, but well protected, and this must have been why it was chosen as an early Lombard capital after the Lombards arrived from the north in the sixth century. It later became the chief city of a Lombard Duchy, one of some thirty-five. In the early seventh century the representative of the king, the gastaldius regis, took up residence in the strongest part of the city, up on a cliff overlooking the river. A church dedicated to John the Baptist, a patron saint for the Lombards, was built for his use and later, in about 750, within the same fortified area, a monastery was endowed and set aside as a retreat for the unmarried daughters of the Lombard nobility. The Tempietto is now the sole survivor of this monastery.

The Tempietto is not large, with a hall about six metres square and a presbytery separated by an iconostasis with attractive early columns. The presbytery has three vaults divided by columns and is altogether more ornate than the hall, but the hall has a higher single vault that gives it an air of grandeur. The interior is well-ordered: the Norwegian scholars who have made the study of the Tempietto their life work now agree that it was built as a whole. It also seems that it was linked to the neighbouring church of St John. The most likely use was as a chapel for relics. There is a thirteenth-century report that relics were found under the altar.

Frescoes on the walls survive  if only in fragments, but they show the strong influence of Byzantium with a full-frontal Christ and a Hodegetria, a portrayal of the Virgin Mary ‘who shows the way’ by pointing to her infant son. Then there is a group of saints dressed as soldiers and it appears that these are military martyrs. The only one named, St Hadrian, is known to have been a favourite of the Lombard kings and this confirms the royal connections of the Tempietto. Most intriguing of all are the six stucco statues of women on the higher level of the west wall, the survivors of twelve originals. Again the Byzantine influence is obvious: there are echoes of the figures accompanying Justinian and Theodora in San Vitale in Ravenna. The Lombards were certainly open to the reception of Byzantine models  (as can be seen on their early coins) and Byzantine craftsmen may themselves have decorated the chapel.

The Tempietto is fascinating but it is only part of an array of Lombard finds that are now surfacing in the area, mostly from graves. Already the excellent Archaeological Museum in Cividale has a display of grave goods including delicately carved gold ornaments, rings and crosses. Even this year a new graveyard has been discovered and the sequence of burials show how Germanic motifs from the Lombard’s origins in northern Europe were gradually subsumed within Byzantine models. The Christian Museum has sculpture, notably the eighth-century Altar of the Duke of Ratchis, that makes the point well.

The Altar of the Duke of Ratchis: Lombard art showing clear Byzantine influence

At heart, the Lombards were always a warrior culture and were spreading further into Italy as late as 751. Ravenna was captured in that year and much of central Italy was under their control until Charlemagne defeated them in 774 and took the crown for himself. There is certainly a lot more to the Lombards than I had guessed. I found their relationship with Byzantium especially intriguing.

Cividale del Friuli is covered in Blue Guide Northern Italy and Blue Guide Concise Italy

The tragedy of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico

Among the fragrant pines of the Adriatic island of Lokrum, a short boat ride away from the old town of Dubrovnik, stands a complex of buildings that began life as a votive chapel, founded by Richard the Lionheart in thanksgiving for his survival when he was shipwrecked here on his way home from the Crusades. That chapel expanded into a Benedictine monastery, which was dissolved by Napoleon and later transformed into a residence by Archduke Maximilian of Austria, younger brother of the emperor Franz Joseph. Maximilian used the building—and indeed the entire island—as a summer retreat, laying out ornamental gardens with glades of cypress and oleander. He came here with his beautiful young bride, Charlotte of Belgium. Entranced by the sea breeze and the scent of jasmine, he is said to have carved a love heart pierced with his own and his wife’s initials into the bark of one of Lokrum’s ilex trees. Local people were less enchanted. Their tongues wagged disapprovingly, calling what Maximilian had done to the old monastery an act of sacrilege and predicting dire consequences. Little did they know it, but their words were to turn prophetic…

The island of Lokrum with a view of the monastery-turned-summer-retreat

The Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, born at Schönbrunn in 1832, was good-hearted and idealistic. After a career as Commander-in-Chief of the Austrian navy, he was given the title of Governor General of Lombardy, part of a strategy of Franz Joseph’s to make Austrian rule more popular in northern Italy. It didn’t work. Nationalist fever was running high and despite the fact that Maximilian was a just and benevolent overlord, Lombardy didn’t want him. Instead they looked to Napoleon III of France to liberate them. Austria went to war with France and lost Lombardy at the Battle of Solferino in 1859. Maximilian retreated to his castle on the bay of Trieste, and there he remained, until in 1863 he elected to accept an offer that had been made to him by a clerical minority faction in Mexico: to become their emperor. Maximilian was encouraged in this by Napoleon III. Franz Joseph was greatly troubled. He knew that this was pure political gerrymandering by France, whose ambitions in the New World were considerable. But Maximilian wanted to go. He was ambitious and he also had grand ideas, ideas that were very different from those of his reactionary brother. While Franz Joseph’s main concern was to preserve the status quo, Maximilian, equally fatally, wanted to ‘make a difference’.

Maximilian did his best in Mexico, but he had as many enemies there as he had had in Italy. The country was in a state of guerilla war between the monarchist faction and the troops of Benito Juárez, whom the liberals supported and wanted as their president. Although Maximilian enjoyed the support of the conservatives at first, he alienated them by decreeing freedom of religion and by his instinctive personal sympathy for some of Juárez’s ideas. Pope Pius IX withdrew his support, and when the United States gave diplomatic recognition to Juárez, France withdrew likewise, being also under pressure at home from a rising Prussia. Maximilian was left friendless and unprotected. His wife Charlotte began to exhibit signs of paranoia. She returned to Europe to plead with both the pope and Napoleon, but after a series of hysterical and embarrassing scenes in the Vatican, she was sent to Trieste (Miramare castle)  and kept there under house arrest by Maximilian’s family. Maximilian was captured by the republicans and sentenced to death. Despite many pleas for clemency, including one from Garibaldi, Juárez refused to relent. On the morning of 19th June 1867, Maximilian faced the firing squad.

The emperor Maximilian in his coffin

Glimmering pearly white on the foreshore, just outside the city of Trieste and clearly visible from its waterfront and docks, stands the castle of Miramare. It was completed for Maximilian in 1860, and it is here, in 1866, that Charlotte took up residence when she returned from Mexico in her attempt to rally support for her beleaguered husband. Charlotte suffered a severe nervous breakdown after Maximilian’s death, from which she never fully recovered. She returned to Belgium, where she died in 1927. Miramare is now open to the public a museum.

Castello di Miramare viewed from Trieste docks

City Picks: Verona

Verona is a lovely city. It is just the right size for exploration on foot, and there lots to see. Many of its restaurants are justly famous. It is amply stocked with comfortable places to stay. Its Roman theatre, whose tiers of seats rise high above the river Adige, must have commanded one of the finest views of any ancient theatre in Italy. Its churches are magnificent. And then there is the Museo del Castelvecchio.

This fortress of art displays an astonishingly rich collection of sculpture and painting in the rooms of the old brick-built, Ghibelline-battlemented stronghold of the Scaligeri, or della Scala, who were overlords of Verona in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, until overthrown by the Visconti of Milan. At dead of night, the last of the Scaligeri fled this castle, across the bridge over the boiling river, and melted away, fading out of history.

Castelvecchio has one of the finest collections of paintings in Italy. Architecturally the building is interesting too, because its museum space was remodelled by Carlo Scarpa in 1959–73. Concrete now vies with brick. Once so cutting-edge, Scarpa's arrangements now seem a bit quaint. The equestrian statue of Cangrande I (ruled from 1311) stands on an elevated concrete platform which has all the stateliness of a lift-shaft in a multi-storey carpark. But this means the paintings really have to speak for themselves--and many of them eloquently do. The Pisanello and Stefano da Zevio are of course outstanding. There are some interesting paintings by Francesco Morone. Giovanni Francesco Caroto, the teacher of Veronese, is well represented. His Boy with a Drawing (c. 1515) is wonderfully modern: a grinning, red-headed lad holding up a scribble of a stick man. Any parent who has been called upon to admire a proud child’s not terribly brilliant masterpiece will warm to it.

And what about where to eat? Well, it was pouring with rain when I was last in Verona, so I didn’t spend a long time searching. Sometimes the tried and tested are just what one needs. An Aperol in one of the Listòn cafés overlooking the Arena and then lunch in Antica Bottega del Vino. The lamb with rosemary was excellent. The Amarone even better.

Find Verona in Blue Guide Venice & The Veneto and Blue Guide Concise Italy.


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St Augustine and his mother at Ostia
Visiting St Paul’s in London
Hadrian, Antinoüs and the Christian Fathers
Earliest-known image of a martyrdom
Can’t face the Vatican crowds? Try San Lorenzo
Turin, Pisa and mathematics
Ideal cities are all around us. It’s simply a matter of...
On Canaletto and Guardi and Venetian Light
Mithraism: a Roman Mystery Religion
Random Musings on Pontormo and Vermeer
The Amphitheatre of Londinium
Edward Lear and Crete
A handful of favourite things to see in Sicily
The mystery of the veiled virgins
Venice without the crowds
Cividale del Friuli and the Lombards
The Trouble with Snake Goddesses
The tragedy of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico
Oranges, lemons and relic cults: an escape from the queues...
City Picks: Verona
Hitherto unknown language discovered in east Anatolia
Painting of the Day
Museo Barracco: a little-visited gem
Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome
Staten Island: Upcoming Exhibition …
International Gothic at the Uffizi
Celebrating Santa Rosalia, patron of Palermo
Delhi Ghost Trail
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The Roman Villa at Balácapuszta (Baláca, Nemesvámos,...
The Bard of….Messina? Was Shakespeare Sicilian?
Rereading Ruskin
Sicily’s emblem: the Trinacria
Luca Signorelli on exhibition in Umbria
The Tribuna of the Uffizi reopens
The Venice equivalent of the anonymous Tweet?
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Sicilian Holiday Reading
Attila the Hun and the Foundation of Venice
Death in Venice cocktail a hit
The Gentry: Stories of the English
381 years ago this June
Brooklyn Bridge: a New York landmark
A Venetian Update
Sixth-century church to reopen
Roman Aquileia
Springtime in Friuli
Northern Italy dining and accommodation recommendations
Al Dente: Madness, Beauty & the Food of Rome
A celebration of Lucca
Romantic music in a Baroque setting
Blue Guide India Delhi Launch
Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life
The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution
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The Roman Forum
Whispering City: Rome and its Histories
The 15th-century Health Museum at Edirne
City of Fortune, How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire
Books about Istanbul
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Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor
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The 54th Venice Biennale stars Tintoretto
Holy Bones, Holy Dust
Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity
Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us
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Familiar face
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Blue Guide Northern Italy
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A day trip to Ostia Antica from Rome - highly recommended
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A day trip from Venice up the Brenta Canal
A day trip to Murano from Venice
Pietrasanta, Pisa: in search of Stagi
Reading list for Venice
Reading list for Florence and Tuscany
The Best Credit / Debit Card for Travel
Ruskin on Venice
Reading list for Rome
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