All roads lead from Venice

Swap your gondola for four wheels and float past the luscious Veneto landscape, says Richard Lofthouse
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The Independent Travel

Venice's unique appeal rests as much on the absence of roads and traffic as on the presence of canals and gondoliers, so it was with a certain degree of incredulity that journalists recently flew there for the launch of Bentley's new luxury car, the Flying Spur. The Crewe-based car-maker even managed to hoist a car onto the threshold of the Hotel Gritti Palace, a few feet away from the Grand Canal. Whether a new benchmark in the history of car launches, or a mighty automotive oxymoron, the stunt was unquestionably ingenious.

Venice's unique appeal rests as much on the absence of roads and traffic as on the presence of canals and gondoliers, so it was with a certain degree of incredulity that journalists recently flew there for the launch of Bentley's new luxury car, the Flying Spur. The Crewe-based car-maker even managed to hoist a car onto the threshold of the Hotel Gritti Palace, a few feet away from the Grand Canal. Whether a new benchmark in the history of car launches, or a mighty automotive oxymoron, the stunt was unquestionably ingenious.

Having zoomed around the mainland in a Flying Spur, the central impression, apart from the gloriously muted Bentley growl and its sumptuous internal appointments, is how stunning the region of Veneto actually is. Oh, for a humble Fiat rental car and a week of freedom...

Don't allow yourself to be misled about Venice's surroundings. The immediately adjacent Mestre - described as the ugliest city in the world married to the most beautiful - may explain why 90 per cent of visitors to Venice dash in and dash out, usually en route to or from Florence or Rome, but Mestre is the only exception in the beautiful landscape of Veneto.

So pick up a car from Avis or Hertz at the Piazzale Roma in Venice, drive across the Ponte della Libertà, which connects the city to the mainland, and immediately escape the sprawl by heading for the A4 going north, branching left on the A27 and driving the 100 miles towards Cortina d'Ampezzo, deep in the Dolomite mountains.

Just before you cross the Piave river it's possible to divert west a few miles and take in the Villa Barbaro, one of Andrea Palladio's finest palaces, commissioned in 1555 and today open to the public. If, on the other hand, you're a keen driver, stick to the road, which follows the river all the way to Pieve di Cadore, where you should take the S51 to Cortina. After lunch, drive the Strada delle Dolomiti, or S48, from Cortina to Bolzano - one of the most beautiful drives anywhere in the Alps.

South of Bolzano, pick up the A22 and head south in an arc culminating at Lake Garda, another haven of tranquillity from the sometimes oppressive humidity of the coastal plain. Drive either to Lazise or the Sirmione peninsula on the southern shore, and don't miss the Rocca Scaligera, a 13th-century castle built into the lake at Sirmione and designed to ensnare invading boats in a watery courtyard trap. On the eastern shore, meanwhile, Bardolino hosts a grape festival every September celebrating its namesake light red wine, distinct from the valpolicella that Veneto is famous for.

Landscapes are one thing, culture is another, and just a few miles from the lake is Verona, host to the truly spectacular Shakespeare and opera festivals in July and August. The point is not to try and understand The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice or Romeo and Juliet in Italian, but to visit the Teatro Romano on a hot night and sit with an extended Italian family picnicking amid the hot scents of cypress trees, wild roses and jasmine, listening to the cool tumble of the river Adige.

As for the operas, they take place in the third largest Roman ampitheatre after Rome's Colosseum and Capua, near Naples. A capacity crowd is 25,000 spectators and the vast scale of the arena allows for spectacular stage machinery for Verdi's Aida and other popular operas.

Verona is a lovely city, owing to its spectacular Roman remains and must-see sites. Don't miss the Piazza Erbe, a medieval herb market lined with inviting boutiques and coffee shops, Juliet's Tomb and San Zeno Maggiore - not only Italy's most ornate Romanesque church, but one housing an astonishing triptych altarpiece by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506).

Complete the circle by driving east back to Venice along the arterial A4, where you pass Vicenza and Padua. Vicenza is certainly worth a day and is a stronghold of Palladio architecture, but if time is tight press on for Padua. Its ancient university provokes comparison with Oxford, and the Giotto-decorated Scrovegni chapel is the product of medieval genius.

Thereafter, make it up according to taste, but don't forget that being drawn to the opalescent waters of the lagoons doesn't limit you to Venice. As well as Caorle to the north, Chioggia lies to the south, a colourful quayside market town found on a spit of land just off the S309 scarcely 15 miles from Venice and sporting the best seafood in the region.

Venice's main airport is Marco Polo, served by numerous airlines from Britain; Ryanair uses the more distant Treviso airport. Rental car agencies can be found at the airports, at the railway stations in Padua, Verona and Vicenza, and at the Piazzale Roma at the eastern end of the causeway connecting mainland Italy to Venice. Avis 0039 41 52 25 825; Hertz 0039 41 52 84 091

VENICE AND VENETO SUMMER CALENDAR

13 June Sagra di Sant'Antonio, the Feast of St Anthony is celebrated in Padua with a boisterous fair in the Prato della Valle.

End of June Festa dei Santi Pietro e Paolo, celebrating Saint Peter and Saint Paul, is widely celebrated across the Veneto with concerts, festivals and fairs

July-Sept, opera and Shakespeare festivals overlap in Verona

Late July, Sardellata al Pal del Vo, celebration of sardine fishing on Lake Garda at Pal del Vo, with decorated boats and much fish frying

August, numerous local festivals, firework displays and cooking samples across the region in the official holiday month

8-16 August Festa dell'Assunta in Vittorio Veneto, a colourful local festival on the edge of the Dolomites

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