Treviso, rumoured to have been founded by refugees from the Trojan War and which became the ancient Roman town of Tarvisium, is now known as ‘Little Venice’ for its collection of pristine waterways, palaces and piazzas.
Although only a few miles north of Venice, it doesn’t see large numbers of visitors precisely because of its closeness to the larger draw of La Serenissima.
Today’s town is still walled on three sides, with the fourth protected by the clear green waters of the River Sile.
The walls were fortified in the 16th century to protect Treviso from a siege held by an anti-Venetian coalition force. The quiet medieval town became an impressive fortress with twelve towering gates.
Today its main square is endearingly dedicated to ‘all those who are visiting Treviso for the first time’. Warmly welcomed in the tourist office and armed with information we set off to explore the five sectors of Rivieras, Market, Mills, Square, Borgo and Victory.
Lining the square, the brick Palazzo della Ragione was built in 1185 as a meeting hall of the Commune of Treviso. It’s still the seat of local government as the headquarters of the Municipal Council.
Opposite the arcades of palatial Piazza de Signori were bursting with cafes and ice cream parlours. Cool arcaded streets boasted colourful frescoes and independent shops selling fashion, homeware, textiles and materials for artists. Over time Treviso has provided great inspiration to many writers, artists and sculptors.
Seeking some respite from the day’s scorching heat we ventured into the crypts of the cathedral, San Pietro. The large, intact, Romanesque and columned crypt is still used as a chapel and was fragrant with incense and candles. Back in the sunshine we squinted up at the Duomo’s three great cupolas that make the town’s distinctive skyline.
The ‘Rivieras’ are connected by wooden and stone bridges, one recorded by Dante in his Divine Comedy. Here the River Sile is channelled in canals alongside which elegant and shuttered town houses project stone terraces and wrought-iron balconies. It was a delight to spot dream waterside homes, each one prettier and more alluring than the previous.
Following the canals, we ended up in the Mills sector where once wooden paddle mills powered huge grinding stones, and washer women did the laundry of Venetian nobles in the waters. Stone buttress walls support the colourful terraced houses built into the canal’s foundation walls at Vicolo Buranelli. Canale dei Buranelli is named for a 16th century warehouse used by merchants from the Venetian island of Burano.
The local church of San Francesco, houses the tombs of the son of Dante and the daughter of Petrarca, Italy’s illustrious medieval poets.
The Market sector is entered from outside the city walls by the impressive and very charming Porta di San Tomaso, touchingly dedicated to Saint Thomas of Canterbury (or TAB as we know him locally at home). A statue of Saint Paul stands on the top of the gate which also contains a giant Lion of St Mark, and six smaller lions at the base worn with age and the stroking hands of generations of passers-by.
If you can’t afford the riverside, the Borgo, largely cleared of its medieval streets is now a ‘garden town’ of villas set in large green plots along wide tree-lined streets. Here, one of the three surviving gates of the city walls, Porta di Santa Quaranta, records its name in Latin for those leaving the town ‘Porta Sanctorum Quadraginta’ and in Venetian dialect for those coming in ‘Porta de Sancti Quaranta’.
Treviso is a fascinating and alluring town to visit, and like all of those we have seen along this pretty route through Italy, it is lived in. We mixed with locals out to shop and chat, old boys on bicycles, groups of university students rushing over the bridges at their Riviera campus, and enjoyed a class of infants being taught cycling proficiency at our camperstop.
The mini road system was impressive with roundabouts, junctions, crossings and traffic lights. The teaching was questionable and its future application unlikely – based on our hair-raising experience of Italian drivers!