Any yachting journey through the Eastern Mediterranean will soon encounter the legacy of the Venetians, a mighty merchant power whose 16th century empire stretched from the Italian states across the Adriatic to modern day Croatia, Albania, parts of Greece, and even—if briefly—to Istanbul.
Tracing the trade route of the Venetians on a luxury yacht is a dream undertaking, as you float from from the spires of Venice to the mighty walled cities of Dubrovnik and Split, drop anchor off the breathtaking Greek Islands of Corfu and Rhodes, and pass up through the Bosporus to dock below the minarets and domes of ancient Constantinople.
On an Adriatic yacht charter, you’ll marvel at the artistic and architectural treasures of the Venetians— the palazzo, citadels and cathedrals, the marble-paved streets and soaring bell-towers—surrounded by the crumbling legacies of other great empires, such as Greek temples, Roman amphitheatres, and Byzantine churches.
Many of the old outposts of the Venetian Republic are already popular yacht charter destinations, such as glamorous Hvar and the beautiful island of Korcula, while other lesser-known spots like Pula are outstanding additions to any Adriatic yachting itinerary.
Given the length of the journey, only time-rich yacht owners or long-term charterers planning to spend most of the summer will be have the luxury of time to follow the Venetian trade route in its entirety on one trip, but it can just as easily be done in stages such as Venice to Dubrovnik, or by simply incorporating Venetian places of interest on a traditional Adriatic yacht charter in Croatia, Greece or Turkey.
To help you plan your yachting vacation, we’ve detailed some of the most outstanding stops on a Venetian trade route yacht charter. If you’re looking for further visual inspiration, we thoroughly recommend watching Francesco’s Mediterranean Voyage, a BBC documentary series following proud Venetian architect Francesco de Mosta as he sails the Venetian trade route to Istanbul on the magnificent 40m classic sailing yacht The Black Swan.
Venice : The Heart of Empire
The empire of Venice may have begun as a huddle of refugees hiding on islands in a swamp, but it soon became a mighty naval power with an Adriatic empire that lasted a thousand years.
To begin a Venetian-themed charter in style, one can only start in Venice. When the refugees sheltered from the barbarians on low-lying islands in a lagoon in the 8th century AD, they could not have imagined their rough, swampy settlement would one day be considered the centre of the Mediterranean—a shining city of canals, soaring spires, and marble palazzo.
Begin your yacht charter with a day or two in magical Venice, where you’ll wander St Mark’s Square, listen to the morning mass choir in the breathtaking Basilica, and stroll the vast halls of Doge’s Gothic Palace. Art lovers will not know where to look first, for Venice is a simply astonishing repository of art, from Tintoretto and Tiopelo to the 20th century masters at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. But in truth, the whole city is art, as the buildings look like they float on the water as you take a gondola past grand merchant’s mansions, brightly-painted fisherman’s houses, and under elegant bridges.
Leaving Venice on a yacht is a heart-stirring experience, as the breathtaking skyline of domes and towers falls away into the distance as you venture out into the Adriatic, tracing the watery path of the mighty merchants of Venice.
Pula : A City that Paid for Venetian Rule
Pula in northern Croatia is best known for its staggering Roman stadium, which is one of the largest and best preserved on earth and dates from when Pula was a flourishing imperial city. However, its Venetian-era history was not so glorious.
A short hop across the water from Venice, Pula was an obvious target for the Venetian fleet, whose rule then invited a succession of invasions from rival empires, with the Genoese, Croat-Hungarian, and Habsburg armies all raining down destruction on Pula and its surrounding villages. Plague, typhoid, small-pox and malaria did the rest: by the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, once-important Pula was an overgrown, dilapidated town of only 600 inhabitants.
Its revival has been a marvel, beginning under the Austro-Hungarian Empire and continuing through to today. A lesser-known stop on an Adriatic yacht charter, Pula is a wonderful place to witness the legacy of the Venetians as you explore the 17th century Venetian fortress and the Romanesque-Gothic-Renaissance palace.
It is even said that the Venetians considered tearing down the Roman stadium, the Pula Arena, to use for building works back in Venice—but as you explore the grim dungeons where the gladiators waited to meet their death, or watch a summer opera or film performance in the atmospheric stadium, you’ll be oh-so-glad they didn’t.
The view of Pula’s stadium will be the last thing you see of the city as you weigh anchor and cruise down the Adriatic coast to your next stop, the city of Split.
Split : An Architectural Melange
We’ve written about Split in great detail in our Croatia Yachting Series, and again, there are so many layers of imperial history to this grand old city, beginning, of course, with Diocletian’s Palace. Built as a retirement home by the Roman emperor in 295 AD, the palace complex has become an architectural hotchpotch of styles through the centuries, as people took refuge from invasions inside the palace precinct, and houses, cafes and shops all popped up between the city walls. It’s a marvellous place to wander and feel the ages colliding, as you see Venetian belltowers and Roman temples half-obscured by nondescript apartment blocks, and even an Egyptian Sphinx. The palace quarter feels magnificently alive, its buildings strung together with washing lines and the cobbled laneways heaving with crowds searching for Game of Thrones film locations.
The Venetians ruled here from 1420 until the fall, putting efforts into fortifying the town and adding mansions in the flamboyant Venetian-Gothic style. It’s great fun to explore, spotting the Venetian elements in between the architectural melange.
But in truth, this city is great fun all over – lively, laid back, and cheerful. But wouldn’t you be, if you lived in the grounds of a Roman palace? Watch the Adriatic sunset from the bustling Riva promenade, before returning to your yacht for the journey out to the dreamy Dalmatian islands.
Hvar : The Best of Both Worlds
While Hvar may be jet-set-famous for its glamorous beach clubs and superyacht scene, there’s no escaping the fact that like so many other places in Croatia, the town’s beauty arises in great part from its Venetian history.
Hvar was ruled by the Venetians from the 12th century, who brought the island immense prosperity and left behind many monuments and artworks, including the cathedral, the hilltop citadel, beautiful noble’s palaces and a superb painting of the Last Supper by Matteo Ingoli. As for the square, it is considered one of the most romantic piazzas in all of Europe (and therefore, certainly, the world).
The locals rebelled against Venetian rule in 16th century, but the Venetian retook the islands. In an attempt to restore harmony, the Venetian rulers decided to build Europe’s first public theatre to bring the Venetian aristocracy and the Hvar peasants together—an attempt which, rather surprisingly, was a great success. Peace was restored, and the theatre remains one of the most splendid historical sights in Hvar, as well as being a very fine place to see an evening performance.
The joy of chartering a yacht in Hvar (and much of Croatia) is that you can have your superyacht decadence of fine dining and boutiques, in a grand setting that has been shaped by the history of empires. As far as a backdrop for partying and living the good life, yachting destinations don’t get much better than heavenly Hvar. We imagine the Venetians rather liked it here too.
Korcula : Dubrovnik’s Ever-So Venetian Cousin
It’s a challenge not to fall headlong in love with the walled city of Korcula, its palm trees and red roofs an exotic vision against a backdrop of forested mountains and sparkling sea. Often called ‘mini-Dubrovnik’ for its splendid old town, Korcula is also considered to be the most Venetian town in all of Croatia – even to the extent that they claim the Venetian explorer Marco Polo as their own (much to the horror of the Venetians).
The Venetians conquered the city briefly from the 12th century, and the fort on the water became the home of Venice’s naval arsenal for the region, with many naval battles taking place off Korcula’s pretty shores. The importance of the Republic’s power in Korcula cannot be overstated, and the town is rich in Venetian architecture, from the Venetian coat of arms carved into the city walls (a lion with a paw on a book) to the iconic ‘balcony-transitions’: small elevated bridges leading from building to building. Even by the 15th century, Korcula was considered a ‘pearl of architecture’ in the Mediterranean, and ‘a perfect specimen of a Venetian town’ according to the 19th century English historian Edward Freeman.
The names and emblems of Venetian noblemen are carved into the Renaissance-style buildings, Venetian words still litter the local dialect, and Venetian surnames still occupy the town registries. Everyone proudly claims Venetian ancestry in this proud Venetian-heritage town.
If you were ever to get tired of all the splendid Venetian history and architecture of Korcula, there’s always the island to explore, with rolling Pošip vineyards stretching down to blue-green sea. It’s a hard life, following the route of the Venetians.
Dubrovnik : A Short but Powerful Reign
Dubrovnik was so powerful in its own right that it attracted the envy of the Venetians, who attacked in 1205 and ruled the city for 153 years. After the Treaty of Zadar, Dubrovnik regained much of its autonomy and power under Croat-Hungarian rule, allowing it to become politically progressive and economically prosperous, becoming a great trading rival to Venice.
In the scheme of human history, the Venetians were only in power in Dubrovnik for a blink of an eye (particularly when you consider that the Venetians ruled much of Croatia for 600 years) but the Republic left behind a stunning architectural legacy. Almost the entire Old Town as we see it today was constructed during Venetian rule in the 13th and 14th century, including the magnificent ramparts, city gates, and Stradum, the city’s promenade.
Dubrovnik is the starting point for many Croatian yacht charters, and what a starting point it is, with its narrow cobbled laneways, summer concerts, and fine-dining atop the city walls.
Bay of Kotor, Montenegro : Venetian Palaces in the Fjord
The Venetian’s might also stretched to Montenegro, where the towns of Perast and Kotor are fine examples of Venetian architecture. Nestled up in the staggering fjord-like Bay of Kotor, the UNESCO-listed city of Kotor is dominated by its terracotta roofs and belltowers, backed by Venetian wall fortifications snaking up the mountain behind the town.
For all Kotor’s beauty, Perast has an even more interesting Venetian history, as it was the last city of the Republic to lower the Venetian flag, holding out for several months after the empire’s fall in May 1797. When it came time to finally surrender, the Gonfalon flag of Venice was lowered and buried under the altar of Perasto’s main church, in front of a weeping crowd. Perast today is a wonderful example of Venetian architecture, with merchant’s palaces along the waterfront. Just offshore are two beautiful islands with ancient churches: Her Lady of the Rocks and Sveti Dorde, making Perast a must-stop on a Montenegro yacht charter.
Corfu : Strategic Dominance in the Adriatic
Corfu may be well-known for its British history, given its colonial legacy of cricket pitches, rose gardens and Governor’s residences, yet the Venetians ruled over Corfu for 400 years – compared to the rather paltry British reign of around 60 years. Corfu was voluntarily annexed to the Empire in 1386 to protect them from the growing Ottoman threat, and Corfu Old Town became important base for the Venetian fleet, affording the empire a strategic vantage point at the entrance of the Adriatic. Corfu flourished under the Venetians, although fiercely-quashed resistance often simmered in the face of what was seen as exploitation by Venetian nobles.
Much of Corfu’s architecture is a legacy of the Venetians, including many of the houses of the UNESCO-listed Old Town and the three Venetian forts. Beautiful, fascinating Corfu is often the starting point for an Ionian yacht charter, taking in the splendid sights of Homer’s Ithaca, the caves of Kefalonia, and the spectacular Shipwreck Beach.
Istanbul : The Great Rival
Those with the luxury of time will take in other places shaped by Venetian rule, such as Rhodes and Athens on a Greek yacht charter. But no Venetian trade route journey would be truly complete without a visit to ancient Constantinople, where the Byzantine and later Ottoman empires were Venice’s great trading rivals and partners. Their relationship was complex; an ever-shifting balance of trade and negotiations, peace and war. The city was ruled by Venice after the sack of Constantinople, but fell to the Ottomans in 1453, although the Venetians managed to maintain a colony in the city and retained some of its Byzantine-era trade privileges.
The importance of Constantinople on Venice’s architecture cannot be overstated; a casual observer might see traces of Venice in Istanbul’s ancient buildings, but in truth, it is the other way around: the Byzantine and Islamic architecture substantially influenced the Venetian style, and would be transported across the Venetian empire in the years to come.
A visit to Istanbul is not complete without a tour of the great sights: the Grand Bazaar, with its piles of fine carpets and rich spices; Hagia Sophia with its pink dome and spires, the famous Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace, historic home of the Sultan and his harem. Perhaps the greatest sight of all, however, is the sight of the skyline from the deck of the yacht, as you admire this ancient city, straddled across two continents.
Planning your Venetian Journey
The legacy of the Venetians looms large across the Mediterranean even today, and there is no better way to discover the empire’s faded, lingering glory than with an Adriatic yacht charter through Bespoke Yacht Charter:
This article was written by Jo Morgan – Jo is a freelance writer for yachts and travel, offering targeted feature articles, content marketing, blogs and press releases for the yachting and travel industries.