Tony Clayton-Lea flies into Venice and makes his way around one of Italy’s most famous regions to experience beautiful landscapes, hidden gems, vineyards and glorious late spring sunshine
When most people think of Northern Italy, they almost always think of Venice. It’s fair enough – if there is one city in the world that could be termed as pretty as a picture, then Venice would take that description and run away with it.
And yet Venice isn’t the be-all and end-all of what to see in Northern Italy, especially when you consider that it’s the capital of the region of Veneto.
Despite many travellers not wishing to make any kind of effort to see beyond the boundaries of a specific area or region (or city, for that matter), go beyond the parameters and who knows what you might discover.
The operative word here, of course, is ‘discover’, which for some is anathema. We all know of people who travel many miles and spend lots of money just to sit by a swimming pool, but what if you desire to see and experience parts of the region that aren’t exactly set upon by tourists?
Which is why we find ourselves in the province of Vicenza – to be exact, Bassano del Grappa, a town the size of Dundalk, that lays at the point where unvarying Veneto plains touch hills that lead towards the Alps.
We’re based in Bassano del Grappa, and we use its location (it’s connected by direct regional trains to both Venice and Padua), as the starting point for further exploration.
But not before we check out what the town is most well known for: its covered Alpini wooden bridge (Ponte Vecchio, which dates back to the 15th century) over the River Brenta; its locally produced ceramics (currently passing itself off as a butter dish in our bread bin); and its world famous grappa liqueur (which is the closest I’ve ever tasted to sweetly-flavoured petrol, so thanks very much but no thanks, all the same).
Seeing as we’re on the subject of alcohol, it’s perhaps relevant to point out that the Veneto region is one of Italy’s most important wine-growing areas.
It produces more bottles of DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, the primary tier of Italian wine classification) than any other area of Italy, and is famous, for example, for wines such as Prosecco, Valpolicella, Amarone della Valpolicella (a high-quality grape that is among the most expensive red wines in the world) and Soave. And seeing as we’ve mentioned Soave…
Wisps of white/grey cloud loiter on the hills approaching the town of Soave, which is fortified to a small degree by its remaining medieval walls and surrounding vineyards, which stretch out for hectares.
It’s similar to what you’d see at the start of certain movies – typically the opening to a Bond or Mission Impossible-type film — except in this instance, especially as you come closer to the village, you know that the only potential threat ahead is an overload of natural beauty, and the distinct possibility of a mild hangover the next day.
Soave Castle teeters over the old town, which is itself a wonderfully preserved slice of history, and as we stop for a caffe latte (which costs €2) at Caffetteria Mattielli, with its cobblestoned al fresco area, the sun shining and a balmy breeze blowing at the end of March, we look at its winding streets with their 50 shades of ochre, and come to the realisation that what we’re really missing is a glass of wine. Like, pronto.
Of course, pizzerias and trattorias and osterias dot the landscape, as do now unused buildings that once housed and hosted workers.
Much has been replaced by modernity, but strip away the contemporary road networks (the amount of roundabouts will surely make you dizzy) and supermarkets, and you have a landscape – with thousand of vines lined up with military, at-attention precision – that surely wouldn’t look that much different than it did 200 years ago.
The following day, we drive about 20kms from our base at Bassano del Grappa to Asolo, a very pretty and small hilltop settlement— known as the “hamlet with a hundred horizons” due to its levitated position that allows 360-degree views over stunning landscape blessed with cypress trees, olive groves and the ubiquitous vineyards.
Accessed via an archetypal sequence of long and winding roads, Asolo has a strong literary and avant garde connection that makes its presence felt. Sitting at the town plaza’s Caffe Centrale, nursing a caffe macchiato (€2.70), we note that the likes of writers Ernest Hemingway, Robert Browning and Henry James share space with contemporary artists such as Charlotte Moorman, Nam June Paik, and Al Benson (the father of singer-songwriter, Beck).
It is an unlikely but instructive thing to discover in such a remote part of the Veneto region that the town of Asolo was once the hub of Northern Italy’s neo avant garde movement, but there it is – on occasion, truth really is stranger than fiction.
There’s still a nip in the air, but that’s only in the shade – on Caffe Centrale’s al fresco terrace the heat of the sun undercuts the chill, and there’s a warmth on my face that hasn’t been felt since last year’s summer months.
As we head back to the car for a quick spin to our next destination, we notice that Asolo is a cyclist’s stop-off, as we see throngs of lycra-glad men of a certain age, swirl through the streets in a multi-coloured blur.
Our next and final stop on this whistle-stop tour of Veneto is Arquà Petrarca, a wonderfully preserved (if not intact), medieval town of less than 2,000 population, that languishes in the verdant slopes of Monte Ventolone and Monte Castello, within the Euganean Hills.
Noted for being one of the most beautiful small towns in Italy (as well as a true-blue hidden gem), you can stroll through and around the town in less than a couple of hours, but such brevity doesn’t take away from how beautiful it is.
That’s the thing about this generally under-explored region – it’s incredibly picturesque and full of gentle surprises, yet you’ll see it only if your take your feet off the beaten path.
Veni, vidi, vici? Add some vino to that, avoid for once the (often claustrophobic) tourist attraction that is Venice, and you’ll have yourself a relaxed trip of a lifetime.
Where To Stay:
Hotel Ca’Sette, Via Cunizza da Romano, Bassano del Grappa. This is a very comfortable 4-star hotel housed in an 18th century villa, with panoramic views of Bassano del Grappa and surrounding areas. www.ca-sette.it
Where To Eat:
l’Enoteca di Arquà, Via Castello, Arquà Petrarca. A hilltop intimate restaurant that is arguably the best wine bar in the area. www.lenotecadiarqua.it
What To See:
Serego Alighieri Estate vineyard, a 120-hectare property in Gargagnago, in the heart of the Valpolicella region – it belongs to direct descendants of no less a renowned figure than Dante. www.seregoalighieri.it
How To Get There:
Aer Lingus and Ryanair operate regular flights to Venice and Verona. Car hire is essential for touring the Veneto region.
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