The last time there were hordes of foreign visitors on Italy’s Mount Grappa was during the First World War. Now it lies serene, forming a backdrop to the northern Veneto region, separating the stark grandeur of the Dolomites from the Veneto’s medieval hilltop towns.
Linked by small roads that are green with vineyards and yellow with corn, towns in the Dolomite foothills such as Asolo, Bassano del Grappa and Follina, were once the homes of Venetian noblemen. They still retain the beauty and tranquility that attracted the Venetians. Though merely 50 miles away from an overcrowded Venice, these towns in the Dolomite foothills are a world apart.
The Veneto, one of 20 Italian regions, with Venice as its capital, is filled with natural beauty, history and art, farms and vineyards, yet it is one of the most industrialized Italian areas, and one of the wealthiest. With its own language or dialect (vèneto, and the variant, veneziano, in Venice) and unique cuisine featuring seafood and polenta, the Veneto can not be confused with any other part of Italy.
My husband and I spent two sunny September weeks traveling through a small portion of the northern Veneto from Asolo to Venice, first by car, then by bike and finally by boat.
Asolo, a medieval hilltop hamlet, is a good introduction to the area. Stately villas dot the hills, in juxtaposition to the aged stone buildings that hug the skinny, cobblestoned and shadowed streets of the old town. The Piazza Maggiore, the town square, felt authentic with its castle, school, church, loggia, museum and with the ruins of La Rocca, a medieval fortress in the hills above. But the smart shops on the Via Browning evidenced Asolo’s commercial interest in upscale tourism. Although we didn’t see many Asolo residents during the week, on the weekend locals crowded into the Risorante Pizza Cornaro just off the Piazza Maggiore.
The Hotel Villa Cipriani, our Asolo home for five nights, has an unassuming entrance on a narrow street that belies the eye-catching terraced gardens and striking hillside view from its sides and rear. So when booking a room, it is definitely worth the extra Euros to pay the higher rate for a room with a garden or hillside view.
Most of the 31 rooms are in the main villa building and have very high beamed ceilings, large enough bathrooms with elaborately painted tiles and elegant décor. The Villa Cipriani is now part of the Starwood chain, which is both good and bad. The good: one can use Starwood Starpoints to pay for a room instead of the 500+Euro retail rate. The bad: about 40% of the guests are Americans, and though the service and ambiance still felt like a small Italian luxury hotel, using the familiar Sheraton shampoo was a discordant trace of American reality.
Of the many nearby day trips, the drive up the 5,800 foot Mount Grappa has the most dramatic scenery and geography. The beautiful narrow empty road (Strada Provinciale 141) winds with switchbacks through forests upward to a treeless summit. From the top, the foothill towns, Veneto plains and Venice are visible from one side and the Dolomite Mountains from the other. The Dolomites stand out from the rest of the Alps because of their unusual rock shape and color.
At Mount Grappa’s peak, there is a poignant First World War cemetery and mausoleum holding the remains of 25,000 Italian and Austrian soldiers who died there in the fierce 1917 Battle of Mount Grappa. It all seemed surreal on the clear and sunny day of our visit.
Continuing down Mount Grappa on the northern side, we stopped in Feltre, a small town along a ridge of the mountains. It was once part of the Republic of Venice, then was briefly French, then Austrian and now Italian. The historic section of Feltre, separated by a long flight of stairs from the modern town, has some interesting buildings of various architectural styles from the 16th to the 19th centuries, including a piazza, church, small museum and buildings with frescoed walls.
The easy return to Asolo is through a long mountain pass that borders the Stizzon and Piave rivers, so there is no need to retrace one’s steps over the top of the mountain.
The town of Bassano del Grappa is less than ten miles from Asolo on Strada Provinciale 248, a road bordering vineyards, farms and small modern industrial buildings, interspersed by the occasional stately Palladian villa.
Bassano is a prosperous bustling town with several picturesque squares and painted façades. On Saturday, market day, the squares, fashionable shops, caffès and trattorias were overflowing with sophisticated-looking and well dressed Italians. Presumably, some were drinking grappa, the liquor made there since 1779. The Ponte degli Alpini, a wooden walking bridge across the Brenta River was designed by Palladio in the 16th century and rebuilt many times after flooding. It has lovely views from both sides.
No visit to the Veneto would be complete without seeing at least one villa designed by Andrea Palladio. The Villa Barbaro, in Maser, was designed by Palladio for his patrons, the Barbaro family, an old Venetian aristocratic family. It is therefore more elaborate in design and scale than many of his other villas. Don’t miss it. Completed in 1560, it has been fully restored and is still occupied by its current owner. During our tour (wearing cloth slippers over our shoes), we peaked through the formal public rooms decorated with frescos by Veronese and caught a glimpse of one of the lucky owner’s private rooms, a warm study furnished with comfy sofas.
In the lush Valdobbiadene area, a bit further northeast, the world’s best Prosecco grapes are cultivated, as they have been for many centuries. Prosecco is a very drinkable softly sparkling white wine and we had grown to enjoy its light, faintly sweet, yet refreshing taste.
We road our bikes on small, hilly roads through tiny towns, surrounded by terraced vineyards, ripe with grapes ready for harvest. The uphill bike ride to reach the family-run Bisol Winery for a Prosecco tasting was definitely worth the climb. http://www.bisol.it
Follina, though a tiny community in the area, has a delightful Relais & Châteaux member hotel, the Hotel Villa Abbazia. Formerly a 17th century summer residence of Venetian aristocrats, the family run Hotel Villa Abbazia has lovely gardens and a very good restaurant. Its décor, charmingly busy and elaborate, somehow works well in its setting.hotel website
Across the street is the still functioning 14th century Cistercian Abbey Santa Maria with Gothic and Romanesque architecture. From the empty courtyard, we could hear somber organ music.
After cycling the rural roads of the Northern Veneto, the small sidewalks and canals of Venice would be quite a culture shock under the best of circumstances. But the thousands of tourists invading Venice daily from huge cruise ships made me long for the countryside. It won’t be the rising tides that will destroy Venice. The cruise ships will have accomplished that already. Venice still has wonder and beauty. It is just much harder to see it now.