Despite the fact that I studied art history at university, after Rome and Florence, we were on historical and cultural ‘overload.’ We knew that like fine wine and great food, we needed a break to experience ‘la dolce vita’ and not rush our Veneto & Venice experience. Firmly believing that the charm of the Veneto community extended well beyond the lagoon, we grabbed a rental car at the Maestro station and headed for the countryside before venturing to Venezia, reportedly the most visited city in the world.
Travelling by car was much easier then I expected since Italians drive on the same side of the road as North Americans and the GPS system made navigating a synch (well almost!). Gradually the urban landscape gave way to the rolling hills of the Vicenza valley, and 65 km later we were in the heart of the Grappa Mountains and Valboddiandene wine country. With little effort we soon found ourselves meandering along the Prosecco Road, popping into small local vineyards to sample the region’s specialty before checking at the Asolo Golf Resort. As we headed to our guesthouse, we couldn’t help but notice the lushness of the golf course on one side of the winding drive and the orderly rows of grapes on the other – ‘nine and wine’ in total harmony. It was at that moment that our decision to temporarily escape the hustle and bustle of the big cities was the right choice.
Morning came, and we awoke to a stunning sunrise that filled the room with light. Relaxed and rested we were off to explore the walled, medieval town of Asolo nestled on the hillside in the shadow of the snow-capped Dolomites. An easy 15 minutes from the resort, the car seemed to find its way automatically to Piazza Garibaldi – the town’s main square and free parking. ‘Asolare’ means to pass the time leisurely and the best way to do that is on foot.
Patronized by poets, writers and artists such as Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, Ernest Hemingway and John Malkovich, Asolo has been dubbed ‘The City of a Hundred Horizons’ and for a good reason. A warren of ancient alleyways lead us past porticoed walkways, palaces framed by Gothic arcades, mullioned and trefoil windows, ornate balconies laden with flowers and Palladian villas decorated with frescoes that date back to the 15th century.
The city’s centre is indeed compact, and the Duomo, Queen’s Palace, Museum, the Bot (an old Roman aqueduct), and Duse Theatre are all within striking distance of the piazza but be sure to give yourself enough time to hike up to La Rocca, the massive fortress that dominates the skyline.
Several well-manicured paths connect the fortress of Asolo to the sanctuary of the Madonna. One of my favourites will lead you to the Chiesetta di San Giorgio where you can enjoy a bit of solitude in a natural setting. The little chapel sits high atop a hill, and its white façade vividly contrasts with the blue sky and verdant green of the sweeping plain that extends all the way from Venice to the Euganean Hills. On a clear day, it is possible to see all the way to the Venetian lagoon and the walk is certainly worth the effort!
Having worked up an appetite, it was time to indulge in some culinary delights, and we soon found ourselves ensconced at a romantic table for two on the covered terrace at the Ristorante Due Mori. While watching the sunset, we sampled the agnolotti alle erbe spontanee (pasta filled with herbs) which was divine and feasted on grilled chicken, the house specialty cooked over a traditional open flame. As we sipped a glass of Due Mori’s excellent and exceptionally well-priced house wine, we agreed that from dusk to dawn, we had enjoyed every moment, far from the madding crowd.
The next morning as the sun peeked out from over the ridge to illuminate the mist that had settled in the valley around the Foresteria, I caught up on emails and planned what’s next! Many of our adventures start with me proclaiming “it’s only this far on the map” and today’s excursion was no exception. The name Asiago jumped out at me from the map, and after consulting the guidebook, I learned that it was indeed the home of the world-famous cheese as well as a naturalists and sports enthusiast’s paradise. If after the peacefulness of Asolo, you find yourself in need of an adrenaline rush, Asiago definitely fills the bill. Here you can leap from the bridge at Val Gardena to conquer Europe’s highest bungee jump, hidrobob, paraglide or ski in winter. The less intrepid can also opt to sit back and sip rich, red Amarone while watching the action. Decision made and we were off before lunch to explore the unknown.
Are you familiar with the expression, “it’s the journey, not the destination”? This is absolutely true when you set out without a preconceived notion of what you will experience and fully engage all your senses.
Our first surprise was Bassano del Grappa, affectionately known as the gateway to the Alps. It was festival time, and as we made our way around the three main squares brimming with people preparing to welcome visitors, we couldn’t help but remark that this had to the prettiest towns in the Veneto region. No doubt about it, the architecture was amazing, and the quaint shops and cafes beckoned but the view crossing the Brenta River was so stunning and unexpected that it literally took our breath away. In unison, we both exclaimed ‘stop the car’ and jumped out to snap more than a picture or two before grabbing double-scoop gelatos and settling in to really absorb the beauty of the historic wooden bridge and the ambience of this charming and vibrant town.
Heading towards the mountains, we noticed that the sky was filled with what appeared to be a flock of very large, colourful birds. On closer inspection, we realized that these were paragliders winging their way home from the mountaintop. Without hesitation, we made a course correction and found the landing site. For next hour time stood still as we watched in awe and amazement as unlike Icarus, one by one they safely returned to earth. Note to self, on our next trip I would definitely book a tandem flight so I can soar like an eagle!
Onwards and upwards, the road via Conco was a steep, a winding section of switchbacks that kept the driver’s eye on the road but provided the passenger with panoramic views from all directions. We were starting to wonder how much further it was to Asiago when suddenly the road levelled off and we found ourselves on a plateau dotted with ‘malagas’ or sheppard huts. Immediately we were struck by the strong Austrian/German influence that dramatically contrasted with anything that we had seen so far on our Italian tour.
The weekly market was in full swing, and we quickly joined in with the locals in the search for the freshest and finest products of the region, in addition to a bargain or two. As we meandered from stall to stall, the vendors were more than patient with my halting Italian and were delighted to help us select fresh and aged cheeses, hand-cured prosciutto, sun-dried tomatoes, olives and fresh bread to dine later, al fresco on our balcony at the resort. We then settled in for a ‘grande biera’ and waited for the sun to go down.
Asiago is one of those few places where heaven actually meets earth, and it would be a shame if you left this alpine village without making a stop at the Asiago Observatory. Here you can almost touch the stars, and while I can’t do justice in describing how we felt as we found constellation after constellation, I can highly recommend that you take the time to experience the magic yourself.
The next day, rejuvenated and revitalized we were ready for Venice, truly the world’s most pedestrian-friendly city. We spent three days exploring every inch within a five-kilometre radius of San Marco Square and soon learned that every ‘wrong turn’ simply resulted in a new and unplanned adventure. We did some of the things you ‘have to do’ in Venice like standing under the magnificent dome in the Basilica, making a wish on the Bridge of Sighs or strolling the Canal Grande, but we also climbed the Bell Tower and any other tower we could find so we could drink in the views from above. We opted not to take a ride in a gondola but spent more than a few hours exploring the Venetian islands by water bus. Our self-guided tour included picnicking at a park in Torcello, Hemingway’s beloved island, purchasing a hand-blown glass Christmas ornament in Murano and basking in the golden sun that illuminated the brilliantly painted houses of Burano.
On our last night, as we sipped a perfectly chilled glass of Prosecco from the bottle we had procured at a vineyard on our return from Asolo, I reflected that like the immature champagne that the Italians describe as ‘very happy,’ we were very happy that we had taken the road less travelled and experienced not only the magic of Venice but also the essence of everyday life in Veneto.
If I could offer one piece of advice, don’t restrict yourself to the ‘grand tour’ of Italy’s major cities. Remember: “The best things in life are the people we meet, the places we’ve been and the memories we create along the way.” Italy, done your way, is an invitation to be more spontaneous and discover what makes you happy wherever you roam.
To read the entire article on Veneto & Venice in the July issue of Planet Golf Review visit page 10 at https://planetgolfreview.com/PGR-planet-golf-review-magazine-issue-13.pdf