Asolo (Veneto), Italy September 2023 (Tour 8)

Arrived in Italy and made our way to Bolso del Grappa through Vidor and Valdobbiadene. We were booked into Camping Santa Felicita together with friends Craig and Julie who were visiting Italy in their own van. We fancied a return to the Prosecco Hills and, in particular, the pretty little town of Asolo which is a relaxing little place in the foothills of the Dolomites and fully deserving of it’s “I Borghi più belli d’Italia” status. We used the Santa Felicia campsite as a base when last in the area and there’s nothing wrong with the place.

It was pleasant meeting up with Craig and Julie and for the most part we really enjoyed that first evening at the campsite notwithstanding the incredible storm which struck as we were eating in the restaurant adjacent to the camp site. It wasn’t so much the thunder and lightning which made the storm so memorable but the torrential rain. It was deluge which for a short while at least matched any of the monsoons I have witnessed in Africa and the Far East.

It was later, after the storm had subsided and we returned to the Vans, that we learned the full cost of that evening. The awning on Craig’s vehicle had been half torn from the side of his van. It was totally ruined. If that wasn’t bad enough, the next day both Julie and I, despite eating different dishes at the nearby restaurant, were both very sick. I’ll not say any more about that but I very much doubt we’ll be eating in that restaurant again.

Next morning we all made our way in the Van to Asolo. We parked in the large municipal car park, the Parcheggio Coperto ‘Cipressina’ (free parking except at weekends and bank holidays) and strolled up towards the town centre using Via Forestuzzo and Via Robert Browning.

When last in Asolo I intended walking to the 12th century castle ruins (La Rocca) which tower over the town but Vanya and I so much enjoyed sitting in the sun drinking chilled Prosecco that we left it too late. Together with Craig, I was determined to put that right this time. We enjoyed a glass of Prosecco with Vanya and Julie at one of the bars on the picturesque Piazza Garibaldi (once known as the Piazza Maggiore) and then, leaving the ladies to enjoy a second glass, we set off on the short steep walk up to the castle.

We made it (after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing) but ‘Sod’s law’, La Rocca was closed! There was a sign at it’s entrance advising it is open to the public only at weekends and bank holidays. We could have done with that sign at the bottom of the hill. No matter, the exercise will have done us good and we could still enjoy the views over the surrounding countryside.

Upon our return from the castle, there was plenty of time for a wander around the town…

… and this time, unlike before, I was able to access the church, the Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta.

The Santa Maria Assunta does not rank amongst the most beautiful of Catholic churches and neither, I think, does it have a great deal of history (it’s all relative) but it does have a very good copy of Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ the original of which we saw in a church in Venice many years ago. This copy is by Lorenzo Lotto but, to be honest, I know almost nothing about him.

The following day was spent driving around the Prosecco Hills, pausing briefly at Vadobbiadene and Vidor for a drink but that meal of a couple of days ago was still hurting and I was in no mood for either eating or drinking. Shame because this is a beautiful part of Italy with some great and very unique local produce. I’m talking drinks and food.

The Veneto Region is most famous for it’s Prosecco. I went into some detail about this fine sparkling white wine in a previous blog so; I’ll not risk repeating myself now except to say that Prosecco is made predominantly with the local Glera grape and Asolo Prosecco was granted DOCG status back in 2009. I don’t think I have ever mentioned that Asolo Prosecco was the first Prosecco to include an ‘Extra Brut’ category? I find that category too dry but Vanya adores it.

Other drinks which simply have to be mentioned when talking about the Veneto Region are Grappa (originated in Bassano de Grappa in the Vicenza Province of Veneto), Amarone (my favourite Italian red wine produced in Verona Province) and Aperol (this bright orange liqueur was created in Padua in 1919 and is used to make the Aperol Spritz – one part soda, two parts Aperol and 3 parts Prosecco).

So far as food is concerned, the Veneto Region favours polenta and rice over pasta (and I can relate with that). This is true across all of the Veneto Region and most especially across the province of Treviso (of which Asolo is a part). One very famous Italian dessert which originated in Treviso is Tiramisu, first created by chef Roberto Linguanotto in the 1960’s.

Anyway, enough about food and drink – I’m off for a beer.

Valdobbiadene (Veneto), Italy August 2022 (Tour 6)

This blog on Valdobbiadene follows on from that of Asolo where I first enjoyed a Prosecco wine. The blog could just as easily have been entitled ‘Prosecco Hills’ or even ‘Prosecco Road’ because much of our day was spent driving through the hills in this area and we paused in Valdobbiadene only to sample different wines but, it was in Valdobbiadene that I really started to appreciate Prosecco. Valdobbiadene it is then.

Our travels across the Prosecco Hills took us from where we were camped at Borso de Grappa to Asolo and then on through Maser, Cornuda, Covolo, Vidor, Valdobbiadene, Miane, Follina, Cison di Valmarino to Revine Lago ( I wonder how long it will take before some or all of these villages become Borghi piu belli d’Italia). We were hoping to give the dogs a swim in the lakes up at Revine Lago but it wasn’t to be and we returned to Valdobbiadene via Conegliano, taking in much of the Prosecco Road as the route between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene is now known.

Except for the Prosecco Road, which term seems to be known by only a handful, there is no obvious tourist structure to this area although it will probably not be long coming. The fact that the Prosecco Hills were recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2019 will no doubt help (especially once Covid becomes a dim distant memory) but whatever happens Vanya and I are agreed, we haven’t seen such fabulously beautiful wine country anywhere in the world. The steep irregularly shaped hills are a patchwork of picturesque vineyards; squeezed into a series of verdant terraces, interspersed with a mixture of thick hedgerows and small woods. This rolling sea of green stretches in all directions and is broken only by a faint string of whitish grey stone farmhouses and, very occasionally, a majestic Venetian style villa. Like I said, neither of us have ever seen such fabulously beautiful wine country and just driving through it was an experience.

And so to Valdobbiadene, where we were properly introduced to Prosecco wine by Enrico from Venice who had previously lived in Cirencester and spoke remarkably good English. I was driving and so it was Vanya who took the lead with the wine tasting. I was allowed only the barest sip of those wines she considered suitable and, even then, I chose to stay away from the driest of them. Indeed, my winner was probably the sweetest of all those we tasted – it was the Dry (as opposed to Very Dry, Brut or Very Brut) Val D’Oca Cartizze which vines, I am told, are on the steep south facing slopes of the Cesen Mountain or, as Enrico said, “where the hills are the steepest and most beautiful”. We bought three bottles and some others which Vanya favoured.

I’ll not go into too much detail (you can always use google to properly research the matter) but, in case you are interested, there follows a little bit about the production of Prosecco.

Prosecco is a sparkling white wine from Italy (although it can be flat or have very few bubbles – tranquilo or frizzante). It differs totally from Champagne or Cremant, both of which are produced in France. Firstly, the ingredients are different. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes are used to make both Champagne and Cremant while the Glera grape is used in Prosecco. Secondly, different methods are used to get the bubbles into the wine. The traditional approach is adopted for Champagne and Cremant, where yeast goes to work in each individual bottle while, with Prosecco, the bubbles are added to large tanks of developing wine and it is bottled much later. So, both the ingredients and the (production) method in these two ‘recipes’ are totally different – which makes for totally different drinks.

Only other point I would make is that, just as is in France, Italy operates a system for determining how good their different wines are (so as to highlight wines of a particular and/or superior quality) and Prosecco is subject to that same Italian classification system. Italy operates three classes being ITG, DOC and DOCG. ITG is reserved for all wines that may not meet all of the standards of a DOC or DOCG wine but are nevertheless considered to be of good quality. DOC wines have to meet stricter standards to earn their classification. DOCG standards are higher still and therefore the quality is even better. The following chart identifies how the different Proseccos are classified across the Prosecco wine producing region:-

My favourite is a dry Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG

Just read all the above. Bloody hell, this is a dry old blog! Sorry, trying to catch up because I’m about a week behind. I’ll try and introduce something more personal next time; a bit of levity wouldn’t go awry.

Asolo (Veneto), Italy August 2022 (Tour 6)

This day was to be all about Prosecco wine. It started early in the morning in the delightful little town of Asolo, one of Italy’s famous Borghi* and; then took us up and around the Prosecco Hills. It continued along much of the Prosecco Road (Conegliano to Valdobbiadene) and; concluded with a wine tasting session in the capital of the Prosecco wine world, Valdobbiadene, and me becoming a convert to Prosecco – well, to the good ones.

Asolo was founded in Roman times but reached it’s zenith while under the control of Venice and not long after the Venetians had ‘persuaded’ Caterina Cornaro (Queen of Cyprus, Jerusalem and Armenia) to cede Cyprus to Venice and take exile in Asolo. It is generally understood that the town prospered as a direct result of Caterina Cornaro moving to Asolo and living in what has since become known as the Castello della Regina Cornaro. That would have been during the period 1489 to 1509. In 1509, the League of Cambrai (at war with Venice) attacked Asolo and forced her to flee and she died in Venice the following year.

We parked the Van in a large (free, except at weekends) car park and walked up into the old town through the arch on the Via Forestuzzo. This followed on to the pretty arcaded Via Browning (named after the English poet Robert Browning) with it’s handful of artisan style shops, directly to the centre of the old town. The Piazza Garibaldi is marked as the old town centre on the local map but in truth there is no central square; the centrepoint is the Fontana Maggiore (fountain) which sits just beyond the Hotel Duse amidst a couple of cafe bars, Asolo’s cathedral (the Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta) and the Civic Museum, which is connected to the Castello della Regina Cornaro. It’s a pretty spot.

Asolo is a small compact town which can easily be seen within a day and it is very picturesque but the real delight is it’s calm and tranquility. After a brief look around the town and, in particular, the Castello della Regina Cornaro we were content to relax in the shade outside a little restaurant on the ‘Piazza Garibaldi’ and take brunch – the local cheese, ham and of course a Prosecco.

Some would argue that we should have walked up Mount Ricco, on the edge of the town, to the 12th/13th century Rocca Fortress for it’s views over Asolo and the broader Veneto countryside but; this day was about chilling and sipping chilled Prosecco so, we gave it a miss. Asolo had that effect on me. We were both content to sit peacefully in the shade, nursing our wine and watching the world go by although; in Asolo the world moved very slowly. This was a week day (no weekend tourists from Venice)… Why tire ourselves out exploring?

It was a slow walk back to the Van, notwithstanding that it was all downhill, and we took time to view some of the finer, more impressive villas on the way.

Quite a few personalities have lived in or at least visited Asolo for extended periods and many have left their mark. There are a series of steel plaques carved into the pavement towards the top of the Via Forestuzzo, recognizing some of those personalities – most especially Freya Stark (writer and explorer), Robert Browning (poet) and Eleonora Duse (Italian actress) but others, Ernest Hemingway (writer and journalist), Wilma Neruda (Violinist) and even Princess Margaret (younger sister to ERII) have also sought peace in Asolo.

We really had to tear ourselves away from the town… but on to Valdobbiadene.

* Borghi – The literal translation of ‘Borgo’ into English is ‘Village’. Borghi is the plural. So far as I can determine “I Borghi piu belli d’Italia” is a list of 313 beautiful villages in Italy as identified by the National Association of Italian Municipalities to help promote small Italian centres. The Association’s criteria for admission would appear to be “a fascinating small Italian town, generally fortified and dating back to the period from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance… Whether Medieval or Renaissance, sea or mountain, rural or lake, all… certified Borgos represent the best of Unknown Italy…”. This initiative is perhaps similar to the French ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France’.

Bassano del Grappa (Veneto), Italy August 2022 (Tour 6)

Vanya was determined to visit the Prosecco Hills (where the good Prosecco is produced) and so we packed up our things and left Padova, driving some 35 miles north to the charming town of Bassano del Grappa which sits on the River Brenta. Bassano del Grappa is not quite in the Prosecco Hills but it is a medium sized picturesque town, which deserves to be visited if only because it is where the Grappa brandy liqueur was invented and; it would serve as the perfect base from which to visit the Prosecco Hills.

Most important, Bassano del Grappa (BDG) has a reasonably sized old town, complete with narrow streets and small piazzas and a covered wooden bridge. I mentioned already that BDG is famous for inventing Grappa; it is made from the leftovers of the winemaking process. The town is also known for it’s white asparagus and certain locally produced ceramics and; it also featured quite a bit in the Napoleonic Wars (Napoleon Bonaparte won and lost battles here) and the First and Second World Wars. However, it is the old wooden pontoon bridge, the Ponte Vecchio (also known as the Ponte degli Alpini) which is perhaps BDG’s most celebrated feature.

Designed by Andrea Palladio in 1569 and built on the site of an earlier wooden bridge over the River Brenta, the Ponte Vecchio has been destroyed many times but it has always been faithfully rebuilt to the original specification. Indeed, it is sometimes referred to as the Ponte degli Alpini because it was Italian Mountain Troops (the Alpini) who rebuilt it in 1948 after it was totally destroyed during WW2. It is not the only bridge in the town but it is certainly the most pleasing to look at.

There are a few other sites worth visiting in BDG; principal among them is the 12th century Castello degli Ezzelini which surrounds the town’s cathedral (the Duomo di Santa Maria in Colle) but after the bridge, it is the old town cobbled streets and attractive linked squares (the Piazza Liberta with the San Giovanni Church & City Hall with it’s large clock and the Piazza Gaibaldi with the San Francesco Church & Civic Tower) which most fascinated me. George Sand, the French author(ess) described BDG as “one of the greatest fortunes that could ever befall a traveller”.

I mentioned George Sands. I should perhaps also mention another much later author who stayed in Bassano del Grappa, Ernest Hemingway. He served in the area as an ambulance driver during WW1 and received shrapnel wounds on the Italian Front in 1918. He modelled his novel A Farewell to Arms on his service in the area.

A few more images… and then something about Prosecco

Padova (Veneto), Italy August 2022 (Tour 6)

We’d booked into the Hotel NH Padova in the city of Padova (Padua in English) for a couple of nights. It’s a nice hotel with plenty of suitable parking and it is within easy walking distance of the old town. You need only walk through the Porta (Ognissanti) o Portello by the River Bacchiglione and you are there.

So many people talk about taking a day trip to Padua while visiting Venice (Venice being just 23 miles to the west) but, trust me, Padova is worth a great deal more than just one day.

Also known as the city of St Anthony (more about him later), Padova is an ancient city, believed to have been founded by the mythical Trojan hero Antenor (although in reality the city was around long before him). Having said that, most of the city’s early architecture was destroyed either by the Longobards who razed the city to the ground in 602AD or the Hungarians who did much the same in 899AD. It wasn’t until after 1000AD that the city once again began to flourish and it has since become one of the most vibrant cities in Italy with far more than it’s fair share of art, architecture and culture.

Nowadays, Padova’s old town is a mass of narrow porticoed streets and monumental squares criss-crossed by two rivers (the Bacchiglione and the Brenta) and a significant canal system (the most famous of which is the Brenta Canal which stretches all the way to Venice).

The most impressive of the squares, if an elliptical plaza can be termed a square, is the Prato della Valle (Meadow of the Valley) which at 90,000 square metres is the second largest in Europe (after Moscow’s Red Square). This truly monumental and quite beautiful square is used primarily as a public gathering place and to hold huge street markets (every Saturday) but it has also served as a sports venue (speed skating events are held here) and as a music venue and they hold at least two massive fireworks displays here every year.

The square’s centrepiece is a fountain which sits in a large dark green lawn. The lawn is surrounded by a moat and the resulting island, which can be reached by any one of four ornate bridges, is bordered on both sides by 78 marble statues of illustrious men associated with Padova. It doesn’t end there; the whole island is then circled by a seriously wide road which makes for one of the largest and best looking roundabouts in the world.

Other squares not to be missed during a visit to to the old town are the Piazza dei Frutti, the Piazze delle Erbe and the Piazza dei Signori which are all very close to each other. The Piazza dei Frutti and the Piazze delle Erbe are separated only by the Palazzo della Regioni (the old town hall) with it’s massive hall and impressive verandas (they call them loggias in Italy) and there is a walkway through the middle of the Palazzo which connects the two squares. The Piazza dei Signori is just to the south of the Piazza dei Frutti and is easily recognised by the Palazzo del Capitano with it’s unique centrepieces of a triumphal arch and the 1344 Torre dell’Orologia (astronomical clock).

A good time to visit these particular squares is when the street markets are open (i.e. every morning Monday to Saturday inclusive). All three squares are packed with temporary stalls selling just about everything known to man. Even the ground floor of the old town hall is divided into two rows of more permanent stalls selling local foods (predominantly meat, cheeses and fish but, as I arrived, there was also a wonderfully fragrant spice stall).

Don’t just visit these three squares in the morning. The stalls disappear during the afternoon and in the evening the squares are filled with tables and chairs as the surrounding restaurants and cafes prepare for their evening trade. The squares are once again packed, this time with diners, and the place buzzes. Our first meal in the city was on the Piazza dei Frutti.

Talking of eating, on our second night in the city we ate at the famous Cafe Pedrocchi. It is famous as a meeting place for academics, artists, writers and revolutionaries (indeed, it was a scene of some anti-Austrian sentiment in 1848 which resulted in shots being fired) but also because it never once closed it’s doors (for much of the time it never had doors) between 1831, when it was built, and 1916. It was open 24/7. We enjoyed our food there but the service was wanting.

A surprisingly high proportion of Padova’s population of 214,000 people are students – there are 60,000 at the University of Paova alone! No surprise then that Padova has a lively night life. We stumbled across some of it while on the way back to our hotel that first night in the city. We saw lights and heard music coming from inside a small park (the Giardini dell’Arena) not far from our hotel. It transpired that the park holds a pop up bar complex and it was packed. We managed to find a spare table for two and sat soaking the atmosphere up over a couple of drinks each into the early hours. It was a great ending to our first evening in the city.

I cannot end a blog on Padova without reference to some of the great churches that fill the city. Without a doubt, the most impressive is the Basilica di Sant’Antonio di Padova or, as it is called locally, ‘Il Santo’. The construction of this huge church began immediately after the death of the saint in 1231 and his body is enshrined there. Everything about this church is extraordinary, inside and out. It is built in a Romanesque and Gothic style and has 8 huge Byzantine domes. Inside, there are numerous chapels and gold and marble is everywhere but the key features are Donatello’s Madonna and Child on the high altar (he was in Padua 10 years working on both the Madonna and Child and on the large equestrian statue of Gattamelata which is on the square outside the church) and some artwork by Titian.

Other churches worth seeing in Padova include the Capella degli Scrovegni (or Scrovegni Chapel) which holds a Giotto Masterpiece (being his series of frescos depicting stories from the bible) but, you need to pre-book to access this church and numbers are very much restricted) and; the nearby 13th/14th century Eremitani Church with it’s wonderful wooden ceiling and; a very small church I stumbled upon and really liked, the Sant Tomas Becket.

All great cities will have equally great street art and Padova is no exception to that rule. Theirs matches anything I have seen elsewhere although it is perhaps not so abundant. There is a fair amount of ‘Banksie’ style street art but my two favourites are those reproduced below (although I’m not sure if the excellent 3D painting qualifies as street art?)

One place I missed during our brief stay in Padova and that I really wished I had visited is the Botanical Garden. On our last day, I stopped for a glass of barbera wine in a small family run cafe bar near the Porta o Portello. The place was closing for the weekend but I was joined by the whole family and invited to take a second (very large) glass of wine by the grandfather. With the eldest grandson translating the family then took turns asking me what I liked about Padova and what I had seen. They were impressed by the amount of ground I had covered and the grandmother was particularly pleased that I had visited all the principal churches (and she loved my photos of the Tomas Becket) but they were all aghast that I had not seen the Botanical Garden. Next time.

Oh, one other faily worthless piece of information. Did you know that Padova (or Padua) is the setting for William Shakespeare’s comedy ‘The Taming of the Shrew’?

Burano (Venice), Italy October 2020 (Tour 3)

Of the 118 islands that form Venice, Burano is my favourite. Venice as a whole is wonderful but it is Burano’s colourful contrast that most complements the city. With some 4,000 inhabitants it is a fair sized island (it actually comprises four separate islands linked by bridges) famous for it’s lace, fishing, leaning bell tower and, most particularly, it’s colourful houses.

Legend has it that the neon coloured houses were first introduced to help fishermen get their bearings. Not sure I believe that – It is more likely to do with tourism since it is the local council which has made it compulsory for Burano residents to paint the facades of their houses every so often and it is the council which stipulates the colour (although residents can make application of the local council for a colour change).

There are a number of private tour operators who will take you to Burano and you can take such a tour from Zattere but we chose to walk across Venice’s principal islands from Zattere to Fondamente Nuovo and get the number 12 water bus (vaporetto). The bus goes every half hour or so with the journey taking about 45 minutes and stopping at Murano (the largest of the islands in the lagoon and famous for it’s glass), Torcello (very quiet with just 10 residents), Mazzorbo (connected to Burano by a long wooden bridge) and, of course, Burano. It goes on to another island but don’t ask me which one.

No more talking. Time for photos…


Venice (Veneto), Italy October 2020 (Tour 3)

Vanya had it in mind to visit Venice at the outset and guess what? We arrived at our site, Fusina Camping (one of the best to date), some time after 15.00 and, despite my pleas to take time out and just chill until the next day, she had us sitting on the quay at Fusina in plenty of time to catch the 17.00 vaporetto to Zattere. She can be very persuasive sometimes.

Although I at first resisted, I confess I became quite excited at the prospect of returning to Venice. I have been to the city and some of it’s lagoon settlements many times before (I first visited the place as a teenager in 1969 and, of course, Vanya and I visited during our honeymoon on Jesolo, to name but two visits) but, for all that, I don’t recall ever having seen Venice at night.

During all my previous visits the place has been crowded, especially the better known tourist spots of St Mark’s Square, the Rialto Bridge, the Bridge of Sighs, etc and I wasn’t looking forward to dragging our dogs, Nala and Beanie around the place in such crowds but my fears were groundless. COVID 19 had seen to it that the place was practically deserted. Everything was open but there were so few people! I’m not complaining, believe me.

Venice at night is something else. I loved it and I was so pleased that we made the effort to go in on the 17.00 vaporetto. Well done Van. xx

We didn’t stay too late because, in any event, we had it in mind to catch the vaporetto back into Venice the next morning. I had promised Vanya I would show her Burano (whether she wanted to see it or not). Burano is special. It is another of those quite unique places that Italy is so full of and I am firmly of the mind that you have not really experienced Venice unless or until you have seen it’s island of Burano.

Burano comes next…