This is the flat as a pancake plain of the Northern Italian region of Veneto seen from the high hills leading to the plateau of Asiago. The road zigzags up the face of the hills and with every turn takes you higher and higher all the way to the top spot which is almost a kilometer above the sea level.
It is a spectacular journey!
Huddled in our little red car we were sharing a happy, expectant mood. We had waved good-bye to our current hometown of Vicenza half an hour earlier and, eager to see snow for the first time this winter, had set on the road to Asiago.
Actually, let me re-phrase this. We had already seen snow once this winter – on the day we flew back from England into Venice right after New Year’s Day. Large fluffy snowflakes had started to fall from the high Italian sky as soon as we had reached our flat in Vicenza and brought the heavy suitcase up the steep stairs.
The snowflakes danced and twirled in the cold air, quickly covering the rooftops of the neighbouring houses. We quickly ran to the balcony, hands stretched out, trying to catch a snowflake and I wished my husband ‘Happy First Snow!’ in true Bulgarian fashion.
Within an hour the snow had stopped, then it melted almost instantly never to return again. Instead both January and February went out of their way to pour as much rain over Vicenza as they humanly could.
It is not a proper winter without snow, I would think, and then every morning I would look over at the high mountains surrounding Vicenza in the distance. Their white caps would glisten in the rays of sun, when the sun would deign to give us its blessing for a day or two.
Most of the time though it would rain and a thick layer of fog would befall Vicenza obscuring the mountains with their snow-capped craggy peaks.
Eager to escape it all, we waited for a sunny weekend, piled in our little red car and drove towards the mountains in search of crispy white snow. The nearest place to find it was the plateau of Asiago.
Asiago is a pretty town up there in the mountains about an hour away from Vicenza. I don’t think there has been a day since we moved to Italy eighteen months ago that I haven’t mentioned Asiago several times on a daily basis.
You see, the town and the plateau which surrounds it are famous for their cheese and dry cured smoked ham called ‘speck‘. Both are a staple of my Italian diet and I often start the day with a sandwich of two slices of bread bought fresh from the local bakery and a generous filling of fresh Asiago cheese matured for 20 days and two or three slices of speck cut so thinly that they are practically see-through.
‘Pass the Asiago!’ is the phrase most often heard around our morning table (sincere apologies to all Italians here, as we still haven’t adopted the local custom of having sweet pastries for breakfast) and every pasta-, potato- and rice-based dish prepared at home is generously sprinkled with this mild, delicate yet addictive cheese.
Unfortunately, in spite of our love for all things edible from Asiago, our first encounter with the actual town of Asiago and the adjacent plateau left me a bit underwhelmed. It was not Asiago’s fault, you see, just a series of small, niggling events.
It was December 2014 and, eager to explore Veneto as much as possible, we had set our hearts on a day in Asiago visiting its famous Christmas fair. As luck would have it, we followed our GPS into the mountains and somehow got on a road which cut through high hills and above steep precipices for over two hours.
At one point the GPS instructed us to take a ‘sharp left turn’ and I felt dizzy just by looking at the incline of the hill we had to navigate. We got lost once or twice adding more and more time to our already long journey. When we finally reached Asiago in the early afternoon, we were tired and a bit stir-crazy from having spent so much time in the car.
Yet, we couldn’t wait to explore the pretty town. Its painted houses with intricately carved wide wooden balconies had the perfect alpine look to them, making us feel like we were in Austria or Germany rather than Italy. Shops were selling embroidered kitchen towels and dried mushrooms. Lush strudels were adorning the window displays of the local patisseries.
But it was cold. So, so cold. I was shivering. Around us people were wearing apres-ski jackets and boots, thick gloves on their hands. We were strictly underprepared.
The biggest disappointment came when we reached the site of the Christmas fair. Having enjoyed the large Christmas fair in Verona the preceding week, we found the one in Asiago a bit small plus the only food shack we could find had just ran out of all food.
In the end we found refuge in a nearby cafe where we indulged in thick hot chocolates and then we set on the way back home.
It would have been a totally disheartening visit had it not been for the spectacular journey back. After tinkering with our GPS for a little bit, so as to make sure it wouldn’t take us through the mountains again, my husband started our little red car and soon we had joined a thick line of other vehicles leaving the town and the plateau of Asiago for the night.
It was around 5 o’clock in the afternoon and it was dark when we reached the edge of the plateau. And just then, from the top of the steep hill the most wonderful view opened wide in front of our eyes. The plain of Veneto, flat and expansive, stretched out all the way to the dark horizon. Below us towns and cities twinkled with thousands of lights.
The road climbed down the face of the hill and all we could see ahead of us was an uninterrupted line of car lights. It was slippery and very, very dark, so even the Italians – otherwise a bunch of intrepid drivers never in fear of breaking a driving rule or two – were carefully following the line down the slope without overtaking each other.
The road bent and twisted down the face of the hill, zigzagging to the left and then to the right in ten perfect curves. With each curve we got lower and lower, closer to the plain below us. The view was breathtaking and there and then we decided to give Asiago another chance and navigate the same road during the day so as to admire its beauty in full.
Rewind to the present and there we were. On the road to Asiago, going up the hill and just taking the view in all of its beauty. The sun was shining high above us.
Billboards advertising the local speck flew by our little red car as it advanced up the slope.
In a sudden fit of jokey inspiration, I started singing ‘This is the way to Asiago…‘ with the tune of ‘This is the way to Amarillo‘. ‘Very good, darling!’, generously said my husband glancing at me in the rear-view mirror. ‘But, there aren’t many words which rhyme with Asiago!’, I complained immediately.
By that point we had reached the summit of the hill. One more bend and the road took us through the gentle slopes of the plateau. We drove through little villages and vast fields covered with a gentle dusting of snow. Soon, we were pulling into Asiago and after leaving the car safely parked in a side street, we went for a walk through the town.
It was just as pretty as I remembered and only a touch warmer than last time. The sun was shining bright and it felt good. A thin layer of powdery snow covered the small gardens of the Carli square. In the middle of it all stood the magical Fountain of the Faun with its four forest animals on its four corners: a grouse, a fox, an eagle and a squirrel. The Faun itself, astride a deer, was at the top of the sculptural composition right in the middle of the fountain.
With our little daughter excited by the snow, we spent a little bit of time there, making snow balls and drawing pictures in the snow with a stick.
Soon, it was time to warm ourselves up and we took refuge in a nearby patisserie generously stocked with all sorts of sweets and cakes.
Half of the fun was choosing what we would have and it all tasted divine. We were particularly taken with the long thin crust filled with the tastiest custard cream in this picture, so we had to go for seconds.
After asking the smiley lady who ran the patisserie where we could go sledding nearby, she referred us to two local men sitting on a nearby table. They recommended driving to Kaberlaba – a small ski and sledding centre just five minutes outside of Asiago.
So, we did, easily finding the place right behind the big cheese factory and shop right outside of town. The white slopes were full with eager ski- and sled-aficionados. There were several shops hiring out equipment, so we followed the crowd to one of them, where we rented sleds and a helmet for our little daughter.
Then the fun part began. Armed with a pass for the sledding slope, we took the magic carpet up to the top. The carpet moved slowly at the height of the snow and a long line of people all holding sleds carefully balanced on it.
Once up there the gentle slope all of a sudden looked much steeper than I had imagined. I looked around me. Children of all ages and their parents would put their sleds down, sit in, grab the handles – one on each side of the sled – and then skillfully whoosh down all the way to the bottom.
‘This looks easy!’, I gave myself some much needed courage. The last time that I went sledding was back in lower secondary school during one of the harsher winters experienced by my home town of Varna when a thick blanket of snow covered the city for a couple of weeks. Otherwise I am not really into winter sports at all. Being born by the sea has never made me naturally embrace the cold and I have never in my life skied. ‘But this sledding thing I could do!’ I told myself.
I put the sled on the icy ground and gingerly positioned myself in it, making sure that I kept one leg stretched outside of the sled and firmly stuck in the snow so as to prevent the sled from sliding spontaneously down the slope before I was morally ready for the descent.
Whoosh! Here I go! It was exhilarating. I flew down the slope, one leg always outside the sled to help me control the speed. The snow flew in my face and somehow I made it down in one piece and totally exhilarated.
‘Yes! I can do this!’, I was now convinced and holding the sled I took the magic carpet up the slope again for yet another exciting descent. This time though, I decided, I would keep both legs in the sled and use just the side handles, as I had seen the other people around me doing.
Big mistake! As soon as I started going down the slope, I lost control over the sled and instead of gracefully sliding vertically down the hill, I went horizontally all the way across it. Thank God, there was no-one coming down at that exact moment, otherwise a pile-up would have been unavoidable.
Then, to make matters even worse, as I was desperately trying to stop the sled, it did stop, but not before spinning round and leaving me facing the now oncoming traffic. I scrambled as quickly as I could to avoid a collision and then had to declare defeat, get out of my sled and walk down the edge of the slope all the way to its bottom.
The whole thing left me a bit shaken and confirmed to me that I should stick to gentle winter sports like building a snowman or something.
Still, my sledding failure aside, Kaberlaba was good fun. Being out there in the big white open, playing in the snow with our little daughter, it was a great experience.
Before we knew it, it was already late in the afternoon and the light had started to fade. It was the right time for us to leave and navigate the bends of the road going down the hill all the way from the plateau to the plain.
In great spirits, we piled in our little red car and after several rhyming issues finally managed to finish our Asiago song, which goes like this (feel free to sing it):
This is the way to Asiago!
Every night I watch ‘Dr. Zhivago’
And then I eat my pasta with ragu
With speck and cheese from Asiago.