Everyone wants to visit Italy! It is the one country that everyone has heard of, has a passion for its food and is hankering after a romantic or a cultural or simply a relaxing holiday in it.
It is funny then how strictly regimented most trips to Italy seem to be. They take in Rome and/or some of the larger iconic cities – Florence, Venice, you know the lot – and if a few days can be spared for exploration of the countryside, most often than not people head for Tuscany seduced by popular images of tall standing cypresses and lush rolling hills.
After living in Italy for over nine months now, I would like to share with you a suggestion or two in order to help you break free from this very rigid and media-imposed Italian dream.
First of all, head to Veneto! This northernmost corner of Italy will surprise you and delight you with its rich history, beautiful landscapes and hot sunny days stretching all the way from the end of March to the beginning of November. Once there, venture outside Veneto’s gems – Venice and Verona – and discover ten smaller, yet perfect pearls.
Between themselves these ten small towns in Veneto have it all – inspiring architecture, fabulous food, pure waters, mountain and lake backdrops. Tick as many as you can off this list for a holiday of a lifetime and a great new way to see and appreciate Italy.
Perched on the shores of Italy’s biggest lake – Lago di Garda – Malcesine will steal your heart. For many centuries this quaint town could only be reached by water, so immerse yourself in tradition and make sure that you arrive there by ferry. The crossing from Limone sul Garda on the opposite side of the lake takes only 20 minutes and will delight you with a fabulous panoramic view of Malcesine backed by the rugged Mount Baldo of 1760 m height. Then take a walk round the picturesque harbour, climb the steep cobbled streets and while an hour or two in the whimsical Scaliger castle. The German poet Goethe spent a night in Malcesine in 1786 whilst on his Grand Italian Tour. He was arrested on suspicion of being an Austrian spy after the locals caught him drawing sketches of the castle. Goethe mentions the episode in his travelogue ‘Italian Journey’. Nowadays a couple of the castle’s rooms are named after him and contain a small selection of items relating to the poet, including copies of his drawings.
Marostica is a sight to behold. Nestled at the bottom of a hill this medieval town is completely surrounded by a strong defensive wall which climbs to the top of the hill and descends on its other side holding Marostica in its powerful embrace. The town’s central square looks like a huge chess board and every two years a game of chess is staged there with real people and horses taking up the roles of chess pieces. The performance is based on a local legend according to which two noblemen played a game of chess instead of duelling to death for the hand of the daughter of the local Lord. Marostica is also famous with is cherries, holding a festival to celebrate this juicy red fruit every spring.
Lazise is the town on the shores of Lago di Garda where you go when you want to enjoy a walk on a long sunny promenade brimmed by the sparkling blue waters of the lake. Tall palm trees sway in the bright sunlight and people tuck into leisurely lunches in the many restaurants. White yachts and colourful boats bob up and down in the harbour. A small pebbly beach teems with people showing off their deep tans offset by the white feathers of the local swans. Countless gelaterias do a brisk business selling dozens of different gelato flavours – from the traditional stracciatella (chocolate chip) to the less conventional ones like watermelon and even Red Bull. I love getting a gelato from La Cremeria di Lazise whose owner once told me that her dream is to open a branch on Oxford Street in London and be a gelato supplier to the Queen.
Monselice is a travel dream come true for me. It has it all! Charm, mystery and countless little details to intrigue you and inspire you as you discover them one by one. The town is located in the Euganean Hills – an area of outstanding natural beauty just off Padua. In bygone times rich Venetians would escape to their villas around Monselice in the hot summer months, leaving their architectural mark around the area. Nowadays make sure that you visit the town’s castle – a rich patchwork of a building reflecting the construction techniques and styles of several different periods. Its armoury is only second to the collection of arms kept in the Doge’s Palace in Venice and contains several fine examples of swords, rifles and medieval weapons. The fireplaces in the castle are a wonder to behold. I have never thought that I could be so captivated by a fireplace, until I saw the works of art they had created there to warm themselves up. After the castle, take a walk up the hill overlooking Monselice. Admire the Villa dei Nanni with its cascading staircase and go all the way to the top of the hill where you will find the Seven Churches Sanctuary. A papal bull grants the pilgrims visiting it the same indulgencies as those granted to the pilgrims visiting the seven main churches of Rome. One last informational tidbit – the stone slabs used to cover St. Mark’s Square in Venice come from a quarry in a hill atop of Monselice’s castle.
5. Arqua Petrarca
Here is another pearl nestled among the volcanic Euganean Hills. Arqua Petrarca will surprise you and charm you with its stone houses and very steep cobbled streets. The main appeal of this little town undoubtedly lies in the opportunity to visit both Petrarch’s house and the place in which the sarcophagus of this great son of Italy stands tall. The poet and humanist whose work sparked the Renaissance came to the secluded town of Arqua to spend the last years of his life. He died a day shorter of his 70th birthday in his house which nowadays is turned into a museum. Visiting it is a wonderful experience. I particularly enjoyed finding out that the poet was a passionate gardener and spent many hours each day tending the shrubs, trees and herbs he had planted in the garden at the back of the house. The notion of him touching the soil and growing life out of it made Petrarch much more real in my mind as opposite to the semi-mythical literary and scholarly figure he otherwise is. Make sure that you walk the steep slope from Petrarch’s house down to the Church of Santa Maria Assunta in front of which is his sarcophagus made of red Verona marble.
Montagnana is a beautiful medieval town completely encircled by a strong defensive wall. It entices the senses with its stunning architecture and amazing ornamentation adorning buildings and houses. Elegant arcades offer shade on the hottest of days. On the main square the powerful body of the town’s church rises high up leading the gaze all the way to the sky. Montagnana is also a renowned prosciutto making centre. Modern factories follow to the dot the centuries-old process of prosciutto dry curing producing thousands of kilos of one of the most strictly controlled food products in the European Union. A two-week long Prosciutto Festival is held in Montagnana every spring to celebrate the local tradition and the local produce.
8. Bassano del Grappa
Bassano del Grappa is an elegant town sat on the banks of the river Brenta. The Venetian Pre-Alps serve as its dramatic backdrop. The water of the river is so clear that the town’s buildings are clearly reflected in it and it is easy to spot fish swimming up and down these reflections. The main sight is the Alpini Bridge which memorable structure has become Bassano’s symbol. The covered wooden bridge was designed in 1569 by Andrea Palladio – the architect born in Veneto who is renowned as the Father of American Architecture and one of the most influential architects in the Western World. The bridge was destroyed many times during the war battles this part of Italy has witnessed. It was however rebuilt each time and nowadays bullet holes from the Second World War are still visible in the buildings around it. A very pleasant day can be spent in Bassano exploring its streets and museums. When you reach its main square look up and admire the clock on the façade of one of the buildings. It is one of my most favourite things in Bassano.
Come to Asiago for the incredible local food, but also for the mountain views, the snow and the history enveloping the place. To reach this pretty town, you will need to drive up the face of the mountain going zig and then zag in your car for what seems like a very long stretch of time. The road is steep and the Italian drivers can be quite pushy. The views of the Venetian plain below at your feet will make it worthy it though. Once in Asiago, you will feel like you are in Austria or Germany. It has this Alpine atmosphere reflected in the style of the buildings and the houses. Two of my most favourite things about Italy come from Asiago – one is the fresh Asiago cheese they make here and the other is the speck of Asiago – something like prosciutto but with spices. Make an effort to try them both when you are there. If you reach the town in winter, you are in luck. It is famous for snow activities and it has a bonny Christmas market, too. In the Asiago plateau there are five Commonwealth cemeteries from the battles held there during the First World War.
10. Recoaro Terme
Recoaro Terme is another small town in the mountains of Veneto I can wholeheartedly recommend. The air is pure and you breathe it in in deep gulps. There are several mineral water springs and a spa where one can go to take the waters, each of which allegedly helps improve a different ailment. The town has adapted itself to the surrounding nature with its streets and even parks following the almost vertical slopes. Several elegant villas are dotted atop the nearby hills allowing for some great views. There is a modern cable car lift. Unfortunately, when we were there it was out of service, so I can’t report much on it. If you are not easily spooked, try finding Fonte Giuliana – the abandoned building next to a mineral water spring. Otherwise, be prepared for some very narrow curving roads the higher you go in the mountains. The views are captivating though, so definitely give it a try.