Asolo in the Veneto, Northern Italy, was just what my soul needed on a damp and heavy autumn day.
Dark grey clouds hung over our heads and we huddled even closer in our little red car. Right at that moment, it was hurtling down the roads of the Veneto, crossing industrial zones and instantly forgettable little towns on its way to a place which, history claims, had charmed royals and poets alike during its centuries-long existence.
It was one of those no-plans, no-expectations weekends, when after a hearty breakfast of Italian brioches and English tea, we had plucked a name out of our long mental local travel wish list and decided that it was finally time for us to visit Asolo.
Officially recognised as one of the most beautiful villages in Italy, I had heard friends and acquaintances rave about it for a while. This is how, after an uneventful drive of less than an hour from Vicenza, we found ourselves at the point where the flat as a pancake plains of Veneto kiss the steeply rising hills of the pre-Alps.
Right on top of the hills above us lay Asolo and with every turn we took on the winding road we started to glimpse elegant villas huddled behind tall stone walls, whilst the hilly landscape around us revealed itself more and more. The rich colours of autumn had lent it a splendid dress and the grey sky from cold and threatening, all of sudden, transformed into the perfect background against which the deep hues of the trees, bushes and grasses stood out at their very best.
We left the car at a purposefully-built underground car park about half way up the hill and walked the last hundred or so meters to the arched entrance letting us into the heart of Asolo – a walled town which had stood there since Roman times.
You know that beautiful feeling of being at the right place just at the right time, when you are able to open your heart to the beauty that surrounds you and take it all in?! This is how I felt finding myself in Asolo and I could understand why it truly deserves its name derived from the Latin word asylum meaning ‘refuge’. It was the perfect place for your soul to find some peace and quiet whilst immersing itself in the beauty of nature and the medieval streets lined up with tall stone houses.
Royals like Catherine Cornaro – the last Queen of Cyprus who in her lifetime was also Queen of Jerusalem and Armenia – spent her last years in Asolo setting up a court of poets, artists and painters. The English poet Robert Browning loved Asolo so much, that he bought a villa there which later on was turned into a luxury hotel. In nearer times, Eleonora Duse – an Italian actress, who George Bernard Shaw thought more gifted than her renowned contemporary Sarah Bernhardt – sought refuge in Asolo and loved it so much that she was buried there.
We walked the width and breadth of Asolo, taking in its architecture, churches, old walls adorned with faded frescoes…
and ceramic ornaments.
The streets wove up and down the hills, leading us to landscaped gardens where an army of digital lawnmowers was employed to keep the lawns perfectly manicured.
Everywhere we looked a picture-perfect view revealed itself, justifying Asolo’s moniker as the Town of Hundred Horizons.
We followed a wide path brimmed by large houses. A sign on one of them announced that on 10th March 1797 Napoleon Bonaparte spent the night there. Further away, perched on a hill, we could glimpse the lovely Villa of the Armenians. It actually consists of two buildings – one built in the 16th century and facing south on top of the hill and the other built in the 17th century and facing north. Legend has it that both villas are connected by a underground tunnel cutting through the hill.
Right at the bottom of the hill of the Villa of the Armenians stood another house. A weird and whimsical creation called Casa Longobarda the exterior of which spoke to me of mysticism and secret societies. Built in the 16th century by the architect Francesco Graziolo for his family, the facade combines several elements to create its quite bizarre appearance. From the signs of the Zodiac through scenes from the Genesis to a bare-breasted lady whose legs resembled two intertwined snakes – it was all quite unexpected yet wonderful to see.
The path followed the gentle slope of the hill leading us to the Monastery of Sant’Anna and the adjacent cemetery sitting on a high outcrop with stunning views over the gentle valleys bellow and the surrounding rolling hills. The story goes that this was originally the monastery’s belvedere, but after the Napoleonic Saint Cloud edict to move cemeteries outside of towns, it was turned into the final resting place of the citizens of Asolo.
It was 1st November – the Day of the Dead in Italy – and in steady droves people were coming to the cemetery to bring fresh flowers and pay their due respects to their passed loved ones. The tombs were dotted with the bright blooms of potted chrysanthemums – the flower of mourning in the Italian tradition.
From there, we retraced our steps back to the nucleus of Asolo – the sturdy yet splendid medieval Pretorio Castle which was originally built in the 10th-11th centuries.
It was there that in 1489 Catherine Cornaro set up her court. Then, in 1798 a theatre was built inside the castle, which in 1857 was rebuilt and lavishly decorated. Curiously enough, this theatre was dismantled in 1930 and almost twenty years after that was sold to the State of Florida in the US, where it is now known as the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota. In 1932 a new theatre was built inside Asolo’s castle which was named after Eleonora Duse.
Nowadays the castle also houses a cafe-cum-retaurant where we stopped for a little while to have a simple lunch of toasted panini rounded off with almond cake.
The several balconies dotted around the castle opened up splendid bird’s-eye views over the rooftops of Asolo…
and the secluded gardens of its exclusive hotels.
Being up there on my high observing point and looking out at the hills and valleys of Veneto, it brought back a memory from a few years back when we visited San Gimignano in Tuscany and scaled its celebrated towers. Asolo was more beautiful, though (yes, if you can believe it!), more authentic and much more picturesque with its little boutiques cuddled alongside its curving streets and facades covered with faded frescoes…
and dotted with shuttered windows.
‘In summer we do get a lot of tourists,’ told us the man running the cafe in the medieval castle. ‘They come from all over – Germany, England, Switzerland…’
As it was autumn, Asolo was left to its own devices and even though we came across several other day trippers exploring its picturesque streets, the town had a peace and quiet about it, which nowadays is so difficult to find in the most popular sightseeing spots of Italy.
One last stroll around town. We passed by the statue of the Lion of Veneto – obligatory in every Venetian city and town…
briefly stopped to admire from afar La Rocca – the mighty stone fortress from the 12th-13th centuries crowning Mount Ricco (see the very first photo in this article) and off we went driving back to our current hometown of Vicenza for a quiet end-of-the-bank-holiday evening.
Leaving Asolo behind we took three things with us:
A jar of Sciroppo per l’Inverno which we found in a delightful local deli. The syrup is a rich concoction of Italian honey, propolis, eucalyptus and pine essential oils claiming to prevent and relieve sore throat – a constant threat for us in the foggy winters of Vicenza.
A large piece of Asolo’s local cake called pinza – its dense body richly stuffed with pieces of apple, currants and dried figs. ‘Careful how you hold it, as it’s fresca, fresca‘, told me the old lady in the small shop where we bought it. Repeating twice the Italian word for ‘fresh’ she put the emphasis on the love with which the cake had been prepared.
And, finally, a desire to return to Asolo again in the not too distant future so as to relive this fairytale town and enjoy its thousand-horizons vistas.
Have you been to Asolo before? Which one is your favourite small town or village in Italy? Share with me your thoughts and impressions in the ‘Comments’ section below. I would love to read them and engage with you.