Romance in Asolo, “The City of a Hundred Horizons”
I often think of Asolo. Since our April visit to this town in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy, I’ve thought back fondly to many moments of our stay there. The picture-perfect hilltop town exudes romance with its winding lanes, beautiful villas, galleries, cafes, and fabulous views from its lofty position. In part, this explains why great writers and artists have loved the town and found inspiration here. Robert Browning (for whom a street in the city center is named), Ernest Hemingway, and Henry James are just a few who came to Asolo as frequent visitors or residents.
Italian poet Giosuè Carducci called Asolo “The City of a Hundred Horizons”, aptly describing the many beautiful panoramic views of mountains and the Veneto countryside its hillside setting provides. From vantage points during walks in town or from the windows of our EsteVillas Elena apartment, we took in the character and scenery of Asolo for four days and nights — a time that proved to be too short. Like the horizons to which Carducci referred, there are a hundred reasons why our stay in Asolo, a town I only recently learned about, touched us so much. Here are a few of the highlights of our stay.
Our romantic “Elena” apartment in Asolo
Fitting the romantic character of Asolo are the two beautifully-renovated apartments (top two floors shown in the photo above) owned by our host Elena Benassi. We stayed on the top floor and the other apartment was on the second floor (1st floor in European terms) just below it. The two apartments are above the iconic Caffé Centrale on the ground level. Our “Elena 3” apartment consisted of three bedrooms, four baths, full bright kitchen, and elegant living and dining areas. Elena’s impeccable style was evident with the carefully-selected antique furnishings and stylish finishes throughout. The decor preserves the architectural style of the building and a sense of a romantic past.
From the windows of our apartment, I drank in the sights of historic Asolo — the fountain on the small piazza below, picturesque buildings lining the square, and the lane leading up to the majestic castle of Queen Caterina Cornaro. It was a great, central location to feel part of Asolo life and enjoy the town with easy walking to attractions and restaurants.
A warm and delicious welcome to Asolo
We had the pleasure of spending time with Elena and our EsteVillas trip organizer Beatrice at a delightful welcome dinner prepared by a local chef, Maurizio Gallina — right in the kitchen of our charming Asolo apartment. We enjoyed fresh regional dishes and fine wines during a relaxing dinner with lively conversation about the attractions of Asolo and the Veneto region.
As the chef was busy in the kitchen, we began with a sampling of appetizers including fried parmesan and zucchini flowers accompanied by a refreshing glass of Prosecco. Although I couldn’t fool anyone that I really participated in the meal preparation, Chef Maurizio was kind to let me give the risotto a few stirs, too.
On the menu for our feast was a delicious array of the chef’s recipes of local dishes using primarily products of the Veneto region. Top among the ingredients was white asparagus that was perfectly in season during in April. While in Asolo, we enjoyed white asparagus served in many dishes and styles, but Chef Maurizio’s asparagus and egg salad was one of the most creative and delicious. Another key component of our special meal was a risotto made with Vialone Nano, a rice variety grown in Veneto. With each course, Chef Maurizio paired an appropriate wine — Maculan Vespaiolo, a Veneto white wine, was perfect with the asparagus.
It was quite a start for our stay and we would highly recommend including a private dinner of your own prepared by Chef Maurizio when you stay in Asolo. As a “chef on demand”, he specializes in private dinners like this and he also offers cooking classes. These options are among the extra services that you can easily arrange when renting one of Elena’s apartments.
More highlights of our stay in Asolo
Walks around town
Though our hosts kept us quite busy with the many entertaining and informative side trips outside of town, we also enjoyed the time we spent just walking Asolo’s winding lanes past shops and restaurants, medieval buildings, historical sites, and landmarks.
One of the many shops that attracted our attentions as we strolled was Asolo Kilim Gallery where we could have spent hours admiring the colorful and eclectic selection of art, textiles, jewelry and antiques. We were thrilled to get a look at a very special old register signed by many international guests of the hotel that was once located in the building. Be sure to ask to see it when you visit.
Seen from many vantage points in the area and in town, La Rocca, the city’s ancient fortress, sits prominently atop Mount Ricco. A defining landmark of the Asolo landscape that can be seen for many miles, we always knew when we were getting close to “home” returning from our nearby Veneto excursions.
As we walked to the top, there was a mild, but steady winding climb providing good exercise and wonderful views. Although the fortress wasn’t open to visitors that day, we enjoyed the stunning 360 degree views of the hills and valleys of the area from the hilltop location.
The women of Asolo
Guided by the lovely and knowledgeable women of Asolo today, BellAsolo guide Laura Serafin and Discovering Veneto representative Francesca Zuccolotto, we got an introduction to three remarkable women of Asolo past — Freya Stark, Caterina Cornaro, and Elenora Duse. Each of these amazing women are central characters in the stories of Asolo as officially documented in guides and books, but also in the stories of locals who have personal recollections or those passed down in family history.
Touring the gardens of Villa Freya we learned about Freya Stark, British journalist and avid world traveler. Freya was a solo woman traveler pioneer who traversed the Middle East and other distant lands beginning in the 1930s. She had come to Asolo as a child near the beginning of the twentieth century and chose to return later in life because she loved the town. Freya died there in 1993 at the age of 100 and is buried in Asolo at the Cemetery of Sant’Anna.
The gardens in the large area behind the villa were beautiful with a wide diversity of flora, some varieties brought here by Freya from her travels. Although much of it was in bloom, the long rows of its popular English roses were not yet budding. Behind the garden are ruins of a Roman theater and views down into the valleys below.
Married at the age of 14 and widowed at 19, Caterina Cornaro (1454 – 1510) ruled Cyprus as queen for 15 years before being deposed by Venetian merchants in 1489. It was then that she came to Asolo, retaining the title of queen and had her palace built just up the hill from Piazza Garibaldi. It was quite an occasion when she arrived in Asolo, an event commemorated annually with a festival that includes many donning fancy 15th-century attire. Queen Caterina hosted Renaissance artists and intellectuals during her reign giving Asolo the early distinction of being a center of literature and the creative arts. An interesting connection to the United States is that the theater built there in 1798 was dismantled and stored in 1930, then purchased by the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art to be reassembled and reconstructed in Sarasota, Florida in the 1950s where it has been in use ever since.
Elenora Duse (1858- 1924) was an actress called “Divine” by her fans. She had said of Asolo, the place in which she chose to live, that it was a “small town of lace and poetry”. A theater named after her is located in Queen Cornaro’s Castle. She is highly regarded as one of the great actors of the period and was reviewed favorably in comparison to her contemporary and rival, the acclaimed Sarah Bernhardt. Fitting our theme of romance, Elenora was celebrated for her acting but she was also known for her famous romances. Like Freya, Elenora is buried at the Cemetery of Sant’Anna.
A taste of Asolo
Although it may be tempting to stay in the comfortable Elena apartment for all meals, there are great dining options within a few minutes (some a minute or two) walk from there. From our experiences, we can recommend these places for wining and dining.
How lucky we were that Caffé Centrale, an important center of Asolo’s culture, was in the same building as our apartment. But I would have made it a point to go there even if it wasn’t so convenient. Over scrumptious croissants and cappuccino, Mr. TWS and I reveled in thoughts of the many literary figures and celebrities who frequented the cafe and who have been memorialized with their names on the red director’s chairs on the patio of Caffé Centrale. During our breakfast ritual, we could imagine a young Hemingway in the 1920s writing a novel while sitting there. Besides our morning breakfast ritual, we also had a great lunch of lasagna and salads sitting on the patio on a gorgeous sunny afternoon, an afternoon gelato, and a late night liqueur.
Lele and Ezio Botter are the two brothers who own and operate the bustling cafe. We enjoyed a chance to sit down with Lele who graciously shared part of his busy day and enthralled us with marvelous stories of Asolo’s celebrity residents and visitors during his years of working at the cafe as well as those found in records and original letters dating back to 1796, some of which are in the cafe’s possession. From those documents they learned that the building was initially an exclusive club for noblemen, but much to the patrons’ dismay the owner opened it to others because the owner said that others will pay, the noblemen don’t. Among his stories, was one of Napoleon and a plot ostensibly to kill him that was centered in Asolo and particularly the club. The club was closed for several years (reopening as a coffee shop) and the conspiracy suspects were imprisoned. He also mentioned that a descendant of Robert Browning had visited just a few days earlier.
Antica Osteria Al Bacaro
Al Bacaro is a small osteria on Via Browning that has been operating since 1892. It was one of our favorite Asolo experiences. In fact, we went there twice to enjoy the ambiance of a spot frequented by Asolani (as locals are called) as well as the local delicious cuisine and very friendly service.
Trattoria Due Mori
For dinner with a spectacular view, reserve a window table at Trattoria Due Mori. Everything during our long, leisurely dinner from the appetizers to the tiramisu was excellent.
Our choice for our last dinner in Asolo was Tappo Bar a few steps across the piazza from our apartment. The meal was very good as was the service and it appeared that the other customers were locals.
Farewell to Asolo
We said our goodbyes to our lovely and gracious host Elena over afternoon tea at the Hotel Villa Cipriani. The villa was once owned by Robert Browning who bought it in 1889 shortly before he died. Passed on to his son, subsequent owners transformed the property into a country inn (including the famous Guinness family of Ireland) before Giuseppe Cipriani took over management and it became Hotel Villa Cipriani. The hotel is just a short walk from Elena’s apartments and is a perfect place for tea time and a walk in the garden to admire the views of the surrounding countryside.
On our last night in Asolo, Mr. TWS and I stopped in for a nightcap of Amaro Montenegro (an Italian herbal liqueur) at Caffé Centrale, trying to prolong the night and our stay. We were already missing romantic Asolo.
What else to see and do during a stay in Asolo
In a future post, we’ll be talking about some of the excursions we took outside of Asolo that included art, architecture, wine, and beautiful towns. There are many outdoor activities like golfing, hiking, biking, boating that are available nearby. In the city center, there are flea markets every second Sunday of the month throughout the year. Asolo also plays host to special annual events such as Palio di Asolo (late June) and the Asolo Art Film Festival (August 29th to September 7th in 2016).
Distances from Asolo to key cities
Treviso – 30 km
Venice – 51 km
Verona – 81 km
Padova – 40 km
Vicenza – 39 km