Deriving from the name of this village in the Veneto, asolare is an Italian word coined by the late-15th-century poet Pietro Bembo while he was spending time in Asolo at the court of Caterina Cornaro. The verb means ‘to pass time in a meaningless but delightful way’.
Bembo associated it with the deposed Queen of Cyprus’s enforced idleness — and it has remained associated ever since. The 19th-century poet Giosue Carducci described Asolo as ‘a city of 100 horizons’ for its hilltop position which provides views over the surrounding mountains, hills and plains.
If you are an art lover you might recognise some of the views captured by Titian, Giorgione or Canaletto. Asolo’s artistic and historical heritage has now earned it a place among the borghi piu belli d‘Italia club — the official list of ‘the most beautiful villages in Italy’. It has also been called ‘The Pearl of the Province of Treviso’.
Asolo stands to the northwest of Venice, at the foothills of the Dolomites. The best way to get there is by car, though you can reach it by a 30-minute train journey from Venice followed by a 30-minute bus ride. That makes it a short journey for us and, while it might not have been right for Caterina, to sit in the sun and do nothing sounded like a plan to us. We wanted to spend some time relaxing in this laid-back environment without a precise aim and without having to rush from one museum to another seeing everything.
It really could not get any better than Asolo. Less than 50 miles north of Venice you are free from the hustle and bustle of tourists and you can just sit down undisturbed, eating cicchetti and sipping local prosecco at one of its many osterie.
Asolo is one of the best-preserved medieval villages in Italy. Surrounded by walls, it has pretty cobbled streets, porticos, Venetian Gothic windows, a famous castle — and, of course, the breathtaking views over the surrounding vineyards of the Veneto.
The magic of its landscape, its beauty and its artistic and cultural heritage has bewitched many illustrious personalities through the centuries and, of course, still does. Small and unassuming, Asolo has a great atmosphere and is also the perfect gateway to some interesting nearby towns such as Maser and Possagno, or to go out on one of the many wine and prosecco tours around the region.
We began exploring from the main square, Piazza Garibaldi, where the 15th-century Palazzo della Ragione, now the civic museum, stands and where you can see the Fontana Maggiore, the symbol of the square and the main meeting point for the locals. Still powered by the ancient Roman aqueduct until recently, the fountain has in its central part the coat of arms of Asolo and the winged lion of St Mark protecting it — an obvious reference to the fact that for centuries the village was dominated by Venice.
A few steps from Piazza Garibaldi stands the cathedral, Santa Maria Assunta. From here, along Robert Browning Street, with its ancient palazzi and portici, we come to the house of the Victorian English poet who fell in love with the place, moved here and wrote his last volume of poetry here, Asolando.
Next to his house stands the small Zen Fountain dating from 1572, while nearby is the house of Freya Stark, the great explorer and ‘grandmother of modern travel literature’. Finally, just further on, stands the house of the Venetian composer Gian Francesco Malipiero. So much history crammed into a 10-minute walk!
After a short climb, we reach the Castle of Caterina Cornaro.
Inside, in the area that was once the throne and reception room, is now hosted the Duse Theatre. Dating to the 10th century and the seat of the podesta of Venice from 1339, in 1489 the castle became the residence of a Venetian woman who left a prominent mark on the history of La Serenissima.
After being used as a tool by Venice to control the Mediterranean, Caterina was forced to give up her title of Queen of Jerusalem, Cyprus and Armenia and was given in return the tiny kingdom of Asolo. Here she persisted in establishing a magnificent Renaissance court, gathering famous artists such as Giorgione and Gentile Bellini, and writers such as the Humanist poet Pietro Bembo, he who coined the term asolare.
After leaving the castle, we walked back to Via Browning and stopped for a quick lunch at the osteria Al Bacaro, a family-run restaurant with a tradition of over 100 years offering authentic local produce such as nervetti, baccala alla vicentina, trippa and snails.
Passing the Casa Duse, the house of the famous actress Eleonora Duse, who came here to escape her tormented love story with the writer, poet and Fascist soldier Gabriele D’Annunzio, we walked to La Rocca, the fortress built at the summit of Mount Ricco, which overlooks Asolo. From here we enjoyed a magnificent view of the Po Plain and the surrounding mountains. We could not see it then but they say that sometimes, on very clear days, you can even see the Venetian lagoon.
On the way back we stopped at Caffe Centrale, the historical cafe in the heart of the city, for some meringues and ice cream.
As evening sets in, this picturesque little town really does become enchanting. As you relax at one the peaceful outdoor bars or restaurants, the wonderful fragrances from Italian cooking mixed with loud family conversations and laughter are so uplifting.
For dinner, we went to a restaurant recommended by friends which is located a few minutes away from the centre by car but definitely worth the short trip. The Locanda Baggio is the best example of a family-run restaurant, with all the family joining in. The chef is Nino and he is helped by his wife, Antonietta, and all their children. The place has an intimate atmosphere and you can enjoy your food while admiring the passion of chefs working in the kitchen. The scallops with beetroot cream and crispy chorizo are magnificent.
Unfortunately, after dinner we had to head back home. Luckily, home — or I should say second home nowadays — is Venice, so not much to complain about. However, if we had been able to stay overnight we would have definitely treated ourselves to the Locanda Cipriani.
Previously owned by Robert Browning and later by the Guinness family, it was transformed into a refined hotel when the Guinness family entrusted its management to Giuseppe Cipriani, the founder of Harry’s Bar in Venice. It has less than one hundred rooms and retains an intimate atmosphere. The villa is surrounded by lush gardens and has a panoramic pool.
Asolare was the plan, and on my second day I could have just stretched my legs on the lounge chair and admired the scenery, an activity which I might have wanted to interrupt at some point just to enjoy some dishes at its renowned restaurant.
Obviously, if you wanted to, you could also spend a couple of hours shopping. There are many elegant boutiques in Asolo and shops selling handcrafted objects and local produce.
And if you can try to plan your trip to Asolo on the second weekend of the month you could browse at the antiques market which has been taken place here for over 40 years (every second Sunday of the month, except in July and August). Here they sell furniture, jewellery, silverware, prints, books, art and all sorts of things.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
VILLA FREYA – Via Forestuzzo
This villa and its remarkable garden once belonged to Freya Stark, the great British-Italian explorer of the Middle East and one of the earliest modern travel writers. If you plan your visit to Asolo to cover one of the first three Saturdays of the month (except August, December and in bad weather conditions), you can visit the archaeological park and the remains of the foundations of the Roman theatre.
CATTEDRALE DI SANTA MARIA ASSUNTA – Piazza Garibaldi
Asolo Cathedral dates to the 10th century but has been changed many times since. It is notable for a stunning baptismal font which was a gift from Caterina Cornaro and two major altar pieces by Lorenzo Lotto and Jacopo Da Ponte.
THE MONTELLO AND COLLI ASOLANI WINE ROUTE
La Strada del Vino del Montello e Colli Asolani starts at Nervesa della Battaglia and passes through the villages south of Montello before reaching Montebelluna, Caerano San Marco, Cornuda, Maser and finally Asolo. The hills of Asolo are dotted with vineyards and the Colli Asolani Prosecco wine zone has earned the highest quality designation in Italy: DOCG.
VILLA BARBARO (VILLA DI MASER) – Via Cornuda, 7
Located on the Montello and Colli Asolani wine route, 10km from Asolo, this villa is one of the greatest masterpieces of Andrea Palladio and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built around the 1560s for his friends Daniele Barbaro, Patriarch of Aquileia, and his brother Marcantonio, an ambassador of the Venetian Republic, the villa results from an unusual collaboration between the architect and his clients. In its interior there are stunning frescos by Paolo Veronese and stuccos by Alessandro Vittoria. Near the villa is Palladio’s last work: a small temple which was a private church and also the village church.
MUSEO GIPSOTECA ANTONIO CANOVA – Via Antonio Canova, 74
Only 7km from Asolo you will find the birthplace of the great neo-classical sculptor Antonio Canova and the Gipsoteca that comprises almost all of his plaster cast models, terracotta scale models, drawings and paintings.
WHERE TO STAY
ALBERGO AL SOLE – Via Collegio, 33
A small 5-star luxury boutique hotel in the centre of Asolo with a magnificent restaurant, La Terrazza, where you can enjoy great food and beautiful views.
HOTEL VILLA CIPRIANI – Via Canova, 298
A Renaissance villa in a magnificent, tranquil setting surrounded by beautiful gardens and breathtaking views with a pool and a renowned restaurant.
WHERE TO EAT
OSTERIA AL BACARO – Via Browning, 165
A characteristic osteria right in the heart of Asolo offering a warm setting and traditional dishes such as tippa con potenta, pasta with duck ragu, cheese, homemade desserts and great wines. Justly famous with locals and visitors.
CAFFE CENTRALE – Via Roma, 72
This café has a tradition of over 200 years, born in the 18th century as a cultural meeting point. Among the famous personalities who stopped here are the writers Ernest Hemingway, Robert Browning and Henry James. It is the perfect place for breakfast, a good lunch or just a drink.
RISTORANTE LOCANDA BAGGIO – Via Bassane, 1
This is the best family-run osteria in town, in our opinion, offering great local food and an intimate atmosphere. Nino, Antonietta and their children will be the perfect hosts.
RISTORANTE TRATTORIA PONTE PERON – Villa Vallograna, 14
The Ponte Peron is located just outside the centre of Asolo but is definitely worth the short trip for the delicious, authentic local food and the friendly atmosphere. The trattoria was founded in 1950 and has been run with passion and great simplicity by husband and wife Michele and Maria Teresa since 1999. Don’t miss their homemade ravioli filled with spring herbs and tossed with bruscandoli (a type of wild hops typical of the region).
PORCHETTA A MANETTA BAR DA FRANCO – Via Dante Alighieri, 24
Located in the centre of Asolo this bar has a few outdoor tables in the pretty square. Run by a friendly family, it offers great porchetta, panini and primi piatti. Next door to the bar is the small family-run shop selling local produce and pretty handbags made by Franco’s daughter.
BY PLANE: Venice Treviso is the nearest international airport, to which there are links with East Midlands, Leeds Bradford and London Stansted. Asolo is about 50km from the airport and a transfer would take around 40 minutes door to door.
BY CAR: Asolo would be accessible for a day trip from Venice and even Verona. There are buses but no trains, so a car might be desirable.