Just an hour north of Venice is the charming little town of Asolo. It is a delightful miniature city, with a fortress, castle, cathedral and a grand town hall. Palaces and houses line the cobbled streets. Arcades protect pedestrians from too much summer sun or rain in the winter months. For me it is the perfect example of a small Italian town.
Asolo has Roman origins and you can still see the remains of a Roman theatre, some artefacts from the Roman baths and the ruins of an aqueduct coming into the town. The fortress dates from medieval times. Then in 1489 the little town of Asolo became a royal residence, with the arrival of Caterina Cornaro, the last queen of Cyprus. Caterina’s husband had died and the Venetians were desperate to get their hands on the island of Cyprus. Her kingdom was the perfect trading base in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was also a stopping off point for Crusaders heading for the Holy Land. It was decided that Caterina would be brought back to Venice and installed as the ‘sovereign lady’ of Asolo, where she lived in the Castello (castle) with a staff of eighty at her beck and call. With Caterina in ‘luxury exile’ in Asolo the Venetians could take control of Cyprus and bring it under their control. Caterina was a great lover of the arts and quickly settled into her new life where she established a court of artists and writers. It is thought that she commissioned Lorenzo Lotto to paint a picture of the Virgin Mary, which now hangs in Asolo Cathedral. It is unique in portraying Mary as an older lady, said to be similar in appearance to Caterina herself. Caterina’s court at Asolo has inspired both poetry and opera over the years.
When Andrea Palladio started designing elegant classical villas for the wealthy merchants of Venice many chose to live in the hills around Asolo. Here they created elegant country residences, surrounded by beautiful gardens, vineyards and farmland. In this idyllic rural setting, guests would be invited for dinner or to stay for a weekend of music, theatre and conversation. Artists flocked to Asolo to enjoy the beautiful scenery, exceptional views and the pleasant Mediterranean climate. In 1844 Donizetti wrote an opera based on the life of Caterina Cornaro. Whilst the poets Gabriele D’Annunzio and Robert Browning were both inspired and influenced by the atmosphere and charm of the little town. Browning wrote a cycle of poems known as the Asolando whilst staying here. In fact ‘asolare’ is a verb in Italian, taken from the name of the town. Asolare means to wander and think in a state of complete relaxation!
Asolo’s artistic tradition continued with the arrival of Eleonora Duse the leading actress of her day. La Duse was a wonderful character actor and famous for her highly emotional and personal portrayal of characters. She had a love affair with Gabriele d’Annunzio, the Italian poet, and in fact, the town of Asolo itself. You can still see the house where she lived on Via Canova. Her bedroom looked out onto Monte Grappa, said to be her source of inspiration. She died in Pittsburgh in the USA. However her body was laid to rest in the cemetery of Asolo.
So first there was Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus and then there was Eleonora Duse an exceptional actress. The next interesting female arrival was Freya Stark the intrepid British traveller and writer. Brought up in Italy and England, Freya was a truly European woman. She spoke French, Italian and English. An adventurer and avid reader, she had a lifelong love of the Middle East. After many years of travelling in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Lebanon, Freya retired to Asolo in the 1960s. She inherited a beautiful house on the edge of town, now named Villa Freia in her honour. Today you can visit the private garden of Freya Stark’s villa and walk in her footsteps. The town’s Roman theatre is at the foot of her garden and has been excavated recently. The views across the plains towards Venice are truly stunning.
My visit to Asolo has been significantly enriched by several other women too. Firstly our guide Laura Serafin who was interesting and informative – I strongly recommend her. Secondly the characterful and indefatigable Gabriella, owner of Hotel El Duse in the heart of Asolo. Gabriella is charming and welcoming. She has lived and worked in Asolo all of her life. For many years she ran a restaurant in town and has met many interesting visitors including Italy’s favourite movie star of the 1960s Marcello Mastroianni and Vittorio de Sica, director of Cinema Paradiso. Gabriella knew Freya Stark, and told me gleefully that Freya was her friend and a regular visitor in her restaurant. She died in Asolo aged 100 in 1993.
Asolo is full of cafes and bars and restaurants. Just next to the hotel is an enoteca (a wine bar) where you can sample prosecco, the local sparkling wine. Prosecco is produced locally in these hills especially in the area around Conegliano. Asolo too has its own Prosecco DOCG, which means that its sparkling wine has reached the correct quality level and method of production to be officially recognised. I for one think it is very good. There are several casual bars serving wine and cicchetti (snacks) these are great for a glass of prosecco and some local ham, cheese and bread. Life is peaceful here, the food and wine are good, the views are sensational.
Having met Gabriella and Laura and learned about Caterina, Eleonora and Freya, I’m in no doubt that the town of Asolo has had more than its share of powerful women living within its walls over the years. I feel honoured to have spent just a few days here in this beautiful small city. I’ve experienced a glimpse of ‘la dolce vita’ here in Asolo, Veneto and I’m keen to come back for more.
- For more on Freya Stark – here’s an article I wrote a year or so ago:
- Freya Stark – traveller and writer
- Asolo is truly ‘la citta delle donne’ ‘city of the women’
- Prosecco DOCG is an Italian sparkling wine – it is delicious and refreshing.
- Close to Asolo is the fabulous Villa Barbaro or Villa Maser, a Palladian Villa with exceptional frescoes by Veronese. Well worth a visit and you can have a delicious lunch next door. Villa Barbaro, Maser
These water colours are by my friend Mary Lou Peters. She travelled with me to Asolo in October, 2016. She so enjoyed her lunch at De Gusto, Maser that she sketched and then painted it! Mary Lou Peters – web site
- Published – 12th October, 2016
- Updated – 28th March, 2017
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Asolo’s association with art, culture and literature has continued through the centuries.
Wealthy Venetians loved to escape to the hills in the hot summer months.
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