Millions of tourists flood the streets of Venice every year, the city in the lagoon is literally groaning under the weight of these visitors. And yet if you cross the causeway to ‘terra firma’, to the mainland, leaving Venice’s lagoon behind you, a revelation awaits. Within half an hour you find yourself in a farming region. An area of highly productive agricultural land. This is the vast flood plain created by the Sile, Piave and Brenta rivers as they make their way from the Italian Alps to the Adriatic Sea. This is the Veneto region and it stretches from Slovenia and Croatia in the east all the way to Lake Garda and Verona in the west.
VENETO, ITALY – Here in the Veneto vast farmhouses dot the landscape, originally built to house large families, often 3 or 4 generations under the same roof, together with their livestock. These stone houses with their terracotta tiled roofs, stand guard over the fields that surround them like a watchful mother supervising her children. On a clear day you can see north to the edge of the plains, where the land starts to rise, with hills and snow-capped mountains beyond. This land has a long history of human settlement.
The local people known as the Veneti were here in small farming and herding communities for several millenia before the Romans. Then came the Romans, for whom the Veneto was a vital trading and strategic area. They built an important road, Via Postumia which linked the ports of Genova in the west and Aquileia in the east. They also built the towns of Altinium, Aquileia and Concordia. There was a great deal of trade with Greece, Southern Italy and the coastal towns of what is now Croatia, including Istria and Dalmatia. The port of Aquileia was probably the busiest Roman port in Northern Italy. The city of Aquileia is my favourite destination, as a day trip, from Venice. In a way Aquileia and Altinium were the parents of Venice, without them Venice could never have been conceived. Aquileia was a huge and important city in Roman times. Today the city is filled with archaeological digs, all active. Everywhere you look (on a week day) you can see groups of people, usually students, painstakingly excavating fragments of pots, stoneware and sometimes Roman coins and jewellery. There’s also a spectacular Roman mosaic pavement, underneath the medieval basilica. These mosaics are categorised as early Christian, which means they date from about 300 AD. They tell Bible stories, in a pictorial way for early members of the church. For example, there’s a wonderful mosaic of a group of fishermen, sitting in their boat with fishing lines. Attached to these lines are a selection of colourful fish. There’s symbolism here too, like an overflowing bucket of water. The fishermen are of course fishers of men and are collecting or catching souls to ‘save’ and deliver into the ‘kingdom’ of heaven.
A LONG HISTORY – The Veneto region is a rich and beautiful territory of plentiful water, fertile soil and sheltered coastal harbours. It was an ideal place to settle down; first the Veneti, then the Romans and by medieval times, the pearl of the Adriatic, the city of Venice, a thriving maritime community in the middle of the lagoon. A unique city created by boat builders and fishermen. A city that controlled much of the trade of the Eastern Mediterranean and where the citizens were so wealthy, that they built marble-encrusted palaces along the length of the Grand Canal. These same citizens, having built their palaces in Venice then looked inland to acquire vast tracts of farmland and to create huge country estates for themselves and their families. Fortunately for them a young architect called Andrea Palladio had recently returned from Rome. Inspired by the Roman architect Vitruvius, he was busy designing fabulous country houses known as ‘villas’ for his ‘money no object’ clientele.
ANDREA PALLADIO – My favourite example of a Palladian villa is the fabulous Villa Barbaro at Maser. Beautifully located on the edge of the Venetian plains at the point where the flat land meets the hills. The villa is strategically located so that the land behind offers shelter and water to the house and gardens. Whilst the fall of the land in front of the house creates an incredible vista southwards towards Venice and the Adriatic. I like to imagine guests arriving at the villa for a weekend of entertainment. Making their way by horse and carriage along the imposing, tree-lined avenue, that leads to the house. Villa Barbaro was commissioned by the Barbaro brothers, they were from a very wealthy Venetian family. Each brother occupied a separate wing of the house. Veronese the painter was called in to decorate the inside of the villa with frescoes, his paintings are wonderful. Full of colour, detail and humour. He used the trompe d’oeil effect, which means to ‘trick the eye’, so where the viewer thinks they are seeing a painting with depth in fact they are looking at a flat surface. During his career Palladio designed and built numerous country homes for wealthy Venetian families, more than forty of them still exist. That’s pretty impressive when you consider that these villas were built in the 16th century!
INSPIRATION – this intoxicating combination of classical villas, rivers, trees and green farmland, with snow-capped peaks in the distance has inspired many visitors. Artists, writers and thinkers have come here over the years. Robert Browning, an English poet, based himself, in the picturesque small town of Asolo where he wrote the ‘Asolando’ cycle of poems. Ernest Hemingway arrived here during the First World War, to work as a volunteer ambulance driver. At this time the Italians fought many great battles against the Austrians. Hemingway wrote ‘A Farewell to Arms’ and ‘Across the river and into the trees’ based on his experiences in the Veneto region. Just last year, I spent a couple of days in the small town of Piombino Dese, in the heart of this beautiful landscape. My friend Mary Lou Peters, an artist, and I stayed at the wonderful Ca’ de Memi agriturismo. It’s a ‘Bed & Breakfast’ in a very comfortable and traditional Veneto farmhouse.
A TRUE WELCOME – CA’ DE MEMI – Our host was the lovely Michela Tasca, a farmer’s wife, mother and grandmother. Michela makes her guests feel so welcome. There is a sitting room filled with books and maps, and a wood-burning stove to keep you cozy and warm in the cooler months. Breakfast is served each morning in the huge farmhouse kitchen, where Michela serves coffee, tea, juices and all types of breads and pastries. There’s a selection of home-made jams too – my favourite was the apricot jam. Michela is a great cook and she’ll cook lunch or dinner for guests including lots of delicious pasta. There’s a garden outside and numerous ‘animali’ in the barns. Michela’s husband Otto is the farmer. Early one morning I strolled outside to be confronted by all manner of ‘free range’ geese and turkeys. I’m actually a little bit nervous of geese, no wonder the Romans used them to guard their temples – they are highly territorial and love a blood-curdling screech at an unsuspecting passer-by.
HISTORY EVERYWHERE – Just a few steps up the road is the magnificent Villa Cornaro, another of Palladio’s architectural masterpieces. Until very recently the villa was owned by an American couple, although it’s currently changing hands. In fact within 30 minutes of Ca’ de Memi there are several spectacular Palladian houses; Villa Emo at Fanzolo, Villa Cornaro, just up the road (3 minutes) and then a short drive away Villa Barbaro at Maser. The small town of Asolo is just half an hour away and a little further is Bassano del Grappa, a beautiful town on the banks of the River Brenta. There’s a famous timber bridge at Bassano, it’s called the Ponte degli Alpini and it was designed by none other than Andrea Palladio. The bridge is named after the famous ‘Alpini’ regiment of Italian soldiers who fought very bravely against the Austrians in the First World War. In true Italian style and fashion the ‘Alpini’ wear very smart trilby-like hats with a wide brim and a jaunty feather tucked into the hat band. So very Italian!
ARTISTS – the Veneto continues to attract and inspire artists today. Michela introduced me to the work of Liz Steel, a water colour artist from Australia who has led several tours to the Veneto for her students. Her ‘Palladian Odyssey Tour’ includes painting sessions at several of the Palladian villas nearby. Her quick sketches intrigue me, the level of detail, texture and tone that she conveys on the page pulls me in and leaves me wanting to discover more. Here are a few of my favourite water colours by Liz Steel. My friend Mary Lou Peters is also an artist. Mary Lou has a real artist’s eye. Whenever we are travelling together she notices small details, makes a sketch and then later works it up into a full water colour. I’ve included several of Mary Lou’s sketches in this article. Mary Lou was inspired at Ca’ de Memi too.
SERENDIPITY – We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Ca’ de Memi and felt sorry to leave. In a final chat with Michela I mentioned my friends at Villa Angarano, the sisters Giovanna and Carla Bianchi Michiel and the charming Ilaria Ziliotto. They inherited a Palladian-style house from their father. The sisters now run the villa as an organic vineyard. They do wonderful wine tastings in the stylish stable building. Yet another example of a warm welcome that awaits you in the Veneto region. So if you decide to visit the Veneto region in 2019 there’s a veritable army of friends and acquaintances waiting to welcome you and to make sure that your visit is truly memorable.
- For more on the wonderful Villa Barbaro, Maser and it’s fabulous Veronese frescoes, read my article: Villa Barbaro, Maser
- Whilst our visits to the Veneto are restricted to armchair dreams at the moment, things will change, eventually!
- The FT has just published an excellent article on the Veneto and the very small number of deaths in comparison to the Lombardia region (around Milan). https://www.ft.com/content/9c75d47f-49ee-4613-add1-a692b97d95d3
- If you fancy a one week farm stay at Ca’ de Memi with daily Italian language lessons and afternoons sight-seeing in the stunning local countryside then e-mail me and we can discuss this further firstname.lastname@example.org realistically we are talking the end of this year (2020) or perhaps something to look forward to in 2021.
- The charming small town of Asolo has attracted some fascinating people over the years. Queen Caterina Cornaro of Cyprus was exiled here and set up an artistic court of poets, writers and artists. Later the actress Eleonora Duse lived here. Then in the 1970s the great British traveller and writer Freya Stark made Asolo her home. Freya Stark – writer and traveller
- The Bianchi Michiel sisters, led by Giovanna run a wonderful organic vineyard at the Palladian style Villa Angarano, near Bassano. Read more about the sisters and their fabulous wines here. The five sisters of Villa Angarano
- For more on Michela Tasca at Ca’ de Memi
For more information on Venice and the Veneto region explore my blog – there are numerous articles here about Venice and Veneto region. www.educated-traveller.com
To see more by artists Mary Lou Peters and Liz Steel – why not visit their web sites:
Note – With special thanks to Tiziana Banchetti for the wonderful photograph of Villa Barbaro, Maser at magnolia time xxx