Warning–this is a longer-than-usual post. There are, indeed, 5 faves, but I’ve given a fair bit of info on each. There are lots of photos!
Check out my recent appearance on Studio 4, a Vancouver TV talk show, where we discuss Northern Italy.
Because my partner has family in the area, we chose to explore the eastern side of northern Italy on a recent trip. There are some gems here—places that feel a far less-touristy Italy than you get in Venice or even a small Tuscan town like Siena. Here are several spots I loved, and think you’ll really like. Note that while the train does service some of these towns, you really need a car to appreciate them. Drive carefully! Fly into Venice (and yes, Piazza San Marco is dazzling), rent your car, and go see some real Italy.
- Castelfranco, Veneto
I particularly like Castelfranco because it feels so real. It is a marvelous combination of old (a 900-year-old castle) and new (it’s a commercial center for the surrounding region). I recommend it for a two-three night stay for anyone who wants to get a sense of life in a historic Italian town with few tourists. Remember that there are other towns called Castelfranco in Italy; when planning make sure you specify Castelfranco, Veneto.I enjoyed the following:
- Bar San Giustino di Coppo Mirco
My partner and I sit on the patio of Bar San Giustino di Coppo Mirco (address: Via F.M. Preti 35) , dining al fresco on freshly made risotto con funghi, while at nearby tables local Italians chat or read newspapers at the nearby with their pastas, meats, and salads. They’ve closed their own shops and offices, as Italians do in the afternoon. We feel more than lucky to be the only tourists around.Looking across the forecourt of the duomo (cathedral) and just steps away from a museum dedicated to one of the great High Renaissance painters, Giorgione — the town’s most-famous son, despite the fact he’s been dead since 1510. His celebrated work, the Madonna and Child Between St. Francis and St. Nicasius, is the cathedral’s altarpiece.
- The castle walls
Part of the town centre is surrounded by medieval castle walls — we’ve walked in across a drawbridge and moat, passing through gates built some 900 years ago.
- Evening shopping and passagiatta (stroll).
In the evenings, the many restaurants and cafes surrounding the central Piazza Giorgione bustle with locals having dinner or just a coffee. It is prime people watching, and we realize that in Italy, even the country folk dress better than many people in North America – perhaps not surprising considering that Replay, Diodora, Diesel, GEOX and Benetton are all headquartered in the Veneto. We like the menu at a place called Il Galeone d’Oro, and enjoy an evening eating pizzas on their romantic patio.
- Places to stay in Castelfranco Veneto (Rooms at either property include breakfast, and are reasonably priced by Italian standards, starting around 90-100 Euros/night for a double, which may be two twins — ask!)
- Albergo al Moretto, the oldest hotel in the city. Luciana, the proprietor, has updated the hotel with a variety of room types, and they retain the character you hope for in a northern Italian country town (phone +39 0423 721313).
- Best Western Albergo Roma (BWs tend to be very nice in Europe), where many rooms have superb views (some with balconies) of the castle walls — especially romantic. (phone+39 0423 721616).
- Bar San Giustino di Coppo Mirco
Travellers found Asolo a long time ago. It’s a hilltop hamlet crowned with a castle that can be seen for miles around, and thus far the most-celebrated English-speaking visitor was the poet Robert Browning—who liked Asolo so much he bought a home there; a major street is named for him. However, since it’s not on the railway line, it’s less-easy for many tourists to reach. I enjoyed the following
- Antiques Market.
Early on a Sunday morning, the old town piazza transforms from parking lot (an unfortunate common use for piazza’s, it seems) to antiques market. We don’t know European antiques well enough to make any informed choices, so we just browse for a bit.
- Going to church.
At 11:15, the church bells toll on Asolo’s large cathedral, and despite not having any interest in religion, I decide to take in an Italian mass. I’m fully aware that the church doesn’t approve of gays, but I also love a good dose of theatre and organ music, so in I go. Surprisingly, the church is nearly full, and the faithful come from all age ranges. I am amused by the theatricality of it all, and squeak out a “pace” (peace) when the time comes to greet my pew-mates. And I mean it.
- Browsing. The very-walkable streets of Asolo are filled with small shops. It’s incredibly wanderable—with sites including the delightful Maggiore Fountain in the main piazza, and a palazzo with exterior fresco painting dating to the 1500s, and no end of lovely cobbled streetscapes. Several mornings we enjoy coffee and brioche at Tappo Bar on the edge of the piazza, where we’re able to pick up the free Wifi signal offered by the town.
- Where to stay in Asolo.
- Albergo al Sole, a historic hotel perched above the piazza. Rooms at the front of the hotel overlook the piazza and face the sunset. It’s a bit pricey with doubles starting at 160 Euros, but it’s luxurious, and does include breakfast and an impossibly romantic setting (phone +39 0423 951332).
- Visit the Asolo Tourism website here.
- Antiques Market.
- Bologna. Perhaps the great surprise of our Italian adventure–and it was a place we stopped just because I wanted to eat Bolognese sauce in the place it was named for (alas, the restaurant where I tried it wasn’t all-that good, dang!). We only spent one night there, but we are both itching to go back. Bologna is home to Europe’s oldest university, and the town positively brims with youthful vigor–alongside wonderfully historic buildings. While it couldn’t have been true, we felt we were the only tourists in the city. Ultimately, this stop was all about strolling and people watching. We can hardly wait to return.
Here’s what we loved:
- The Neptune Fountain (Fontona del Nettuno) in the Piazza Nettuno. The fountain itself was lovely, but we mostly enjoyed the feeling that this was truly a public square. People of all stripes and sorts were there, and it just felt like la dolce vita.
- The photo exhibit honoring the Italian Resistance. The photos are behind glass, facing the piazza. The reflection of the cathedral and other buildings created wonderful works of temporary art.
- People watching in the University area.
- Just go–find a bench, step, or sidewalk table and while away a few hours. You might even find a student who chats with you in English.
Eat at Alce Nero Caffe. This is the closest thing we found to an Italian version of Whole Foods, and it was amazing. The table service food was excellent.
- Where to stay in Bologna:
Albergo Centrale.It’s not chic and fancy, but the location and price were both excellent, it was squeaky clean, safe, and comfortable. The view from our window–many towers of Bologna–was super special. The desk staff were super friendly and helpful. Breakfast was adequate (nothing special). I would stay there again.
- Asiago. You’ve eaten cheese named for this place your whole life. Now go see it.
- What I loved about Asiago: We went there for a day trip, and beyond being famous for cheese, it gave us a really interesting insight into just how closely related Northern Italy is to its Swiss and Austiran neighbors to the north. We did not stay in Asiago, but simply drove up, wandered its lovely streets, and made our way to the supermarket where they sell the cheese.
- Asiago is decidedly Alpine–and touristy. But the tourists were mostly Italians, which was really refreshing.
- The region is famous for its foodstuffs. Even if you don’t make the winding drive into the mountains, you can find Asiago products around the Veneto. But go. It’s a beautiful drive into a very different Italy.
- Bassano del Grappa.This is one of those towns where you sigh and say, “how could I live here?” I spent a good deal of time gazing from Bassano’s covered bridge at the multi-colored buildings that line its riverbank. In travel cliche: it oozes charm. We did many day trips to Bassano, here are some things I loved.
- Straddling the Brenta River is the Ponte Vecchio,or old bridge. The views from this covered bridge are pure magic—many of the town’s pastel-painted buildings line the riverbank framing gorgeous mountain views. My partner and I share a very public kiss on this bridge, and no one bats an eye. There are certainly tourists here, but not throngs.Asiago Cheese is definitely sold here! In Asiago, Italy. Photo: Randall Shirley
- The east end of the bridge is a must-visit for anyone who loves grappa—Nardini, the oldest Italian grappa distillery, is located there, and it is popular with locals and visitors alike, who stand and drink their grappa in the cozy, historic bar.
There are many other wonderful towns–driving around the region is a true joy. In the future I’ll write about Ferarra and it’s amazing castle, Vernona and Juliet’s balcony, Treviso…the tiny version of Venice, Montebelluna’s insanely good cake shop. Or you could just go wander and find it all yourself!
*Notes: I have visited many northern Italian towns, but not all of them. Yet! Those listed above are true standouts. Ethics disclosure: This trip to northern Italy was paid by us. We received no hotel stays, meals, etc. in any of these places. But if we had, my coverage would still be independent and honest. Travel was in September and October, 2011.