This part of the Veneto is special to me, because it was in Bassano del Grappa (or more accurately, at the Albergo dalla Mena in Romano d’Ezzelino) that I spent my first days in Italy, in 1994. But let’s go back a few years before that:
Like Montagnana, Cittadella (which, as can be inferred, means “citadel”) was an outpost constructed by Padova in 1220, when it was a city state, prior to being assimilated in the Venetian Republic in 1405. Like Montagnana, it then declined in importance, and its walls stayed intact. In towns that were busy, growing places, things like city walls, rendered more or less obsolete by the invention of the canon, were often torn down and used as building materials. As in some of the other smaller towns discussed previously, Cittadella is not someplace to spend hours on hours, but is a nice stop to discover something that isn’t on most tourists’ lists.
Nearby lies Castelfranco. Originally built as a fortress to demarcate Treviso’s territory in 1195, it was the reason Padova felt they needed their own bastion, and created Cittadella. You can see their relative positions on a map (zoom out if you have a small monitor) – Cittadella is the circle on the left, Castelfranco the square on the right. Once again, not a big town, but worth a look. Giorgione, one of the more important artists in the Italian Renaissance, was born in Castelfranco, and left for Venice, where he made a name for himself. The Cathedral has some of his work. As a side note for “tifosi” of cycling like me, the current (2008) world champion, Alessandro Ballan, is from Castelfranco Veneto!
If you have a car, the small hilltop town of Asolo is a nice place to relax in the afternoon. Despite being a very small town, its advantageous (and beautiful) location means that it was inhabited since prehistoric times, and had its share of history, as the Wikipedia page describing it narrates:
The town was originally a settlement of the Veneti, and was mentioned as Acelum in the works of Pliny.
In the early Middle Ages it was under the jurisdiction of the Bishops of Treviso and a possession of the Ezzelino family.
Later Asolo was the capital, and seat of the court, of the fiefdom of Asolo, which was granted by the Republic of Venice (to which it belonged) to Caterina Cornaro, the former Queen of Cyprus; in 1489 it was granted to her for life, but in 1509 when the League of Cambrai conquered and ransacked Asolo, Caterina fled to exile and died in Venice a year later. Under her reign, the painter Gentile Bellini and the humanist Cardinal Pietro Bembo were part of the court. Caterina’s personal theatre was later purchased by Ringling (of Ringling Circus fame), crated up and shipped to Sarasota, Florida, where it was reassembled. The Asolo Theatre remains there today, where it enjoys a renaissance of theatre performances.
The rolling hills near Asolo are a great place to spend a bit of time if you are tired of busy cities, and has been for some time: the English poet Robert Browning moved there. One other thing to see in the area is the Villa Barbaro, another one of Palladio’s masterpieces.
As an aside: perhaps it is not so interesting for most tourists, but I’ve always wondered at how productive, and how specifically productive the area around Bassano del Grappa is. High-quality Asolo hiking boots and shoes are made near the town, as are a number of other brands of cycling and motorcycling footwear. Two of the best bicycle saddle manufacturers are in the area, as are numerous bike clothing manufacturers. What with campagnolo bicycle components, which are made in nearby Vicenza, you could very nearly put together an entire bicycle and set of bike clothes made entirely within the Veneto.
Bassano del Grappa is the final stop on our tour of the northern Veneto plains, and as I mentioned above, holds lots of good memories, as it was the first place I stayed in Italy. It’s not a big town, but it’s much more substantial than Cittadella and Castelfranco, and given its important location near the base of the mountains, where the Brenta river leaves the Valsugana for the plains, has been inhabited on and off since prehistoric times. It’s easy to spend an afternoon visiting most of the historic center, including the famous bridge over the Brenta. A strategic crossing point, the bridge has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times – most recently after the second world war, when it was destroyed by the retreating German troops (there are still some bullet marks visible on nearby walls). Indeed, Bassano was also a focal point during World War I, when the nearby Monte Grappa (from which the town takes its name) was the last line of defense between the Imperial Austro-Hungarian army, and the wide open plains of the Veneto. Clearly, it had to be defended at any cost, and was. Thousands of soldiers lie buried in a monument at the top of the mountain.
These days, the mountains to the north of Bassano are an altogether more pleasant place, and will be covered in a future article on visiting the Veneto. Bassano itself is a great “base camp” if you’re a cyclist like myself: you can do anything from leisurely cruises on the plains to the south, hilly rides east and west, or serious climbing expeditions in the mountains to the north. The climb up Monte Grappa is more than 20 kilometers uphill!