Following a wonderful 45 minute “Italian Lesson” from Veronica, we headed out to our dinner restaurant in Verona – described as “typical of the region”. It was that and SO much more! Ristorante 12 Apostoli in the heart of Verona was a real gem! The 4th generation owner of the Gioco family treated us to the history of the building and its many famous guests (incl. Barbara Streisand, Henry “the Fonz” Winkler, Pavarotti, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and others from around the world), a display of pens from literary society winners and celebrities, a very impressive wine cellar, and the fairly recent discovery of Roman Ruins when they attempted to modernize a staircase! The food, wine and service in the impressive upstairs dining room were outstanding. It was difficult to choose 2 plates from the many selections. I had the gnocchi in a fresh pea cream sauce (unusual and delicious, with gnocchi made not from potatoes, but from pumpkin and farina! The recipe is being translated.). My second course was duck in a cherry sauce with vegetables – also fabulous. Paul had a marvelous mushroom terrine and yummy sea bass. The desserts – 3 carts of them! – were complimentary for our group. I chose mixed berries (topped with Cointreau) and Paul couldn’t resist the chocolate mousse. (Click for a video of the experience.) What a terrific end to a wonderful day!!
Thurs. June 16th. After breakfast we left at 8:30 for the short drive to Vincenza where we met our local guide for a walking tour featuring the works of the famous architect and stone mason Andrea Palladio. These masterpieces included numerous villas throughout the town, the Piazza dei Signori, the Palazzo Valmarana and the Duomo. However, the highlight of this tour was the Teatro Olimpico – Europe’s oldest surviving indoor theatre, designed by Palladio and opened in 1585. The sets (built by Palladio’s students), as well as the amazing stage and wooden seats are still in use today!
The town was abuzz with the weekly market in all the squares, so we were busy dodging people and bicycles. We had a light lunch (prosciutto panini for Paul and a warm spinach wrap for me) at Caffe Don Cortez on a side street off the main thoroughfare. We were amazed by the number of immigrants in this town – becoming a “real problem” according to our guide due to the unrest in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Next it was back on the bus for a drive to Marostica – an impressive walled city (1370) in the foothills of the Dolomites. We walked downhill about 20 minutes (click here to see the views and additional pictures) from the upper castle ramparts to the lower square where there is a giant chess board used for a human tournament every two years. After a refreshing gelato, we rode to the village of Bassano del Grappa where we visited the Poli Grappa Museum for a tasting and then a walk over the historic Ponte Degli Alpine Bridge (rebuilt after the war) with beautiful views.
Our final stop was our hotel for the next three nights – the 5-star Albergo al Sole in Asolo – another small luxury hotel of the world. . It is owned and operated by two sisters, Silvia and Elena De Checchi, whose father was in charge of the renovation of this historic building. During the process, they fell in love with it and decided to expand it and open it as a unique luxury hotel! It is charming and comfortable with beautiful views of the countryside and town just a short walk below. We had dinner in the hotel’s restaurant “Terrazzo” and again had difficulty choosing what to try. Tauck generously allowed us to choose 3 plates from the menu (plus house red or white wine). After a delicious complimentary carrot puree, we both had the crispy prawns as a starter (tasty, but slightly overcooked) wrapped in a potato nest with a fresh pea sauce. Next I had the pasta in pesto sauce and Paul had a light, tasty gazpacho. He ended with tender potato gnocchi and then we shared by dessert of light chocolate mousse with berries. Yum! Sleep cam easily.
Friday, June 17th. This morning most of our group embarked on a 5-mile hike up the mountains behind our hotel through the woods to Maser. Paul and I decided instead to have a chance to relax, rest our knees, and explore this lovely town. In the 15th century, Queen Caterina Cornaro was exiled to Asolo by Venice’s doges to prevent her from interfering with their administrations. The resilient queen established a lively court that attracted many Venetian aristocrats who built beautiful villas in the area – most still privately owned. In the 19th century, Asolo became an idyllic destination for musicians, poets, and painters, including Robert Browning for whom one of the main streets is named (as he spent time here and immortalized Asolo in one of his poems). We went to a wonderful shop on Via Browning where the delightful owner (who spoke NO English!) treated us with samples of Proseco, local cheese and olive oil. Of course we bought a bottle of the local Proseco to enjoy on our trip and dried procini, etc. to take home.
We got on the bus with our fellow non-hiker at 11:00 and soon joined the rest of the group. (They admitted that the hike was “nothing special”.) Our featured stop today was at Villa Barbaro in Maser – “a stunning example of Palladio’s genius” – which today is a private home, farm and vineyards, producing excellent wines. The portion of the villa open to the public was absolutely amazing, with restorations of frescoes dating back to the 16th century and discovered in the 1930s (after being covered up by other paintings more current to the period). Unfortunately, no photography was allowed and we even had to wear huge slippers, which one of our group described as doing the “Chateau Shuffle!” The villa was originally commissioned by the brothers Barbaro in 1560 to have the well known architect Andrea Palladio, along with artist Paolo Veronese and sculptor Alessandro Vittoria create a magnificent villa – ½ palazzo, ½ farm house at its location 50 km from Venice. Once again, Palladio’s ability to build economically with brick base, covered by stucco and paint was fabulous. Also, his sense of order, the main façade with the style of a Roman temple, and identical outbuildings connected by arcades, with windows and doors in strict alignment made a lot of sense.
We took time to take photos of the beautiful grounds, then went to a nearby building for an “indoor picnic” that was truly a wine-tasting and local food experience. The owner paid us a surprise visit to tell us the fascinating history of this villa where his wife was born, and described the three wines we would be tasting that were produced from his vineyards. We first enjoyed a nice light Proseco, then a delicious Chardonnay (not aged in oak, as I prefer) paired with fresh vegetables with a tasty mustard sauce, melon, and bread. Next we tasted an outstanding 2005 Cabernet Merlot blend where the two wines were aged separately, then blended into a smooth delight. This was paired with plates of assorted local meats and cheeses. We ended the “picnic” with espresso, fresh fruit and a crunchy nut pastry – then performed the local custom of “resentin” by swirling the coffee residue with grappa – and drinking it, of course!