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Exploring the Prosecco hills of Veneto


Villa a Maser, Veneto
Villa a Maser, designed by Andrea Palladio in 1550, is in the Prosecco hills near Asolo

If you're planning a trip to Veneto don't fill up all your available days with Venice, Verona, Vicenza and Padua. Make some space for Chioggia by trimming time from Venice, or even foregoing Venice completely if it's high season, pick Treviso instead of Vicenza and then head towards the Venetian pre-Alps to explore the smaller towns and villages that lie all around the Prosecco hills.


A typical Glera vineyard on the Prosecco road
A typical Glera vineyard on the Prosecco road

Recently awarded world heritage status by UNESCO this area contains some fascinating places like Follina, Rolle, Cison di Valmarino, Serravalle, Asolo, Bassano del Grappa, Marostica and Cittadella. They are reasonably close to each other so they can all be visited in the space of two or three days, including a stop along the way for a Prosecco Superiore tasting at the Miotto family winery in Colbertaldo. Asolo and Bassano del Grappa have their own separate articles so the rest of the above places are covered here in the same order that we visited them during a quiet off season week in February.


The Veneto pre-alps with the snow covered Alps behind them
The pre-Alps rising above the Prosecco hills don't seem so big when you see the real Alps behind them

Along the Prosecco Road

The entire route of the official Prosecco road isn't quite as universally interesting or scenic as most commentators suggest, perhaps because blog writers these days seem to gush about everywhere in Italy or perhaps it's because they're all from Illinois or the prairies where scenery is hard to come by.


Valdobbiadene
Valdobbiadene

Anyhow, the higher road going north-east out of Valdobbiadene is the best route to take in our opinion and after a stop to explore Follina you can dip south a little to visit the Molinetto della Croda near Refrontolo.

This early 17th century mill was important for centuries in the lives of the nearby communities and continued to grind corn for polenta until 1953. The family of the last miller was forced to abandon it in 1970 and the empty structure deteriorated for another 20 years before it was taken over by the local municipality and renovated fully in time for its 400th anniversary.


Molinetto della Croda near Refrontolo
Molinetto della Croda near Refrontolo

Returning north again on a minor road that may or may not be part of the official route, you will find yourself on a narrow quite steep section with classic Prosecco vineyard views as you approach the tiny hamlet of Rolle.


Rolle

"Una cartolina inviata dagli dei" was how the Veneto poet Andrea Zanzotto described Rolle (he gave it the name Dolle in his poem) and his poetry also included the mill and its river, the Lierza, as well as the nearby villages of Campea and Premaor. These poems were written in the post war years and published in a collection of verses called Vocativo.


Zanzotto was born close by in Pieve di Soligo in 1921 and joined the partigiani in these hills after the Italian capitulation and was lucky not to be killed when 8 of his comrades were executed and 92 houses burned to the ground on September 1st 1944, a date still commemorated every year in Soligo.


Rolle in Veneto surrounded by vineyards
The view that prompted the poet Andrea Zanzotto to describe Rolle as a postcard from the Gods

In 2004 Rolle became the first Italian village protected by Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI), an action taken in agreement with its 35 residents. FAI's mandate was to support the community and help it retain its identity.

The partnership was motivated by the fact that Rolle at that time still retained an authentic mosaic structure of small vineyard plots planted to ancient cultivars of the Glera grape. In effect it had a unique cultural and environmental heritage that was at risk of succumbing to the consolidation of large scale production practices taking place elsewhere in the Prosecco zone as a result of the huge increase in global demand.


By 2016 they had mapped all of the original biotypes found here and identified 70 strains of Glera that were considered exemplary in terms of quality, uniqueness and typicality. The collected samples were subjected to careful tests in the laboratory and then multiplied through grafting in a conservation vineyard which today is a true gene bank of the territory. In 2019 in recognition of this work the prestigious Giuseppe Mazzotti award was presented to FAI.


Cison di Valmarino

Cison di Valmarino, Veneto

Cison di Valmarino (above and below) is a little way east of Follina and north of Rolle and is well worth a stop. The beautiful piazza in the center of this small town surrounded by historic buildings was the setting for the 1977 film Mogliamante starring Marcello Mastroianni and Laura Antonelli.


Cison di Valmarino, Veneto

Mastroianni was a frequent visitor to the area known as Quartier del Piave, Soligo in particular, and a decade before in the 1968 film Amanti with Mastroianni and Faye Dunaway some scenes were shot at the Villa a Maser (top photo). Despite the grand setting and the presence of these two stars this 1968 film ever since its release has been widely considered one of the worst films of all time.


Cison di Valmarino, Veneto

Cison di Valmarino is is one of the 'Borghi più belli d'Italia' and though I normally treat a town's inclusion on this list with considerable skepticism, in this case it is absolutely valid because Cison really is a beautiful little town as well as being very tidy and clean.

And furthermore, to our great surprise, the town baker was open on Sunday morning selling fresh bread and that almost never happens in the Italian countryside.


The year 1600 may not have been the best time to be a criminal in Cison because the Valmareno Statutes passed that year provided for some very harsh penalties for offenders.


These included the removal of an eye for theft, your right hand for counterfeiters and having your face marked with a branding iron if you gave false testimony about crimes involving bloodshed. Lesser offenders were whipped. All this according to a sign prominently displayed in the town today so the citizens of Cison are not unduly bashful about their somewhat brutal ancestors.


Nor was it a safe place 300 years later because it spent the latter stages of the First World war on the front lines and in fact in the last year of the war the Austrians occupied the town. During the war Cison lost 17 heavy bells, removed by the Austrians to be melted down for war material, out of a total of almost 10,000 bells requisitioned throughout the region of Veneto.


Serravalle

Piazza Flaminio, Serravalle in Veneto
Market day in Piazza Flaminio

Serravalle doesn't seem to appear on many maps but it is essentially the historic center of Vittorio Veneto even though they are slightly apart from each other. You should go to Serravalle and skip the rest of Vittorio Veneto.

Piazza Flaminio is the heart of the town with the Palazzo della Loggia and its tower as its centerpiece, both dating from the 15th century when the Loggia was the ancient seat of local government. The frescoes and carved stone embellishments on the outside of the Loggia have survived for 550 years in remarkably good condition though the face of the winged lion, symbol of the Venetian Republic, that sits just above the balcony was damaged during looting by Napoleon's soldiers.


Palazzo della Loggia, Serravalle in Veneto
The decorative Palazzo della Loggia

The piazza itself is made of Istrian stone and is surrounded by mostly Renaissance buildings. Initially a Roman military garrison, Serravalle like most of Veneto after the fall of the western Roman Empire was conquered in turn by the Lombards, the Franks under Charlemagne and then the Hungarians, after which local feudalism developed. The Republic of Venice took control in 1337 and under Venetian protection commerce and many artisanal trades flourished.


The river Meschio flowing through Serravalle
The river Meschio flowing through Serravalle

Vittorio Veneto took its first name after Italian unification to honor the king Vittorio Emanuele II and then it added Veneto some time after the Italian victory in the battle of the same name that took place all over the Prosecco hills in the last few days of WW1.



The river Meschio flows down from the mountains and after floods in 1531 they separated it into 3 channels to speed its progress through town.



Via dei Battuti (above two photos) begins at Piazza Flaminio and follows the Meschio water channels down to Ponte Nogarolo


Conegliano & Valdobbiadene

The castle in Conegliano, Veneto
The castle in Conegliano

Conegliano and Valdobbiadene are both world famous towns because they bookend the best Prosecco territory, inside of which the coveted Prosecco Superiore DOCG is produced. However, from a tourism point of view neither town compares favorably with the many other locations in Veneto, both big and small, that are much more interesting.

Other than the views from the castle in Conegliano and the lovely central piazza in Valdobbiadene, both suffer by comparison with the other places we've written about so if time is short, which it always is, then both Conegliano and Valdobbiadene can be skipped.


Susegana, near Conegliano, Veneto
Susegana, near Conegliano

Castelfranco Veneto & Cittadella

There's no real need to visit both of these towns even though they're quite close to each other. They are not in the Prosecco hills but rather on the plain below on the way to Padua and Vicenza, and the flat countryside and urban sprawl in this area are not particularly attractive.


The walls at Castefranco, Veneto
Castelfranco

Both towns boast of their ancient defensive walls but the medieval walls around Cittadella are much more spectacular as they encircle the entire town with a moat outside. They were built by Padua in the early part of the 13th century in response to Treviso having built a similar wall around it's satellite of Castelfranco so the competition between these two Veneto towns started centuries ago.

By contrast, only a few sections of the Castelfranco walls remain intact today and it is a very small town that is mostly famous for being the birthplace of the Renaissance painter Giorgione and also the home town of Tina Anselmi, a WW2 resistance fighter and indefatigable champion of equal rights for women during her long political career.


The Porta Vicenza entrance to Cittadella, Veneto
The Porta Vicenza entrance to Cittadella

Cittadella on the other hand is visually more interesting and, after recognizing the historical value of their walls, the town embarked on a multi year restoration program that now allows you for a small fee to walk the entire circumference, which is just under a mile in length.

There are four historic gated entrances to Cittadella and in the Torre di Malta above the Padua gate there is a small museum in place of what used to be a prison and torture chamber in the 13th century.

The walls are certainly impressive, however for me personally they don't transport you back in time the way the Magliano in Toscana walls do where modern life has intruded less on the setting and the external views haven't really changed for hundreds of years, but Magliano is in Tuscany and comparisons with unspoiled Tuscan landscapes are always difficult.


Citadella's medieval walls
Citadella's medieval walls

The problem with the walls in both Cittadella and Magliano as well as all the other defensive walls built in Italy before the French arrived in 1494 with the new mobile artillery of powerful cannons, is that they are all tall and quite thin so there is no space for any type of recreation on them. Only a narrow walkway used solely by tourists.

Lucca's walls on the other hand, commissioned in the early 16th century, were built lower and much wider so today they have become an essential part of city life for the residents of Lucca, used for all manner of activities and hundreds of people at a time can enjoy them.


Marostica


Publicity poster for La Partita a Scacchi in Marostica

Marostica is very close to Bassano del Grappa at the base of the Veneto foothills. It's a well preserved medieval city with an upper castle and defensive walls that climb up the steep hill above the town, as well as a lower castle in the middle of town.


It is famous mainly for the massive outdoor chess board on which a game is played every September in even numbered years as part of the town's festival. The chess pieces are people dressed as knights in full medieval costume and the game is conducted in the old Venetian dialect watched by a crowd of 3,500 seated around the piazza.




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