Trail of the unexpected: Asolo

Taking it easy in the Veneto

When I arrived in Asolo at dusk, the weather had closed in from the surrounding hills and the town was enveloped in a thick cloak of drizzle. Despite the soggy welcome, as I edged along the pretty arcaded streets in search of our hotel, I felt like I had discovered a bit of a gem.

I had wanted to strike out and explore the Veneto during a longer stay in Venice, and a friend had suggested Asolo, 65km to the north-west. With its Alpine air and altitude, I decided it could be the perfect foil to the canals and commerce of La Serenissima. But as I later discovered, I was not the first to head for the point where the fertile Po plain begins to crumple up towards the foothills of the Dolomites.

It's easy to understand Asolo's allure. This small, walled town threading along a ridge at the foot of Monte Ricco is as pretty as a picture. Cobblestone streets twist gently uphill and are lined with shops, Renaissance palaces and villas, coupled with stunning views of the Po plain below.

The Romans were the first to discover Asolo's charms and christened it Acelum. Roman remains are scattered throughout the town: Roman baths sit hidden under the Piazza Brugnoli and artefacts are on display in the Municipal museum, housed in the Palazzo della Loggia.

But it was the Venetian connection that put Asolo on the map. Its reputation was enhanced in 1489 when the town and surrounding lands were bestowed upon Caterina Cornaro, former Queen of Cyprus, when she ceded her kingdom to the powerful Republic. As places of exile go, it's hard to feel much pity for Caterina. At her palace, which now stands partly ruined, she created a celebrated Renaissance court of intellectuals, poets, writers and artists. A frequent visitor to the court, the poet Cardinal Pietro Bembo, coined the Italian verb asolare to describe Caterina's life of idleness in Asolo.

By the 18th century, Asolo was again attracting the intelligentsia. Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Freya Stark and Eleonora Duse were all impressed enough to take up residence here. Browning's final volume was titled Asolando in homage to the town he loved.

I stayed at the Villa Cipriani, which clings to the edge of the city walls and has magnificent views. The primrose-yellow villa has 31 rooms and a gorgeous garden, and was once the home of Browning. There is something reassuringly old-fashioned about the hotel, which just like Asolo seems to hark back to another era. If you are lucky enough to secure one of its rooms with a view, at night you can peer down at the carpet of twinkling lights stretching out over the plain below.

These days Asolo still has a well-heeled, wealthy air. Many of the town's buildings, such as the Palazzo della Loggia and Palazzo della Ragione, with their faded exterior frescoes, bear more than a resemblance to those in Asolo's opulent bigger sister down on the lagoon.

The town's boutiques are crammed with preppy cashmere sweaters, real diamonds and Diane von Furstenberg dresses. There are countless restaurants and chic wine bars, and on the second Sunday of every month the main square hosts an antiques market.

If contemporary Asolo has a social hub, it is the welcoming Caffé Centrale. It perches on a corner of the Piazza Garibaldi overlooking the fountain owned by the lion of St Mark, which still spurts water from a Roman aqueduct. It was just the place to observe the ebb and flow of Asolan life. The seats in the Centrale bear the names of the great and the good: Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound are among those who have whiled away the hours at its marble-topped tables.

You can see most of what Asolo has to offer in an afternoon. I peered through the railings of Villa Freya at the Castlefranco gate, admired the handsome Renaissance architecture and the Cathedral, paid our respects to Duse and Stark at the Sant'Anna cemetery, and clambered over what remains of Caterina's palace.

I also strolled up the winding path to the summit of Monte Ricco to see the sturdy 12th-century castle. You can appreciate why the poet Giosue Carducci called Asolo, "the city of one hundred horizons". Breathtaking, 360-degree views unfold of a landscape that inspired Titian, Giorgione and Tiepolo. On a clear day, you can even see the lagoon.

But don't rush things. Asolo's atmosphere needs to be soaked up and appreciated slowly; it's the perfect place for a bit of voluntary asolare.

Hotel Villa Cipriani (00 39 0423 523 411; villaciprianiasolo.com) has doubles from €300 including breakfast, but check for special offers online. Asolo Tourism (00 39 0423 55 0 45; asolo.it)

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