Travel: Skip Venice and head for the hills: Mark Aspinwall and family changed plans and made for the Dolomites, where picnics and pedalos were more of a hit than canals and crowded cafes

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The Independent Travel
We stood atop Monte Grappa, 1,775m high, and surveyed the pine trees and blue-green meadows of the Dolomites. This quiet landscape was the scene of fierce fighting in World War I. Down there, where Ernest Hemingway drove his ambulance and set A Farewell to Arms, we could make out a war memorial, and a wall cemetery containing the remains of dozens of Austro-Hungarian soldiers. My son Harold was the first of us to spot the head-plate of Soldato Peter Pan: I'll wager that he would have appreciated the opportunity to grow up.

Our holiday had been intended as a romantic week in Venice for Mom and Dad. But we could not bring ourselves to dump the children on Grammo and Grampo, so it became a child-dominated affair. The younger generation rejected Venice; the achievements of 1,100 years of empire management carried no weight with six-year-old Harold, and even less with one-year-old Bonnie. So we settled for the Dolomites. But we had to give Venice a go, and one day took a short boat ride there from the mainland.

I thought we should walk to the Rialto bridge, and get a glimpse of this 'strange dream upon the water' as Dickens called it. Like a family of evacuees, we bellyached our way along the the Strada Nuova. Harold had aches in his feet. Bonnie kept trying to escape from her back-pack. The heat, the crowds, the walking, the lack of toilets or baby-changing facilities - all were widely noted, and my decision to leave the mountains subjected to withering denunciations from several quarters.

Finally we reached the Rialto, hopped on a vaporetto, and were soon at rest in one of the fabulously expensive cafes in Piazza San Marco, whose waiters are the epitome of arch sophistication.

'Yuck]' Harold gagged at the mention of a glass of juice, and Bonnie toddled about rearranging chairs. With a pained smile, our waiter brought us an iced tea and a Coke. The pounds 7 he charged us we considered as rent, and used our table as a base for the next hour or so while the children ran around the square feeding pigeons.

By the time we gathered ourselves together, Harold's feet had miraculously recovered. Things improved further at the top of St Mark's bell tower, where we enjoyed views of Venice's red roofs and lacquered grey waterways.

However, we will most remember our holiday in Venice for the next vaporetto ride, on which a pickpocket relieved Virginia of her wallet, and for the kind carabinieri at the station who helped us fill out the relevant forms.

So we stuck to the Dolomites. It was an arrangement both generations could live with. Our base was Asolo, a honey-coloured village in the foothills with streets so narrow that creeping vehicles had scratched the houses. In the fields around the village, hay had been cut on small farms, and was being raked and baled by housewives and schoolchildren. The corn was not yet knee-high and the grapevines, though sturdy, had not yet produced fruit.

Asolo has remained unspoilt by its own charm. One evening I stuck my head into the apartment of the family who ran our hotel to ask about local parking - the man left his half-eaten dinner on the table and walked with me through the streets until we found a spot, then stood in it until I came back with the car. In the mornings before breakfast, Harold and Bonnie chased each other around the water fountain in Piazza Garibaldi, the central square of Asolo. They climbed along its edge, splashed the water and fished out the litter. The old woman who served us espresso in the mornings was probably born about the same time Soldato Peter Pan was packed off to Never-Never Land. She always stopped what she was doing when Bonnie appeared. She touched her dress and cooed 'Ciao bella]'

In the evenings while Bonnie was trying to get to sleep, Harold and I would go for an ice-cream at the castle-garden bar a hundred yards from our hotel. This was the home of Queen Caterina Cornaro of Cyprus, dating from the time the Venetian Republic installed her as Seignory of Asolo in 1489. The main building now contains a theatre. In a rose garden at the back is a cafe with a commanding view of the Veneto plains.

We spent a lot of time in this little haven. I could even see it from our room in the refurbished attic of the hotel, where I often stood at the toilet with my head protruding from the skylight. One night Harold and I sat in the garden and watched the old folks having a game of boules under the floodlights, their silver balls crunching across the sand. A woman came over to us with a basket of cherries and left us each with a lap-full.

Assembling picnics was the first task of each day. We began at the bakery, where the rough wood counter had a dusting of flour, and a barrel of rising dough stood on the floor. Then across the street to a small market where the cashier taught me a few Italian words. At the greengrocer's, the girl with the piercing stare made me forget the words again. A few doors down was a shop full of hanging meats, vats of olives and artichoke hearts in oil.

With these ingredients we felt safe venturing into the Dolomites. At Lake Mis, near Belluno, Harold spent the afternoon naked, building a bridge across an inlet. When he was finished he threw flower petals over it, stood on it, and peed into the lake. Bonnie burbled to herself by the shore.

The Dolomites are sprinkled with man-made lakes, lorded over by jagged peaks whose fir and aspen-clad slopes are scarred by screes which plunge to the water's edge. Clumps of wildflowers grow like eyebrows from cracks in the cliffs. On Lake Corlo, I did something no Italian could ever forgive me for: I stopped thinking about the well-being of my son. The whole family was on a pedalo, and I sent Harold ashore with a rope at a waterfall while I paddled slowly to keep the boat against the rocks. But I was captivated by the scenery - the water plunging under a rock arch, the cliffs of folded stone - and I just forgot to paddle. Harold, who had one leg on the boat and the other on the shore, soon found himself over his head in the water. As we fished him out I was pushed in. It cooled me down; it stopped me laughing, too.

At themountain hamlet of Sospirolo on the way back we stopped at a cafe, where we sat out front with our feet on the car bonnet. Sipping beer we looked up at a majestic range of mountains shrouded in a heat haze, and at the sleepy ochre-coloured municipio across the street. Farmers wandered by, strewn with flecks of hay. Harold fell asleep on the way home, and as I carried him through the piazza to the hotel - limp in my arms - people stopped in mid-conversation and stared with alarm. A woman rushed over to stroke his hair and see if he was all right.

The old and the young had found a modus vivendi in Asolo. As we were leaving the village, a procession from the cathedral marched slowly through the Piazza Garibaldi, leaving rose petals on the cobbled street. They walked past the church, then our hotel, and on the way passed the Sunday market, with its Greenpeace stall and displays of organic pasta. I was paying the young lad at hotel, and asked him what the occasion was. He yawned.

Getting there: From 1 October British Airways (0345 222111) has a fare of pounds 223 from London to Venice.

Accommodation: The Aspinwalls stayed at the Hotel Duse, Via Robert Browning 190, Asolo (Treviso), 31011 (010 39 423 55241). L100,000 ( pounds 42) for two people per night.

Getting around: The Aspinwalls rented a car from Hertz for pounds 180 for a week, which included mandatory insurance coverage and unlimited miles.

(Photograph omitted)

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