You fly to Venice or Treviso airport. On arrival, we transfer by coach to Castelfranco Veneto and your hotel, the four-star Albergo Roma, for the next five nights. Castelfranco Veneto’s historic centre is a maze of narrow streets and tiny squares, protected within remarkably preserved, red-bricked ramparts. The town was established when the rulers of Treviso had a castle built in 1199 to defend against the neighbouring Padovans. Over time, it grew into a key trading post between Venice and northern Europe. Every corner of Castelfranco Veneto proudly evokes the presence of its most famous resident, the artist Giorgione whose pièce de résistance, the Madonna and Child, can be found in the town’s magnificent cathedral. Also worth a visit is the beautiful 18th-century Academic Theatre with some of the best acoustics in Italy. Just beyond the walls and a stone’s throw away from your hotel is Piazza Giorgione, one of the largest squares in the region.
Over the centuries, the rivers flowing into the Venetian lagoon were ingeniously diverted to prevent siltation. As the canalised Brenta became a popular transport route, elegant Venetian villas, holiday homes of the elite, began to appear along its length. One of the most relaxing ways to view these legacies of a leisured existence is to take a canal cruise, and that is exactly what we will do this morning. Just as the wealthy would have travelled between Venice and their villas on the Burchiello, we board a contemporary version of this vessel, equipped with comfortable seats and a deck offering panoramic views. Our mini-cruise takes us past the 18th-century Villa Widmann where composer Stravinsky once stayed, as well as various villages, swing bridges and several locks. We disembark in Dolo, where our coach awaits. During our journey, we see the grandiose Villa Pisani, the Doge’s palace fronted by mighty sculptures. Soon we arrive in Padova, a dynamic city which deserves to be recognised for more than its remarkable university, founded in 1222 and Italy’s second oldest. Explore the fine piazzas of the historic centre and be amazed by the diverse architectural styles: the Baptistry of the Duomo contains one of the country’s most complete medieval fresco cycles; the Renaissance Loggia della Gran Guardia once housed the Council of Nobles; and bustling Caffè Pedrocchi, ever-popular with students and intellectuals, was built to resemble a Classical temple. Particularly outstanding is the exotic Basilica di Sant’Antonio, one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Italy. Beneath its distinctive Byzantine domes rests the tomb of Padova’s patron saint. Another unmissable jewel is the extraordinary Cappella degli Scrovegni. The chapel’s interiors are entirely covered with Giotto’s lyrical frescoes, which greatly influenced the development of European art. On the same site is a major museum complex which occupies a group of 14th-century monastic buildings attached to the church of the Eremitani, a reclusive Augustinian order.
Today we head southwest to Vicenza, situated at the northern base of the cypress-clad Monte Berico astride the Bacchiglione river. This spectacularly sophisticated city is wonderfully cosmopolitan yet doubles as an open-air museum dedicated to the legacy of Palladio, a miller’s son who became the most prominent architect of the Italian High Renaissance and gave rise to the Classical style of Palladianism. The local gentry, eager to decorate their city with grand new buildings, gave him plenty of opportunities to realise his vision; as a result, many of central Vicenza’s streets are graced by a Palladian mansion. We’ll see many of these on our guided tour this morning through the historic centre. At the heart of Vicenza is the Piazza dei Signori, dominated by the Basilica with its marvellous clock tower and distinctive, green roof surrounded by statues of Greek and Roman gods. Not a church but a remodelling of a Gothic courthouse, the basilica’s most notable feature is the loggia, one of the earliest examples of the Palladian window. Nearby is the renowned Teatro Olimpico, Europe’s oldest surviving indoor theatre, seemingly constructed from marble but upon closer inspection, you’ll discover masterfully painted wood and plaster. Its atmospheric auditorium is simply stunning, intended to resemble the outdoor theatres of ancient Greece and Rome. This astounding landmark, together with the Palladian Villas of the Veneto in the surrounding area, is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is time to explore these wonderful sights this afternoon should you wish. You will receive a complimentary museum card, granting free entry to the city’s various world-class attractions.
Our journey today takes us west and back in time to the sleepy yet achingly beautiful Mantova, a medieval city often overlooked despite its proximity to Lake Garda. Perhaps the answer lies in the three surrounding lakes, forming a natural fortification and keeping Mantova a secret from the world, one which has remained virtually untouched for centuries. As the dramatic skyline of ancient towers, domes and cupolas comes into view, it’s easy to see why the city features in two well-loved tragedies: it is the setting for Verdi’s Rigoletto and Shakespeare had an impassioned Romeo exiled here. During our guided tour of the old town, the reasons for its UNESCO World Heritage status become strikingly evident. Although compact in size, Mantova has more than its share of artistic, cultural and architectural treasures. The city reached its zenith in the 14th century when it came under Gonzaga rule, one of the greatest Renaissance families of Italy. Their home was the sumptuous Palazzo Ducale, a highlight of the city and once Europe’s largest palace with around 500 rooms, extravagantly decorated with glorious works of art. Wander the cobbled streets and relax in the lovely squares, where locals and visitors alike meet for a coffee. Perhaps take a cruise on the river Mincio and admire the city from a different perspective. This afternoon, we visit the 148-acre Sigurtà Garden Park and see some of the world’s most extraordinary gardens. Originally used for agriculture, the park is now home to beautiful tulips, roses, lilies, irises and more. See the Italian interpretation of a romantic English garden with its neo-Gothic temple and rustic grotto. Throughout the park are 18 ornamental ponds and lakes, as well as a medicinal herb garden and even an award-winning maze.
After breakfast, we visit the enchanting town of Bassano del Grappa, nestled serenely in the foothills of Monte Grappa from which the river Brenta flows free. Connecting the halves of the town is the wooden Ponte degli Alpini bridge, cleverly designed to withstand the meltwaters in spring. Have your camera at the ready to capture the picture-postcard panoramas: the crystal-clear waters reflect the Alpine mountains and pastel hues of the historic buildings. Wander the lively town at an unhurried pace and observe the locals doing their shopping or even attempting to catch some fish along the river! Bassano is known for its superb glazed earthenware, but perhaps more so for the Italian after-dinner drink, grappa, which you’ll have the opportunity to taste on our guided visit to a local artisan distillery museum. Here, you’ll experience this fragrant, grape-based brandy with all five of your senses: listen to the story of how it’s made, observe the fascinating distillation process, feel the fresh pomace with your own hands, and even smell the different varieties. Of course, you’ll also taste a few varieties of this warming digestif. You may wish to have lunch at one of the town’s many excellent restaurants or sample the local specialities before we continue to Valdobbiadene, one of the most prestigious Prosecco-producing areas in the heart of the Treviso region. Here, we visit the prestigious wine producer, Villa Sandi, set in a vast valley protected from nearby mountains by rolling, sun-kissed hills. This fortunate position and the naturally endowed soil provide the optimum conditions for cultivating some of the finest grapes. Snaking below the palatial 17th-century villa is a centuries-old network of tunnels, used covertly by the Italian army during World War I and today provides the perfect environment for aging wine. We tour these underground cellars, home to a million bottles of wine including some of the best Prosecco, which we sample afterwards. Our guide then takes us through the villa, its spacious rooms a luxurious combination of pastel colours, stuccoes and bas-reliefs, dominated by resplendent Murano glass chandeliers. It’s easy to imagine a time when important figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte once wined and dined here.
Today at the appropriate time, you will be taken to the airport for your return flight, after a most fascinating tour.
Perfectly positioned just opposite the walled historic centre of Castelfranco Veneto and the lively market square, the four-star Albergo Roma offers marvellous views of the medieval ramparts and impressive tower. Completely refurbished in 2016, the superb hotel has comfortable rooms with everything you’d expect from a hotel of this standard. A hearty breakfast buffet and panoramic views await you every morning in the bright and airy restaurant on the top floor, which also serves delicious dishes at dinner.
Please note the use of air-conditioning in hotels in Italy is at the hotel’s discretion and is normally restricted to the summer months (mid-May to mid-September), depending on the temperature.