ITALIANS regard their villas with a passion they reserve for risotto, ice cream, espresso…and love. These beautiful old buildings dot the hillsides, imposing and stately, unchanging landmarks in an uncertain world.
'Sunlight dapples the glossy floors and changes the colour of external brick and quartz walls'
With Italy teetering from one financial crisis to another the landed aristocracy have their backs to the frescos of their Palladian villas. Their family piles are feeling their age and, like many guardians of grand homes in Britain, their euro-strapped owners are opening their treasures to mere mortals: tourists and trippers, brides and school kids.
The 3,000 stately homes of Veneto, a fertile region in Italy’s northeast, which encompasses Venice, Verona and Padua, are no exception. In fact, they are leading the trend, which means holidaymakers can now hobnob with nobility and sample La Dolce Vita.
With luck and good timing you will not only be able to revel in the architecture, sculptures, sumptuous Renaissance art, fresco and trompe l’oil, then wander in gardens awash with fountains and fishponds but also happen upon the counts and countesses who own these architectural gems.
Almost 150 villa owners have united in a bold initiative to throw open their creaking doors and ornate garden gates. Our group of inquisitive visitors was given the grand tour of Villa La Rotonda, Andrea Palladio’s masterpiece, by owner Nicolo Valmarana, impeccably but casually attired in pale blue cashmere sweater, who announced enigmatically: “In the Veneto water is nothing and blood is wine.”
He said his grandfather renovated this showy mansion surrounded by mint-sewn lawns, with views of fields, mountains and river, when it was in a scandalous state of decay and termites in the roof.
A 10 year programme has restored it to its former glory .”It is not cosy,” admits Valmaran, staring up at the huge dome. “But it’s a pleasure to have a wedding here with 700 guests. For me, the strength of the building is more than the decoration. The sun decorates the interior. Mother Nature is the best decorator.” He’s right. Sunlight dapples the glossy floors and changes the colour of external brick and quartz walls.
La Villa La Rotonda was once visited by Prince Charles while the “next door” neighbour, Villa Valmarana ai Nani played host to the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret.
This villa belongs to another strand of the Valmarana family. Countess Carolina joins us for coffee on her sun-drenched terrace “We moved here 10 years ago from Milan when my uncle died and there was no one to manage the house. I am based here 365 days of the year, but live downstairs with my husband and two teenage daughters.’’
Upstairs 30,000 visitors a year wonder at stunning frescoes by Giambattista and Giandomenico Tiepolo. She hosts 10 weddings a year and 30 dinners, trying to balance the ticket prices against government taxes and roof repairs. ‘It’s a full time job, eight hours a day. Not a penny goes into our pockets – all to the villa.’
The Countess, educated at the London School of Economics, says her husband, a bookbinder, was delighted to move to the villa. Her daughters may not be so keen to carry on the family business. “The elder asked me: ‘Mum, when you are dead, can I sell the villa?’ ”
A trip to Veneto is the chance to indulge in the food and drink of a region that produces Prosecco and Paduan ham, radiccio and risotto to die for. In Treviso, 20 minutes by train from Venice, we embraced the morning ritual of a spritz livener: Prosecco, soda water with a shot of Aperol (day-glow orange) or Campari (bright red). A steal at 2euros.
Two nights spent in Villa Corner della Regina, (www.villacorner.it) a XVI century hotel, convinced me I was born into the wrong era and the wrong class. I felt so at home mounting the red-carpeted stone staircase to my spacious suite, with views down the tree-lined drive. But a friend requested cosier accommodation when spooked by eyes of a portrait ‘following’ her.
We had a friendlier welcome from Count Passi di Prepsulo and his family – wife Barbara, mother Elisabetta, son Gian Luca and daughter Gaia, at their home, Villa Tiepolo Passi, which has a working farm and serves up gastronomic wonders: polenta, radicchio, quince, meats and cheeses prepared from age-old family recipes with their very own Prosecco from the young vineyard.
We ate in the renovated stables where Gaia told me: “I grew up here although my brother and I now live in Milan. I love it as a home, but to keep it we have to make it work – not as a museum but a place to keep alive and tell its story. It’s beautiful to share it with people.
"My father opened the house 10 years ago. He has a vision, but it’s my 91-year-old grandmother who is the power of this place.”
Note to aspiring countesses: Dashingly handsome son and heir Gian Luca, a fashion executive, is spoken for. Just days before our meeting Broadway actress and Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain was photographed with him on the red carpet and declared she was “very, very happy” with their romance.
As well as the post-Palladian villa, built in Venetian Baroque style in the early 17th century, there’s the carriage house and extensive grounds to explore – and a red-clay tennis court and spacious apartment overlooking the Piovensan River to enjoy. A 10 euro ticket will buy a guided tour and a glass of Prosecco. http://www.villatiepolopassi.it.
Our Veneto villa tour was sandwiched between stays in Verona and Venice, two unmissable cities.
It’s all the guidebooks drool about – and more. Kitsch, sublime, romantic, a fabulous floating city, cultured and maddeningly crowded. The most visited place is St Mark’s Square with its imposing Basilica and Doge’s Palace. San Marco is an expensive tourist trap with pricey restaurants and cafes, so wander off into the alleys for cheaper options, enjoy getting hopelessly lost, then follow signs for Rialto and the Grand Canal where vaporetti – public water buses – will transport you with crowds of Venetian commuters.
Ask any Venice addicts for their favourites and the Frari church with its magnificent Titian altarpiece will feature. One obsessed friend adores the “wonderfully kitsch tomb to the sculptor Canova featuring a weeping lion straight out of Disney”.
You can leave the tourist scrum in your wake with a leisurely vaporetto ride into the lagoon to the island of Torcello, hauntingly beautiful with an ancient cathedral boasting fabulous mosaics.
What entrances visitors are treasures you just chance upon – a Vivaldi concert in a church with spiral marble columns, an art show where the artist is happy to chat about his love affair with the city, a foray into the Jewish Ghetto where I sheltered from a rainstorm in a kosher café, along with a pigeon keen to keep dry.
VERONA (www.tourism.verona.it) The city immortalised in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is celebrating the centenary of operas performed in its 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheatre, the world’s largest opera stage with capacity for 15,000 spectators.
To mark the milestone this summer, Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo is the festival’s honorary artistic director as well as singing at gala nights.
For international opera-lovers there is no better backdrop than Verona, with its over-the-top productions, monumental scenery and lavish costumes. And then there’s the music, the atmosphere, the night sky, and the race for shelter in Piazza Bra if a circling storm breaks between acts and scatters musicians and spectators alike. The Arena di Verona Festival 2013 runs from June 14 to September 8 and features 58 performances of six different operas from Aida to Romeo and Juliet.
For more information on the Villas of Veneto visit: www.villevenete.net and www.veneto.to
Brightwater Holidays (01334 657155, www.brightwaterholidays.com) offer a Veneto Grand Villas tour from £695, staying in double room at 4 star hotel in Padua. September 3-7 2013, 4 nights’ bed and breakfast in a double room inc. flights, transfers and services of a tour manager with visits to the gardens of Villa Barbarigo, Orto Botanico di Padova (Padua Botanic Garden), Giardino Giusti, Villa Rizzardi Pojega, Villa Emo, Villa Barbaro, Villa Pisani and the private garden Le Paradis des Papillons.
British Airways and budget airlines fly from many UK airports to Venice and Verona.
Kirker Holidays (020 7593 2288, www.kirkerholidays.com) specialise in cultural tours. 3 nights at Villa Michelangelo near Vicenza from £518 pp/low season – 3 nights from £639 pp/high season. Special offer: 3 nights for the price of 2 (August 1-29); 4 nights for the price of 3 (until July 31 and August 30 onwards), sharing standard double room, including breakfast, flights and car hire.
Other companies featuring Ville Venete are ACE www.aceculturaltours.co.uk; Inntravel www.inntravel.co.uk; Martin Randall www.martinrandall.com; STG www.stg-travel-group.co.uk; Winetrails http://www.winetrails.co.uk.
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