ASOLO, Italy — It is impossible to refrain from catching your breath at the first sight of this golden city, straight out of Boccaccio's tales.
This is a lovers' paradise, a medieval hideaway on a hillside overlooking the Venetian plain.
Just an hour's drive north of Venice, it is so small and reclusive that signs leading out of Bassano del Grappa, the largest town in the vicinity, make no mention of it, even though it is a scant eight miles away.
For centuries the Venetian aristocracy favored this tiny village as a refuge from the oppressive summer heat and foul-smelling canals of Venice. They graced the tranquil countryside with impressive estates that rested under chestnut trees and grape arbors, making the area a haven for the rich and indolent.
After much confusion we were told to follow the signs to Trento, where there would be a sign pointing to Asolo. Once in Trento it was easy to find the road, leading past grazing sheep, vineyards and an occasional sun-toasted, sleepy villa.
Once we passed the 14th-Century church of San Gottardo on Via Foresto Nuovo, there was a short climb and we were here. Via Browning (named after English poet Robert Browning, who spent the last years of his life in Asolo), with its quaint porticoes, leads to the central Piazza Maggiore.
A 16th-Century fountain splashes in the center, but a faded fresco painted by Antonio Contarini in 1560 on the outside of the Loggia del Capitano catches the most attention, hinting at the history within the walls of the city.
Once an insignificant backwater of the Venetian Republic, Asolo gained importance in 1489 when it became the glittering court of the exiled Queen of Cyprus, Caterina Cornaro.
A Venetian-born beauty from a noble family, Caterina was pawned in marriage to the King of Cyprus in 1473 to ensure Venice's dominion over the island. Although widowed soon after the nuptials, Caterina held onto the throne of Cyprus.
During her reign Caterina became too friendly with the Cypriot enemy and was recalled home by the Venetians.
They cunningly staged an elaborate welcome for her on the Grand Canal and then, in the midst of the festivities, exiled her to Asolo. This celebration, known as the Historical Regatta, is still celebrated on the first Sunday of September.
Not one to remain sorrowful for long, Caterina gathered some of the brightest courtiers of the Renaissance around her and transformed Asolo into a cultural center.
Pietro Bembo, one of the most famous poets of the age, wrote a tribute to Caterina and loved Asolo so much that he settled here.
The precedent set by Caterina's 20-year reign lingered for centuries in Asolo, which continued to attract writers, artists and musicians.
Perhaps the most famous resident of Asolo in the 20th Century was Eleonora Duse, Italy's answer to Sarah Bernhardt. She made Asolo her home away from the stage and carried on a stormy affair with poet Gabriele D'Annunzio. Duse died in 1924 and is buried on a grassy hilltop here.
An Imposing Tower
To fully experience Asolo, meander down its twisting cobblestone streets, beginning with the Via Regina Cornaro. Picturesque shops selling antiques, jewelry and clothes by Italian designers line the street leading to the Queen's Castle. Once the castle housed 12 ladies in waiting and 90 servants, but all that remains is the imposing tower and receiving chamber.
Beyond the castle is the 17th-Century town hall, with its Gothic arcade. The sumptuous garden of the Villa Pasini, one of the last residences of Browning, is on Via Dante. At this point the street rises sharply to a Romanesque gate, the Porta del Colmarion. From there a steep path winds up to the Rocca, a pale, commanding fortress constructed during pre-Roman times.
Though the gates to the fortress are locked, a low stone wall surrounds it where it is possible to rest for a while and gaze out over the green hills. It is a peaceful spot; few tourists venture there because of the arduous climb.
We took along a picnic lunch of garlic and herb cheese, crackers and a bottle of Chianti from the town market at No. 153 Via Browning, once yet another home of Browning.
Back in town, take time to walk past the charming, salmon-pink, stucco home of Duse on Via Cavour.
Nearby, at Via Canova 298, is the Villa Cipriani, now a hotel that caters to a clientele seeking luxury and quiet. Double rooms range from $136 to $181 U.S. a night. The courtyard has a lovely view of the 17th-Century Villa dei Armeni and its palatial gardens.
For those seeking something less expensive, Hotel Duse in the Piazza Maggiore offers comfortable double rooms for $52 a night.
Ask for a room facing away from the square or you are likely to be awakened by the clanging bell in the tower, which chimes on the hour throughout the night. The bathrooms at the Hotel Duse feature double washbowls, bathtubs and huge, fleecy towels.
Drinks and Dinner