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3 Idylls in Italy's Lake District

In literary footsteps through northern hill towns

May 12, 1996|LUREE MILLER

ASOLO, Italy — Forget Florence, disregard Rome, ignore Milan. When serenity is required, head for the glorious landscapes and small towns of northern Italy.

I have often dreamed of whiling away my golden years in a picturesque, honey-colored village on a cypress-studded hill. When I discovered that three English literary women had lived my fantasy of a leisurely later life in the warmth of Italy, I was eager to see the towns they had retired to.

The three well-traveled writers who inspired my itinerary were Lady Mary Montagu, the famous letter-writer and intrepid traveler of the 18th century; Mary Shelley, 19th-century author of "Frankenstein" and wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley; and Freya Stark, 20th-century explorer and author. Their writings were eloquent testimony over three centuries to the enduring romantic attraction of Italy.

From their letters and books, I planned a 10-day, 375-mile ramble from the hill town of Asolo, near Venice, to Lake Maggiore, northwest of Milan. Still, I was worried when I set out with three old friends to scout the sites these women had loved. Had Italy's rapid industrialization snuffed out some of the charm?

Dame Freya Stark's inspired adventures throughout the Middle East and elegant prose won her a devoted following. Her travel classics, such as "The Valley of the Assassins" and "Dust in the Lion's Paw," are still in print, and in my book bag I carry a little volume of her selected travel essays, "The Journey's Echo."

As a young woman, Stark inherited a charming house in Asolo, a romantic hill town about 35 miles north of Venice. She was so enchanted with the town that she made it her home until she died in 1993 at the age of 100.

From Asolo, Stark planned her solo journeys, then returned there to write about them. Our own modest journey took us north from Florence. Zipping along the autostrada, we skirted Bologna and were past Padova by lunchtime. Our stop at an Autogrill on the autostrada confirmed my memory of the excellence and variety of inexpensive Italian cuisine.

Romantic Stark had lamented the intrusion of modernity and industrialization in her corner of Italy. In the 1960s, when she was in her 80s, she noted that only 40 years earlier there were "people clip-clopping on wooden sabots by quiet dusty roadsides where girls could stroll with their knitting and graze their sheep in the ditches." I tried to imagine this pastoral scene as we drove through heavy traffic and pervasive smog.

Finally, we saw ahead an outline of hills rising from the plain. Perched on top of one was Asolo, once a pseudo-kingdom given in 1489 to Queen Caterina Cornaro of Cyprus by Venice in exchange for her island domain.

In low gear, we climbed past olive groves and vineyards, then drove through Asolo's city gate, which flanks Stark's former home on one side and poet Robert Browning's house on the other. Early-evening strollers were settling into outdoor cafes around the cobblestone square. Children eating ice cream romped around the central fountain and dipped their hands in water spouting from a granite column topped by Venice's chimerical winged lion.

We found a table and sipped aperitifs as the sun set. Bells rang in the church tower. The soft air caressed us. I felt I could sit there forever.

But there was no place to stay in Asolo. The elegant Villa Cipriani, where Stark ate every day in her happy old age, was booked months ahead. The small, shabbily genteel Hotel Duse on the piazza was full too--and probably would soon close for good, the desk clerk said sadly. He sent us back down the hill to the modern Hotel Europa, a square concrete building with a skyward-sweeping portico roof.It was not the homey hotel I had hoped for.

Looks can deceive, however. The proprietors greeted us with that special Italian hospitality that makes travel in rural Italy such a joy. We asked them about contacting Stark's devoted secretary, Caroly Piaser, who'd looked after the writer in her old age. Could she still be around, we wondered? They would know at the nearby Villa di Maser, we were told.

*

The Villa di Maser was designed by Palladio, the great 16th century architect. Palladian villas abound in the Asolo area, and all are sublime, but this is perhaps the most exquisite example of Palladio's work. We visited the following morning.

At the side gate we were greeted by manager Valeria Maggione, an elegant elderly woman accompanied by about 30 very large dogs. Pushing through the pack, she unlocked the great iron gate and let us in.

As we followed her across the gravel courtyard, the dogs milled about us--a bit unsettling, but they were appropriate guardians for this villa. We settled in the book-lined sitting room, where Maggione told us that of course she knew Stark, and her mother, and her secretary, Caroly Piaser. Stark was in the Middle East and England during World War II, and her mother was imprisoned by the Fascists.

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