Between the Queen of the Seas, Venice, and the crown of the majestic Dolomites, lies the Venetian plain, crossed by rivers that flow from the mountains to the lagoon, dotted with gentle and verdant hills, combed by some gentle goddess, rows of vines and olive tree chess-boards like the texture of precious fabric. Stato da Tera, the land-state in opposition to the Stato da Mar the sea-state, went from Friuli Venezia Giulia to the gates of Milan, and was for the Dominante the place of agricultural and artisanal production, fundamental for the city and its trades.
The entrepreneurial and artisan spirit of these lands remained alive well after the fall of the Venetian Republic, as if, it was now part of the DNA of the people who inhabit these places. Centuries of industry and commerce have given incredible prosperity to the towns and cities of the Veneto, which retain refined historic centers, often overlooked by fast visitors to Venice. Medium and small in size, the Venetian towns are full of art and atmosphere, sometimes gently lying on the hills, crossed by rivers, very often they preserve perfect walls and towers that recall their tumultuous medieval past, Guelphs and Ghibellines’ feuds, conflicts officially ended with the extension of the Venetian dominion on the hinterland, but which still today finds its way in the goliardic spirit of local sports competitions.
A precious pearl of this necklace of towns is the elegant Bassano del Grappa, almost suspended over the Brenta river, a wonderful pontoon wooden bridge that crosses it, extraordinary work of Andrea Palladio. The Ponte Vecchio, symbol of the town and often called Ponte di Bassano or degli Alpini, is an ingenious solution to the river’s autumn floods, called brentane, which, over the centuries, destroyed many times the previous bridges, practically every 25 or 30 years. Called to solve the problem, in 1569 the brilliant Palladio designs a tall, slender and all-wooden bridge, a material apparently much more fragile than solid stone, with which the previous bridges were built, but way more flexible and able to better resist the force of Brenta’s waters. The choice will prove to be the right one: the floods in the next centuries will only be able to damage the bridge but not destroy it. Only a really exceptional flood in 1748 and the wars will be able to bring it down: Napoleon, who nonetheless must have appreciated the town as he spent in Bassano almost six months in his first Italian campaign, will set the bridge on fire in 1813, while the Nazis will blow it up on April 29, 1945 in their sudden flight to the north.
The Ponte Vecchio has always been rebuilt according to Palladio’s design: these days the bridge’s ultimate restoration has brought it back to its original splendor, a work lasted over three years. From the bridge, you can enjoy wonderful views of the Prealps and the majestic Monte Grappa massif, and the river that mostly flows placidly and gives a nice coolness in the hot summers: it is tradition for the Bassanesi to have an aperitif standing on the deck, with the mezzo-e-mezzo, the aperitif of Nardini, the oldest grappa distillery in Italy, founded in 1779 and based right here, on the eastern gangway’s entrance, a symbol of the city as much as its bridge.
From the bridge, elegant cobbled streets and short stairways lead up to the piazze of the historic center: Piazzotto Montevecchio is the oldest and medieval one with the ancient pawnshop and the frescoed facades, Piazza Libertà, large and airy with its arcades and finally, Piazza Garibaldi with the Romanesque church of San Francesco, the high civic tower and the beautiful Renaissance fountain.
In the squares, there is an open-air market, twice a week, on Thursday and Saturday mornings: elegant ladies with straw bags gather among fruit and vegetables, fish and cheese stalls to shop for the freshest ingredients, to chat but also to buy that Dolomite cashmere sweater that comes at an incredible price. Thursday is also, traditionally, the day of buying bacalà, already re-hydrated, to be cooked "Vicenza-style" for three hours and served on Friday, with the inevitable polenta.
In Bassano del Grappa, the Bottega del Baccalà di Concato opened in 1935 and still resisting, is a unique example of this type of shop which is almost disappeared in the whole region, dedicated exclusively to selling stockfish, dry or re-hydrated and ready to use, the basic ingredient of one of the fundamental dishes of the Venetian culinary tradition, despite the product itself (northern cod left to dry in the fresh open air) has nothing to do with the Veneto nor the Adriatic sea, but actually comes from the distant Norwegian coasts. The discovery for Venetians of stockfish dates back to 1432 and the unfortunate shipwreck of a Venetian ship in Lofoten: since then the friendship with Norway and the elevation of bacalà to one of the region’s signature dishes is an indisputable fact.
A delicacy that can be tasted in the nearby delightful Ristorante Birraria Da Ottone, practically everything unchanged since 1870, the same family running it (and we are in the fifth generation) and the charm of yesteryear intact. In 1865 the master brewer Otto Wipflinger arrived from Austria and began to offer fresh and tasty Austrian and Bohemian beers served along with typical recipes such as goulash with potatoes and black rye bread. This Austro-Hungarian traditional dish has remained on the menu and is an unmissable winter delicacy for every Bassanese, as well as for the occasional visitors who stop in Bassano returning from the Dolomites.
Sophisticated boutiques with uber-chic and independent brands, delightful of-other-times-looking shops, selling legumes by weight taken directly from the jute sack, dried porcini and locally produced honey, overlook the piazze and cobbled streets of the historic center. And not to be missed cafes with beautiful outdoor terraces and restaurants, each with its own specialty. In via Jacopo da Ponte, which recalls the Renaissance painter of saints, peasants and dogs and whose works are preserved in the local museum, we find Palazzo Roberti, the same building that hosted Napoleon over two centuries ago, now home to the most beautiful bookshop in Italy. Three floors of bright rooms furnished with walnut wood shelves, 60,000 volumes, a conference room with a 17th century frescoed ceiling and walls, a poetic garden: you can indulge in the pleasure of buying books with all the slowness necessary to browse through them, read a few paragraphs and decide whether they appeal to you.
And now is the aperitif time again: people of all ages seat side by side, the ciacole (chit-chat) of the day, a lively and relaxed atmosphere, a good glass of wine or a spritz accompanied by delicious cicchetti as the sun sets to the west: the people of Bassano are good drinkers and kind guests, it is very easy to be enchanted and not want to leave. Ask Ernest Hemingway, "old Veneto boy", who arrived here at nineteen to drive ambulances for the American Red Cross during World War I and here nostalgically returned throughout his adult life, to the most painful and poignant memories so much to write in Across the River and Among the Trees: “I’d like to be buried out there, the long stretch of the Brenta, where the great villas were, with their lawns and their gardens and the plane trees and the cypresses. I’d like to be buried way out at the edge of the grounds, but in sight of the old graceful house and the tall, great trees […]”. Villa Cà Erizzo Luca is still there, the gentle lawn lined with plane trees and cypresses, an invitation to slow down and enjoy the small joys of slow provincial life.