Only about an hour from Venice, Bassano del Grappa is a modern city with the vibes of a small, well-off town blessed with the visual and historical charm of a medieval hamlet surrounded by astounding mountains. Set at the foot of the Pre-Alps and washed by the rapid waters of the Brenta river, Bassano has seen quite a few things in its life. War, for one. Its iconic Ponte Vecchio – the show-stopping wooden bridge designed by Palladio in 1569 and now branded Ponte degli Alpini – is one of the signposts and key cyphers of the fights that have been fought here during the World Wars. Recently restored and brought to its old splendour, it connects the High and Low parts of the city while also acting as its symbolic, beating heart.
The high standard of living of the bassanesi is apparent not just in their put-togetherness, but also in the concentration of quality eateries, bars and restaurants, as well as independent shops they have access to. These, combined with the eye pleasing architecture and striking panoramas, make Bassano the perfect destination for a short getaway.
I arrived on a late morning train from Venice. I never knew how easy it was to reach Bassano this way…A little over an hour and I’m there, fresh and ready to explore.
The walk from the train station to the edges of the Old Town couldn’t be swifter. A few steps and I’m welcomed by the city walls. As with many other Italian cities of this build and age, you know that trespassing one of the gates will let you into a small world of stone-paved streets and other surprises.
Passing by a series of chic homeware stores, I catch sight of the imposing Palazzo Roberti, now a book shop. I step in to take note of the many reasons why I was told this is one of the most beautiful bookshops in Europe: the main room, with high-beamed ceilings, opens through tall French doors to a back garden with statues. Imposing staircases on either side lead you to more books and, eventually, to the piano nobile, where new book releases are presented under vaults frescoed by Gianbattista Tiepolo. I snatch a copy of Calvino’s Le Città Invisibili for my train ride back before exiting to the blinding lights of an early June midday sun.
Continuing on, I soon reach the first of many beautiful squares, Piazza Garibaldi, which hosts the Museo Civico and the Chiesa di San Francesco to my left, and a sequence of frescoed palazzi towered by the Torre Civica to the right. On a summery late Sunday morning, the shaded outdoor tables of the many cafés are occupied with a mix of late breakfasters, coffee-fixers and pre-lunch aperitivo sippers. The atmosphere is buzzy, vivacious, and family-friendly, with children and dogs running around the central Fontana Bonaguro for fun and freshness.
A second piazza quickly follows, Piazza Libertà. It strikes me as giving off younger vibes, and because I fancy myself young at heart despite my advancing age, I opt for a seat at Leone Bar, which, strategically positioned at the far corner of the square, affords perspective and prime people watching. The couple next to me clinks two squat tumblers holding what appears to be a Negroni. Instead, I ask for the house special, the Leone – from its inventor, Leone Miotti – a live red drink with bittersweet accents and a low alcohol content, perfect to refresh and summon some proper hunger. As I sip, I take notice of another leone – that of St Mark’s, symbol of La Serenissima – which sits atop a tall column that towers over the opposite side of the piazza. For a second I wonder if there’s any connection there, but I’m immediately distracted by the thought of lunch.
Ottone is a retro-style, family-run traditional restaurant with cream-coloured wainscoting, dim sconces and vintage accents. In season, their white asparagus dishes have become cult, but alas, the season is over, so I opt for some baccalà alla vicentina, though I would have also gone for their bigoli with duck ragù were the weather less sultry. At this time, they also have a handful of al fresco tables scenically set under the porches lining both sides of the street, but I treasure my Liberty-style corner table and the breeze hailing from the ceiling fans. By the end, I refuse the digestive – grappa, of course – inhale a doppio espresso, and I’m off again.
Resolute about finally taking a peak at the iconic Old Bridge, I walk up via Matteotti, lined with eye-catching indie clothes shops, before descending along buzzy Via Gamba. A few more steps and I can hear the waters of the Brenta river rushing under my feet, and the Old Bridge opening up in front of me, its dark red frame and roofed top somewhat reminiscent of some Nordic architecture. At close to 3pm the bridge is alive with people taking in the view, snapping souvenir photos and sipping a drink. I rest on the balustrade for a short while and breathe what seems to be the cleanest air, blowing in from the mountains. The view is movingly beautiful, complex, full of contrasting, eye-catching details.
I pick up my pace and walk past the Museo degli Alpini – a must-stop if you’re into war memorabilia – and head towards what I know to be the best gelateria in town, La Fonderia, for a cone to go. The Bassano that sits “on the other side of the bridge” feels quainter and green. There are many scenic walks along the right side of Brenta, one of which, Strada Fontanelle, will eventually lead to the spectacular Palladian Villa Angarano. If you’re not feeling like a long, steep hike, however, even just a walk along the river path will have you stumble upon some pretty beaches for a short rest under a willow tree. I cherish the vista of the beautiful palazzi lining the other side of the river for a little longer before heading back towards the centre for a sip of something.
No one ever comes to Bassano without having a drink at Grapperia Nardini, and who am I to disobey this unwritten rule? Established in 1779, Nardini is Italy’s first distillery. Other than a wide range of grappa, it also produces liqueurs, spirits, aperitifs, and bitters, which you can buy and take home or sample on the spot. Amongst many, the Mezzo and Mezzo remains their iconic pre-meal drink. Bittersweet and slightly citrus-scented, it sets the tone for a pleasant night ahead. I order one and walk out to join the small crowd of visitors and locals mingling along the bridge. The sun is going down and casts a warm light on the facades of the buildings. Temperatures are slowly becoming more comfortable, and with a cold drink in hand, I can sense that I’m building up an appetite.
Two Old-Bridge dining options here: a laid-back pizza dinner at the excellent Fabbrica della Pizza, or a more involved dining experience at Impronta, the gourmet, experimental-cuisine alternative in town. Choose based on your fancy, appetite, patience, curiosity, and definitely, most definitely, outfit.
I’m never one for just one cup of coffee in the morning, so after I have my first breakfast upon awakening, I head to Colazione in Bottega for a second caffeine hit and a cornetto for good measure. This is where you’ll find a few more breakfast options other than pastries to start your day: sandwiches, omelettes and juices are all dished out in this Nordic-looking institution. As I sip, I make a master plan of the day, which I’ll dedicate to some shopping and some more strolling and perusing. The weather is looking stormy in the afternoon, which might make some museum-hopping an appealing option.
For shopping, my list includes:
Clothes and accessories from Wooden
Pastries (especially the merengue with fresh cream, a specialty) from Dolce Bassano
Baccalà from Bottega del Baccalà – one of the few shops in the region dedicated solely to all-things cod and stockfish, a key ingredient in Venetian cuisine
Stationary from Stamperia Tassotti
Bread and focaccia – and the iconic pizzetta – from Bottega del Pane Beltrame
Off I go.
By the time I check them all out it’s well past noon and I’m getting peckish, but a visit to the XII-century fortress Castello degli Ezzelini is in order before lunch. The enclosed courtyard is dominated by the Bolzonella Tower under which I find refuge while I read the signs and plaques. The castle is currently used as an event venue and an open-air theatre, most notably for the summer festival OperaEstate.
A pleasant stride along the tree-lined viale dei Martiri follows, until I get to Garage Nardini, the new spot opened by the brand just outside the city walls.
Airy, bright, with a high-ceiling luminous inner courtyard lined with poufs and industrial-style tables, plus an upstairs dining area with oak, leather and powder-blue accents, this eatery-cum-cocktail bar attracts younger crowds at all times of day, no matter whether hungry, thirsty or both. The atmosphere is quintessentially millennial, with a mix of aesthetically pleasing and laid back. From the food menu, bar options such as fritti, sandwiches and salads sit alongside Venetian-inspired cicchetti. I crave greens and find them. From their nourished list of cocktails, I see some non-alcoholic options and almost feel sheepish choosing one, but eventually order a refreshing Memento with no regrets.
Rain meets me as I exit. So, I rewrite part of the program to visit the Grappa Poli Museum and the Ceramic Museum of Palazzo Sturm – grappa and ceramics being two clear interests of mine – though Museo Hemingway or the Museo Civico are also good options for history and art. At Poli, the experience of passing underneath the tall gate framed by some massive copper pipes is already part of the charm. I opt for the visit with a tasting of 5 products and as I stroll through the five rooms staged with old distillers and alembic stills, I learn about the craft and history of this much-loved product now produced and consumed well outside its native town.
At Palazzo Sturm, among antique, hand-painted ceramics and etchings, I relive the shiny heritage Bassano had in these two crafts until very recently. The many flowery, lace-like pots and plates catch my eye and make me wonder whether my own collection of plates and cups is a bit too minimal and could use some more frills for a change. On the terrace, dominated by a big metal rhino shining in the sun, the views are just breath-taking, with the storm clouds moving away towards Monte Grappa, and the sky regaining its summery shade of blue.
For a pre-dinner drink, I go to Officina. The young crowd of bartenders is warm and chatty and walk me through their interesting selection of wines by the glass, many featuring small producers and labels hailing from far-flung regions, and their inviting range of crostini. A glass of crisp Sauvignon and a small toast with raw shrimp, burrata and pesto arrive at my table while I’m busy looking at the colourful collection of vintage phones decorating the walls.
For dinner, I return to Ottone for a bowl of the bigoli I didn’t have the day before, though, having had the energy to walk back to the other side of the river, I would have certainly hit the fun-looking Teochef, where their barbecued meats come highly recommended.
Lucky for me, by the time I finish dinner I’m only a few steps away from a premium nightcap experience at Palazzo delle Misture. There, taking a seat at the bar of what looks like the most stunning, Belle Epoque style palazzo in town, I get right into the early-century atmosphere and I’m met by Gianluca Camazzola, the owner and mixologist extraordinaire, whose wealth of knowledge spans from the history of absinth to the name of bartenders who worked in New Orleans through the last century. You don’t drink cocktails here, but misture – the Italian for mixed drinks – and you choose them from a nourished menu filled with details, anecdotes and trivia on how the drinks came to be and why they made it on the list. I am offered a new entry, the Timo Rosso, made with Sardinian Vermouth and garnished with a sprig of thyme. Perfectly refreshing and bitter enough to quench my thirst, it’s the best way to wave goodbye to this perfect weekend in this utmost perfect town.
Until next time.
I was blessed with the hospitality of a dear friend who is a local to the city. To feel equally at home, sleep like a baby, and enjoy the warmth of a family-style hospitality, look no further than Le 33, just by Palazzo Sturm.