The landscape of the Veneto is one of contrasts. The fertile plain on the immediate hinterland of Venice, criss-crossed by causeways and dykes, became the summer playground of rich Venetian patricians as their agricultural holdings sprouted ever increasing numbers of luxurious villas. Many were accessed directly from the Grand Canal through a diversion of the River Brenta.
Further inland and southwest from Padua, the landscape is transformed by the Euganean Hills: tree-clad conical eruptions of volcanic rock, which have been quarried for stone for the calli and campi of Venice since the 6th century. In contrast, to the north, the snow-capped mountains of the southern limestone Alps form a jagged backdrop to the salvia-rich meadows that adorn roadsides and villages, while wisteria, roses and irises scramble through the gardens of the many villas peppered through the countryside.
This varied topography defined the development of the villas and gardens that were created between the 15th and 18th centuries with the enormous wealth generated by the Republic of Venice. In the plains, villas were elevated from the landscape to enlarge the impact of the building on the surroundings and to provide viewing platforms, galleries and balconies to allow gardens to be seen from above. Windows, allées and strategically placed statues were artfully arranged to heighten the effect and lend a grandeur to the setting that the level landscape militated against.
Gardens were made largely for enjoyment and entertainment – mazes, loggias, carved gods, dwarfs and Arcadian figures along with theatres and water jokes were all part of the spirit of the time. It was not all pleasure-seeking, however. Venice was at the forefront of trade with the East, and along with precious commodities came new plants. To capitalise on this increase in knowledge and diversity, the Botanic Garden of Padua was founded in 1545 – the first of its kind – to study plants and herbs and their medicinal potential. This ethos of discovery and experiment is still the driving force for this UNESCO World Heritage Site, evidenced by the impressive new glasshouses.
Stra. Fly at c. 1.30pm from London Gatwick to Venice (British Airways). Drive to the Villa Pisani at Stra, one of the most opulent of the Brenta villas, owned briefly by Napoleon. Within a bend in the Brenta canal, the garden was inspired by Le Notre’s long vistas at Versailles where Andrea Pisani Alvise had been ambassador to Louis XIV. First of three nights in an elegant villa on the Brenta Canal at Mira Porte.
Vescovana, Rivella, Valsanzibio. Today we visit two flower-filled gardens. In contrast to Stra, the Villa Pisani at Vescovana is a more modest affair, with an English-inspired Romantic garden of the 19th century. The garden designed around the 16th-century Villa Emo at Rivella was created in the 1960s. Villa Barbarigo at Valsanzibio is a Baroque masterpiece complete with water jests, boxwood maze and extensive pools, designed as an allegory of man’s progress towards salvation.
Padua. Spend the morning at the beautiful, fascinating and historic Botanic Garden at Padua. The oldest such establishment in the world, it was founded in 1545 by order of the Venetian government (it was absorbed by the university shortly after). The oldest living plant dates to 1550. In the afternoon, there is a choice of spending time in this gem of a city or of returning to rest in the hotel and its gardens.
Fracanzan Pievone, Frassanelle, Costozza. Three private gardens. Villa Fracanzan Pievone maintains a traditional orchard and kitchen garden, among the few left in the Veneto. The charming artificial caves excavated under the Villa Frassanelle in the 1880s by Count Alberto Papafava replicate the natural caves within his park, complete with secret passageways, stalactites and underground lakes. The final visit is to the Baroque gardens of the Villa da Schio at Costozza, where we also visit the winery and sample the wines of the estate. Drive to Vicenza for the first of three nights here.
Trissino, Castelgomberto. Through a series of terraces, walks and panoramic belvederes, the gardens of Trissino Marzotto link two villas set into a hillside dominating the Agno valley. The upper villa was converted from a medieval fortress, while the lower is now a romantic ruin. The private garden of Villa da Schio is a beautifully proportioned Italian garden set in the plain below Trissino. Free afternoon in Vicenza, the exceedingly handsome little city embellished by the architect Andrea Palladio and his followers.
Negrar, Verona. The Pojega Garden at Villa Rizzardi, commissioned in 1783, is one of the last remaining examples of an Italian-style garden created before the fashion for landscape gardens took hold. Incorporating three descending terraces, it takes full advantage of the steep hillside with formal gardens, hornbeam avenues and a green theatre. Continue to Verona to see the Giardino Giusti. Created in 1580, it are among the finest Renaissance gardens in Europe.
Grezzana. Visit Villa Arvedi, whose impressive parterre was designed to be viewed from above, followed by lunch in the Baroque grotto. Return to Venice airport for the flight to London City, arriving c. 2.30pm.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,610 or £2,460 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,990 or £2,840 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus A319); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts; 2 lunches and 4 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions and 1 wine tasting; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer.
Hotel Villa Franceschi, Mira Porte: 5-star hotel in a 16th-century villa in the centre of Mira Porte. Hotel Campo Marzio, Vicenza: just outside a city gate of Vicenza, this 4-star hotel is well located and comfortable, with decent-sized rooms. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
There is quite a lot of walking, much of it on rough, uneven ground in the gardens. Sometime sites require the coach to park c. 1 mile away. The tour would not be suitable for anyone who has difficulties with everyday walking and stair climbing. Average distance by coach per day: 69 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.