With its history of hype and its ready superlatives, there is something inherently unreliable about travel writing. How many times has the reality of a place been ruined for you by the words breathtaking, magnificent or spectacular? That is why I said nothing to my 26-year-old daughter Lily about our forthcoming long weekend in the Italian region of Veneto (which I knew only as a wide, industrial plain stretching from the Dolomites to the Adriatic) and why I read nothing about the Euganean or Berici hills, where we were to stay in two Renaissance villas available for rent through the Landmark Trust – a charity of which I’d never heard.
Our weekend began inauspiciously with me sitting at the wheel of the rental car for 30 minutes, trying to work out how to start the engine. Without Lily, who eventually realised that I had to put my foot on the clutch while pressing a button, I might still be sitting there. In my stubborn refusal to inform myself, I had no idea how to get to our first stop, so Lily typed the name of our destination, Villa dei Vescovi, into the sat nav and we set off into the night. By 9.30pm we were lost and hungry, so we stopped at an unprepossessing roadside pizzeria in a one-horse town called Selvazzano Dentro.
Here, in an overlit, Formica dining room presided over by a dour-looking pizzaiolo with bags under the bags under the bags under his eyes, we slowly began to feel the sensation of miraculous good fortune that so often comes with being in Italy. The beauty-pageant waitress explained that the red wine we’d ordered was from the Berici hills, the bigoli pasta was a speciality of Veneto, the smoked ham in my amatriciana sauce was reared locally and the radicchio in Lily’s risotto was grown just down the road.
When we’d finished our supper, I asked for directions. Encouraged by a taciturn nod from the now warm-hearted pizzaiolo, two middle-aged men stood up, calmly took their jackets from the backs of their chairs and invited us to follow them. As we chased their tail lights into the unlit country lanes, I imagined them in the lead vehicle having their serial killers’ dispute: “Ah come on, it’s my turn. You always get the daughter … ”
But then, up ahead, was a very grand building on top of a hill, ablaze with tasteful lighting. “That can’t be it, can it Mum? It’s a palace.” We drove in expectant silence until their car pulled up outside the building. “Si, si,” the men said, ushering us forwards, before shaking our hands and driving off, leaving us standing, agog, in front of a pair of enormous wrought-iron gates to which, for two nights, we were to keep the very large key.
Thanks to the Landmark Trust, that feeling of being unfeasibly lucky was only to increase. This British charity was set up in 1965 by Sir John Smith, a wealthy banker and a descendant of the 19th-century travel pioneer Thomas Cook. He conceived a model in which the historic buildings saved by the charity would become holiday homes rather than museums. Today there are 194 in three countries.
The exhilaration of staying in a place such as Villa dei Vescovi (a 16th-century palace added to the charity’s portfolio late last year) is difficult to describe. There’s the tendency to make sudden, Isadora Duncan-like leaps across the terrazzo floors, to sweep imperiously through the double doors as if you’re on the set of a BBC costume drama.
After Antonella the caretaker had showed us our impeccably decorated and rather luxurious apartment under the eaves (one of two, both sleeping four), she took us round the empty villa. Public visitors are allowed during the day, but the last had long since departed. We glided behind her through rooms thick with the opulent and busty frescoes of 16th-century Dutch painter, Lambert Sustris, trying hard to remain dignified (and not leap). Built between 1535 and 1542 as a summer residence for the Bishop of Padua, this early example of classical Renaissance architecture makes Palladio lovers go weak at the knees.
Although I would not go as far as Ruskin, who said of one of Palladio’s buildings (San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice) that it was “impossible to conceive a design more gross”, I must confess that I am not a Palladio fan. I prefer the gothic buildings that his cool rationalism sought to improve. Luckily for me, however, Veneto, cradle of Palladianism, is also rich in medieval and early Renaissance art and architecture. Padua, where Palladio was born, and Vicenza, where he made his reputation, are stuffed full of treasures and, between stops for coffee and frittelle allo zabaione (local doughnuts filled with cream), we gorged ourselves on medievalism all weekend.
We were particularly taken with Padua and felt that standing in the winter sunshine in the bustling Piazza della Frutta, contemplating its 12th-century Palazzo della Ragione, had been a high point. But the crowning experience for both of us had been to gaze, necks craned and limp-armed with awe, at Giotto’s fresco cycle in Padua’s Scrovegni Chapel.
We can also strongly recommend the fortified town of Este in the Euganean Hills. Despite its inability to hold Byron who, having taken a two-year lease on a villa here in 1817, kept rushing back to Venice for more sex, Este with its Saturday morning market is lovely. Montagnana, another medieval walled city, beguiled us for its apparent coolheadedness in the face of its own beauty. Vicenza on a Sunday morning in winter, the ubiquity of Palladio notwithstanding, charmed us both and we decided that we would try to return one autumn to see a play in Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico, with its extraordinary trompe l’oeil set, built in the 1580s and unaltered since.
Though Veneto is, indeed, pockmarked by industry, there is something strangely compelling about its flawed landscapes. Shelley, who began Prometheus Unbound in the house that was vacated by Byron, soon came to appreciate the “wide, flat plains of Lombardy” for their vast, shifting skies “in which we see the sun and moon rise and set, and the evening star, and all the golden magnificence of autumnal clouds”.
There can be something truly invigorating about being proven wrong and our arrival at Andrea Palladio’s Villa Saraceno at Finale, where we were to spend our last night, was one such occasion. I had not been in a hurry to reach the villa and we had dawdled in Vicenza, reaching Finale at sunset. This delay was my only regret of the weekend. The house has been so sensitively restored by Landmark that it feels as though the building is breathing the very same air it breathed in 1545 when the first stones were laid.
Indeed, Landmark prefers “repair” to “restore” and this nuance is easily discernible when you compare Villa Saraceno to Villa dei Vescovi. The latter (whose restoration was overseen not by Landmark but by Italy’s equivalent to the UK’s National Trust, the Fondo Ambiente Italiano) feels like your own little museum, while Saraceno – grand though it is – feels, for a fleeting moment, like your own house.
Knowing we had only one night, Lily and I chose carefully from the villa’s eight bedrooms. I settled upon a room on the upper floor of the casa vecchia, the original, 15th-century farm building that is attached to Palladio’s house by a 19th-century colonnaded barn. My room’s faded colours, lead-tin yellow and bone black, evoked the frugal palette of a Vermeer.
That evening, Lily and I stayed in. I built a fire in the sitting room and, as the orange light of evening filled the long windows, we settled down to read. We agreed that even with its 19ft ceilings and 6ft wide frieze of frescoes – depicting scenes from Virgil’s Aeneid complete with goddesses, imprisoned mortals and winged putti – Palladio had somehow managed to design a room that felt snug. Soon Lily had fallen asleep by the fire. In her lap lay a heavily marked copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, given to her recently by a thoughtful friend as a salve for her first broken love affair. I sat watching over her in the silence and the gathering darkness, stirred by memory, ours and that of the venerable house.
The two apartments in Villa dei Vescovi each sleep four and cost from £480 for three nights. Villa Saraceno sleeps up to 16 and costs from £769 for four nights. Holiday Autos offers three days’ car rental from Venice Marco Polo airport from £35