Monday, January 23, 2023

The Altopiano di Asiago: Autumn in the Eastern Alps

La Cala del Sasso (the Stone Stairway) is one of the most extraordinary structures in the European Alps. It is a sweeping trail of four thousand, four hundred and forty-four stone stairs that was built by the Venetians in the 14th century to get timber, mostly larch pines, out of the mountains and onto barges moored below at Valstagna, on the Brenta River. From here the timber was towed to the Arsenale, the dockyards of Venice, one hundred and twenty kilometres away, where they were used to satisfy La Serenissima's voracious need to build ships.

La Cala del Sasso is seven kilometres long, the longest publicly accessible stairway in the world. It starts at Sasso, a small village on the edge of the Altopiano di Asiago, a high plateau nestled in the Alps on the Austrian border. From here the stairway winds its way down through beech and larch forests to Valstagna, an ancient port of the Brenta River. The stairs are made of local limestone. They are shallow and deep. A wide gutter that descends beside the stairs was used to run the trunks down to the river. With the advent of rail and roads at the end of the 19th century, the Cala fell into disuse and disrepair it but has been rediscovered and restored in the last ten years, becoming a popular hiking trail. The saying goes that if you manage to walk all the way up the stairway holding your beloved's hand, you will never be separated.

The Plateau of Asiago was settled in the 11th century by German-speaking people from came across the mountains from Bavaria. They founded seven small settlements, forming a loose alliance known as the Seven Communes of Asiago in 1310. Although ruled by Venice, they were given a large degree of independence, as long as they protected the border and kept the timber flowing. The Altopiano lived in splendid isolation until World War I rudely intruded when it became a battleground between the Italians and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

With peace restored, the villages returned to their traditional vocations of agriculture and forestry. It has only been in the last thirty years that a low-key form of tourism has developed, crossing country skiing in the winter and hiking in the summer.

Extraordinary though it be, the Cala del Sasso is only one of many of the well-marked walking trails that wind through the beautiful forests of the Altopiano and the mountains that surround it. With its rolling pastures, extensive forests and fascinating traditions, Asiago and its Altopiano makes a perfect place for an autumn weekend.

How to get there:

By car: from Vicenza, get on the Autostrada A31. Take the last exit, Piovene Rochette, and then follow State highway 31 to Asiago. By train: the closest station is in the lovely town of Bassano del Grappa, 38 kilometres away – regular buses run from here to Asiago.

Where to stay:

Hotel Europa (Corso IV Novembre 50) is an elegant and welcoming three-star hotel in the centre of Asiago. The five suites can also be rented on a weekly basis as self-contained apartments.

Hotel Gaarten (Via Kanotole 13) is a four-star hotel in the neighbouring village of Gallio. It has all the modern comforts, including an extensive wellness centre.

The Meitar Golf Resort, two kilometres out of Asiago, is a luxurious hotel built around a historic mountain lodge, overlooking an 18-hole golf course, which in winter becomes a series of alpine ski runs.

Where to eat:

Da Ricardo (Via Val Maddarello 88) is the most celebrated restaurant on the Altopiano. Chef Rissardo Cunico offers dishes such as gnocchi di Rotzo in parmesan cheese nests and pumpkin 'tortino' with caramelised hazelnuts.

Ristorante Casa Rossa (Via Kaberlaba) specialises in traditional regional dishes with a creative twist, such as 'bigoli' pasta with duck sauce and tortelloni-filled pheasant and truffles.

Locanda Auroa (Via Ebene 71) celebrates local cooking home-cooking with dishes such as gnocchi of Asiago cheese and speck and a surprising dessert of potatoes and walnuts.

What to do:

Friday afternoon:

Check into your hotel, join the locals for the evening passeggiata and then have an early dinner, ready for an early start tomorrow.

Saturday: go for a walk and get some fresh air.

Until 1918, the Altopiano formed part of the border between Italy and Austria. Starting in 1915, over half a million Italian and Austrian soldiers slugged it out in the mountains and forests along their shared border for the next three years in a brutal conflict which had an appalling loss of life and general destruction.

One of the few positives to come out of this drama were the roads and trails used to service the troops, which have been turned into a wonderful network of well-marked hiking (and cross-country skiing) trails, taking you through some of the most beautiful country in the Alps. Loop walks and longer distance walks fan out from all the seven villages of the Union. Comprehensive walking maps and notes are available from the tourist office of the Sette Comuni in Via Stazione 5 in Asiago,, as well as the tourist offices in each of the seven villages.

However, the real hiking start of the plateau is the Cala del Sasso, which runs from near the village of Sasso, a short drive from Asiago and finishes down in the plains at on a stream near the village of Valstagna. There is no public transport connecting these two villages so your hike of the Cala is a round trip. You could do it either way but we recommend starting at Sasso, heading down to Valstagna and then climbing back up again. You will need to take plenty of water and some provisions (there are stopping points with picnic tables along the way). You will also need a solid pair of shoes with good grip as the path is well shaded by the forest and can be slippery in parts. It is seven kilometres each way and the round trip, not including breaks, should takes around four to five hours.

The beginning of the Cala is five hundred metres from Sasso. . The route is clear and well signed by # 778 way markers. It is possible to do the stairs all year round but is best in the summer. The path descends gently down through forest and then zigzags down into the valley. It takes around 1.5 to 2 hours. The top of the stairway is 956 metres asl, the bottom is 221 metres asl.

The stairway itself finishes at the Valstagna Torrent. You can have a rest here and go straight back up but we would recommend that you follow the path beside the torrent to Valstagna, a little over a kilometre away on the Brenta River. Valstagna was the port of the Seven Communes and was favoured by the Venetians. Despite the vicissitudes of the last couple of centuries, Valstagna has maintained much of its ancient charm and there are a couple of excellent places t get refreshments and a light lunch overlooking the river, including the Caffe Nazionale and the Caffe Rialto.

The climb back up the stairway will take around two to two and a half hours with a gain of 721 metres. Local legend has it that if you hold hands with your beloved for the whole ascent, your perpetual love is assured. While you are doing climb spare a thought for Alberto Limatore who, in 1999, rode up the route on a bike without stopping or putting a foot down once.

Sunday: Explore the villages of the Altopiano

Since 1310, when it assumed the role at the head of the 'Union of the Seven Comunes' (a quasi-independent political affiliation which lasted until the Union reluctantly joined united Italy in 1860) Asiago has been the administrative, geographic and economic capital of the Altopiano (the plateau). It is a charming town with some interesting sites including a cathedral dedicated to St Matthew, with its neoclassical fa├žade and rich interior, as well as the Fontana del Fauno, an elaborate fountain carved out of local red marble which is the centrepiece of the public gardens.

There are also some interesting shops in town: Tato and Tata (Via IV Novembre 19) has a wide range of household goods, many produced locally; the Antica Apicoltura Kaberlaba produces not only a variety of local honey but also pollen-based cosmetics and essential oils based on forest plants; but the Altopiano's most famous product is the delicious mild cheese named Asiago, which is made from the milk of cows that graze the lush high plains in the summer. The best place to sample and buy this is the award-winning Caseficio Pennar (Via Pennar 313) which has been operating in Asiago since 1927.

While Asiago is the largest, the other villages also hold their own charm and interest. Roana is the best preserved and is the place where the traditions and dialect of the 'Cimbri', the original German-speaking settlers, are best preserved. There is an Institute here dedicated to the maintenance of the local language as well as a well-appointed museum that celebrates the art, architecture and history of their forebears. At Casuna, there is a large museum dedicated to the local craft of terracotta production.

Astronomers have been coming to the Altopiano to make the most of its clear skies to study the heavens. Italy's largest optical telescope, Copernicus 182, is still operating outside the village of Pennar. Guided tours can be booked in the village's tourist office

Words: Simon Tancred - Hidden Italy

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