What is Grappa? What does one think of when this word is uttered? Simply put it is a grape-based spirit drink, made via a painstaking process from pomace (the residue of grapes after they are pressed for wine) and commonly amalgamated with fruits, berries or honey to create different tastes hovering between 40 and 60 percent alcohol.
The name also conjures its birthplace: Bassano del Grappa, a bustling town nestled in the Venetian Alps and one of the most overlooked and underestimated locations in a region that already boasts two of the biggest tourist magnets in the country (if not the world), Venice and Verona.
This is often the case in Italy, a country in which every single city, if not town or village can vaunt a unique and rich heritage, be it through its cultural, artistic or culinary contributions.
Let’s get back to Bassano though. With its 70.000 inhabitants it is considered a small city, even by Italy’s standards. Size notwithstanding, it draws in thousands of mostly Italian tourists attracted by the beauty of the old town. Its breath-taking surroundings and most importantly, its nationally renowned bars and grappa tasting distilleries make it one of the best places to visit in Italy.
Bassano del Grappa is also geographically located in the heart of Veneto, one of Italy’s wealthiest regions. Many of the region’s top businesses in fashion, winemaking and automobiles are headquartered in the city or its outskirts. Think Diesel brand jeans, world famous grappa and winemakers Poli and Nardini or Laverda’s high-performance motorcycles.
This concentration of international companies in a small area brings a curious blend of small-town vibes contrasting with the hipness of the younger locals. The Bassanesi pride themselves in being a creative and industrious people and this is reflected in the dynamics of the city, which lets loose with gusto especially during the weekends.
The artistic heritage of the city must not be downplayed either. Its most recognized landmark is undoubtedly the 1559 Ponte Vecchio also called Ponte degli Alpini after the Alpini, Italy’s special mountain infantry corps who reconstructed the bridge during WWII.
On the bridge itself we find Nardini’s main distillery, where flocks of revellers, local and foreign, come together every evening sipping “mezzo e mezzo” literally “half and half”, a distinctive rhubarb based aperitif known as a powerful contender to the regions choice drink: Aperol and Campari spritzes. Not to worry though, spritzes are served a plenty in Bassano at a price hovering between 2 and 3 euros, by far the lowest prices in the country.
Winding up the cobbled streets leading away from the bridge we arrive in the center. The two adjacent squares: “Piazza della Libertà” and “Piazza Garibaldi” are the main hubs of the city. Overlooking the first we have the towering “Castello Superiore” which dominates Bassanos skyline together with the “Torre Civica”. The imposing “Villa Angarano” is another landmark, designed by Palladio not only is it marked as a UNESCO heritage site, but it is a famed destination for wine connoisseurs. The villa holds wine tasting tours specialized in local variations of Chardonnay, Merlot, Vespaiolo to name a few.
Aside from a myriad of bars and restaurants, including Nardini’s arch rival; the Poli distillery located on the other side of the old town which gives free tours (“free” if you buy at least one bottle of their grappas), Bassano’s cultural sphere revolves around its two main museums:
“Palazzo Sturm” has over seventy rooms of baroque paintings and incisions by Tiepolo, Canaletto and Rembrant to name a few. The second is the “Museo Hemingway”, named after the famed writer who sojourned in Bassano while completing “A Farewell to Arms”.
The ”Museo Hemingway” and its grounds “Cafè Hemingway” and “Locanda Hemingway” respectively a bar (which offers the unmissable “Hemingway Cocktail” based on a concoction created by the writer during WWI) and a hotel with some of the most spectacular views of the town, show the attachment the town still maintains with the author, arguably the towns most celebrated guest.
So, join the ranks of the illustrious Hemingway and visit Bassano. The town is little more than an hour drive from both Venice and Verona’s international airports. The “Ostello di Bassano”, offers single rooms starting from 25 euros a night while higher rollers can spend the night at the previously mentioned “Locanda Hemingway” starting at a steeper – but worth it for its charms, 90 euros – keep in mind these are not the only choices. Visiting Bassano is definitely one of the things to do in Italy and it is great even for a day trip from elsewhere, but remember, elsewhere does not have complimentary grappa with every meal.