In Italy, all roads may lead to Rome, but all wine roads began in the small town of Conegliano, 40 miles north of Venice. This is the starting point of the country’s first wine road, originally called the Strada del Prosecco when it was created in 1966. At first it linked the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, but it expanded over decades, as more villages bought into its growing success. Fifty years later, it is called the Strada del Prosecco e Vini dei Colli Conegliano Valdobbiadene (the road of Prosecco and wine of the hills of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene) and it wends its way through 15 wine communities clustered around the two urban centers.
To drive, bike, or hike parts of the 50-kilometer (31 mile) road is to experience millennia of history, not only gastronomic (wine and its inevitable food pairings) but historic, artistic, and panoramic as well. So intertwined are the history and wine culture of the 15 communities comprising Conegliano-Valdobbiadene that they have been jointly nominated as a World Heritage site for their unique cultural landscape.
A visitor can choose from a variety of itineraries that emphasize landscapes, natural beauty, castles and walled towns, art and architecture of the Middle Ages, and of course wine itself – tastings offered by many of the 183 members of the consortium representing Conegliano-Valdobbiadene’s wine growers, wine makers, and bottlers.
Conegliano is a good departure point, whatever your interest may be. With a population of about 35,000, it barely qualifies as a large town, but it boasts a cultural history disproportionate to its size. Its origins date back to the Iron and Bronze Ages, and it was formally recognized one thousand years ago, in 1016. The hilltop Castle of Conegliano was constructed between the 12th-14th centuries, when warring factions roamed the area and a position of dominance over the valley had strategic importance.
What are today the castle’s gardens – punctuated by cypresses and the squirrels inhabiting them — had been the site of homes some 800 years ago, when those who could afford to choose opted to live close to the fortress and its protectors. The castle lost its caché in the peaceful 15th century and gradually went to ruin. It is visited today by Sunday strollers, families on an outing, and thirsty panorama-peepers who sit at the Bar Belvedere amid crumbled walls while enjoying drinks and the view.
A more fortunate fate awaited the nearby Villa Gera designed by Giuseppe Jappelli in 1827 (the architect who designed Padova’s famous Caffè Pedrocchi). That imposing structure is today a private home, a reminder that neoclassic structures remain classic over the centuries. To its left on the hill is the Convent of San Francesco, built in 1411 and restored in 2000.
The convent is today a cultural center; it also offers accommodation to wine students who are in Conegliano to do post-graduate research at the Scuola Enologica di Conegliano. The Enological School is the oldest of its kind in Italy, having celebrated 140 years of activity in 2016. Passing visitors cannot take courses at the school, but the literal fruits of its research are visible all along the Via del Prosecco.
The town beneath the castle is as attractive as its summit. From the castle to the center of town is less than half a mile, following the Calle Madonna della Neve (the street of the Madonna of Snow). The path is named for a tiny church halfway down, built and named for a miraculous snowfall that appeared in August of 352. The church and its handsome frescoes date from around 1500; they were restored in 1992.
The Calle takes you to the center of Conegliano. This town was the birthplace of Renaissance painter Giovanni Battista Cima aka Cima di Conegliano, and his works grace galleries in the region as well as the altarpiece of the Duomo. The Duomo is a 14th century church located on Strada Contrada Maggiore (aka Via XX Settembre), the town’s main street. The church was founded by a group of businessmen with penchant for a particular set of skills – they liked to beat themselves.
Don’t miss the altarpiece for Cima’s Venetian-school interpretation of Madonna and Child, replete with saints and angels but atypically lacking a landscape. In the adjoining structure is the Sala dei Battuti (Hall of the Beaten) in the Scuola dei Battuti, named for these businessmen who gathered in this room to self-flagellate before pledging money to hospitals and poorhouses.
The artwork decorating the walls of the main hall depicts the life of Christ, with an anomaly in the panel illustrating the Last Supper. The influence of German painter Albrecht Dürer (who had been in Venice when the panels were commissioned) on the artist Francesco da Milano is obvious: there are beer drinkers with mugs – not customary in ancient Palestine — and a good deal more violence than one tends to associate with the Last Supper. The Sala dei Battuti is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays during the year but is closed in the summer. Special openings can be arranged upon written request in advance: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ask for a multilingual guide to enhance your visit.
The best time to visit here is autumn, for the vendemmia, or grape harvest. But spring also has cultural and culinary attractions, and one annual event in early June is worthy of consideration. The Dama Castellana is a life-sized checkers game (dama means checkers) played out in the main square of Conegliano’s historic center. Well-known Italian actors and celebrities play the opposing kings and queens, and their moves are enriched and choreographed with words, music, and spectacle. The medieval costumes complement the setting. When ordering tickets, you might request a translator-guide, since the pageantry is not geared to foreign tourists . . . which is one of its attractions.
Written by and photos by Claudia Flisi for EuropeUpClose.com