In July 2018, Unesco declared the Prosecco Hills of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, in Italy’s Veneto region, a World Heritage Site. The nomination process and campaign lasted more than a decade and was championed in large part by locals – not just municipal officials, but winemakers and farmers, men and women tethered to this corner of the Veneto by their hearts and souls, as well as by their livelihoods.
It’s a storybook denouement for a storybook landscape, one characterised by folds of steep hills (known locally as ciglioni, or “hog backs”) carpeted in alternating quilt-patches of farmland, dense chestnut forests and lush vineyards. The vines, source of the DOCG bubbly by which most people know of this region, are planted with a unique methodology, running neatly in parallel terraces that cling to the shape of the slopes. Here and there are villages, a few dozen lichened cotto roofs clustered around brick bell towers that have sounded their peals since long before Italy itself existed, and when this was the hinterland of a maritime republic whose might and wealth steered the mapping of the world.
The landscape here is DOCG (the highest classification for Italian wines), too, a careful parcelling of agriculture and woodland that has resulted in a sylvan symmetry not reproduced anywhere else in Europe. Its Unesco designation as a Cultural Landscape makes the terrain one of those rare intersections of man and nature whose results are entirely felicitous. To the Venetian glass artist Giberto Arrivabene Valenti Gonzaga, though, these kudos are old news. Official recognition of his childhood home as one of the world’s loveliest places is just confirmation of something he’s always known. Arrivabene’s name may be familiar to some habitués of Venice: he and his wife Bianca di Savoia Aosta, deputy chairman of Christie’s Italy, live at Palazzo Papadopoli, on the Grand Canal, better known to the paying public as Aman Venice. The palazzo has been the Arrivabene family seat since the early 19th century; portraits of Giberto’s ancestors, restored to perfection, still line the public spaces of the piano nobile, and he and Bianca and some of their five teenage-to-twentysomething children make their base in an artfully cluttered, eminently chic mansard apartment on its top floor.
But until he was a teenager himself, Arrivabene was a diehard prosecco-country boy. He spent summers, Christmases and Easters – and five blissful years as a child – running free in the woods and vineyards of Pedeguarda di Follina, just a few kilometres east of Valdobbiadene. His home was Castelletto di Pedeguarda, an eight-bedroom fortified villa on 40 hectares that had been in his mother’s family for generations. When she passed away in 2017, the house came into Giberto and Bianca’s hands and they have spent the past two years engaged in a thoughtful rehabilitation.
Driving north along the ruler-straight two-lane road running from Treviso towards the massifs of the Dolomites, the Castelletto is visible – just – as you approach Pedeguarda. First glimpse, a series of tall cream arches and red shutters, winking out from thick forest on an eastern hillside. A sharp right at the humble Osteria al Castelletto takes you through an unassuming iron gate and up a steep, mossy drive that winds through juniper and chestnut trees to the outer wall of the house.
“By the time of the second world war, this was virtually a ruin,” recalls Giberto. “And during the war itself was inhabited by refugees. In the years after, my grandfather used to come up and take long walks in the hills, but no one was actually living here.” Despite the wear of abandonment, many of the house’s original elements have survived gratifyingly intact: the beamed ceilings, a monumental curving staircase ascending through all three levels and, most alluring of all, scads of charming late-15th- and 16th-century frescoes – not done by any famous hand, says Giberto, but rather “by whichever school-of-so-and-so artist was passing through and happened to stay”. A fat-faced Bacchus grins down from a ceiling panel in the smaller sitting room, its walls lined with allegorical representations – Music, Poetry, War, The Hunt. In the grander sitting room upstairs, trompe-l’oeil fluted columns and floral garlands surround pastorals, under a spectacular ceiling whose timber beams and supports are covered in rich botanical and scroll motifs. The crests of ancestral Arrivabene families grace the mantles of the house’s monumental fireplaces.
But things have had an impressive 20th-century look-in as well. When Giberto’s parents decided to make the house habitable again, in 1948, they enlisted Tomaso Buzzi, the architect-designer and co-founder of modern decorative production house Il Labirinto, to help them rehabilitate what was intact and reimagine what wasn’t. The exquisite tile floors across the castle’s uppermost level, for instance, were originally produced in the 11th century for a church in Venice that was slated for demolition – Buzzi purchased the lot of them on the spot. Extending off the castle’s middle level is an enfilade of rooms that were also later additions: a breakfast nook, two charming bedrooms and an almost absurdly romantic master suite, its walls handpainted with climbing ivy and flower vines, a fragment of a Madonna and Child fresco and French doors leading to a private terrace.
I spent an idyllic weekend at the Castelletto in October: mornings in the sun-saturated breakfast room, evening drinks in the cosy downstairs sitting room and the afternoons between spent on the long loggia off the castle’s uppermost level, which gives onto a wide lawn and an old-world pool. It’s the vista up here that is the thing, though – a 200-degree panorama encompassing the hulks of the pre-Alps to the north, the patchwork beauty of the Valdobbiadene all around and, to the south, the Venetian plain. Early autumn sun sluiced down all day, the mountain skies morphing into an opalescent sfumatura over the flatlands. Vera and Mafalda, two of the Arrivabenes’ four daughters, joined us. I watched Vera – who with her sister Viola founded ViBi Venezia, the cult line of furlane (traditional velvet gondoliers’ slippers) reinterpreted for contemporary tastes – play chase on the grass with Dushka, the Arrivabenes’ black Labrador; in the alcove next to me, hung with fairy lights, sat a smiling Buddha.
At sunset we piled into the car and trundled down the drive to the Osteria al Castelletto, known colloquially here (and, increasingly, further afield) as Da Clemi. The unassuming entrance – a flat door with a handpainted sign and flanked, like the castle, by red-shuttered windows – belies the vibrancy of the rooms within: walls are painted in wide stripes of red or green; tables laid in artfully mismatched ginghams and striped linens; and a huge hooded fireplace dominates the dining room. The place can boast near on 1,000 years of hospitality to visitors to the village of Pedeguarda, but since 1977, it has been overseen by Clementina Viezzer – the “Clemi” of renown – and has slowly gained fame. Today, Italians drive down from Cortina d’Ampezzo or across the plain from Padua, while visiting gourmands put it at the centre of their Veneto itineraries. Clemi, in her 70s, still presides over the kitchen with manifest skill and a flinty scepticism towards new customers. “Whatever you do, don’t pretend familiarity,” advised Giberto. “There’s nothing she dislikes more.”
He should know – Viezzer was his childhood nanny. As an adult, she asked his mother for the title to the osteria; 42 years later, its success is down to her steady custodianship and talent. From a huge ceramic tureen, Clemi ladled out bowls of a pumpkin porcini risotto so outrageously rich it could almost have doubled as a pudding, alongside perfectly seasoned fillets and calves’ liver. At evening’s end, an enormous chocolate soufflé landed at the centre of the table, with a bowl of thick cream. Everything was honest, unaffected and delicious.
It’s a description that works, too, for the entire region, which happens to be pretty perfectly situated between Venice and the slopes of some of Italy’s best ski destinations. Within an hour’s drive of the Castelletto are the towns of Bassano del Grappa and Asolo. Asolo, once home to the actress Eleonora Duse and the poet Robert Browning, is the kind of place that gets people obsessively scanning estate-agent windows, it’s so beautiful. In the commune of Follina is the Cistercian abbey of Santa Maria, anno 1146. Meanwhile, around 35km – and nine centuries – away, one can visit the Tomba Brion, a masterwork of the iconic 20th-century “professor” Carlo Scarpa (he never actually received his architecture degree), created for the family of the founder of the Brionvega electronics company. And then the spectacular Passo San Boldo, just north of the Castelletto, for climbers and cyclists; and the miles of woodland hikes for burning off all the indulgences.
High points all, and ones the Arrivabenes can recommend through long familiarity. Up at the castle, it’s agreed – there’s a lot to see in prosecco country. Not that anyone would blink if you chose never to leave the premises.
Read Bianca Arrivabene’s little black book of the Prosecco Hills.
This story was originally posted on 17 November 2019.