Valpolicella in the Veneto, known locally as the “pearl of Verona”, is a hilly and scenic area of Italy where you can tour vineyards, discover the local range of wines from Valpolicella Classico to Amarone, and visit some of the most beautiful and elegant villas in the country. If you are planning a holiday to Verona or another city in the region, it is worth including one or two days exploring the surroundings and including some wine tasting and tours of the estates.
Wine has been produced in Valpolicella since the time of the Ancient Greeks. It was even written about in the sixth century AD by Roman scholar and adviser to Ostrogoth rulers Cassiodorus, who highlighted the delicious sweet wines from the area in his writing.
When I visited friends here one weekend, our first stop was the Villa Mosconi Bertani (there is great drone footage on their website) in the municipality of Negrar, for a guided tour we booked at 10am on Saturday. From the very start since its construction in the 18th century, this estate was dedicated to the production of fine wines including Amarone and others from the region.
One of the most stunning rooms of the villa is The Chamber of the Muses, which is painted around the sides with the six muses of the arts: architecture, sculpture, painting, geometry, astronomy and music. I believe the one below is geometry:
The main theme of the ceiling fresco, produced by Emilian artists, is the four seasons and the passage of time- reflecting the agricultural purpose of the villa grounds. The goddess of flowers, Flora, is in the centre. She is accompanied by Spring and Summer, on white fluffy clouds, and Autumn and Winter, on darker clouds. Apollo is riding his chariot in the background. Zephyr, the god of the west wind, is also there in the foreground, along with a group of angels. The west wind is the gentlest of winds, associated with spring.
At the back of the villa we also saw the English-style garden with rolling landscapes, woodland and vineyards stretching out behind it, as well as a pond and a Chinese tea house. Then next on the itinerary was the presentation of the wines. As it was only about 11am my friends and i decided not to join in the actual tasting, though we listened to the explanations. Many other guests on the other hand were enthusiastically indulging in the very generous portions of wine, despite the early hour. We learnt a lot about the different varieties including the traditional reds of the zone as well as some whites including Soave. We also had a chance to see the cellars of the villa.
After this we continued on our drive through the region, arriving at a small church on the way. This was San Floriano, one of the prettiest ancient pieve in the province of Verona.
Historical documents mention its existence back to 905 AD, though the current building dates from the 12th century. It was built on a spot that was previously a Pagan cemetery. Inside it has unique Corinthian pillars from the 18th century. Here you can also see an ancient symbol of the area on the walls: the Star of the Alps, which the federalist Northern League party has adopted as its sign but that originally was used all across Italy and also in other cultures. It is a geometrical figure that forms a picture similar to a flower.
This figure, deriving from the “Flower of Life” shape, is viewed by Pagans as sacred geometry with ancient religious value portraying forms of space and time. Some believe the Flower of Life contains basic information about living things and expresses the connections between sentient beings. The symbol is found all around the world and is linked to the creation of all existence.
It can be seen as a sign of joy, rebirth and spring. In the Alpine regions it is associated with various real flowers including the Stella Alpina, or Edelweiss, one of the first flowers to bloom in the year which is often linked to rebirth and resilience. Some other regions also associate the symbol with the daffodil.
After exploring the pieve and having lunch at Osteria alla Pieve nearby, we continued our drive up into the hills of Valpolicella, passing the vineyard areas, where we had a closer look at the ripening grapes.
By this time it was the afternoon and we were ready to try some wine. We stopped at Le Bignele, a family-run winery whose history dates back to 1818. We had a tour of the winery, and saw how the grapes are left to dry in the process known as appassimento, to make the Amarone wine from the area as well as the Valpolicella Ripasso, made using the pomace left over from the pressing for the Amarone.
We were then able to taste some of the wines. We tried Valpolicella Classico, Ripasso, Amarone, and the Recioto, a sweet wine also traditionally made in the region. I bought a bottle of the Amarone, which is a strong rich wine that I ended up having with a hearty Sunday lunch, the perfect time to enjoy it.
As we continued our tour, we passed the Villa della Torre Allegrini, another fascinating villa to explore in the area. That weekend however there was a wedding on so we could not see inside. It did seem like a romantic place for a wedding, which a party of rowdy British people had picked up on. Still, the villa and small chapel looked impressive from the outside and I would like to come back some time to see its fireplace decorations, which are gargoyle-like faces portraying creatures such as a lion, a fish, an angel and a devil.
We carried on our drive up to the hilltop town San Giorgio di Valpolicella, where we were able to explore its church, the Pieve of San Giorgio. Firstly we had a look at the pretty 12th century cloister, with a well at its centre and columns decorated with animal figures.
The church itself is one of the oldest examples of Romanesque architecture in the area, and is built over a pre-Roman religious sanctuary. There are some frescoes to see inside, including a depiction of the Last Supper dating from the 14th century. Though it has faced damage over the years, you can still make out some of the guests, who are all shown standing and face-on.
I also spotted more of those flower of life signs painted on arches.
After seeing the church, we walked back out to look at the views from San Giorgio. The sun was starting to set and we enjoyed the panorama of the hills and vineyards as we had an evening wine.
On the Sunday, we drove through the nearby Valpantena valley and stopped at Villa Arvedi, which is one of the biggest villas of the Verona area, situated about 9 km from the city. Its origins date back to the start of the 13th century and its current shape was designed and realised by Giovanni Battista Bianchi in the 17th century.
We met our guide for the tour we had reserved and we were led through the ground floor rooms of the villa, including the Caesars’ Hall. Then we went out into the back courtyard and saw the chapel dedicated to St. Charles Borromeo, who according to tradition stayed here during a journey toward Trento to take part in a Church council.
Then we went up the stairs to the Titans’ Hall, designed by Ludovico Dorigny (1654-1742), which is decorated with classic themes including Centaurs, Perseus and the Gorgon, the Titans and the signs of the Zodiac. This led out onto a terrace, where we could look across at the magnificent garden with traditional box hedges and trees and admire its incredible symmetrical patterns.
This is the shape the hedges form from above:
Finally we wandered back downstairs and out through the garden, where we saw the villa’s grotto niche, and could also look back on the facade of the main building. We picked up some of the olive oil produced here before we left, then drove off in the direction of Verona.
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