Feltre is just an hour and a half drive from Marco Polo Airport in Venice. For the first hour you drive across a flat plain without even realizing there are mountains ahead. It almost always seems to be hazy, so visibility is limited. And then, without ever seeing the mountains in the distance, you are in the mountains and they are stunningly beautiful, rising almost vertically all around you with idyllic villages dotting the valleys and clinging to the cliffs.
The area is sparsely populated (even Venice only has a population of 60,000 actual residents) and except for the A27 between Venice and Ponte Nelle Alpi, the roads are narrow (the equivalent of a one way road in the US but with two way traffic) and twisty. Feltre is one of the larger towns in the region – probably about 20,000 people – and has a very nice and active downtown with lots of cafes, restaurants, and shops. There is also the ‘Centro Storico’ – the old walled city dating from Roman times – with a lot of really nice boutiques, bars, and restaurants that never seem to do any business but always seem to survive. Feltre doesn’t change much. The bookstore where I bought my Italian English Dictionary 30 years ago is still there. Next door the Garbujo bakery has been in business since 1870. I’m pretty sure about 80% of the businesses were there 30 years ago.
The nice thing about hiking in Europe is that camping is rarely allowed. Instead there are huts or refuges every few miles where hikers sleep and eat. So you don’t need to carry any gear or food – you just walk for a couple of hours and stop at a refuge for lunch, then walk a little more in the afternoon and stop for dinner. Unfortunately many of the refuges don’t open until mid June and in late April there was still snow at the higher elevations, so I had to limit my hiking to a few areas that were open. My first day I hiked at Val Canzoi where I had been before. It’s a beautiful area where you start hiking around a lake, and then climb along a river into the mountains. The refuge at the beginning of the trail is open all year and serves some of the best food I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant.
I got in one more full day of hiking the next day. Then on Friday I stopped by to visit my dad’s family, and after that I did more eating than hiking. On Saturday afternoon my dad’s cousin Angelo took me hiking on Monte Grappa, and I remember doing the same trip when I visited 30 years ago. We drove up the back roads and first stopped to check Angelo’s casera, or summer farm, about half way up the mountain. After that we stopped every couple of miles at some refuge or bar for an espresso and Angelo would visit with his friends there for a few minutes, then we’d move on to the next place. At the top we parked and walked about a quarter of a mile to the lookout, then we drove back down on a different road, stopping every few minutes for espresso. I think Angelo might do this every Saturday.
I don’t know if the food in this region is especially good or if it just seems that way to me because it reminds me of the food my grandmother cooked, but I really eat well when I am there. If I had to guess at what makes it good I think it is because everything is fresh – I don’t think my dad’s relatives have a freezer – and because they use a lot of really good cheese and fresh butter. Some of the highlights from this trip; gnocchi with a pumpkin sauce, pastine in brodo, risotto with fresh vegetables, polenta with melted cheese and butter, and spaghetti pomodoro. I wish I could bring some home with me.