On the less busy roads that flow next to a Progno, one of the many streams that wind through the vineyards of Valpolicella, it can happen to go at a walking pace following a tractor loaded with freshly harvested grapes.
Among churches, small villages and magnificent gardens
Autumn is harvest time and the scent of the must envelops the roads and hills between which woods, vineyards and cypresses chase each other on which the eye rests willingly. And in the midst of all this greenery, small villages, noble villas and ancient churches stand out, which the pleasant, almost spring-like temperature invites you to visit.
Because Valpolicella is not just wine. Since ancient times it has been a land rich in water and vegetation and these elements have favored human settlements from prehistoric times onwards. So where to start? From the small town of San Giorgio di Valpolicella, one of the most beautiful villages in Italy, also known as San Giorgio Ingannapoltron, perched on top of a hill from which you can enjoy a breathtaking view of western Valpolicella and Garda Lake.
Where does the nice appellation with which they define it in the area come from? The delightful village is located on a hill that seems easy to reach from below but can only be reached after a long and tiring walk on roads that can now be traveled comfortably by car according to tradition, “deceive the cell potato”!
The center was inhabited since the Bronze Age, as evidenced by the archaeological excavation under the splendid frescoed Romanesque church, next to which the enchanting cloister formed by three of the four original colonnades with a well in the center stands out.
The interior, evocative and sublime as in all Romanesque churches, is decorated with cycles of frescoes: the oldest date back to the 11th century, the best preserved from the 14th century. Very interesting is the Longobard ciborium, a finely chiseled stone canopy with engraved Celtic knots and figures of animals and plants.
In the homonymous hamlet of San Pietro in Cariano, stands the precious parish church of San Floriano, one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in the province of Verona, flanked on one side by the bell tower built in terracotta and tuff and on the other by a beautiful seventeenth-century cloister.
On the façade it is interesting to note recovered stone blocks, remains of a pagan altar with sacrificial symbols such as amphora, knife and offering plate, which suggest that the building was built on a pre-existing Roman temple, perhaps dedicated to Jupiter or the goddess Flora.
Speaking of flora, a visit to the Pojega Garden is not to be missed, one of the most beautiful Italian-style gardens in the world that extends over 54,000 square meters around Villa Rizzardi. The estate was purchased in 1649 by Count Carlo Rizzardi, while the garden was commissioned by Antonio Rizzardi to the architect Luigi Trezza and built between 1783 and 1796.
The peculiarity of this magnificent green area is that which reconciles the Italian garden, with plants and bushes pruned to create galleries, temples, labyrinths and even a theater completely made of boxwood and hornbeam hedges, to the romantic English garden formed by meadow and forest.
Villa Rizzardi, on the other hand, was built later, between 1868 and 1870, based on a project by the architect Filippo Messedaglia. The villa overlooks an oval lake with a group of statues in the center that seems to be viewed from the greenhouses for the cedars, while jets of spring water by falling create amusing games, including sound.
The route continues through the long avenue of hornbeams that leads to the green theater with stage space, orchestra and boxwood cavea. You go back walking in the avenue in the center of the complex between two rows of cypresses and palm trees that leads to the grove populated by stone animals and to the Tempietto di Stalattiti.
Beyond, the gaze reaches the village of Negrar among the well-combed rows of the vineyards from which a part of the grapes are harvested with which the Cantine Guerrieri Rizzardi, current owners of the complex, produce their wines that can be tasted and purchased at the end of the visit to the premises once used for agricultural work.
You have to get to Sant’Anna di Alfaedo to reach the Ponte di Veja, a majestic limestone arch that represents the remaining part of the collapse of a huge karst cave. The dimensions of the bridge are truly impressive: its height is between 24 and 29 meters and the thickness of the arch is between 9 and 11 meters.
In its presence you feel small but it is the whole atmosphere of the place that captures so it is not surprising that even famous people have been kidnapped. Among others Andrea Mantegna who reproduced this scenario in a fresco in the Camera degli Sposi of the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua and Dante Alighieri who seems to have drawn inspiration from the bridge to design “Malebolge”, the eighth circle of Hell in his Divine Comedy.
We are on the roads of Lessinia, which since 1990 has been declared a Regional Natural Park by the Veneto Region in order to preserve and enhance its naturalistic and landscape features characterized by the stone still extracted today in the quarries of Sant’Anna di Alfaedo and called Pietra della Lessinia or di Prun. Once all the villages in the area were built in stone which was also used in roadside slabs to delimit properties while currently it is used for roof coverings and door and window jambs.
In the past the marble slabs were extracted in deep tunnels leaving immense pillars to support the vaults as the material was excavated. We saw some of these monumental quarries along the roadside when reaching Cerna, a hamlet of Sant’Anna di Alfaedo, where Andrea Cecchinato, former manager of a large company in Milan, started a heliciculture project by creating a snail farm.
He called it Bogoni and Bogonelle, the Venetian name of large and small snails, and he accompanied us on a tour to discover how the snail slime, at the base of almost miraculous preparations for the skin, and how to breed those that are intended for power supply.
The breeding of his “Helix Aspersa Muller”, the best from a gastronomic point of view, was created in a disused and abandoned quarry for the extraction of marble. In this sort of amphitheater enclosed by stone walls and spontaneous vegetation, snails grow, which are introduced very small in spring and which are then collected at the end of summer.
Andrea showed us some of them, rescuing them from its lethargy and pointed out how much the structure of the shell depends on the soil and nutrition, as well as the quality of the meat. Not is simple the process of purging the snails that are kept in crates without food for about 10 days and then packaged and sold, fresh or frozen, without shell because traditional Venetian recipes do not provide for it.