Villa Tiepolo Passi sits just outside Treviso, the small but bustling town that is a haven from neighbouring Venice and its streets and waterways teeming with lost tourists, hawkers selling selfie sticks and overpriced vaporettos. The villa, still inhabited by the Passi family, is truly a country home within city limits; a stately residence on grand grounds with a manicured avenue that stretches out from the front entrance as far as the eye can see. On the property behind the house lie a small vineyard, orchards and several peacocks, who aren’t shy about announcing their presence.
The villa is one of 4,300 homes that were built between the 16th and 18th centuries in Itay’s Veneto and Friuli regions. They were both country homes and working farms; places Venetian nobility would escape to during the summer and sources of income. Some were small and functional, others, like the Andrea Palladio-designed Villa Emo, palatial and meant for looking not touching. Today, they are mostly vacant, some crumbling — too expensive to maintain let alone renovate or innovate. But 150 of them are breathing new life, as art galleries, restaurants and guest houses, thanks in part to the passion of Alberto Passi, owner of Villa Tiepolo Passi and president of the Ville Venete Association, who is working both to protect the villas and promote them.
“Every villa was like its own village, with its own church and staff. We’re trying to show off the antique spirit of the place — the country home as innovation,” Passi says. “We want to make these homes a travel destination in Veneto and Friuli.”
Tiepolo Passi can accommodate up to eight guests in three rooms, housed in the property’s former stables, and rates here, as at other villas, start around €85 per night, ridiculously affordable when you realize this is the Italian version of Downton Abbey. The Passi family also opens up their property to the public for brunch on Sundays, and makes various jams from quince grown on site so that people can take a taste of the villa home with them.
Other villas offer similar experiences. A visit to Borgoluce, just over 20 kilometres north of Treviso, is an immersive one. Castello di Collalto, the Collalto family’s home tucked high on the estate’s 1,220 hectares, is just one sight to see. This working — and busy — farm produces, among other things, wine including DOCG Prosecco (the best of the certifiable good stuff), charcuterie, buffalo milk mozzarella and other cheeses, flours, honeys and olive oil. There’s a shop in which you can pack up a picnic then head out on one of the many trails, an osteria for a sit-down meal and guest rooms and fully-equipped apartments offering fantastic views of the Veneto countryside. During a stay, one can grab a bike to tour the property, or take a dip in the natural swimming pool, a romantic little lagoon-like body of water, either of which will make a visit to Venice seem like an afterthought.
And then there are the villas turned galleries, like the aforementioned Emo, 25 km northwest of Treviso. Built in the mid-1500s, this is a beautiful example of how the Venetian republic’s aristocracy ran things. The mansion’s design is classic and regal, airy rooms with high ceilings, arched porches, columns everywhere you look, and outside, fields and gardens that demonstrate humans’ mastery over nature.
“There’s great heritage and potential in these homes,” Passi explains as he talks about the work he’s done to encourage other villa owners to open up their doors to the public, whether to “eat, sleep or tour,” he says.
Another thing these villas offer is the chance to not just look at history or walk through it, but to live in and among it. The Ville Venete Association bills these houses as “Venice on the mainland,” and if it was good enough for the nobility, who are we to turn down a stay?