Halfway between the tourist meccas of Venice and Verona lies the elegant city of Vicenza, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which, remarkably, remains off the beaten path.
Vicenza has been home to many illustrious personalities, the architect Andrea Palladio – as in Palladian windows – being the most notable. Considered one of the world’s most influential architects, Palladio transformed Vicenza and the surrounding countryside into his architectural playground with 23 palaces and buildings in the city alone and 27 nearby country villas which served as weekend and summer homes for wealthy Venetians.
Palladio revered and helped revive ancient Roman architecture and it is this influence that helps give Vicenza its distinctive and noble character.
Vicenza’s Piazza dei Signori is one of Italy’s most beautiful squares, and the Basilica Palladiana, Palladio’s first civic commission in 1546, is its most central and stunning sight.
At the beginning of the Corso Palladio you’ll discover the Teatro Olimpico, Palladio’s last and most ambitious work. Inspired by the ancient open-air Roman theaters, it is utterly unique. Classical statues and ornamentation abound and the painted trompe l’oeil sky is breathtaking … as is the stage set, the oldest in the world, still in use today. Completed after Palladio’s death, the set represents the city of Thebes and the setting of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex which was the inaugural production of the theater in 1585.
Another exceptional destination, the Villa Valmarana, built 200 years after Palladio and lavishly decorated with frescoes by Italy’s leading 18th century painter Gian Battista Tiepolo, is just a 20-minute walk from town along a quiet wooded path.
From there you can continue on another foot path which leads to you to Palladio’s most famous and majestic country villa: La Rotonda. Its sober classical exterior contrasts with its vibrant, dramatic interior. It feels more like a temple than a residence.
A short drive through the Veneto countryside brings you to perhaps my favorite of Palladio’s villas, the Villa Barbaro, with its charming and playful frescoes by Paolo Veronese.
Palladio’s works and seminal treatise The Four Books of Architecture have guided and inspired architects throughout Europe and in United States for centuries (e.g., St Paul’s Cathedral in London, our White House, Capitol Building and the Mall). In recognition of that influence, Palladio was proclaimed the Father of American Architecture by the 111th Congress of the United States in 2010.
That Italy is timeless almost goes without saying. But what exactly is timelessness and why does Italy practically define it?
Timelessness transcends the past, present and future; it carries a sense of permanence. Timelessness is both a state of being and a state of mind.
Italy, more than any other country, has bequeathed the world a treasure trove of art and architecture with these very qualities.
And Mother Nature has bestowed some of her most glorious gifts on this little boot-shaped peninsula that is barely the size of Arizona.
Less poetically, Italy possesses a human culture and natural allures with no expiration date
But more than this, Italy possesses a special alchemy that has attracted dreamers and travelers alike for centuries.
I sense it most in the quiet—a paradox since Italians are the most expressive and exuberant of people. They’re people who just seem to know how to live.
Including, most especially, how to revel in the joy and wonder of small things.
And what could be more timeless than wonder!
Nestled in an alpine landscape, breathtaking Lago Maggiore knows no borders: it extends about thirty miles into Switzerland; straddles Lombardia and Piedmonte; and, despite its elevation, enjoys a mild Mediterranean micro-climate where beautiful gardens and exotic plants flourish. A particularly alluring feature of Lago Maggiore is its intriguing mid-lake islands, known as the Isole Borromeo. They’re named for the aristocratic Borromeo family which still owns and maintains palaces on two of the islands.
Tiny and charming, Isola dei Pescatori (Island of the Fishermen) is the only one with a year-round population: 32 hearty souls who reside along the cobblestone streets and keep their fishing traditions alive.
The “crown jewel” is Isola Bella, a baroque fantasy that resembles an elegant ship of stone, decked with flowers, that plies the lake’s glacial waters. It was built by nobleman Charles Borromeo (he also helped finance the building of the Milan cathedral) who named the island for his wife Isabella. Room after ornate room eventually leads down to the “basement” … a lavish grotto intended as an oasis of coolness in the summer heat. Even more stunning are the exquisite manicured gardens laid out on ten terraces replete with plethora of statues, obelisks, flowers, exotic plants and the marvelous “Water Theatre” with its crowning statue of a unicorn, an emblem of the Borromeo clan. And as if all of this weren’t enough, white peacocks prance about the grounds like brides posing for their wedding photos … so hard to imagine they’re fellows!)
An easy day trip from Lake Maggiore is Piemonte’s lesser-known scenic jewel, Lake Orta, with its own charming island of San Giulio.
Lake Como may attract the lion’s share of American tourists but I hope now that Lake Maggiore is on your radar screen as you plan future adventures to La Bella Italia.