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Veneto: take a Palladian tour
July 28, 2011 | By:

Beginning in the Villa Saraceno - now the Landmark Trust's finest property - Oliver Bennett takes a tour of the master architect’s palazzos

Palladio Teatro Olimpico_Flickr-Sergio-and-Gabriella_620

The Palladio’s ornate interior

There are few places in the world where you can find Prosecco on tap, but Treviso is one of them. This smart, northern Italian town, near the apex of the Adriatic, is full of knitwear, shops, cakes and fizz, and home to a thriving fashion industry.

As I walked by its swift, clear canals, I thought how tranquil and sweet this business-oriented town was; as toothsome as the tiramisu at Treviso’s destination restaurant, the terrifically-named Toni del Spin. The amaretto-sodden cake is a Treviso speciality and a great set-up for a walk. So after lunch, I walked along the city’s 16th-century battlements to the cathedral square. All pleasant enough and a day worthy of anyone’s time. But I was in Treviso for one key reason: to stay at the nearby Villa Saraceno.

This huge pile, created by master 16th-century Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, is the chef-d’oeuvre of the Landmark Trust, the heritage villa specialist. I filled my rented car full of petrol and Prosecco and jumped at this once-in-a-lifetime chance to make like a duce in a real Palladian palazzo.

As I sat in the Saraceno’s extraordinary painted rooms, I found it difficult to concentrate on my book, so exquisite were my surroundings, with painted friezes, wooden ceilings and perfect Classical proportions. I made pale asparagus – another Treviso speciality – and went to a vast bedroom in the grain store upstairs.

Gorgeous as the Saraceno was, I wanted to look around the area. First I drove the short distance to Venice. There’s an intensity to La Serenissima that can make you feel claustrophobic, but parking by the port and getting a Vaparetto (bus boat) into town makes you feel a little more empowered than your average tourist.

After a day’s happy, sugary sightseeing, it was a treat to return to my astounding Palladian schloss and a supper of veal and (again) Prosecco.

In the morning I set off to Vicenza, Palladio’s birthplace, which has Unesco World Heritage Site status as the City of Vicenza and Palladian Villas of the Veneto.

I had to wait for the fog to clear: the Veneto’s low-lying land is prone to mist and, at an early hour, it was like walking into a freshly-poured glass of Prosecco foam. The sun burnt the mist off by mid-morning and I covered the green, velvety flatness of the Veneto. In an hour or so, I was chugging an espresso in the Corso Palladio, Vicenza’s main street.

This ritzy drag was a prelude to the full Palladian blast. I looked at the Palazzo Chiericati, now an art gallery, and scoped out the galleried Palazzo Barbaran da Porto, the Palazzo Valmarana; the Palazzo del Ragione, the Basilica and the old medieval law courts… Vicenza is as rich in its own way as Venice and a revelation of Renaissance architecture.

I picked up a Palladian Routes leaflet from the Tourist Information office, and picked a noble path along the streets leading from the Corso Palladio and the Piazza dei Signori, enjoying this showcase of mid-millennial wealth and charging up with espresso and water chasers.

Perhaps the most remarkable of all Vicenza’s sights was the Teatro Olimpico, Palladio’s reconstruction of a Roman theatre and generally believed to be the oldest covered theatre in existence. I paid a small fee and walked into the Teatro, a set-piece full of foreshortened figures and sets on a trompe l’oeil stage designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi, Palladio’s pupil. It is an extraordinary place of illusion, one that leaves you giddy on bubbles and symmetry.