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Episode #190: Vicenza – Elegant Renaissance City Near Venice

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Vicenza, in the Veneto region of Italy, is often overlooked – with visitors to the region heading to Venice and Verona. But there are plenty of reasons to head to this Italian gem – that is hiding in plain sight. From Vicenza city itself with its Palladian architecture, rich (literally) history and vibrancy, to the nearby unique towns famous for chess, cherries, cheese and grappa, not to mention the real origin story of Romeo and Juliet.   

Show notes
We talk to Elisabetta of Unexpected Italy who is working on the Exploro project bringing together Vicenza’s top producers, artisans, and experiences. The area enjoys a rich, artisan tradition, where coppersmiths, lithographers, and ceramicists still thrive. Its cuisine and drink scene are worth a trip alone. Alongside incredible cheeses and unique dishes like Baccalà alla Vicentina, it’s home to Grappa and Nardini, the oldest distillery in Italy and has a variety of exceptional wines, with many family-run wineries.  Vicenza is where the famous architect Andrea Palladio is from and the city is full of examples of his work, including La Rotonda, upon which the US White House is based. You will find one of the world’s most beautiful libraries, accessible skiing, a town taken over by chess as well as artisan ceramics, leather and paper.

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Elisabetta is the CEO of Unexpected Italy. She is from Vicenza originally but has lived all over the world, mostly between Milan, London, Dubai, and Vicenza. With partner Savio, they firstly setup Unexpected London and now Unexpected Italy, a national network of local, independent businesses – a resource of where to stay, where and what to eat, and experiences
  2. They became involved after being approached by the Exploro team on the project specific to Vicenza, bringing together all the unique experiences that you can do in Vicenza
  3. Beautiful and elegant Vicenza is an underrated city – as Elisabetta calls it, the Cinderella of Veneto after popular Venice and Verona
  4. The Exploro platform brings together all the local guides, experiences, and things you can do. Given their background, the Unexpected Italy team has been involved in the project to find unexpected things that you can do
  5. The city of Vicenza itself has around 100,000 inhabitants. It is only 45 minutes from Venice, 45 minutes from Lake Garda, 40 minutes from Verona and even less from Padua, so it’s a great place to stay to visit the whole of Veneto. If you travel from Venice to Verona, which is something that tourists often do, Vicenza is right in the middle
  6. Vicenza is not just the city, but the province of Vicenza comprises many gorgeous hilltop towns and villages
  7. There is Marostica, the City of Chess, where every two years they have a live chess match in the center of Marostica. It has two castles, one at the top and one at the bottom. It is also known for its cherries
  8. You’ve got Bassano which is where Grappa is originally from, with the famous iconic Bassano Bridge. It’s an incredible town, very lively and fun
  9. There is the mountain resort of Asiago. You can trek, cycle, you can do all kinds of activities, including kayaking on the Brenta River
  10. The city of Vicenza is known as the city of Palladiana and is a UNESCO heritage site because of its 24 Palladian monuments and 26 Palladian villas all around the territory. There are hundreds and hundreds of beautiful Venetian villas that are inspired by Palladio
  11. Palladio is one of the greatest architects in history. For those from the US – the White House would not exist without Palladio, as it is inspired by La Rotonda, Palladio’s most famous villa, 5 minutes drive outside of Vicenza. It’s got exactly the same shape. In London, there is so much inspired by Palladio – with some of Britain’s most famous architects like Christopher Wren and Hawksmoor being inspired by him
  12. He was born in Vicenza and died in around 1585. There is a bit of a mystery about his death. The last thing he created was the Olympic Theater in Vicenza, which is the most ancient indoor theater in the world. You can actually walk in the theater and there are lots of different paths on the stage. It’s an amazing theater. He died before it was finally completed
  13. Palladio studied from some of the great local architects in the area but was largely self-taught and was really a genius
  14. Vicenza is the city of Palladian, so the architecture is all over, so it’s fantastic for anybody who loves architecture
  15. In many of the Palladian villas, the original families still live there, so you can go and stay, meet the families – these noble but humble people and have a really unique and elegant experience away from the tourist trail
  16. Vicenza is a bit like a second, smaller Venice. Lots of nobles from Venice would come and create villas in Vicenza
  17. There is Villa Valmarana “Ai Nani”- that is a beautiful villa, right next door to La Rotonda, that is covered in frescoes by Tiepolo, the Renaissance artist. It is still run by the Valmarana family who originally created it. These noble families would often have second houses inland away from Venice
  18. The smaller cities of Italy like Vicenza really have the charm that people are really looking for when visiting Italy. They are big enough to have lots of things to do and see, you’ve got a buzz with people going about their daily lives, and there are great restaurants. These kinds of smaller cities are the ones where it is easy to fall in love with Italy all over again
  19. Part of the reason that Vicenza is not very touristy is that they’re not that interested in tourism because it is a wealthy place – a city of gold, of leather, and of marble. The industry is very rich there
  20. Elisabetta is from town of Arzignano which is the European Capital of Leather
  21. These traditions and crafts are very special and valued within Italy, including by the young
  22. Vicenza has been really good at turning local artisan craftsmanship into an industry. It’s still mostly family-run businesses (95% of Italian businesses are still family) but with lots of young people working there
  23. Elisabetta is always looking for local workshops where you can see craftsmanship – like those that work with copper right in the center of a Vicenza. There’s a lot to do with textile and fashion. There are ladies there making carpets by hand
  24. The Exploro project has looked for all these local gems and focused on promoting and supporting them
  25. Italy has a very strong tradition of very high-end luxury brands that are very famous and good at promoting themselves, but the next level down is that’s where you can get some of the most beautiful things, like ceramics and leather
  26. Nove, a very small town near Bassano, is known as the city of ceramics. There are still 250 manufacturers there and you still see ceramists at work there. Some of the factories have enormous, three-floor ovens, where they cook the ceramics
  27. You will find that many artisans not only manage to preserve the tradition but innovate it. Some of these artisans are creating really modern things but using ancient techniques. This is certainly the right direction so that younger audiences can appreciate these things and give them longevity

An example itinerary for a visit to Vicenza

  • It really depends on who you are as a traveler, but there are things to appeal to young and old, those looking for history, those looking for high-end and those looking for a local vibe and buzz
  • The Vicenza city center is very easy to get to from both Venice and Verona by train and really cheap too
  • Because it’s not touristy there aren’t tourist traps shops or restaurants. You pay just as the locals do
  • You have to wander around the incredible Olympic Theater, the ancient indoor theater in the wall
  • There is the Basilica Palladiana in the main Piazza dei Signori Square (where there are two UNESCO heritage sites)
  • In the Basilica, there are two fun spots – the first-ever jazz club inside a UNESCO Heritage site in Italy, which is for Bar Borsa. There you can have brunch, lunch, dinner or even just enjoy amazing cocktails
  • In summer, if you’re lucky, you get there on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday the terrace of the Basilica is open and you can have one of the most incredible aperitivo with views around Vicenza. You can enjoy your spritz (which originates from this area) for as little as 3 Euros. When she visits away from this area, Elisabetta never has spritz because she objects to paying the same for a spritz as a cocktail – because for her spritz is an aperitivo. She has been spoiled by Vicenza!
  • Just outside Vicenza, next door to Villa La Rotondathere is Villa Valmarana Ai Nani, which is a Palladian building covered in frescoes by Tiepolo. It is the only example in the world where both the father and son of Tiepolo painted these beautiful halls
  • In Vicenza, you can see so much walking around the city. Elisabetta recommends staying at least one night.
  • Heading out of the city, around Vicenza it is well worth visiting Bassano and Marostica as they are both really gorgeous towns where you can have both culinary and cultural experiences
  • For more sporty types, there is kayaking in the River Brenta.
  • The mountain resort of Asiago is for anybody who loves cycling, walking and nature in general. There are cattle farms and you can see the cattle out from spring to autumn. There are mountain huts open there in the summer
  • Asiago is also known for its accessible tourism. In Asiago, there is a local association of ski instructors to teach children who can’t walk. Children in wheelchairs or with varying mobility issues can learn to ski there with a special technique that they’ve developed
  • A great visit, and fascinating fact, is the original castles of Romeo and Juliet that are in Vicenza. Everyone goes to Verona to see the fake balcony that was put up in 1935 for tourists, but few go to to see the real castles that are behind this story
  • The original story was not from Shakespeare but was first written by Sir Luigi da Porto in the 1500s. The original story was written when he was living in a beautiful villa, overlooking these two castles on two different hills. He wrote the novel about two lovers living in these two different castles, the tale made its way around Europe and then Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet
  • The original castles are in Montecchio Maggiore. Romeo’s surname in Italian is actually is Montecchi
  • You can visit them under those castles in Montecchio Maggiore. An added secret is that there is a secret wine cellar. It’s only for private events, so you can’t just visit, but it’s gorgeous if you get the chance – 300 meters of caves with the wines and the local champagne – Spumante. It’s a true hidden gem, with few locals even aware of it
  • As well as visiting Nove, the City of Ceramics, if you love ceramics, in Bassano, there is an insurance company company turned into a ceramic museum. Why not?
  • Bassano also has one of the most beautiful independent libraries in the world, according to the New York Times. That’s called Palazzo Roberti
  • Another unique local excellence is Tassotti, the paper printing company. It’s family run – by father and daughter and it’s beautiful

What to eat and drink in Vicenza

  • Asiago is famous for its cheese and also you can get great milk and butter
  • Asiago cheese has various types – Vecchio and Stravecchio depending on age. It’s got similarities to parmesan cheese. There are lots of other different cheeses in the area – including Morlacco and Ubriaco del Grappa
  • The most famous local dish of Vicenza is Baccalà alla Vicentina, which is a dish where the stockfish sits in water for a few days and then you simmer it in milk. La Confraternita del Bacalà alla Vicentina is a local association that is only for a Bacalà where you can find the best local restaurants to go and eat Bacalà alla Vicentina
  • Soprèssa is a very typical salami from the area that you can have either with polenta (very popular in the North of Italy) or pan biscotto, which is a specific bread that is baked twice
  • There are different things you should try based on the season when you are in Vicenza. In Spring, the white asparagus of Bassano is incredible in risotto, pasta or just simply on its own asparagus and with eggs
  • In June and July, there are the famous cherries in Marostica which are really big, and juicy and delicious
  • Vicenza has five different areas for wine that produce five different kinds of wine
  • There is Tai, with the Tai Rosso and Tai Bianco
  • Durello is a bit similar to Prosecco, but with specific grape from the Durrello area
  • Breganze wine area is a large area
  • There’s also Recioto from Gambellara which is a sweet wine
  • Vicenza is where Grappa originates. You can go and visit Nardini in Bassano, which is the oldest distillery in Italy (therefore the world because grappas can only be from Italy)
  • Mezzo e Mezzo is another aperitif found in Bassano and made locally from Nardini. It’s a mix of soda water with  Nardini Rosso, a liquor specific for Nardini, a rhubarb liquor
  • An amazing experience in Bassano is having a Mezzo e Mezzo on the bridge overlooking the mountains and the river
  • Don’t mistake Tagliatella on the menu for pasta – this is another Nardini Liqueur, not as strong as Grappa

Where to stay and getting around Vicenza

  • As an alternative to hotels, there are B&Bs or apartments where you can stay that are in some beautiful villas. And you can stay in these for a surprisingly reasonable price
  • If you stay in the center, then you would not need a car and explore and can spend a wonderful time in the city of Vicenza on foot
  • If you want to visit the whole area, then a car is much easier and in fact the only way to see many of the areas gems
  • Katy advises not to be put off driving in smaller cities like this as they’re not that difficult to drive in. She does herself – it is a very different experience to driving in a big, hectic city like Rome and Naples. In fact, driving in the North of Italy, in general, is much easier and completely different than driving in the south. Elisabetta herself does not drive in the South – her husband is from Puglia and she is often there but avoids driving there
  • A car enables you to visit so many more things including local, small secret wineries
  • Vicenza is certainly a gem hiding in plain sight
  • You don’t need to be adventurous to visit Vicenza city, with it being less than an hour by train by Venice. You could even do it as a day trip, but it is certainly worth staying and venturing further afield
  • Venturing out and there’s so much to discover in Bassano alone. You can visit the river and the bridge, check out the many artisan businesses, and have a spritz or a Mezzo e Mezzo. Elisabetta is unashamedly in love with  Bassano and is even considering it as somewhere she could move to in the future
  • Find out more about Vicenza and all it has to offer on the Exploro website – things to do, see and eat, with some of the best artisans experiences, exploring the cuisine, villas, statues and incredible surrounding landscapes

About our guest – Elisabetta Faggiana

Eclectic entrepreneur with 15 years of experience in general management, marketing and communication in Entertainment, Tourism and Fashion. From Milan to Dubai to London she has covered different roles, from Marketing Manager, to European Communication Director to General Manager. In 2017 she decided to start her first company alongside Savio Losito, Unexpected London, which stems from her passion for responsible and relational tourism. In 2021 she launched Unexpected Italy again with partner Savio.

For this latest venture, they have moved back to Italy and are on a 5-year journey around Italy where they are mapping the whole territory, meeting incredible people and discovering unbelievable places. All of this will be available on their travel app that will be launched at the end of 2023, Travellers will be able to find self-guided itineraries that will allow them to discover Italy’s best-kept secrets and independent businesses (from where to stay, what to do and what to eat) based on their passions, interests and personalities. This will be the first Italian network of family-run and independent local excellences that enables travelers to come to Italy as guests and leave as locals.

Unexpected Italy are working with exploro.it, a platform funded by the Veneto Region to promote Vicenza and its territory, showcasing the best local experiences and places. Vicenza’s Exploro project brings together its top producers, artisans, and experiences – sharing its cuisine, villas, UNESCO status, nature, etc. Introducing Vicenza as a destination worthy of any Italy itinerary.

You can find more about Vicenza on Exploro on these channels:

You can find Elisabetta on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show

  • Vicenza – beautiful and interesting city in the Veneto region 
  • Marostica – known as the city of chess
  • Bassano (del Grappa) – where famous Italian drink Grappa is made
  • Asiago – mountain resort town
  • River Brenta – river in Vicenza where you can go kayaking
  • Palladian villas of the Veneto – the villas designed by famous Rennaisance architect Andrea Palladio
  • La Rotonda – villa by Palladio and which the White House is based on
  • Villa Valmarana –  villla next door to La Rotonda
  • Teatro Olimpico – the final design by Palladio, not completed until after he died
  • Arzignano – town known for its leather
  • Nove – little town known for its ceramics
  • Basilica Palladiana – Palladio designed the Basilica in Vicenza
  • Bar Borsa – jazz club inside the Basilica
  • Nardini – the oldest Grappa distillery in the world
  • Montecchio Maggiore – a town in the province of Vicenza, where 2 castles are, with a story by Sir Luigi da Porto that Romeo and Juliet was based on
  • Palazzo Roberti – library in Bassano voted one of the most beautiful in the world by the New York Times

Food & Drink

  • Asiago – cheese first produced in Asiago and found in Northern Italy with varying textures based on its age – 
  • Morlacco – a cow’s milk cheese usually aged for 20 days, but it can be left up to 3 months
  • Ubriaco – a cow’s milk cheese. For the last few months of aging, it is soaked in Prosecco wine with seeds, skins, and other leftovers from the wine-making process. It has a soft texture when fully mature, becoming firmer over time. Its origination story is that during WWI farmers hid their cheeses from enemy soldiers by placing them in wine barrels
  • Baccalà alla Vicentina – a signature dish of Vicenza. Made from stockfish, onions, anchovies, milk, and a mature cheese such as Parmesan
  • La Confraternita del Bacalà alla Vicentina –  the assosciate of Bacalà alla Vicentina
  • Soprèssa Vicentina –  a local salami style sausage seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic
  • Tai – Tai Rosso and Tai Bianco
  • Durello – similar to Prosecco, but with specific grape from the Durrello area
  • Breganze – a big area and they produce wine as well producing both red and white DOC wines
  • Recioto – a sweet wine from Gambellara
  • Grappa – strong, grape-based alcoholic drink made by distilling th stuff left over from wine-making (skins, pulp, seeds etc – known as the pomace)
  • Mezzo e Mezzo – the aperitif of Bassano with notes of rhubarb, citrus and bitter hints
  • Tagliatella – not pasta but a liqueur

Resources

  • Andrea Palladio – Rennaisance architect from Vicenza, working in the 1500s. Being influenced by Roman and Greek architecture, he’s widely considered to be one of the most influential individuals in the history of architecture
  • Christopher Wren – architect (as well as astronomer, geometrician and designer) Wren famously designed St. Paul’s Cathedral
  • Hawksmoor – a leading figure of the English Baroque style of architecture in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and known as the devil’s architect due to his use of pagan symbols
  • Scamozzi – Italian architect of the late Renaissance
  • Tiepolo – Renaissance artist whose work can be found in Vicenza
  • rabarbaro – rhubarb in Italian
  • Sir Luigi da Porto – Italian writer of the original tale of Romeo and Juliet in the 1500s published as Historia novellamente ritrovata di due nobili amanti – Newly found story of two noble lovers
  • Tassotti – paper printers from Bassano

Resources from Untold Italy

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