Travel: Street theatre

Cathy Packe explores Vicenza

Tradition dies hard in the small towns of Italy. During the working day people bustle about, but as soon as midday has passed, shops begin to close and the frenetic pace of life calms. As the streets go quiet, little can be heard but a gentle chink of cutlery on china.

Arriving in Vicenza at lunch time (an hour from Venice by train) offers two opportunities. The first, and possibly the most important, is the chance of a decent meal: lunch is taken as seriously here as anywhere in Italy. The other is that with the streets deserted, the architectural glories of the place can be seen at their best.

In the early 1400s Vicenza was a prosperous artistic centre, which came under the protection of the Venetian republic. Traditionally a textile centre, it now has a thriving chemical industry; but it also manages to remain one of the most attractive small towns in northern Italy.

At first sight - and certainly if you take any notice of the leaflets put out by the tourist office - Vicenza would seem to be something of a one-horse town, the horse in this case being the 16th-century architect Andrea di Pietro, aka Palladio. He is commemorated in hotels, cinemas, and other local landmarks and the town's main thoroughfare is, predictably enough, the Corso Palladio.

In Vicenza, you can survey his work effortlessly by taking a gentle stroll down the Corso; start in the Piazza Castello and head north east, which guarantees that you leave the best till last. The street meanders along, lined with cafes and arcades, and crossed by narrow alleyways. As you head down to the Piazza Matteotti at the far end, you pass several palazzi: Thiene, Capra, Pojana, and Barbaran. Their designs are attributed to the hand of Palladio but all seem to have been finished by someone else. This looks like an attempt to cash in on a famous name - a sort of Italian version of "Elizabeth I slept here" - but nonetheless it makes for a town which is elegant and pleasantly proportioned. Just off the Corso to the left, nearly at the bottom, is the Cappella Valmarana.

Back on the Corso, after the church, is the Palazzo Chiericati. Now the home of the municipal art gallery, this is one of Palladio's finest buildings. The facade has two rows of columns, above which stands a row of classical statues. Inside is a collection of paintings by artists of Vicenza and Venice, including Tiepolo, Tintoretto and Veronese.

Across the way is the Teatro Olimpico. Even in a country where the extraordinary is commonplace, this is a breathtaking treasure. From the outside, the building is distinguished only by an iron name-plate hung across a stone arch, the 16th-century equivalent of a billboard. At the end of the small garden, buy your ticket and head down a narrow corridor and through two ornate anterooms. Finally you reach the auditorium.

On the stage is a classical town with streets disappearing in various directions off a central square. Around the square are pillared facades, complete with statue-filled niches. It is a permanent set, but the effect is so lifelike that you can almost see a thief lurking in a shadowy doorway, or a young heroine leaning out of an upstairs window. During the summer season you could go to a performance here; at other times, sit down on one of the steep tiers of seats and leave it to your imagination.

Don't be misled into thinking there is nothing more to Vicenza than Palladio. As you head out of the theatre and back up the Corso, turn left into an alleyway beside the Bata shoe shop, go under the arch and you will emerge into a large, perfectly proportioned square, the Piazza dei Signori, which is dominated on one side by the Basilica Palladiana. Cross the square and head down some steps and everything becomes higgledy-piggledy. Go past the flower stall and you will find a series of little underground shops, a more permanent version of the original outdoor market. The interlocking levels surrounding the Basilica give a curious 3-D effect which is strangely at odds with the symmetry elsewhere in the town.

Head back to the square again in the late afternoon, as the sun begins to go down. A table outside the Caffe Garibaldi is the perfect spot from which to observe another Italian ritual, the passeggiata. As the pace of the city slows at about the same rate as your Campari diminishes, you may contemplate spending another day in Vicenza: visiting Monte Berico, a short bus trip from the town centre. The two glorious villas here - Villa Valmarana, filled with Tiepolo frescos, and Palladio's Villa Rotunda (pictured opposite) - are as heroic as the Teatro Olimpico. Or you might just watch the world parade before you.

Vicenza's nearest international airports are Verona, and Venice's Marco Polo. Either city is an hour away by train.

Gatwick-Verona: British Airways (0345 222111) has a World Offer fare of pounds 150 return inc tax; book by 29 January. Gatwick-Venice: Sky Shuttle (0181-748 1333) has charter flights on Monarch for pounds 158 inc tax.

Night-time

raids on Vicenza

Once you've finished admiring Vicenza's extraordinary architecture, what else? There is more to this town than immediately meets the eye. Did you know that the Air War over Bosnia was controlled from the small bases to the north of the town, and that there are several thousand American paratroopers stationed on the eastern side?

As British air-crews found while stationed here during the Bosnia campaign, American paras aren't particularly adventurous, and only rarely venture as far as the city centre. So they haven't spoilt the town at all. Yet they have had an impact - if your Italian isn't quite up to speed then you are more likely to find English speakers here than in other parts of the country.

For flyers in search of nightlife, here's where the locals and the air- crews go. The Piazza dei Signori is the place to start on an evening, but don't bother before 9pm, there will be few people about (this is, after all, a latin country). There are several small, fun bars dotted around the side streets surrounding the square, including a good jazz bar and, surprisingly, an Irish bar. If you want to stay even later, then go to the out-of-town discos. There are several within a few miles of the centre and they all open to the wee hours. One worth a visit is The Boom - about 12 miles north of town, if you can afford the taxi. It is the size of a superstore and has a dancefloor to cater for every type of music. In the summer there is even a dancefloor outside. It's a very popular spot with the locals, but it is so big the queues are short.

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