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Vicenza s pull of history
Row of Ai Nani or dwarf statues at Villa Valmara, near Vicenza. Picture: Ron Banks

My favourite town is Vicenza, in north-east Italy, less than an hour's train ride north of Venice.

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Maybe I haven't travelled enough but, for me, it's the kind of place that offers an unforgettable blend of beauty, tranquillity and culture, the qualities needed to pull you back there for more than the passing visit.

We came on the place quite by accident while spending a couple of weeks in Venice. Wanting to escape the summer crowds of the fabled canal city for a day, we read about Vicenza in a brochure and decided that its proximity - only 60km - made the town an ideal spot for some cultural tourism.

A 16th century town, Vicenza has, in the words of the Frommer's guidebook, "a virtual laboratory for the architectural experiments of Andrea di Pietro, otherwise known as Palladio (1508-80)". What's more, Palladio's final work, the Teatro Olimpico, is still standing proudly. The world's first Renaissance theatre, it was designed like a roofed version of a Greek amphitheatre.

The guidebook is right. Vicenza is still filled with the kind of 16th century architecture now known as Palladianism - graceful buildings of strictly formal grand design, complete with pillars and pilasters that gently whisper classical good taste.

There is nothing excessive about the designs of Palladio, whose style is said to have influenced English architect Robert Adam and even inspired the Plantation-style antebellum homes of the rich slave-owners in America's Deep South.

As a result of Palladio's widespread influence on the town's design, Vicenza is now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. It means that the 16th century feel to the town remains very much in evidence in the building facades and streetscapes, even if it has its share of cappuccino outlets and boutique fashion shops underneath its colonnades and arches. In other words, Vicenza is pretty much unspoilt architecturally, with its fashionable retail shops around its piazzas and streets cleverly absorbed into the overall design.

The influence of Palladio extends beyond the city with a number of imposing villas reachable along the cycleways that stretch out in several directions from the town centre.

We quickly discovered a bicycle hire shop in a back street and were soon pedalling out to inspect the villas designed by Palladio and his followers. One of the most famous is the Villa Valmarana Ai Nani, built by Palladio's disciple Mattoni in the 17th century - a gracious country house set in beautiful gardens. It's called Ai Nani because of the miniature statues of dwarfs ("nani") placed along the ramparts of a brick wall that encloses the estate. They look down on the visitors with a kind of ugly, squat beauty.

Another attraction is the Villa Rotunda, built in the form of a rotunda, with rooms leading off its central circular entrance hall.

Vicenza is filled with enough graceful civic museums, basilicas, galleries, villas and Palladio- designed buildings to keep the visitor nosing around in all directions for many days. But the strongest tourist magnet is the Teatro Olimpico at the bottom of the main cobbled street. Palladio died six months after finishing his designs for the theatre, leaving another architect, Vincenzo Scamozzi, to complete the project from his drawings. The theatre opened in 1585 with a production of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex.

What was remarkable about this Renaissance theatre based on classical Greek and Roman architecture is the onstage set design, which remains to this day exactly as it was for the first production.

The theatre, unfortunately, was not a success and closed after a few performances. It was virtually put into mothballs for the next four centuries.

Entering this historic theatre, which is reached through a series of corridors, foyers and anterooms, one can only marvel at the grandeur of the Greco-Roman architecture. The semi-circular seating area of wooden benches, like a roofed Greek amphitheatre.

But there is an eeriness about the stage and its setting, which sees the streets of Thebes reproduced in reduced perspective down five alleyways, just as the audience had seen them on opening night in 1585.

The theatre was first mooted by Vicenza's men of letters in the 1550s, having set themselves up as the Accademia Olimpica. These days it is a tourist drawcard rather than a working theatre, although concerts are often performed in front of the set in summer.