Archive for September, 2010

Visit Veneto for history, architecture, theater – and a human chess game

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

Marostica, Italy, has a quaint town square, as do many villages in the Veneto region west of Venice.

But on the recent weekend of Sept. 10-12, Marostica’s square was filled with knights on horseback, castles that move, pawns that breathe and a real-life “king” and “queen.”

Every even-numbered year on the second weekend in September, Marostica hosts a “living” chess game using human pieces – more than 500 townsfolk in authentic medieval clothing play the parts of the pieces on a massive chess board.

The outdoor tradition, which originated in the 1920s, takes place in the shadow of the town’s castle and protective walls rising from the crest of a nearby hill.The popularity of the living match soared after WWII when a local playwright created a historic love story about a chess duel for the hand of a princess.

Although there is a limited opportunity to see the actual tournament, the costumes are on permanent display in town and the the giant chess board in the middle of the town square can be visited any time.

But while the living chess game is a great excuse to visit, the Veneto region offers many more things to do in this beautiful, hilly region of Northern Italy that is off the beaten path for most tourists.

Fly into Venice and head towards the city of Vicenza, past acres of grapes ripening on rows of vines. It’s a historic, Old World city that’s a great central point for your visit to Veneto.

Walk the winding cobblestone streets, past statues and frescoes that adorn 500-year-old buildings, and dine at reasonably-priced restaurants that are so off the usual tourist path, menus are usually offered only in Italian.

All roads lead to the Teatro Olimpico, the oldest fully-enclosed theater in the world. If you time your visit right, you can catch one of the theatrical productions that only take place twice a year, in spring and fall.

Dating from the mid-1500s, the theater was designed by Andrea Palladio, the preeminent architect of the era. The original painted backdrop – a street scene that was installed in 1585 – has been carefully preserved since the theater’s first opening night.

Palladio’s work reverberates throughout Veneto, and can best be seen by visiting a collection of luxurious villas he designed. For students of architecture, a visit to Veneto is a pilgrimage rather than a vacation. The Palladian style is alive here and has influenced other architects worldwide.

(Purchase a Palladio Card at, and pay one admission to tour five villas, plus reduced admission to seven others.)

Outside of Veneto, the Vicenza region offers many other architectural and gastronomical delights. The Villa Valmarana ai Nani is a Palladio-designed, 16th-century home with stables, guest house and gardens added in later years. Visitors can admire the frescoes and the dwarf statues that line the high walls outside the Villa.

Local lore has it that the family only hired dwarves to work there, to bolster the confidence of a height disadvantaged daughter. When she killed herself, the employees turned into the stone statues that surround the property today.

Visit Bassano Del Grappa, home of the Ponte degli Alpini wooden bridge, and enjoy a snack and a glass of grappa – the local spirit – along the same streets that once charmed the likes of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

You can’t leave Veneto without a visit to the the preserved historic castles of the two families that inspired the Italian tale of tragic young lovers Giulietta e Romeo – better known as Romeo and Juliet.