Montecchio Maggiore is a humble small town in the Northern Italian region of the Veneto. It is also the perfect example that looks are not everything and that often you need to dig just a little bit deeper in order to come across a truly precious gem.
And Montecchio Maggiore is truly blessed as it has not one but four stunning gems in its crown. They are of significant historical, artistic, architectural and even literary values. Something that one wouldn’t expect to find there judging simply on the town’s rather industrialised surroundings.
Yes, truth be told, Montecchio Maggiore is not much of a looker as you speed past it on the highway that takes you from the nearby city of Vicenza to fair Verona. Industrial estates and factories dot the otherwise lush landscape and with all this proof of economic activity, you soon start to realise why the Veneto is one of the two richest Italian regions (the other one being Lombardy).
Yet, if you lift your gaze just a tiny little bit above all those industrial buildings you will spot something rather curious.
For on top of a hill you will see a medieval castle with yet another medieval castle peaking right behind it. These are the Romeo’s and Juliet’s Castles and, as every local would proudly tell you, they inspired the author of the world’s most well-known love story.
You think I am talking about one William Shakespeare?! Not quite!
In fact, Romeo and Juliet (or Romeo and Giulietta as they are known in Italian) are the creation of the literary mind of Luigi da Porto – a nobleman and writer from Vicenza who retreated to his villa on the outskirts of Montecchio Maggiore to write after he had been gravely wounded in a military campaign.
Looking at the castles through the windows of his villa and finding inspiration in a local legend and his own love troubles, between 1512 and 1524 da Porto penned a novella which was so successful at the time that it was even translated into English. He came with the names of Romeo and Giulietta and described the young couple’s tragic love and ultimate death. Plus, he gave Romeo the surname of Montecchi undoubtedly borrowing it from the name of Montecchio Maggiore itself.
Nowadays, the two medieval castles still stand over Montecchio Maggiore and the locals lovingly refer to them as the Romeo’s and Juliet’s Castles. Yet, the hidden charms of this small and humble Northern Italian town don’t end with its illustrious literary connection.
If you put aside a day to explore everything that Montecchio Maggiore has to offer, you will be surprised to also discover there:
- a beautiful Venetian villa with frescoes painted by Giambattista Tiepolo;
- an inspiring world-class gallery boldly exploring the art of mosaic; and
- the first museum in Italy entirely dedicated to Oriental antiques.
Keep reading below for full details on how to see and explore each of these four hidden gems that Montecchio Maggiore has in store for you. I have provided lots of interesting information to flare up your imagination and make you feel like you have to visit this small Northern Italian town right this minute.
Montecchio Maggiore is an easy day trip from Vicenza (17 mins), as well as from Padua (36 mins) and Verona (36 mins). It is best to arrive by car so that you can easily reach and move between the four points of interest described in detail below.
The town has a large Duomo (the imposing Cathedral of Santa Maria and San Vitale)…
and also an interesting Archaeological and Natural History Museum (open on weekends only).
Yet, Montecchio Maggiore’s major points of attraction are these four hidden gems.
Montecchio Maggiore, Italy – 4 Hidden Gems You Need to See in the Real Town of Romeo and Juliet
1. The medieval Castles of Villa and Bellaguardia also known as Romeo’s and Juliet’s Castles
On top of the lush hills which stand guard over the small Northern Italian town of Montecchio Maggiore there are two medieval castles. Officially named Castello della Villa and Castello della Bellaguardia, their respective stories span many centuries. The castles have borne witness to several military campaigns. Their earliest defensive walls and buildings were almost totally destroyed.
Only two towers survived – one for each castle. The current walls and structures of the castles were built around them between 1354 and 1356 only to be damaged again about a century and a half later during the War of the League of Cambrai – a major conflict in the Italian wars.
Yet, nowadays people don’t flock to the two castles to learn more about their military history. Instead, the castles’ appeal lies in the fact that they were the source of inspiration for the first written account of Romeo and Juliet’s tragic story. Written by Luigi da Porto – a nobleman from nearby Vicenza – the story gained such widespread acclaim that it reached England (where it inspired William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet) and Spain (where it inspired Lope de Vega’s tragicomedy Castelvines y Monteses).
Hence, locals customarily refer to the Castello della Villa as the Romeo’s Castle and to the Castello della Bellaguardia as the Juliet’s Castle.
The two castles are very interesting to visit. A road leads from Montecchio Maggiore up the hill first to Romeo’s Castle and then to its counterpart. There is no entry fee. The distance between the two castles is about 300 metres – a nice and easy hike on the paved road between lush vineyards.
There is a small church called San Valentino between the castles, as well as a large car park by Romeo’s Castle, too. Juliet’s Castle houses a seasonal restaurant. On the road leading to Juliet’s Castle, you will also spot the entrance to Le Priare – an underground complex of man-made caves formed during the centuries-long stone extraction that took place there. Click on the link (in Italian) to find out Le Priare opening hours and how you can visit the complex.
For their history and the gorgeous views they afford over the surrounding area, Romeo’s and Juliet’s Castles are a great spot to visit any time of the year. The castles come into their own though during the yearly festival dedicated to Romeo, Juliet and their original author – Luigi da Porto.
Known as La Faida, the festival takes place at the beginning of May each year. A whole medieval village is built between the two castles. People dressed in medieval garb take part in demonstrations of old crafts like bookbinding and combat disciplines like sword fighting and axe throwing. A medieval beauty pageant culminates with the selection of Romeo and Juliet with the local youngsters vying for the title.
2. Villa Cordellina Lombardi
Villa Cordellina Lombardi is one of the harmonious and beautiful Venetian Villas which are a must-see when you find yourself in the Northern Italian region of the Veneto. Built between 1735 and 1760, the villa is the creation of two illustrious architects:
- Giorgio Massari who suggested the Palladian design; and
- Francesco Muttoni who contributed by adding Baroque forms to the building.
You will glimpse Villa Cordellina Lombardi as you drive in and out of Montecchio Maggiore. Make sure that you stop and spend at least an hour exploring the villa, its park and its history.
The villa’s main point of attraction are the frescoes painted between 1743 and 1744 by Giambattista Tiepolo in the reception hall of the main residential building. The reception hall (also known as the portego) takes up two floors of the villa. Tiepolo’s frescos interpret the impressive theme of ‘The light of Intelligence chasing away the darkness of Ignorance’.
For an entry fee of 6.00 euros you are allowed to roam the villa’s grounds and to explore the ground floor of the main residential building. Statues are dotted around the vast park. There are many etchings, paintings and objects of interest in the many rooms. And I was particularly taken with the old stables.
Villa Cordellina Lombardi is a lovely place to visit when in Montecchio Maggiore. It gives you a good idea of the grandeur of the Venetian Villas and the refined taste of the nobility who built them.
3. Fondazione Bisazza
If I am hard pressed to choose my favourite hidden gem in Montecchio Maggiore of the four covered in this blog post, I would definitely pick Fondazione Bisazza.
This is a huge whimsical place where contemporary art, design and architecture on one hand and the art of mosaic on the other have met at the best crossing point.
Imagine the hugest space you can think of, picture in your mind the vastest exhibition rooms you can conjure. Then fill them in with bold forms and shapes all covered in tiny yet shiny and lustrous pieces of mosaics. This way you will get an idea what the exhibition space of Fondazione Bisazza looks like. Yet, it would be much better to simply drive to Montecchio Maggiore and see it all for yourself.
Visiting Fondazione Bisazza is like stepping into another world where people are not constrained by life and can give flight to their artistry and imagination. The outside walls of the building are covered with lush roses – it’s like a magical garden which you can’t wait to explore. As soon as you get closer to the entrance, you realise that every single petal, every beautiful leaf, every tiny thorn are made of mosaics. It’s incredible how many shapes and colours can be achieved by meticulously applying one small piece of mosaic after another.
Fondazione Bisazza is a private non-profit organisation which supports the work of contemporary designers, architects and artists. Entry to its exhibition space in Montecchio Maggiore is free. There is ample free parking on-site.
4. Oriental Art Museum Obrietan
Housed in a 200 years old Venetian villa, Obrietan is the first museum in Italy entirely dedicated to Oriental antiques.
Stepping over its threshold, you find yourself transported thousands of kilometres away and hundreds of years ago. For the museum has a rich collection of (mainly) Tibetan and Chinese ancient artefacts. They are beautifully displayed in a setting that makes you slow your steps and feel like you simply want to spend long hours there learning the story of each item.
The Oriental Art Museum Obrietan is attached to the only business in Northern Italy selling and exhibiting antique Oriental furniture and art. In fact, this is how I discovered the museum for myself. For every time we have travelled on the highway, just past Montecchio Maggiore I could glimpse a large sign pointing to it and it really made me curious about this place.
The museum is an unexpected and poetic discovery among the industrial estates which surround Montecchio Maggiore. Click on the link above (in English) to find out its opening hours and driving directions.
Montecchio Maggiore is a small and humble town in the Northern Italian region of the Veneto. Compared to nearby Vicenza and Verona, the town doesn’t seem to offer much, especially as it is in the centre of a heavily industrialised area.
Yet, you just need to dig a bit deeper beneath the surface to discover four hidden gems a visit to which makes for a fabulous day out. In a nutshell, they are:
- two medieval castles which inspired a local nobleman to write the original story of Romeo and Juliet many years before Shakespeare and Lope de Vega penned their own versions;
- a refined Venetian Villa;
- a world-class mosaic art gallery; and
- an Oriental art museum.
Montecchio Maggiore has a lot to offer to the discerning traveller. So, make sure that you put aside some time to explore the historical, architectural, artistic and literary heritage of this small Northern Italian town. It is an easy day trip by car from Vicenza, Padua and Verona offering you lots of fab views, romantic references and beautiful art.
Have you been to Montecchio Maggiore? What did you love the most about this small unpretentious Italian town? Also, please, let me know about other small towns anywhere in the world where you have discovered unexpected hidden gems!
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