Italy: Old and new in princely Padua
Published 27/07/2015 | 02:30
Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice stalked me (in a good way) on my recent trip to the province of Padova, for you quickly learn as you dive into this gorgeous, historically rich, area that the relationship between beautiful Padova and decadent Venice is deep and that the early Venetians were as arrogant and dangerous as the bard portrayed them.
Italy is divided into regions and provinces. Padova is a province within the region of Veneto. Its capital city is also called Padova (Padua in English) so it can be very confusing.
Padova and Venice are very near each other - only about 30 miles separate the two. For our trip, we planned everything through the Padova tourist site, see padovatravel.it.
We flew into Venice airport and drove to Padova city, a journey time of about 50 minutes. There is a direct bus link from the airport to Padova. We stayed at the four-star Hotel Europa Padova (see hoteleuropad.it), a well located, friendly hotel, literally a stone's throw from Padova's impressive shopping quarter (lots of Dolce & Gabbana and Louis Vuitton) as well as historical sites such as the Scrovegni Chapel which has extraordinary frescoes by Giotto.
The Scrovegni were a powerful family in the 1400s. In order to curry favour with God and ease their way into heaven, they built this chapel, hired Giotto, and dedicated it to Him. Such grand gestures are the stuff of Italian history.
Padova city is lovely to walk around. It has a mix of old town, thin, meandering streets and squares and modern boulevards, parks and trams. It has an incredible 24km of porticos. There is an open-air market every morning in Piazza delle Erbe, by the Palazzo della Ragione, which is well worth a visit.
One of Padova's attractions- and definitely one of which they are most proud - is the relic of St Antonio (St Anthony of Padua), his tongue and part of his jaw, which are on display in the Basilica del Santo.
Constance outside the Basilica del Santo
St. Anthony spent his last two years in Padova preaching, before he died there on the June 13, 1231. The Basilica del Santo is a living place of pilgrimage and church life. Every inch of it is covered in diverse art and expression. I loved it and found it engrossing.
Padova is renowned for its institutions of education and medicine, especially The University of Padua, where Copernicus studied medicine. It was also the first to allow a female to study and graduate with a doctorate in Philosophy, in 1678.
A nice day out, for a different experience of the area, is a visit to medieval Cittadella, about thirty minutes away by car. Founded in 1220, the city was formed because Padova was subject to a lot of invasions. Cittadella was designed to be a fortified city within walls, surrounded by moats. The high, thick walls and parapets seem vast as you walk upon them. There is a small museum and guide office to help orientate you.
At Cittadella, there is much to see. You can visit the Palazzo Pretorio, an example of a noble man's house built in 1483. It has striking portrait frescoes - and its own prison.
There is the Social Theatre of Cittadella, which was built in 1828 as therapy for the inhabitants of Cittadella due to the ongoing tensions of the Napoleonic wars with Austria. At the time, Cittadella was under the rule of the Austrians, who gave permission for it to be built. It's active and in operation, so you may luck out on your visit and get to see a show or a movie screening there.
If you time your visit well, you may enjoy a re-enactments of historical events on the last Sunday of September, while on the fourth Sunday of October, there are medieval markets and tournaments and the people 'go crazy' (their words) celebrating when the first of the new wine, the Novello, is ready.
Padova has rich farming land and the stunning Italian Alps are in the distance. For hundreds of years, Padova city and province was an epicentre for science and industry. It is both beautiful and productive. The merchants of Venice, to escape the heat and pungent odours of their city in summer, would flock to sweet Padova, to holiday and play, as well as enjoy the fresh food their homesteads produced.
Here they built the most spectacular palazzos of such size and decadence we would hardly have believed it them had we not seen them with our own eyes. There are over 4,300 villas in the area between Padova and Venice.
Villa Pisani National Museum is one of the most lavish villas I have ever visited. Modelled on the Palace of Versailles, we first mistook the stunning stables, which were on the opposite end of the man-made lake, as being another villa such was the size and extravagance of just that building. As well as the house, the villa has lovely grounds to explore, including a maze, a tower, orange groves, gentle woodland walks and an idyllically peaceful cafe behind the stables.
Done on a grand, classical scale, the rooms just keep coming. Napoleon made it his home during his crusades across Europe. It was quite something to see the plain, yet richly gilded, four-poster bed that Napoleon slept in sitting up, as they did not like to sleep on their pillows, with his symbol, the Eagle, on the bed head. It is believed it was here that Mussolini and Hitler signed their aliance in WWll.
Learning about life in this region from the 1400s onwards is a fascinating feature of any holiday here. It is well worth hiring an official guide from one of the guiding offices when visiting a place such as Villa Cantarini for they give you tons and tons of gory, juicy, information. From this visit, and all our others to such historical sites, we learned of the parties, the social rules, the food, the games, the darned indulgent lives of the rich Venetians who so dominated the area for hundreds of years.
We, of course, saw no relation between their lives and ours on holiday, with our guzzling of gorgeous Padovan wine and grand noshing of food throughout our trip. Padova is too refined and polite to point out the obvious.
Padova is a keeper of a place.
For comprehensive tourist information, including guided tours, cycling trips, spa visits and more, see paduatravel.it. For special offers, including accommodation and the Padova card, see weekendpadova.it. Both Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly directly to Venice where there is a direct bus link to Padova, or you can hire a car.
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