If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the Veneto region of northern Italy on the Gulf of Venice. Venice is its best-known city and one of the most popular tourist destinations on earth. But the Veneto region is a lot more than this great city. It hosts many other excellent tourist attractions, and you won’t have to fight the huge crowds. With a little luck you’ll avoid tourist traps, and come back home feeling that you have truly visited Italy. This article examines tourist attractions in the university city of Padua in central Veneto. Be sure to read our companion articles on northern Veneto, on southern Veneto, and on that Shakespearean city of Verona.
Padua, population over two hundred thousand, is only about twenty-five miles (forty kilometers) west of Venice but has always had a life of its own. It was the setting for Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Padua claims to be the oldest city in northern Italy, founded early in the Twelfth Century B.C. It held out against the Lombards for twelve years at the beginning of the Seventh Century only to be burnt to the ground. Padua was the headquarters of the Italian Army in the First World War and the site of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s surrender.
The historic city center surrounded by seven miles (eleven kilometers) of Sixteenth Century walls is home to the City Hall, whose wall is covered by the names of the Paduan war dead. Other sites of interest include the Palazzo della Ragione described next and the Nineteenth Century Neoclassical Caffé Pedrocchi. This caffé is one of the largest in the world and the hub of the uprisings in 1848 perhaps not surprising given its proximity to the university described below.
The Twelfth Century Palazzo della Ragione (Palace of Reason) in spite of its name is not a philosopher’s hangout, but a huge centuries-old marketplace. The hall itself is about two hundred seventy feet (eighty meters) long so when people say you can’t miss it, they aren’t kidding. This magnificent building was heavily damaged by fire early in the Fifteenth Century, completely destroying a great collection of frescoes. So the frescoes you’ll see are somewhat more modern. By the way, the collection includes one of the few complete sets of the zodiac signs. The palace is no longer the seat of the Padua government and often hosts art shows.
Padua University in the city’s historic center at the Palazzo del Bo’ (Ox Palace, named for a inn that it replaced) was founded in 1222 when many professors and students left the University of Bologna over the issue of academic freedom. Jurisprudence and theology were the first courses offered. From the Fifteenth Century to the Eighteenth Century the university was renowned for its research, particularly in the areas of medicine, astronomy, philosophy, and law. On June 25, 1678, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia became the world’s first woman graduate when awarded a doctorate in Philosophy in the Padua Cathedral. In addition to mathematics, philosophy, and theology Piscopia mastered the following languages: Italian, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, French, and Arabic. Other famous professors and graduates include Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Giacomo Casanova. You may want to visit its Anatomy Theatre, the oldest in the world built in 1594. To deal with the issue of overcrowding many university faculties have recently moved to other cities in the Veneto region.
Along the Piazza dei Signori (Seigneurs’ Square) you’ll see the early Seventeenth Palazzo del Capitanio, the residence of the Venetian governors with its great door. The palace included its own church, the church of San Nicolo. The nearby Duomo (Cathedral), remodeled in the mid-Sixteenth Century after a design by Michelangelo, is not one of his best works. The Thirteenth Century Baptistry includes a series of frescoes illustrating the Book of Genesis by an early Renaissance Italian painter. This piazza is home to the city’s St. Mark’s Lion. If you read my companion article on southern Veneto you’ll know what to look for when you get there.
The Fourteenth Century Cappella degli Scrovegni (Scrovegni Chapel) is Italy’s best-known chapel after the Sistine Chapel. It is also called the Arena Chapel because it stands on the site of a Roman-era arena. The chapel’s fresco collection devoted to the life of the Virgin Mary is virtually unmatched. Before entering the chapel you must spend 15 minutes in a climate-controlled air-locked room reducing the temperature difference between the outside world and the inside of the chapel. Nearby you will find the Musei Civici degli Eremitani (Civic Museum) a former monastery with its collections of Venetian paintings, ancient coins, and other archeological treasures.
Padua’s most famous church is the Basilica di Sant’Antonio da Padova (Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua) started around 1238 and completed after the turn of the century. His remains repose in a beautiful chapel. In front of the church is a Donatello statue of a Venetian general riding horseback. This statue, cast in the middle of the Fifteenth Century, was said to be the first full-size equestrian bronze statue cast since antiquity. Nearby are the Thirteenth Century St. George Oratory and the Sixteenth Century Scuola di San Antonio (St. Anthony’s School) both of which have great fresco collections, the first by Altichiero and the second by the more famous Titian.
Padua’s Orto Botanico (Botanical Garden), founded in 1545, was the first in the world. The Botanical Garden still maintains its original layout, a circular central plot symbolizing the earth surrounded by a ring of water. It has expanded over time. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a center for scientific research.
Nature lovers will appreciate the Eighteenth Century Villa Pisani (Pisani Palace) about eight miles (thirteen kilometers) southeast of the city on the Brenta River, home to many fancy, fancy homes. This Palace contains 114 rooms in honor of the 114th Doge, a member of the Pisani family. Napoleon spent a night here before giving the palace away. Make sure to see the trompe-l’oeil frescoes on the ceiling. The adjoining park is a-maze-ing if you get my drift.
One of Padua’s best-known symbols is the Prato della Valle (Valley Meadow), often called the Grassless Meadow, said to be the largest square in Europe after Moscow’s Red Square. It measures approximately one million square feet (ninety thousand square meters) or about fifty football fields. In its center, if you don’t mind the hike, you’ll find a wide garden surrounded by a ditch and lined by 78 statues portraying famous citizens. The site includes the abbey and the basilica of Santa Giustina (Saint Justine), with an interesting art collection. This complex was built around the Fifth Century tomb of Saint Justine of Padua. Napoleon suppressed the monastery in 1820 and it didn’t reopen for more than one hundred years. You will find tombs of several saints and relics of the Apostle St. Matthias and the Evangelist St. Luke.
There are several other churches to see if you have the time and energy. The Thirteenth Century Augustinian Church of the Eremitani contains several tombs of city lords. It held an excellent collection of frescoes that were destroyed during World War II because of the German headquarters next door. The Tenth Century Santa Sofia (Saint Sophia) is probably Padua's most ancient church. It combines a Romanesque-Gothic interior with Byzantine elements. This edifice appears to be tilting slightly due to the soft terrain. The Sixteenth Century church of San Gaetano houses a precious Madonna and Child.
What about food? Padua is a unique city and has quite a selection of food specialties, some of which you may not care to sample. Specialties include torresano allo spiedo (pigeon raised in tower lofts), sfilacci (salted, dried, and smoked horsemeat), mushrooms and truffles (that sounds better already), and peaches. Like I said, Padua is a unique city.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Prosciutto Veneto Berico Euganeo (Montagnana Sweet Cured Ham). Then try Bondole (Smoked Pork Sausage). For dessert indulge yourself with Crema Fritta (Fried Cream Custard). Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We’ll conclude with a quick look at Veneto wine. Veneto ranks 3rd among the 20 Italian regions both for the area planted in grape vines and for its total annual wine production. About 45% of Veneto wine is red or rosé, leaving 55% for white. The region produces 24 DOC wines and 3 DOCG wines, Recioto di Soave, Soave Superiore, and Bardolino Superiore. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine The G in DOCG stands for Garantita, but there is in fact no guarantee that such wines are truly superior. Almost 30% of Venetian wine carries the DOC or DOCG designation.
Bagnoli di Sopra DOC also called Bagnoli DOC is made in a variety of styles from a variety of international and local red and white grapes in the area approximately between Rovigo and Padua. Colli Euganei DOC is made in a wide variety of styles from local or international white or red grapes on the volcanic hills southwest of Padua.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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