I was going to combine the next two places but I think it’s better to cover them individually as they are all so interesting. The next visit on our river cruise from Venice took us to Padua, which had much of interest. One of the main similarities of all the Italian towns is the importance of the churches and their art history. The local guides were very good in conveying the importance of the Catholic faith with an acknowledgement that not all visitors shared those beliefs.
However, the art was emphasised every bit as much as religion and it was amazing to see how much of it portrayed the Bible stories for once illiterate worshippers. In Italy, almost every picture does indeed tell a story.
Padua (or Padova)
I already knew that Padua had one of the oldest universities in the world, founded in 1222, but didn’t realise it came second only to Bologna, another Italian university. Once home to Galileo, Copernicus and Dante, the town has retained many of its medieval areas. It also has one of the biggest squares in Europe which began as a Roman theatre and was reshaped into its present layout in 1775. It was so hot the day of our visit that I missed having a walk around it to view the many elegant statues encircling the area – I had to make do with a quick photo as we passed.
As befits this ancient walled university city, Padua produced the first woman graduate in the world, Elena Lucrezia Corner Piscopia, a Venetian who was finally granted a degree in Philosophy from the University of Padua in 1678. The town is also a centre of pilgrimage to the magnificent Basilica of St Anthony, dating from the 1200s and housing the tomb and several relics of the saint. It is still a revered place and we were unable to take any photos inside but we were allowed to copy pilgrims from all over the world and touch the tomb if we so wished. The statues and crucifix on the main altar are by Donatello, as is the horse and rider in the square in front of the church.
Padua is a remarkable town, where ancient monuments and more modern cafes and shops happily coexist along with the students, academics, tourists and pilgrims. Simon was amused to find few tourist souvenir shops for me to explore, apart from those selling religious wares immediately outside the Basilica and I was lucky to buy my fridge magnet (which I collect from around the world) in a small tobacco shop. There are plenty of good Italian fashion shops, but most are closed for the long siesta after lunch and I suspect they would be too expensive.
But there was one famous local delicacy I got to try. A café Pedrocchi is a speciality of the famous café of the same name and when our guide gave us half an hour to ourselves, a few of us made straight for the coffee! We were warned to sit in the less salubrious part of the café to avoid the higher costs but the coffee was the same. The warm espresso is served in a small cup topped with a creamy mint froth and sprinkled with chocolate. It was the most unusual coffee experience as the warm strong coffee hits through the cool minty foam. Not to be missed!
Another of Padua’s most famous claims to fame is the Scrovegni Chapel which holds priceless frescos by Giotto. This was available as an optional visit which had to be booked ahead but it involved sitting in a special room for 15 minutes prior to being allowed into the chapel in small numbers, as they have to keep the temperature at a certain level. We passed on the opportunity as we preferred to explore Padua itself and I didn’t hear of any passengers going to the chapel. A visit to make another time, perhaps, when staying longer.
Padua is an interesting venue that I’d be happy to explore again one day when we can wander off at will, discovering paintings inside ornate buildings and where we can sit in one of the elegant squares watching modern students cycle past in this ancient and elegant university town.
Look out for another report next week.