Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Day Trips from Venice: #1 Padua

If you are in Venice but feel the need to explore a city in northern Italy that doesn't feel like a bubble out of a dream, with real cars, bicycles, local people buying grocery and not even one masque shop in sight, you could go to Padova - or Padua, as the city is called in English - for the day.
In Padova
Street corner of Padua

This city is less than half an hour away from Venice with the train (take the regionale veloce, not the Freccia which is more expensive and takes the same time), and while it may not be as famous as the hill towns of Tuscany, it is rich in art, history and charm. Padova is a not a touristy town, but it's not completely devoid of tourists either. It  is a typical city of Northern Italy, full of market stalls, porticoes and sanpietrini (cobblestones of Roman origin), with spacious squares and cute corners to explore. Every now and then, a river or canal will appear in sight, or some ruins dating back to the medieval or even the Roman period.
Canale Padova raddrizzato
A canal in Padua

One of the main reasons why you should visit Padova is Cappella degli Scrovegni. While unassuming from the outside, this small chapel holds a real treasure: a series of frescoes by Giotto. It is very easy to find, as it is just a few minutes away from the train station in the direction of the town centre. Built by the Scrovegni family at the beginning of the 14th century to expiate their sins (Dante put them in his inferno because they were usurers), the Scrovegni chapel was built on the site of a Roman theatre (arena). For this reason, the church is also called Cappella dell'Arena.
To visit the chapel you have to book in advance (you can use the website), but do try to pop in on the same day and check if there aren't too many people. Only a limited number of people can enter, and you'll have to wait 15 minutes in a room that makes the air less polluted.  Don't worry, because you'll be watching a video about the chapel. The admission price is 13€, but it also gives you access to a couple of museums in the city. The chapel is small but astonishing: it's really worth seeing it, because it's one of a kind. The starry blue sky of the roof, the details of the frescoes, and the atmosphere inside this cosy, yet impressive chapel will stay with you long after you've visited. Giotto is considered the forefather of modern painting, and he was the first to paint in a style that was recognizably realistic. This is his masterpiece, and one of his most famous works. To give you an idea of his importance, he is the one behind the project of the bell tower of the main cathedral in Florence (campanile di Giotto).
Cappella degli Scrovegni from the outside, Padova
The chapel from the outside

Pictures are not allowed inside the chapel, but I managed to retrieve one on flickr.

Scrovegni Chapel I
Inside the chapel (photo by Paul Turner, retrieved on flickr)
One of the parts of Padova that I love is Prato della Valle. It is said to be the biggest square in Italy, but to be honest I don't even consider it a square. For one thing, it's oval! The reason is that it's built on the site of a 17th-century theatre for mock battles, and a Roman theatre before that. It has a big lawn surrounded by a canal and many statues of famous Patavians (that's how the inhabitants of Padua are called). The houses all around the square - or should I say "the oval" - are all painted in warm colours, and if that's one thing that I really love about Padua is the colour of the houses. If the weather is nice, you can sit down on the grass together with many young people - mostly students - and enjoy the sun. I love reading books here!

Prato della Valle, Padua
Lovely Prato della Valle
Prato della Valle2
Another shot of this beautiful square, a symbol of the city
Very close to Prato della Valle, you can pay a visit to Basilica di Sant'Antonio. People from all around the world come here to pay tribute to Saint Anthony, who is also very popular in Naples. The church is very rich inside, so it's worth having a look (admission is free). There is not one, but two slender clock towers (in the picture below, you can see the second behind the cupola), and for this reason many guidebooks compare them to minarets. How weird!
Basilica del Santo, Padua
Basilica del Santo
Inside Sant'Antonio, Padova
Inside Basilica di Sant'Atonio
Outside there are candles and memorabilia of the saint for sell. Vendors will ask you if you want to light a candle for "the saint". As a matter of fact, "the saint" is how people call Sant'Antonio and the church itself.

Religious souvenirs outside of "Il Santo", Padova
Religious souvenirs outside of Il Santo

Just in front of the church there is the famous statue of Gattamelata, who used to be a mercenary for the Venetian republic. The statue was made by Donatello, and it was the biggest statue of a man on his horse made after the Roman period. I love the mercenary's nickname, Gattamelata, which means "the honeyed cat". It was probably attributed to him because of his cunning yet agreeable ways.

Gattamelata Statue, Padova
Il Gattamelata

The botanical garden (Orto Botanico) near the basilica is a UNESCO-listed heritage site, but when I visited, in December 2013, there wasn't much to see, as the greenhouses were being re-built and expanded. Hopefully they should be ready for late spring 2014. Winter is not the best month to visit a botanical garden, but some of the plants really looked neglected! I'm worried for this site, but I'll pay a second visit in spring or summer. More spooky than interesting, this was however an unusual stop on a mostly historical itinerary.  Historically, this botanical garden is very important, because it was the first botanical garden in the world, and it's also unique in having retained it's original arrangement. Some of the features of the garden date back to the 18th century, like the panoramic spiral staircase. The botanical garden was created as a medical garden for the university in 1545, and it was the first place where potatoes were planted in Italy!
Giardino botanico, Padova
A corner of Orto Botanico

Botanical Garden, Padua
Another corner of the botanical garden
As a matter of fact, Padua is above all a university town. There are 65,000 students in this city of 220,000! The main building of the university is called Il Bo. This is where Galileo used to teach. The university was founded in 1222, and it's the second oldest university in Italy after Bologna, and subsequently one of the oldest in the whole world. It was at this university that for the first time a woman received a degree: Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, a Venetian noblewoman who graduated in philosophy in 1678. Still today, Università degli Studi di Padova is one of the most important universities in Italy.

You can book a guided tour of Il Bo, through the main information office. It is possible to book only 15 minutes before each tour, which allows no more than 35 people, so you need to be organized to make it. It's a very interesting tour, it costs just 5 € per person (less if you are a student) and it's in both Italian and English. Check the timetables here, because there are visits on alternative days, either in the morning or in the afternoon. You'll have a chance to see the room where Galileo used to lecture, his desk, and the room where students of medicine have been discussing their thesis for centuries. The highlight of the tour is the Anatomical Theatre, built in 1595 to hold anatomy lectures. It's entirely built with wood, and up to 300 students used to attend the lectures. Again, pictures were not allowed, but I retrieved one from the web to give you an idea.

Anatomical theatre (picture from Wikipedia)
One of the rooms that you'll visit  in the tour is Sala della Medicina, pictured here. Can you see the skulls in the glass case? They belonged to lecturers who in the past used to give their body for study to the university after they died. Creepy!
Sala della Medicina, Padova
Sala della Medicina, Il Bo

Don't forget to take a look at the narrow alleys around the ancient ghetto, the Jewish area of the city. You can reach it through a small alley just off the Bo. It's one of most picturesque parts of the city in my opinion, even though nothing seems to suggest that it used to be a Jewish neighbourhood. Where is the synagogue?
In Padova
Cobbled street around the Jewish area

Cobbled street, Padua
Another cobbled street near the Ghetto

Padova is so full of treasures that you can keep exploring for a long time and you'll always find new items of interest: try to visit the beautiful battistero of the duomo, for example, and make sure that you check the fruit and vegetable market stalls in Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza della Frutta (every day except Sunday).
Piazza della Frutta, Padua
Market stalls in Piazza della Frutta

bancarella sfumata
Market stalls in Padua

Battistero, Padua
Battistero (baptistery) of the duomo

While you are in this area you'll also notice a building that vaguely resembles a Greek temple: it's the luxurious Caffé Pedrocchi, whose second floor is now a museum. This historical café had an important role during Risorgimento, the period of Italian independence wars, and it used to be known as "the café without doors", because until 1916 it was always open, night and day.

Caffè Pedrocchi, Padua
Caffè Pedrocchi
Did you like Padova? Would you consider a day trip here?


  1. I love to explore off the beaten path places, so this city would be definitely on my list when visiting Venice next summer. It looks so historical, yet charming. Is it possible to stay there for a week with a budget of $25 a day?

    1. To save money I think you could sleep in Venezia Mestre, which is on the mainland from Venice. Accommodation there can be as cheap as 13€ (in camping or hostel). In Padua there are no cheap options, so I'd avoid to sleep there. From Mestre you can catch a bus to visit Venice (1,30€), and for food I'd say a slice or two of pizza is the cheapest option (2,5€ each) or a couple of tramezzini (3€).25$ is a bit tight, considering that you also have to eat your dinner. Entrance to St. Mark's Basilica is for free, and wandering through the streets of Venice is the best way to explore the town.
      On another day you can catch a direct train from Mestre to Padova (or other destinations in the region). The train will cost 5,80€ for a return ticket. There is a lot to see in Padova even if you don't want to pay entrance fees. The Basilica del Santo is free to visit and so is battistero (only donation) and the historical centre is worth exploring. You can do everything on foot as I did, as the city is quite compact.
      I'd say 35 $ (25 €) will be a minimum day budget.

  2. I love your posts because I always learn something new. Thanks for introducing me to Padua - I'd never heard of this town until now. I think the history of the university is very interesting - especially since it's where a woman first earned a degree. Wow, we women have come a long way but still have a long way to go! I agree that it's beyond creepy to have former professors' skulls on display. But on the other hand, it was very noble of them to donate their cadavers for educational purposes.

    1. Yes, it's creepy, can you imagine discussing your dissertation there? By the way, I'm happy to introduce people to new destinations. Italy has so much to offer!

  3. Lovely photos and excellent post - I did consider popping to Padova when I was in Venice a couple of years ago, but was having so much fun I didn't bother. Now I'm regretting it.

    1. You can always go next time you're in the area. It deserves a visit, that's for sure!

  4. Charming photo reportage! Congrats for this marvelous vacation. It was a great choice.

  5. Thank you, Stefania ! Great article !

  6. Thanks for the main accessible recources to spend a holiday beyond limits in Velice. It was really nice, thanks

  7. I have read your article, it is very informative and helpful for me.I admire the valuable information you offer in your articles. Thanks for posting it..
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