It’s hard to believe now that my first experience in Italy was five years ago, a Mediterranean adventure that started in Venice. I remember arriving into Venice Marco Polo Airport unsure of what to expect of the city and how my shabby Italian skills would hold up. Spoiler alert: I fell in love with Venice and they did not hold up well.
Five years later, I would return to the city that had initiated me to Italy. In the time between, I had seen much of the country during my stay in Rome, Emilia-Romagna and last year’s journey through Europe. My language skills have markedly improved, though I still struggle at times. So I wondered yet again how Venice would appear to me, now knowing so much more than I did then… now that I was no longer a “tourist” to the country…
My adventure in Veneto, the region in which Venice is a part of, actually began in the nearby town of Padua. I had arrived after several days in Turin and a magical stay in Florence to visit a friend I had met in Rome four years prior.
Padua, part of the Padua-Treviso-Venice Metropolitan Area, is a small town situated over the Bacchiglione River, the branches of which stretch through the city as photogenic canals. The historic center, with its portici and numerous piazze, create that classic northern Italian atmosphere reminiscent of a Shakespearian play (The Taming of the Shrew was set in this city).
Worth noting is the University of Padua, founded in 1222, the second-oldest university in Italy (after the University of Bologna, founded in 1088) and one of the earliest universities in the world. Galileo Galilei gave lectures here. You may have heard of him.
After arriving at the Stazione di Padova, I went straight to the Capella degli Scrovegni (Scrovegni Chapel), a small chapel that’s one of Padua’s top attractions. Reservations are required for a visit (you can buy tickets online from the museum’s website), as there is a mandatory dehumidifying process before one enters. What makes this small chapel remarkable are the frescoes by Giotto, painted in the early 1300s.
Also part of the chapel, and included with admission, is the Musei Civici agli Eremitani, a group of museums that covers medieval art, modern art and archaeology. One could spend a substantial amount of time wandering these halls.
While the Basilica Pontificia di Sant’Antonio di Padova (Basilica of St. Anthony) isn’t the “duomo” of the city (that designation is bestowed upon the Basilica Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta), it’s Padua’s largest church. Inside, you’ll find several works by Donatello, including an equestrian statue and, perhaps most famous, the bronze Madonna with Child. Most striking is the gold reliquary inside the church, as they display the chin and tongue of preachy St. Anthony.
If you’re thirsty, check out Osteria L’Anfora, a no-nonsense wine bar with great prices. Worthwhile wines typical of Veneto are Valpolicella and Amarone. For coffee and aperitivo, visit the chic Caffeine, a cafe-lounge that opened shortly before my visit. It was literally shiny and new, and the aperitivo spread was great.
Located slightly outside the city center is a pizzeria called iDon. You may not find yourself near here, but I thought it was worth mentioning since it was the locale of my birthday dinner (the food is also really good and the service is friendly).
The following day, we took a day trip to Venice, about a 30-minute train ride away from Padua. Of course, I revisited the oft-mentioned Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square). While I had already been inside the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) with its famous Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs), this trip provided my first experience inside the Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica) to see its stunning interior. For first timers, purchase your tickets to the Palazzo Ducale online, as crowds can get crazy. The basilica is easy enough to enter and there’s no admission fee.
Book lovers should check out Libreria Acqua Alta, one of the most unique bookstores I’ve ever visited. Inside, books are piled around such that hunting through them becomes a literal adventure. In the back, a small path of stacked books can be ascended for an unobstructed view of a quiet canal.
Snacking on cicchetti is a Venetian experience one can’t miss. These small plates of food purchased at low prices to be paired with drinks are somewhat akin to tapas (to draw a broad comparison for the sake of understanding). A great place for wine and cicchetti is Cantine del Vino Già Schiavi. Another good option is Osteria Chicchetteria al Bocon DiVino with its wide open door-windows and cheap prices for cocktails like the Hugo and the Spritz (a creation of Veneto now popular throughout Italy).
Of course, Venice is most beautiful as the sun sets. And the atmosphere at night is haunting, especially as the tourists head back to their hotels, leaving the streets empty save for their mysteries. Try and catch these moments at various points in the city.
Padua and Venice are just two great offerings in Veneto. I look forward to exploring more of the region when I return later this year.
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