Off the Beaten Track in Padua

This is the time of year when Venice as a tourist destination becomes so popular that visitors can be put off by the crowds and the ugly out-of-scale cruise ships.
Those in the know build in away-days from Venice, one of the most popular being the city of Padua, only 20 minutes away by train. Padua is an ancient university city, Italy’s Cambridge, (to Bologna’s Oxford), a refreshingly busy place which, unlike the Disneyland that Venice has become in the summer months, has just enough tourists for it to retain its own atmosphere.

Padua is known to Paduans as the city of
The saint with no name,
The meadow with no grass,
The coffee house with no doors

No one refers to St. Anthony of Padua because it’s obvious: he’s just “the saint.” South of his basilica is an enormous piazza known as Prato (field) Della Valle. This is the meadow without grass. And Pedrocchi, the famous old café in the centre, part gothic, part classical in style, always used to be open 24 hours a day, hence “no doors.”

Of course, most visitors come to see the sublime Giotto frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel, a short walk from the station. They are unmissable, but there is so much more to see and do in Padua.

First, buy a Padovacard at the tourist information office or online. It is a good value at €16 for 48 hours, and will get you into the Scrovegni as well as most of the other important buildings: several frescoed chapels, three museums, a 16th century theatre, and the superb Palazzo della Ragione (1218), originally the Court of Justice. It is built over the covered market so you reach it by climbing a flight of stairs to enter a vast space with a fresco cycle of astrological symbols. The first surprise is the huge contemporary version of Foucault’s Pendulum swinging gently in one corner. Then, if you should happen to visit the Ragione at noon, you will see a thin shaft of sunlight piercing the central hole in a painted sunburst on one wall. It was a way of telling the time when the structure was first built. But the best and most amazing sight of all is the giant wooden horse constructed in 1466 and modelled on Donatello’s famous Gattamelata which stands outside Saint Anthony’s Basilica.

Not part of the Padovacard deal, but certainly worth a visit, is the Botanical Garden, the Orto Botanico, founded in 1545 and the world’s oldest garden for the study of plants. It provides a welcome oasis from the summer heat of the city.

Continuing south from the gardens you will arrive in one of the largest piazzas in Italy, the lovely Prato Della Valle, with its classical statues and bridges over ornamental canals. There’s a rather good flea market here on the 3rd Sunday of every month as well as a farmers’ market every Saturday.

Of course, being a sizeable city, Padua is good for shopping. There are two department stores (Coin and Rinascente) and lots of other delightful family-owned businesses like the bakery and chocolate shop facing the market, lots of delicatessens, the printers which sells reproductions of engravings and plaster casts of Venetian lions, and a stationers with more pens and artists’ materials than you’re ever likely to need in a lifetime.

As the second oldest university in Italy, Padua’s is certainly worth a visit. Guided tours of the main building, Palazzo Bo, can be booked, but they are popular so go early for a timed ticket. The tour highlights are the amazing wooden lecture theatre where students learned about anatomy by observing the cutting up of corpses and Galileo’s lectern. Galileo’s observatory in Padua, incidentally, can also be visited at weekends.
In the 1930s, the university was fortunate enough to have the artist Campigli paint murals in some of its public spaces. They can be seen in Palazzo Bo and in the entrance lobby of the arts building.

Like Venice, Padua too has its canal system. You can take a trip by canal through residential areas, ending up exploring Underground Padua where soldiers hid during sieges and moved ammunition from one part of the city walls to another.

Just outside the city is Padovaland, a water park with so many thrills and spills that a family can spend a whole day there and not be bored. With several waterslides and cafes, including one built over a lake with turtles swimming beneath, children can play all day. There’s a lot of space for the provided sun beds and parasols either under palm trees or next to the pools and each attraction is well supervised.

So, whether you’re in Venice and fancy a change of scene or you’re travelling round NE Italy, take a trip to Padua. You won’t regret it. In fact, your only regret might be that you didn’t stay longer.