Culture, Europe, Food, Food & Wine

Padova – city of frescoes

As calling cards go, it does the job – simple, functional and just what is needed if your stock painting will be halos.

With a swish and a brush of red paint Giotto di Bondone had announced himself to the Papal envoy with his freehand circle.

And within a few years he would announce himself to the world with his magnum opus, his fresco in 1305 of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova.

Which would in turn inspire Michelangelo when he came to adorn the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

When in Padova… Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on


For all of us who have attempted a still life and ended up with an egg in a basket of fruit instead of an orange you will know just how difficult it is to draw the perfect circle.

But only perfect circles would do.

As Giotto’s patron Enrico Scrovegni had let his halo slip and needed to make a grand gesture to gain absolution and enter through the gates of heaven.

Enrico’s crime was usury – charging excess interest on loans.

It is a crime so serious that it resulted in the banker being damned to the fires of Hell. Worth a shot in this country!

Rather than appealing straight to Our Lord, though, Scrovegni had the bright idea of asking His mother to intercede on his behalf.

If the walls could talk

An expansive canvas

And so he dedicated the chapel and the frescoes to her life with a celebration of her role in human salvation.

And just to leave nobody in any doubt of his devotion he had Giotto paint him into the main scene.

He is presenting a model of the chapel to her in the fresco The Last Judgment.

The Scrovegni Chapel is Padova’s calling card but it is only a hint of a more expansive canvas.

I am in Padova (Padua), 38km west of Venice in the Veneto region and 209km from Milan.

As well as looking upwards – Padova is the City of Frescoes – it also looks outwards.

In the pink: Everything has colour

It has been home to the Venetians, French and Austro-Hungarians over the last millennium and embraced all of their influences.

Today it is looking westwards – which is where we Irish probably come in.

But more immediately to Milan’s Expo 2015, a showcase for feeding the planet and energy for life.

Padova has a rich history of doing both.

The Brenta River which leads right down to the Grand Canal teems with life.

While the Venetian Plain attracted the mariners of that great city to avail of its rich agriculture and build grand villas and palaces to entertain dign taries.

The sun is out

Finding what is lost

It is also home to the oldest botanical gardens in the world.

On this trip, we will get to witness all of this.

But today it’s Sunday, so Church and a visit to the Basilica of St Anthony of Padova.

Yes that St Anthony, the one who helps you – for some coins in his charity box – to find your keys.

St Anthony, we are told, has a wider reach than just those objects that fall out of your rucksacks and handbags.

He is also the patron saint of people who have lost their way in life or lost, or fear, losing something or somebody close to them.

St Anthony’s bones are kept in an altar tomb in the basilica and people.

And people file past it in veneration touching the side, which is adorned with photographs of their loved ones.

The image of a young man, his head bowed and his hand placed on the side in silent invocation was truly moving.

I have to confess that this simple devotion touched me more than the veneration to St Anthony’s tongue and the bottom set of his teeth.

Which are in elaborate gold reliquaries further up the church.

A story with teeth

The story goes that when St Anthony’s body was exhumed his tongue was still moist in recognition of his great preaching prowess.

So the Padovans decided to place it on show for veneration.

St Anthony hailed from Lisbon, had he, of course, been Italian then you’d have to think his hands would have been on display.

Perhaps, it is because this is a university city, but not just any old university city, among the top ten oldest in the world.

Galileo magnifico

And where Galileo taught – naturally the statue to him.

Which is among 78 in the Isola Memmia in the Prato della Valle, portrays him with his hands outstretched.

It is also where the first woman anywhere in the world graduated.

Confessional time

An inclusive place then and one where you can, if you don’t have two left feet like your writer, get up to dance the tango.

With dozens of other Padovans in the piazza at night.

Perhaps with another glass of Venetian Spritz – the local speciality of Aperol (think Campari) Prosecco and mineral water? Well, next time.

A word on the food and drink.

I had the good fortune to have accom- plished travel writer, food expert and bon viveur Peter on our trip.

Food as an art form

And I’m insisting that he come on all my future expeditions,.

So that he can describe in erudite fashion how good the likes of regional favourite Risi e bisi is.

A merely English translation as rice and peas clearly doesn’t do it justice so it’s best left in Italian.

I’m sure other restaurants do Risi e bisi just as well as Taverna degli Artisti.

But my dish came at the end of an enchanting visit to Cittadella, a 13th-century walled city which stands 14ft-16ft high and 4,793ft around.

Taverna degli Artisti stands opposite the quaint old theatre we entered behind a market stall and through what looked like a lock-up door.

A treasure more memorable because it feels hidden away.

Dish of the day: Risotto. Photo by Marta Dzedyshko on

There is nothing shy and retiring, though, about the baroque Villa Pisani in Strà on the banks of the River Brenta.

Built by Alvise Pisani, the 114th doge, or leader, of Venice in 1735, there would be 114 rooms, with frescoes of gods and men and women living and loving lustily.

A palace for dictators

With vino flowing as copiously as the water on the nearby Brenta – and without the dams that that river employs to hold it back.

Pride of place in the villa is Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom – the little general bought it in 1806.

Bony’s bedroom is surrounded by empirical emblems and deliberately is the first the sun hits in the morning.

A work of art

Not to be outdone, Mussolini and Hitler met here in Villa Pisani for the first time.

One imagines there must have been a fight to see who got Bony’s room.

The Villa Pisani comes with its very own maze, the Labyrinth of Love.

Where we are told a young cloaked woman would stand in the centre at the top of a spiral staircase.

She was the prize for the man who managed to wend his way through the labyrinth.


There is no historical record that Bony, Benito or Hitler burrowed their way manically through the maze.

But you would have to imagine that, like us, they did.

We can only assume too that the young cloaked woman in the centre of the maze who was to be our prize was on a day off.

But anyway it was time to get back on our burchiello – or boat.

We skirt along the river at a gentle pace, gurgling wine and scoffing hors d’oeuvres, in the manner of those nobles of old in the villa we have just left.

And are informed that many of the villas along the banks are also richly blessed but lie empty.

Still needing to be renovated.

Veneto region… Padova and Venezia

It is a theme that keeps recurring.

That the Italians, having finished what they had set out to build during the Renaissance packed up…

Lay back, and enjoyed the fruits of their labour.

So with dragonflies gently skipping along the water by our side I contemplate how the energy of life sometimes has to come in great rushes.

But is often best captured in quiet moments and in water colours.

Dressed for the part and party?

Venice in the distance

A gondola by the banks suggests Venice is drawing nearer.

But that is for another time, and besides the boat voyage runs both ways and inland to Padova and its environs.

The Venetians, after all, came this way for pleasures and sustenance.

So who am I to argue?

Take the vaparetto instead

How to get there

Aer Lingus departs for Venice on Fridays, returning Sundays. From €657.80.

Ryanair departs for Treviso, Thursdays and returns Thursdays. From €297.80.

Where to stay

The Only Weekend Padova option offers a double room in the central Hotel Europa.

Where you will enjoy a comfortable night’s stay, a balcony and breakfast, for two nights at €155.

Padova Terme Euganee Convention & Visitors Bureau offers the PadovaCard for free (

The Padova Card is valid 48 hours (€16) or 72 hours (€21) and valid for one adult and child under 14

Besides free admission, the Padova Card also provides discounts on attractions.

And allows visitors to use urban transit buses for free.