I wasn’t sure at first, but my mother’s insistence that we stay in Padua instead of Venice when she came to visit this summer turned out to be yet another example of ‘Mum knows best’. Venice is unlike any city in the world (well, that I’ve been to), it’s seriously amazing and I probably only just scratched the surface, but… the crowds… oh my god the crowds…
If I’d been staying in Venice I think I would have ended up barricaded in my hotel room with some nice calming music and a medicinal ‘beverage’ or six to keep me from being sent mad each day. But luckily my wise mother foresaw all this and decided we’d be staying 40 kilometers west of Venice, in quiet little Padua. Or Padova if you want to be Italian.
Padova (yep, I want to be Italian) is a University town of approximately 250,000 people, sitting along the Bacchiglione river in the Veneto region. And it’s unlike any Italian city I’ve ever been to.
I’ve been to Italy about ten times, but except for a quick trip to the Cinque Terre, Florence was the furthest north I’d ever been. Maybe a lot of the northern cities are similar to Padova, but at first I wasn’t that impressed with it, architecturally I mean. To be honest, after spending the day in Venice, it would be hard for any city to compare to the beauty of Venice. But by the end of my week there I knew my first impressions were a little unfair because Padova has a simple charm about it which unfolds the longer you’re there and the more you immerse yourself into local life.
What struck me as unusual to begin with were the narrow streets surrounded on both sides by covered arches, giving everything an almost claustrophobic feel. But, being Italy, the arches have beautiful vaulted ceilings, so even though I felt crowded, looking up was still pretty.
And away from the very centre, the streets are wider and tree lined like the one below.
So what’s there to do in Padova, besides breathe, in the calm after a day of crowd wrestling in Venice? Here’s my picks.
Prato Della Valle
Padova’s biggest square is one of the largest in Europe. It has a garden in the centre and a sort of moat with 78 statues of famous Padovians (if that’s what they’re called) circling it. Like most Italian squares, it’s a great place to come at dusk to witness the ritual evening passeggiata, as locals meet to walk, watch their kids play or catch up on gossip.
If churches are your thing, you’ll love Padova. The one below is the rather imposing Basilica of Saint Anthony or ‘Il Santo’, but they also have the famous Scrovegni (with some of the best preserved Giotto frescoes around, so precious that you have to stand in a humidity chamber to regulate your temperature before going in), the Abbey of Santa Giustina, the Padua Cathedral, the Church of the Eremitani, San Gaetano and Santa Sofia. Knock yourself out.
The University of Padua/Galileo
One of Padova’s most illustrious residents was Galileo. He taught at the university between 1591 and 1610. The street where he lived has now been named after him.
Dating back to 1222, the University of Padua is one of the oldest in the world (and the second oldest in Italy, after Bologna). From the 15th to the 18th centuries, it was a leader in the fields of medicine, astronomy, philosophy and law.
The tour of Palazzo Bo, which housed the University’s anatomy school, is well worth doing. The highlight is surely the amazingly preserved anatomy theatre, where public dissections took place and more than a few light headed anatomy students fainted – from the heat and small confines of the room of course, not from the blood and guts and creepy stuff going on below them. Apart from getting to see the medieval surgery tools which looked more like torture devices, the anatomy room was my favourite part of the tour. Our guide was a bit stiff for the first half, corralling us in the lecture hall and spewing out dates and names (albeit in 3 languages), but once we moved on from there she relaxed a bit and became a more entertaining story teller. Stick it out if she’s boring you.
During summer, a little way out of the city, the Piovego Canal is lined with temporary, wooden hut-style bars where the drink of choice, Spritz (Prosecco, Campari or Apperol and soda), costs just 2 Euros. Each drink order also comes with free nibbles, so you can help yourself to whatever’s on the bar; usually chips/crisps, but sometimes they also break out the dips! It’s kind of clever to give you salty food for free, because that of course is just going to make you thirsty and go back to order another Spritz.
The bars are close to the university campus so it attracts students (as you can see in the shots below), but in Italy, students out for a drink are nothing like what you might encounter in the UK or Australia. The atmosphere is relaxed and cheery, as opposed to loud and out of control. And being by the water gives it all a very laid back vibe.We stopped there a few nights on the way home as it was close to our apartment, but if you’re staying in town but have access to a bicycle, it’s not that far to ride.
Padova is gloriously flat, so it’s perfect for bike riding. You’ll quickly see that everyone from students, to old men, to glamorous women in their designer gear rides a bike, and for some reason, all the bikes are so ancient you think they’ve been abandoned on the side of the road for a few years. But no, that’s just how people here like them, so old they rattle as they pass you by. I was surprised how much I loved peddling around on my rust bucket loaner.
I try to go to Italy once a year, and I can honestly say, for the rest of the year if I eat out anywhere, I’m slightly disappointed. I should really get over that. Pouting for a whole year’s not a good look.
The first place I want to tell you about in Padova is a lively, family run pizzeria called Pizza Albatros. It’s about a 15 minute walk from the centre of town, but worth the effort in my super-experienced pizza eating opinion. Nothing’s fancy here, but the pizza is seriously tasty, the staff are friendly and the portions are enormous. Four of us had a pizza each, drinks (a bottle of wine, soft drinks and coffee) and dessert and the bill came to a little under 50 Euros. We actually had to ask them if they’d made a mistake. Bargain.
Another day we stumbled across a local bar called Osteria L’Anfora. The only reason we went there to begin with was because we wanted a rest from wandering around and it was the only lively looking place on a somewhat deserted back street in the Ghetto district. It turned out to be one of those amazing stumbled-upon moments. For the first couple of days we just spent an hour or so here having a Spritz, eating some free nibbles and enjoying watching the locals come and go. Everyone knew everyone and they chatted away animatedly, some even trying to converse with us even though our Italian and their English was very basic.
The last night of our time in Padova we booked a table at Osteria L’Anfora for dinner. Oh my. Seriously good local, rustic food, heavy on seafood but also fantastic pasta (of course). Our waitress didn’t speak much English, but she did her best when stumped with what we later found out was pheasant – like chicken, she said – which was delicious and the envy of my whole table. They also passed my panna cotta test with flying colours (I order it anywhere it’s on the menu and rarely get a good one).
The walls of Osteria L’Anfora are crammed with posters and trinkets and fishing/sailing mementos, the place is small and packed, with only a handful of tables and past about 8pm it gets very, very busy, so it’s a rowdy kind of place where you definitely need to book. If you want a cosy, romantic dinner you won’t get it here, but if you want a heap of local flavour, both in the food and courtesy of the clientele, then I’m sure you’ll be back for more.
So… have I tempted you away from staying in Venice? Probably not, unless you hate crowds as much as me, but maybe now you might be a little curious about little Padova. If that’s the case, good, I’ve done my job.