While tourists flock to Venice because of its uniqueness, unfortunately, the locals have been headed out of the city for years, mostly to the town of Mestre, on terra firma on the other side of the bridge.
Indeed, even though Venice maintains its place as the administrative capital of the Veneto, the real business of the Veneto takes place elsewhere. Three cities come to mind as centers of industry and business: Padova, Treviso and Vicenza. They are fairly large towns, each with a province to its name, and Padova and Treviso were relatively important city states before falling under the domain of the Venetian Republic, in 1405 and 1339, respectively.
It should be noted that Verona is also a fairly important center of business, manufacturing, and education, but it’s also a very popular tourist destination, for good reason. The three cities this article covers lean in the other direction: they are also visited by tourists, but are more important for their importance in modern-day, everyday Italy. So, while there are things to do and see, and plenty of history and beautiful sites (like everywhere in Italy), these aren’t the most beautiful towns in Italy, especially in the suburbs where more modern developments have gone in.
Being my “home away from home” in Italy, Padova is the Italian city I know best. What to see there? The main tourist attraction is the Basilica di Sant’Antonio – Saint Anthony’s cathedral, known in Padova simply as “il Santo”. It is visited by thousands of tourists a year, especially the faithful who come to ask favors of the holy dead guy. The “cured” often send in various things to commemorate the saint’s role in their healing. Looking at things from a more scientific point of view, it’s hard to statistically examine how effective the healing powers are, as there is not a representative sample of letters or much of anything from those who weren’t healed… “thanks for nothing, you bag of bones!”. In reality, rather than a bag of bones, the saint is most famously represented by his preserved tongue, vocal cords and other bits and pieces of his face that are on display in the church. Kind of gruesome, but worth a look. Despite being the biggest church in Padova, il Santo is not the duomo, or cathedral, of Padova, which lies in another portion of town. The duomo is worth a look too, especially the baptistry, where my wife and I were married, as it has some nice frescos on the walls, although I didn’t really notice them during the wedding. I was too nervous and concentrated on the goings on.
Near il Santo lies the “Prato della Valle”, a large expanse of grass surrounded by a canal in the middle of an even larger piazza; supposedly one of the largest in Europe. It’s a nice place to go and relax with an ice cream on a sunny day, or a sandwich if you don’t feel like sitting down to lunch at a restaurant.
My favorite touristy attractions in Padova are the main university building, “Il Bo`”, and the Palazzo della Ragione (literally, “the palace of reason”). The University is one of the oldest in the world, having been founded by students and teachers who left the University of Bologna, reputedly the world’s oldest, because of their dissatisfaction with the Vatican’s control over Bologna and thus the University. Under the Republic of Venice, the university in Padova was granted a great deal of freedom, and in that time period, was one of the most prestigious universities of the world. It is claimed that Galileo Galilei spent some of the happiest years of his life there, because of the freedom he had to pursue his studies. If you take the tour of the university, one of the things they show you is a lectern made by Galileo’s students for his use. After touring Italy, one expects to see beautifully handcrafted woodwork, dutifully preserved. However, the lectern is actually constructed in a very ramshackle, amateur way, and while his students may have been enthusiastic, the were clearly incompetent woodworkers. Naturally: they were the sons of noblemen who were not expected to work with their hands; their insistence on personally constructing the piece of work, rather than paying for it on commission is a touching demonstration of their loyalty to their teacher, and a reminder that not everything in that day and age was “beautifully handcrafted”.
The “palace of reason” was the seat of government in Padova in the middle ages, and for the time, was an impressively large open space dedicated to something other than religious matters. It has a number of frescoes in the interior, and a wooden horse statue attributed to Donatello.
The civic museum of Padova is also worth a visit: it contains bits and pieces of Padova’s history dating back some 3000+ years, including a number of pieces from Roman “Patavium”, the city’s name in that era.
A trip to the Cappella degli Scrovegni is also on the ‘recommended’ list. It’s beautiful, and impressive, but sort of a pain in the neck, as you have to make reservations, and you get herded through the thing fairly quickly.
Once you’ve spent a busy day running around seeing the sites though, it’s time for my favorite thing in Padova: a spritz in the piazza, which merits its own article. One of the nice things is that in the piazza, you’re partaking of something traditional, amidst a crowd of mostly locals, something that’s quite difficult in a city like Florence, which sometimes feels like it has more foreigners than locals.
Unfortunately, I can’t really recommend a restaurant in Padova, we never really found a ‘favorite place’ that we could unconditionally send people to, although the Pizzeria Savonarola (in Via Savonarola) is pretty good, if a bit crowded.
Treviso & Vicenza
Treviso and Vicenza are similar to Padova: they are wealthy, industrious cities that aren’t quite so high up on the very long list of things to do in Italy, what with Venice, Verona, and so much else nearby. To be honest, I don’t know either one nearly as well as I do Padova, but they both have enough attractions to make a day spent there pleasant.
Vicenza has a lot of nice hills nearby, the Colli Berici to the south, and others to the north, which are all full of restaurants and places to go walking. I’ve always preferred the Colli Berici to the Colli Euganei near Padova, as they are slightly larger in area, and have a “wilder” feel to them in places (although of course, being in Italy, you’re never far from a house or small village). Vicenza is well known for being the home of numerous works of the architect Palladio (who was, however, born in Padova!), although you can find them scattered all over the Veneto. An interesting detail about Vicenza’s history is related to Casa Pigafetta, which is where Antonio Pigafetta was born, one of only 18 of Magellan’s original crew to actually complete the circumnavigation of the world and one of two to write down his experiences. Magellan himself died en route after a battle with natives. If you’ve been in Italy a while and really crave some american food, Vicenza is a good bet: with the US Army base there, there are some restaurants nearby that cater to that crowd, including a few decent Mexican ones (quite rare for Italy).. Also, on the 4th of July, the base opens up and they throw a big party with grilled burgers and hot dogs, which is fun, although it’s a bit of a culture shock to go from “life in Italy” to “US Army” so abruptly.
Treviso is close to Venice, and like Padova, a good place to sleep in a cheaper hotel than is available in Venice, and visit Venice during the day. In my opinion, like Vicenza, Treviso suffers a bit from the lack of a university, something that really sets Padova a part from the other two in terms of giving it a more open, international character. Treviso is economically important: a great deal of businesses call it home, including the world famous Benetton group, and if you’re a cycling fan like me, Pinarello. If you’re in Treviso near the end of October and like wine, the “Ombralonga” is reputedly quite fun, although I’ve never been. The name means “long shadow”, and refers to a glass of red wine, called an “ombra” in the Veneto. An entry fee gets you a wine glass hung around your neck, that you can take to various stands and get wine.