Having covered Venice and Verona, the two biggest tourist draws in the Veneto, and the larger towns that are centers of business, industry, and home to a decent portion of people in the Veneto, it’s time to move on to some of my favorite places: the smaller towns that aren’t the target of so many tourists.
Like many of the towns near the Colli Euganei, Monselice has been inhabited in some form since prehistoric times. The reason is obvious: the hill that it lies below is a formidable defense against invaders.
During the middle ages, Monselice briefly surpassed Padova as the most important town in the area, as Padova suffered a great deal from the collapse of the Roman empire.
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to visit the ruins of the castle at the top of the hill very often, but it’s occasionally open. In any case, the walk up to the “sette chiese” (seven churches) is worthwhile, and at the top provides beautiful views of the surrounding plains on a nice day. If you’re lucky, you may even find that the stars have aligned and that the trail to the top of the hill and its castle is open. The Castello Cini is a well-preserved castle a bit further down the hill, which is interesting not only for the architecture, but also because of the collection of medieval weapons and other artifacts. Between the Colli Euganei in the distance, the Rocca hill, and various bits and pieces of architecture that have been well preserved, a walk around Monselice is pleasant, and picturesque. I also like it because it’s a “real” town with “real” businesses that cater to the locals and people from the surrounding area. This makes it busy on weekdays, but authentic – you don’t have to fight crowds of tourists.
Perhaps that’s changing, as the town starts to realize that it could do more with what they have in terms of tourism. There is now a “Palio” (no horse racing though) in September with lots of food, wine, and medieval crafts and pageantry.
Near Monselice (on the other side of Monte Ricco) is the small hill town of Arqua` Petrarca, which as its name suggests, is famous for being the final resting place of the poet Petrarch. Arqua is small – there isn’t a great deal to see – but it’s a nice place to spend a few hours in the afternoon before eating at one of the many trattorie.
Este, like Monselice, has been inhabited since time immemorial. Its extensive history is readily available to visitors in the museum, which covers everything from the bronze age up through Roman times and beyond, in great detail in some cases. The large collection is pretty amazing for what isn’t a very large town, and attests to the fact that it was more important in the past, especially when the Adige river went by the town, rather than its modern course, which is several kilometers to the south. Those familiar with European history will also recognize in “Este” the name of a very old and important noble family in Europe. Este also has a castle, with a grounds that has been turned into a park: a great place to take a stroll with a gelato from the gelateria across the street from the castle! Byron and Shelley spent a year in Villa Kunkler, a villa behind the castle. If you have a car (Este is not on major train lines), Este might be a nice place to stay yourself if you want to explore the area in an unhurried way.
Unbeknown to most tourists, there’s a tiny town on top of the hill above Este, called Calaone. There isn’t much there, but on a hot summer day, it might be a way to catch a breeze at the top of the hill, and enjoy the view.
Being off the main lines of transportation, Este is, like Monselice, more of a “by the locals, for the locals” sort of place. It gets a few tourists coming through, but not the hordes you must do battle with to navigate around the main attractions of a place like Venice.
The last outpost of the province of Padova, Montagnana was build for precisely that reason: it was fortified and strengthened when Padova was a city state, in order to act as a bastion against the Scaligeri of Verona. To me, it’s impressive that in 2008, the borders of the Padova and Verona provinces still reflect this ancient rivalry: Montagnana apparently performed its fortress duties well. When Venice conquered the whole region, the town ceased to be useful in that function, and has since meandered through history as one of the larger small towns in the rural heart of the Po’ river valley east of Mantova (Mantua). Luckily, its relative stasis also led to the preservation of the medieval city walls, which have since been restored to their full glory. Montagnana is worth an afternoon, but for my tastes is a bit too far away from the Colli Euganei, so if you’re going to stay in the area, I would opt for Este or Monselice, which are also easier to get to, and have more things to see in the immediate area. Near Montagnana is one of Palladio’s villas, Villa Pisani
Within the Veneto, Montagnana is also famous for its prosciutto – be sure to have some if you go there. The best time to have some might be during the “Festa del Prosciutto”, a big (busy) event that draws a lot of visitors from the surrounding area. The event usually takes place in mid-May, which is, with September, one of the best months for visiting Italy. It’s not too hot yet, the fields of poppies are in full bloom (and they are beautiful), and everything is green.