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Shrewless Padua – A Travel Essay

October 24, 2012

The city of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew has many charms

St. Anthony’s basilica with its many domes

The B&B website made it sound perfect. A ground-floor suite with all the amenities – laundry, kitchen, sitting area, etc – and it was close to buses that would take us to trains that would get us to various destinations in northern Italy. The problem: it was in Padua.

The lovely and enchanting Venice was only a 30-minute train ride away, yet the heartbeat of that beckoning old city could be heard only faintly from its poor cousin to the west. Still, we resolved to make the best of it.

Our B&B host spoke no English but she had laid out all the instructions for taking buses, trains or taxis. She had also provide maps with eating spots and stores marked in English. There was even a pair of bus tickets on the kitchen table right next to the espresso machine primed and ready for action the next morning.

We awoke early and excited to see Venice for the first time in decades. The bus ran late, the train station was in a renovation shambles, and the first eating place we saw was a Macdonalds.  In was an inauspicious beginning to what had promised to be the romantic holiday of a lifetime for two relatively new newlyweds celebrating a 60th birthday.

University of Padua campus

Venice delivered its charms in great gobs that day and when we left for our digs in Padua we were sated with art and architecture. We were also tired so it was an irritant to find that the city buses did not run regularly after 9 p.m. We walked the 30 minutes along darkened streets and fumbled for the keys when we finally arrived.

The next day it rained and we decided to stay “home.” To our pleasant surprise, Padua or Padova also had charms on display, including a stunning cathedral, an enchanting chapel and an ancient university. Why then does the tourist traffic seem to zoom past this old city?

Some of the reasons are obvious: it is two hours from Florence, the glorious capital of Tuscany and the gateway to all of that region’s offerings of fine wine, unique foods and its own special selection of art and architecture. Few can resist heading directly from Marco Polo International Airport to Michelangelo’s David, a climb up the 400+ steps to the top of the Duomo or the Ponte Vecchio. With all of that to entrance the traveller, a stopover in Padua might seem a nuisance to some.

Then, of course, there is Venice. There aren’t enough superlatives in the English or probably the Italian language with which to laud this most historic of European cities. Gorgeous, enchanting, romantic Venice beckons to the traveller from its 150 church steeples, its Grand Canal with its bobbing black gondolas, its Bridge of Sighs and its many delightful piazzas. The tiny city, with only about 40,000 inhabitants, packs so much punch that when comparing it to Padua it clearly scores a knockout every time.

As famed British travel writer James (now Jan) Morris noted in his excitingly detailed The World of Venice, “There is something sensual to it, if not actually sexual.” Others have gone a step further to describe her as a Virgin City that they want to make love to. British poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning “expressed narcotic rapture” about Venice, according the Morris.

One of several busy downtown markets

Against those odds Padua doesn’t stand a chance. She is neither virginal nor at all erotic and she can hardly be equated to anything sensual. She seems a grey place that charm has eluded over the centuries. No sex appeal whatsoever.  Indeed, Shakespeare’s choice of it as the setting for his play The Taming of the Shrew, borrowing as it does on the commedia del arte tradition, seems to defy sense until one recognizes that it is the city’s university that attracts the bard to lead his character Lucentio to “fair Padua, nursery of arts.”

Yet the fairness of the city, with a population of more than 200,000, might easily escape the touristic passer-by. The streets leading from the Venice direction of Padua to the train station are lacklustre, exuding only the mundane – a police station, a misplaced sushi restaurant, a church that appears to be abandoned. But on penetrating the centre, it will also reward the curious traveller perhaps starting with the 800-year-old University of Padua.

Founded in 1222 A.D., it was the second university to be built in Italy after the one at Bologna. It once boasted of having among its population the poets Dante and Petrarch and the scientists Copernicus and Galileo. How about that for a Fab Four! Visitors today are more likely to hear the music of that later Fab Four, or a local pop band, resonating through the solid concrete halls of academe. Yet one still feels someone respectful of a place that gave the world such great minds, provided one of the first surgery colleges, and has the further distinction of being the first university to grant a degree to a woman (1678).

The city itself was founded in 1183 B.C. and claims to be the oldest in Northern Italy. Early on it was reputed for its horses, its wool and the famous Basilica of Saint Anthony, The basilica, begun a year after Friar Anthony’s death in 1232, is where the body of the kindly saint has been protected for the past 800 years. Pilgrims come to touch the tomb of a man credited with performing several miracles, also depicted in the statuary near his tomb. His tongue and vocal chords, symbols of his capable skills as a teacher and preacher, are also buried in a chapel of the mammoth, five-domed church.

Quiet street in residential Padua

The traveller unschooled in saintly history might be forgiven for stumbling into another massive church a few streets away by mistake. Its size alone suggests that it might be Saint Anthony’s. The impressive circular park nearby, surrounded by life-size statues of 78 famous Paduans, may also lead one astray. In fact this is the Basilica of Saint Justina where the headless body of Saint Luke, the evangelist and patron saint of surgeons and artists, is buried.

In addition to the university and basilicas, the downtown markets around the 13th-century Palazzo della Ragione offer visitors a taste of some of the local fruit and vegetables, or a sampling of tasty pulled-pork wrapped in fresh bread to wash down with your caffé latté or macchiato. You can also search through the endless array of scarves, hats and leather goods at a clothing market or carefully fondle an antique in the flea market. Not to be missed are the local pizza cafes and gelaterias. And if you have an extra euro or two in your purse or wallet, try a pastry at nearby Caffé Pedrocchi, the city’s oldest.

A final inducement for getting off the train at Padua may be the city’s most famous of all landmarks, the Scrovegni Chapel. It is here that the great Italian artist Giotto bridged the worlds of Byzantine and Renaissance art with his iconic three-dimensional religious frescoes. The Sistine Chapel’s depiction of Hell is no stronger than the ceiling and walls of the Scrovegni. Here, thanks to much restoration, we visualize the excruciating pain of Christian suffering. The chapel is open to limited groups, some allowed in at night to see Giotto under the stars, an opportunity to see the colourful ceiling as if it were the sky itself.

Clearly, with Venice only a 30-minute train ride away, Padua is worth including in any traveller’s itinerary. Despite Shakespeare’s play, there is nothing shrewish about this precious seat of Italian religious and artistic history.

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