THE THREE CITIES OF NORTHEAST ITALY
Any reason is a good reason for a visit to Italy…
Millennia of exceptional history palpable at every corner, cuisine with a global reputation and the allure of fashionable clothing, shoes and make-up: all are unquestionably good both for one's mental and physical health.
So after an Easter break in Croatia and instead of jumping straight back on the plane to London, we take a four day (de)tour of Northeast Italy. The area where I grew up, just across the border between the former Capitalist West and Communist East, was heavily influenced by the regions of Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia. Hence today we share similar recipes and overdo it with varieties of homemade pastas and sauces, many of us grew up speaking the language and watching Italian TV Channels (their broadcast signal was stronger than our homeland’s and their programmes were more exciting….) and we also aspired to look as fashionable as they do… Istria was once also governed by the Venetian Republic and monuments in Venice were built with the famous Istrian white stone…
Start in Treviso
Already at the airport of Treviso and with a few days to spare, we could not possibly miss a tour of the neighbouring cities of Venice, Verona and Padua. We drop our hire car (as returning it to a different location from the pick-up doubles the price!) and continue the rest of our trip by public transport. First a taxi to the railway station of Treviso (€15) and then a 40-minute train journey to Padua (€5.45 adult and €2.75 child ticket, one way). Conveniently located in the centre of a geographic triangle and within easy reach of the cities on our list, Padua is the perfect place to stay. The accommodation is also much cheaper than in Venice or Verona and four nights (including continental breakfast) in the four-star Plaza sets us back just over £200.
The forecast for early April predicts sunny and rainless weather, not too hot but pleasantly warm compared to the chilliness back in the UK. The train takes us through pretty hills and villages, trees and meadows in early spring, immaculately kept façades, courtyards and gardens, often with small businesses (garages, workshops) attached to the property. Whatever the current EU index on the state of the Italian economy may show – this is no doubt an affluent region.
We arrive in Padua late afternoon, right in the middle of the rush hour with hundreds of people returning from work and rushing to catch their trains. I pop into one of many farmacie for a supply of paracetamol and vitamins followed by a compulsory chat about bad weather and seasonal colds with just about everyone present volunteering their experiences and opinions… Ooh, I do love Italian chattiness!
The room at the Plaza is surprisingly large, with extra high ceilings and period decorations. It has a separate living room area with a rotating television (so that you can watch either from the bed or the sofa), a walk-in-wardrobe (a convenient feature if you stay longer or like unpacking and sorting your few pieces of clothing) and a large bathroom. In fact, it looks better than on their website; something you can’t often say… When we finally figure out how to operate the television, the youngest member of our travelling crew gets hooked on the cartoon Masha e Orso (“Masha and the Bear”). Which seems to be showing on the loop... Good for her Italian, I guess!
At 7:30 on the dot we are the first guests of the evening in the Osteria San Pietro (across the road from the hotel); starving and ready to indulge ourselves with local flavours.
Our six year old orders penne with butter and plenty of parmesan cheese while the two of us just nod to the mouth-watering recommendations by the owner. First an antipasto of liver pâté, followed by mains of fegato (liver) alla veneziana and baccalà (dried and cured cod) both served with polenta (kind of mash made of dried corn), and ending it with a tarte made of thick and flavoursome chestnuts with pieces of rosemary and a chocolate mousse with custard cream (or as they called it here – crema inglese). Washed down with Peroni and local red wine. Oh my…it all tasted divine!
We choose Friday for a day trip to Venice; mostly because we want to avoid the extra crowds of the weekend visitors from Slovenia, Croatia, Austria and other Italian cities. I’ve been in Venice during the extra-crowded extremely popular events (Carnevale being one of those) and it was not a pretty sight.
It takes only 26 minutes from Padua to Stazione Santa Lucia (adult €4.10, child €2.05, one way). As soon you exit the station you are hit by the uniqueness of this place; by the mesmerising look of Canal Grande, the milling vaporettos and the scores of noisy tourists. The breeze brings soft smells of the salty sea water and hints of oregano and rosemary… And the weather is just right; warm but not stuffy or hot.
The overcrowded Vaporetto number 2 (45-minute ride for the three of us – €24!) takes us down the Canal Grande towards Piazza San Marco. The water is choppy and the vaporetto is swaying violently from side to side, so we hold tightly onto each other. The journey offers spectacular views of this city’s unique architecture with a glimpse of the glorious past; battered by centuries of strong winds, rising waters and other climatic conditions.
A mass of people leave the boat at the Rialto bridge and the rest of the journey gets more pleasant. We even find a seat next to the window. Our six-year-old traveller, completely captivated by the city “floating on water” and “ooh-is-this-what-a-flood looks like?”, takes photos of just about every building, every balcony, every sculpture and every window, draining the brand new batteries of the camera as we disembark at the Piazza San Marco.
There is something magical and overwhelming about this square. The centuries of history and different influences are visible both at the façade of the Basilica di San Marco and the residence of Venice's rulers, the Palazzo Ducale. Scores of people are leisurely strolling around, smiling at each other, laughing cheerful, taking photos, or simply enjoying the one-in-a-lifetime experience. Venice has always fascinated and inspired. It has provided astonishing milieus for countless movies; and not only for the adventures of the “regular” visitors such as Casanova and James Bond, but also for some gems of cinematographic art, like “Don’t look now” and “Death in Venice”.
Wandering down the surrounding arcade we check on souvenir shops (mostly old-fashioned Murano glass decorations and masks) and the overpriced cafes charging €10 for a coffee. Ah well… When I am old – and in Venice for the last time in my life – I will treat myself to tea at the Florian Café. Until then I am happy with cheaper options away from the main square. Like; Gran Caffè alla città di Torino, 5 minutes away. I visited this café over 20 years ago during a trip with my sister to an exhibition we never managed to see… The queues were so long that just waiting for the ticket would have taken until the scheduled return time. Instead we spent the day discovering the side streets, narrow canals and miniature bridges… The café has not changed, but the surrounding shops have; these days they are all big, extra-expensive fashion brands…
After a quick lunch of affordable cheese toasties and strong coffee we are back into the hustle and bustle of Venice, by now much more crowded than when we arrived. Old Venetian residents are pursuing their usual business, tourists stopping and starting, taking photos and buying souvenirs; and delivery-by-foot strongmen shouting behind your back and impatiently pushing you aside… Every corner, every turning, every bridge and side canal are captivating in this city.
The next few hours we spend in a leisurely stroll down side streets, popping in and out of small shops, stopping for a rest on a bench, grabbing a gelato (amazing tiramisù flavour) and heading slowly back towards the Stazione Santa Lucia. Our six-year-old seasoned traveller insists on buying a meticulously hand-crafted cat mask with a lacy trim. It will make a great artefact for the next show-and-tell at school! Ok, ok, I guess not the worst spent €15.
For dinner we are back in Padua. The Osteria Antico Brolo, another charming place just outside the hotel, slightly more expensive and posher than the one of the previous night. By now my cold is unfortunately out of control and throughout the meal I get one of those ridiculous nosebleeds...The primo of bigoli pasta with veal sauce was delicious but my secondo of chicken and potatoes had to be packed and taken back to the hotel (and never consumed…). So annoying…
The second full day we stay in Padua; nursing my cold and getting to know a city that has always lived in the shadows of its more famous neighbours. The historic centre is busy; full of shoppers, young families with giggling kids, older ladies and gentlemen well-groomed and posh-ed up for a mid-morning coffee and gossip session. And when in Padua…do the same! Preferably in Caffè Pedrocchi, a café that has been around since 1831. There is an old-fashioned charm about it; it’s intellectual, it’s artistic, and very proud of its own unique history. It also serves wonderful coffee! From the cosy sofas in the corner of the red room we get a good view of the whole place, overhear occasional snippets of conversations and admire tremendously well-dressed patrons. Italians certainly know how to look the part; jewellery, scarves, pearls, immaculate make up… What’s the point of drinking coffee if not in style?
We follow their example and after the coffee head to the shops! There is a 30% sale in Bata and they sell extremely stylish (so so Italian) shoes that I can definitely see myself wearing… Oh, come on…how can I resist?
In Ristorante Vecchia Padova we grab a quick lunch. This self-service eatery decorated with antique bric-a-brac and offering a few meal options seems very popular among locals. We order two portions of lasagne and one veal stew with asparagus and beverages (a beer and two juices) and pay a reasonable €32. All my suspicions regarding self-service restaurants (going back to my student days on slender means in a country at war) melt away… The food is freshly made and it tastes like in an expensive restaurant.
In the afternoon – although my cold still not much better (even after two visits to the farmacia and increased doses of paracetamols, vitamins and other remedies…) and our six-year old keener on another episode or two of Masha e Orso – we head for a slow-paced tour of the historic monuments in Padua. The market stalls at Piazza delle Erbe are slowly packing away for the day. The astronomical clock at the Palazzo del Capitano is even more striking than on the photos in the guide book. And the most impressive thing about the renowned Paduan University is the fact that the first woman ever graduated here! It happened in 1678 and her name was Elena Cornaro Piscopia. She mastered a few languages, lectured maths, studied philosophy and was an accomplished musician. Donna universale!
We grab a pizza at the closest take-away and get ready for a night in… With a few more episodes of Masha e Orso, naturalmente!
Paracetamols are finally kicking in and my cold is easing up. Still – we take a taxi from the hotel to the train station (€8 approx) and save our energy for walking around Verona.
It’s a bright, sunny and very warm day, perfect for T-shirts and sunglasses. Everything seems to have switched into a slow, Sunday mode and it takes us around an hour and a half to reach Verona (€7.00 adult, €3.50 child, one way). The train is cheerfully loud, packed with mostly young people and students returning home for a family day.
We reach Verona well after midday and the first priority becomes – lunch! Many restaurants and osterias are closed; some are opening later on in the day, while others – it being Sunday in a Catholic country – are simply shut for the day. Eventually we discover the Osteria Casa Vino with a terrace on a narrow, cobblestoned path just off Corso Castel Vecchio and enjoy our first “al fresco” meal of the year. We order fiore di zucca and octopus salad for starters and gnocchi al baccalà and bigoli pasta with anchovies sauce alla Veneziana. Our six year old insist again on penne al burro as they are the tastiest pasta ever… It all tastes deliciously decadent but the winner is the meal of gnocchi in the strong and rich baccalà sauce. And yes – the espresso is perfect and so are the biscotti. It all came to €56.50 (alcohol not consumed, unfortunately)…
Now we are ready for architecture and history! The Arena of Verona is just around the corner and we are lucky; every first Sunday in the month from October to May entrance costs only €1. Scores of children see the enormous place as a unique playground and so does our six-year old who insists on climbing up and down the stone stairs and circumnavigating the whole auditorium. By looking at a group of restless boys jumping from one stair to other, balancing at the perilous edges, pushing and pulling – I am relieved my girl is somewhat more cautious, although still hyper and enthusiastic. We sit opposite the stage, basking in sun and imagining history, culture and other activities performed in this fascinating place. The first time I was here I was seventeen and Nick “Each-time-you-break-my-heart” Kamen was performing that evening... But I did not have the money to go in… These days I would rather choose an opera (getting middle-aged…) The Arena was completed in AD 30 (1st century) and it’s the third largest Roman amphitheatre, after Rome and Santa Maria Capua Vetere. It came a long way; from gladiatoral games via pop concerts to opera performances…
From there we take a leisurely stroll down Via Mazzini. It’s heaving with people, both tourists and locals, popping in and out of famous shops (all big, expensive brands) and all heading in the same direction – to Piazza Erbe, which seems to be the place to be on a warm Sunday afternoon in Verona.
Piazza Erbe is definitely the heart of this city; surrounded with old medieval looking buildings, ground floors turned into cafés, bars and gelaterias, with a refreshing fountain in the centre and a column with a Venetian lion at one end. There is also a (genuine) dinosaur bone hanging at the top of the arch leading to one of the side streets. This square has been used as a market for over two thousand years but on Sunday it turns into a giant meeting point, with masses of chatty, smiley, milling visitors and locals.
The courtyard and the balcony of Giulietta (Shakespeare's Juliet) are overcrowded with over-enthusiastic tourists. Everyone seems to be desperate to get a photograph touching the right breast of the statue of Giulietta. Who could ever start such a sickening ritual is beyond my comprehension… Instead I try to explain the story of the forbidden love between Romeo and Giulietta to an inquisitive six year old… The parents didn’t want them to get married! But why, mummy? Parents do not make that decision for you!
In the nearby gelateria the parents grab yet another amazing tasting ice-cream; vanilla and strawberry flavours; while our health-conscious six year old prefers a pot of fresh strawberries…
Back to Treviso, back to London
Our plane is late afternoon and we have a few more hours in Padua. We opt for a farewell coffee in “our favourite” Caffè Pedrocchi. And a quick trip to the shops. First I try on a jumper in the shopping centre Rinascente. It’s a little tight and there's no chance I am going to ask for a large size… Then to KIKO Milano cosmetics to stock up on various beauty products… I also end up having a massive argument with my six year old about the best colours of the nail polishes… No sweetheart, I am not buying a yellow one! NO!
And in no time we are in the coach going to the airport. The weather is taking a nasty turn. The sky is greyer, the air cooler and large drops of rain brush against the windowpanes... Obviously, preparing us for the landing in London!
There is nothing left than to plan another (de)tour of Italy… Who needs a reason at all?
Open since 1831 and frequented by writers, intellectuals, students, revolutionaries...including Stendhal, Lord Byron and Dario Fo. In 1848 the riots against the Habsburg monarchy were plotted here... Until 1916 it was open 24 hours and everyone was welcomed day and night. In the green area you can still just sit and read newspapers and books without ordering anything...
The tragic story of Romeo and Giulietta is not the only Shakespeare play set in this area of Italy. In fact, the Bard was very keen on this region and set many of his plays around here. Just to mention a few: Merchant of Venice (partly set in Venice), Othello (first act set in Venice), Two Gentlemen of Verona (partly set in Verona), The Taming of The Shrew (partly set in Padua)…