Padua: A Northern Italian University Town

A kid meets a beast in Padua. Photos by Cathie Arquilla
A kid meets a beast in Padua. Photos by Cathie Arquilla.

By Cathie Arquilla

There is nothing like a university town to make you feel inspired. Being “on campus” feels great. The pursuit of knowledge is intoxicating. You feel a cocktail of emotions; one part expansive, two parts rejuvenated, a dash of nostalgia, a jigger of optimism.

University towns are often the best places to experience local flavor and cultural highlights. Padua is no exception! Perhaps the most illustrious science university in Italy, the University of Padua, has an academic history that contains volumes.

The town itself was host to some of the greatest philosophers, scientists, and artists in Western culture. Think Dante, Galileo, Giotto, Donatello and Copernicus. Padua is hallowed ground for learning, but it also celebrates the upbeat individualism of students today.

Walking this city of frescoed porticos and visiting places like the Palazzo Della Ragione, the Ghetto, and St. Anthony’s Basilica, will satisfy your Italian art history craving and give you a chance to experience a vibrant 2010 University town.

Sampling the Flavors of Italy

Certainly, every visitor to Italy should, at some point or another, visit the big three –- Rome, Florence, Venice. But if you can manage a trip which encompasses a smaller area, travelers with know-how will tell you to take Italy much as you would your gelato, sampling flavors (or regions) one or two at a time.

Bar Corte Sconta for local fare
Bar Corte Sconta for local fare

Padua is located in the Veneto region of Italy. The jewel in the crown of the Veneto is obviously Venice, the most aspired tourist destination for masses of people. Yet the Veneto also hosts the Dolomites, the Po Delta, the Palladian town of Vicenza the fashionable town of Treviso, the wines of Soave, Shakespeare’s Verona and so much more. Padua is perfectly located to sample all the region has to offer. AND it is certainly less expensive as a “home base” than Venice.

So as you create your Italian itinerary, check out the anatomy of the Veneto. Dig into Padua and you’ll discover, amongst hundreds of other artifacts, the first anatomy theater, the oldest surviving structure of its kind, built at the University of Padua in 1594.

The University Vibe

At this time, medical studies were growing in importance and catching up to the sciences that had already taken hold at the University. Obviously the town was percolating with modern thought. Galileo had found the freedom to teach here. His lectern still exists near the University’s main building, known as the Bo.

And Giotto, with his emotional yet gothic brush, introduced a new painting style and was commissioned by Padua’s nobility. Today the University vibe is ever present, young hipsters bustle through the Piazza Cavour or stop and chat on their way to learning.

Street Markets of the Veneto
Street Markets of the Veneto

In late October there were scads of students celebrating the culmination of their studies. In groups they were chanting, “Dottore, Dottore.” A closer look inside the huddle revealed a beaming graduate about to be doused with Prosecco, a sparkling wine of the region. Speeches were being made. There was back slapping, kissing, tears of joy and accomplishment, hearty cheers of congratulations.

After witnessing this friendly hazing, I thought about life as a student at the University of Padua. You might start your morning with a cappuccino at one of the local places along Piazza delle Erbe. Or purchase your lunch from a vendor in the square.

Fruit and vegetable stalls have been open for business in this piazza since the 13th century. After morning classes, you might meet friends on the expansive stairway, dating from the 1500’s that lead you to the Palazzo della Ragione.

Padua's Ghetto 'cozy, welcoming and multo chic'
Padua’s Ghetto ‘cozy, welcoming and multo chic’

A quick peruse of the exhibit at the Palazzo della Ragione will allow you to see what is happening on the contemporary art scene. Study or classes would follow and at day’s end you might go to Bar Corte Sconta in Padua’s formerly Jewish Ghetto for a drink.

Palazzo della Regione, also known as the Salone is an impressive space due to its size alone. The frescos covering the walls depict astrological cycles in the school of Giotto. Considering the building is 82 meters long, it’s no surprise that this is one of the largest such depictions of its kind.

The ship’s keel roof when originally built was an architectural wonder. At the far end of this gigantic space is a massive wooden horse commissioned by a local nobleman for a party in 1446 (Where did he put it?!). The original purpose of the building was to “sit in watch” of commerce and for governance of the region –- the adjoining squares form the city’s business district.

Today it is used for exhibitions and functions, but a slice of life from the past can be seen in the 13th century “Stone of Shame” found at the back of the building. Here, bankrupt traders would sit in disgrace, ridiculed by society’s elite.

The Ghetto – A Wealth of Jewish-Italian Heritage

In Shakespeare’s, “Taming of the Shrew” Petruchio says, “I come to wive it wealthily in Padua; If wealthily, then happily in Padua.” If Petruchio were looking for a wife (or a date) today, perhaps Padua’s old Jewish neighborhood, now referred to simply as the Ghetto, would be the place.

No guarantees on the wealthy part (although the neighborhood is quite posh), but she would probably be smart, fashionable and chic! Most of the people I saw in this quarter seemed to be.

Fashionista of the Ghetto
Fashionista of the Ghetto

Beginning in the 14th century, Jews established the Ghetto surrounding Via S. Martino and Solferino. At the time Padua was the only University in Europe to accept Jewish students in the school of medicine. Typically, Jews were a necessary component to the fabric of banking in Padua.

Additionally, they ran shops frequented by all. In the 17th century, four doors enclosing the Ghetto quite purposefully segregated the Jews from the rest of the populous.

Obviously, space in the Ghetto was at a premium, causing many homes to grow up instead of out, the result of which is an urban neighborhood today that is cozy, welcoming and multo chic.

Lanterns oozing a golden glow and narrow pathways invite tourists, students, and neighbors to linger. Hip fashion boutiques, house-ware stores, shoe stores, as well as funky bars and restaurants dot the neighborhood.

Bar Corte Sconta on Via Dell’Arco mentioned earlier, is a great place to hang out with friends or perhaps, pursue a wife! It is open to the street and serves up assorted crostini, including the regional favorite, bacalao. Add Soave, imported from just miles away, and you may be able to charm a shrew!

On a more serious note, the Ghetto has a rich Jewish history and some points of interest for those seeking to discover more about Jewish-Italian heritage.

Il Santo - the Basilica of Saint Anthony
Il Santo – the Basilica of Saint Anthony

Il Santo – Beauty, Blessings and a Voice Box

Discussing Padua without mentioning The Basilica of Saint Anthony would be like talking about Rome without bringing up the Vatican! The Basilica is probably one of the top five Christian pilgrimages in Italy

Known to the people of Padua as Il Santo (The Saint), The Basilica enshrines Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost things–either actual things, or lost hope, or faith. His tomb is flanked by large, white latticework. Written intentions and photographs are shoved in the latticework holes in askance to Il Santo.

It is a 13th-century masterpiece of Roman and Gothic architecture and is a “must see” for anyone touring the Veneto! I relished the imposing grandeur and sumptuous artifacts filling the many sanctuaries of this Basilica, all dedicated to the glory of God.

The display is moving. Prayers, needs, intervention requests, and devotions fill the latticework to overflowing. Countless pictures, especially of children, surround the tomb on this strangely incongruent structure. I visited Il Santo just before closing. This turned out to be the best time.

When I returned a few days later at mid-day The Basilica was crazy with tourists. During less busy times, Il Santo provides a peaceful aura for locals and tourists alike to reflect and pray. Indeed I saw several moms, businessmen, and young people pop in for a quick prayer before continuing on with their day.

The gate to the Botanical Garden
The gate to the Botanical Garden

An anatomy lesson of sorts can also be had at Il Santo. At The Chapel of the Relics (Treasury Chapel), you’ll find a spectacular reliquary (a big opulent gold urn-type vessel) displaying Saint Anthony’s tongue! Above this is a reliquary of his jawbone. Still another holds his voice box.

Saint Anthony was known to preach with great fervor. It is documented that he traveled thousands of kilometers preaching to tens of thousands of faithful. Perhaps it is fitting that these vocal relics remain intact for both the faithful and curious to see.

If you feel called, visit the aptly named Blessings Chapel. There, Franciscan priests are available for blessings. It’s a quiet, intimate chapel, not terribly intimidating and a blessing said in Latin or Italian, is just that!

From Heaven to Earth

After (or before) a visit to Il Santo, you might need a little grounding. Padua is home to the most ancient university garden in the world and it sits just outside of the Basilica. This is a terrific place to wander with friends. It is restful for tourists, an oasis to locals.

UNESCO has put The Botanic Garden of Padua on their World Heritage List. It dates from 1545 when its purpose was to supply the university with medicinal plants for study, specifically plants known as the simples, which provide remedies without further concoction.

The garden remains a research and teaching institution and is involved in preserving endangered plant species. Romantic statuary decorates the external pathways of the garden, while exotic and familiar plant life from varied environments can be found throughout.

If you were a frustrated botanist
(or a real one), this garden would be your mecca. But you certainly don’t have to have a green thumb to appreciate a living palm that dates back to 1585!

Stephenie Oswald, founder and editor of Travelgirl Magazine raises a glass at Belle Parti.
Stephenie Oswald, founder and editor of Travelgirl Magazine raises a glass at Belle Parti.

Called the “Goethe Palm,” after the German writer who hypostasized about evolution from studying this old palm, you can find it in a glasshouse along with other plants dating from the mid-1700’s. Imagine what these plants have seen (or heard) in the past several hundred years… and counting!

The Blessing of Mangiare at Belle Parti

No Italian tourism story would be complete without giving space to La Cucina. One lunch, in particular, was stand out in Padua. Ristorante Belle Parti at 11 Via Belle Parti, was memorable for its sumptuously elegant atmosphere and creative cuisine.

The proprietor, Stefania Martinato, a knock-out northern Italian woman, told us that her restaurant had burned down two years ago and only recently re-opened after a year-long renovation.

I commented on the floral arrangements, which were worthy of a Renaissance still-life painting and Stefania explained that she arranges them herself! The flowers, subtle mood lighting, large mirrors, pleasing artwork and contemporary furnishings delightfully mixed old with new creating a microcosm of Padua herself!The re-opening has been very successful and they are usually fully booked. She explained that while Belle Parti was relatively well known in the Veneto it is still a secret place; their marketing strategy is word-of-mouth.

Lunch began with an attention-grabbing move from our waiter, Marco. He deftly chopped off the top of our Prosecco bottle with a silver sword! Nothing spilled, cracked or crushed and the uncorked bottle top became my souvenir.

The menu created by Chef Mauro Genero was inspired. Two selections are prime examples: Scampi-Variations; crispy, raw, seared and marinated with fine herbs and fennel and Thin Tagliatelle with fresh green apples, capers, and anchovies. As for the shrimp (scampi), crispy, was a shrimp rolled in lard, then rolled in a type of shredded wheat and baked.

The result was a flaky, crunchy buttery mouthful of goodness immediately followed by the softer juiciness of a perfectly cooked shrimp, meraviglioso!

Belle Parti
Belle Parti

The Tagliatelle dish was a medley of flavors. The sweet/sour apples combined with the salty capers and anchovies atop homemade pasta made an all-together surprising pasta dish. And the presentation of these dishes was modern and artfully executed. Lunch was a treat.

I’m not sure where Padua falls on the list of popular destinations in Italy. It is the third largest city in the Veneto region and certainly, Il Santo draws a lot of people.

Architecture in Padua
Architecture in Padua

But sometimes, because a place is not a tourist destination, is exactly the reason you want to go there! Padua has the art history, architectural romance, and culture of a big Italian city, but it is a University town with a contemporary urban vibe – rich for exploring, easy to access and suitable for “students” of all ages.

When Planning:

Italian Government Tourist Board Italian Tourism–The best place to start when planning any trip to Italy!

Italian Travel Promotion Council (ITPC) The links at this site provide visitors with “…the best Tour Operators doing business with Italy, committed to giving American travelers the best possible experience…”

Street markets of the Veneto
Street markets of the Veneto

Veneto, From Earth to SkyAn excellent source for researching all the Veneto region of Italy has to offer!

Padova Cultura –- A good site to find out what events and exhibitions are happening in Padua.

Must Places to See:

Il Santo Basilica of Saint Anthony­– A 13th-century masterpiece of Roman and Gothic architecture.

Cappella degli Scrovegni– Considered the most famous monument in Padua, this chapel is entirely frescoed by Giotto, one of the most important Italian gothic painters of the 14th century. Reservations are required. It is located several long blocks from the city center and is across town from Il Santo. Plan for a short taxi ride or a long walk if going “from here to there.”

Orto Botanico The Botanic Garden of Padua– Named a UNESCO world heritage site, this is a lovely place to wander.

Belle Parti Ristorante Sumptuously elegant atmosphere and creative cuisine.

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