Undiscovered Italy (Part 4): Padua

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Undiscovered Italy

Nobody likes too many tourists. Whether you look for a destination off the beaten track or that bar ‘where the locals go,’ it makes sense to try and be original when travelling. I spent a year in Italy on the Erasmus project  a program that allows students from universities all over Europe to spend a term or two studying at a partner university abroad. This mini-series will include destinations that I discovered in Italy whilst on the Erasmus project, that I feel are overlooked by those on the Italian tourist trail. Buon viaggio…

Padua's elliptical piazza, Prato dell Valle. (Photographer: Pedro; Flickr)

Padua’s elliptical piazza, Prato dell Valle. (Photographer: Pedro; Flickr)

Have you heard of Verona? Yes. Have you heard of Venice? Of course. Have you heard of Padua? Possibly not. Most people who have visited the Veneto region, situated in the north-eastern reaches of Italy, will not have stopped in this historic university city of 200,000 people. It may be hard to compete with its more famous neighbours who are heavyweights in the tourism game, but I want to convince you to pay Padua a visit. The Bacchiglione River is a very good reason, for example. The river weaves through the city’s dense clusters of arcaded streets, with many bridges crossing its path (and who doesn’t love a beautiful bridge?) Padua is also home to Prato della Valle, a vast elliptical piazza lined with spectacular statues, and arguably contributes to making Padua a worthy contender amongst its neighbours.

In all honesty, I did not have high expectations before visiting Padua. My friend Kat and I were on our way to a residential weekend in Venice when Kat convinced me that Padua was worth visiting, telling me that her sister had actually spent a year studying there, and so we booked in to a cheap Airbnb for a few days.

Whilst on our trip, we found ourselves in the Scrovegni Chapel (as the weather was not fantastic in February) but having visited it, I would recommend a trip to Padua just to see this fantastic building! The artist Giotto was commissioned by the Scrovegni family to decorate the chapel in the early 14th century and it was meant to be a private chapel attached to their home.

Scrovegni Chapel conceals 700 years worth of art within its walls. (Photographer: Rhonda Oglesby; Flickr)

Scrovegni Chapel conceals 700 years worth of art within its walls. (Photographer: Rhonda Oglesby; Flickr)

You cannot prepare for your first dazzling sight of the bright blue frescoed walls of the chapel, which are still bright after 700 years. They depict terrifying scenes of hell and poignant stories of virtues and vices, 360 degrees around the walls. We spent hours in there gazing at the various alfrescos, fascinated by the fact that Dante had probably seen and been inspired by these walls before he wrote his masterpiece Inferno. Tickets were €13 full price and €8 for students, which was pretty reasonable as access to the informative tourist centre (which explains how an alfresco is made) is also included in the ticket price.

The layout of Padua lends itself to the classic Italian stereotype of watching the world pass by while just sitting in a piazza. Prato della Valle is a 90,000m2 elliptical piazza, containing a grass garden and a small moat surrounded by two layers of statues. The largest square in Italy and one of the largest in Europe, it is actually also a wonderful monument to civic nostalgia, as the statues were all famous citizens of Padua. The square was in disrepair in the 1990s, but was restored and has since hosted skating competitions and other events. Prato della Valle is an extreme example, but all over Padua narrow roads open out into substantial communal squares, which means that you might just accidentally find one when walking around the centre. Just do as the Italians do: take a stroll and take a gelato with you!

Basilica Sant’Antonio, Padua (Photographer: Rodney; Flickr)

Basilica Sant’Antonio, Padua (Photographer: Rodney; Flickr)

Padua is crammed full of other interesting buildings to explore, perfect to fill out a day wandering around the town. The Basilica Sant’Antonio is Padua’s most revered church as it houses the remains of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of the town. It is also a mind-boggling construction, as it has seven cuppola domes crowning it. If you like overwhelmingly ornate Catholic churches, then I recommend that you explore inside. Another building that you should check out is Palazzo della Ragione, which was completed at the turn of the 13th century and contains allegorical alfrescos. It is claimed to have the largest roof unsupported by columns in Europe and houses a bustling market underneath. Intricate arcades that were clearly influenced by Islamic architecture can also be spotted all over Padua and give you a sense of the city’s history. Then there’s Piazza dei Signori, a large rectangular piazza which boasts an impressive clock tower with an elaborate and confusing gilded clock that includes astrological signs. There are places to sit and eat in the piazza, but prices are on the steep side and the quality does not live up to the price. However, La Lanterna restaurant is a relaxing place to sit and take in the view at night over a drink.

One of the best things about visiting Padua as a student was that it clearly has a vibrant university scene. Padua’s university is 800 years old and among the oldest in Europe. Galileo Galilei, father of modern science, was a lecturer there and Padua has attracted scientists, writers, philosophers and other great minds for centuries. I felt that this gave Padua a character to be reckoned with, the character of a city that has seen and supported many great academic feats. This, coupled with the vast presence of students, made me feel at home. And of course, as any good student would, I also sampled the city’s healthy nightlife. The order of the day, as in most Italian cities, seemed to be socialising and drinking in a piazza before heading to one of the clubs. We went to the heaving Fishmarket, which seemed to be a pillar of Padua’s nightlife.

Try and Aperol spritz in its hometown for less than €2.50!(Photographer: Caspar Diederik; Flickr)

Try and Aperol spritz in its hometown for less than €2.50! (Photographer: Caspar Diederik; Flickr)

Finally, Padua is the birthplace of Aperol, the bitter aperitif liqueur, which is used to make the ubiquitous bright-orange cocktail Aperol Spritz. It contains Prosecco, Aperol, soda water and a slice of orange. This is not something that should be forgotten, as you can find this staple drink at ridiculously low prices in a local bar. You will have to fork-out the equivalent of €7.50 for an Aperol Spritz in Carluccio’s in the UK and pay around €5 in Genoa, but in Padua you can pay as little as €2.50! You may see the streets lined with plastic cups with the fluorescent orange remnants of a mass Aperol Spritz pre-drink across Padua on a Saturday morning.

Don’t forget Padua if you are looking for a city break in Italy this spring or summer! There is an airport in Padua but there are very few flights from there. Fly to Venice or Verona (or even Milan) for cheap prices. Padua contains all the ingredients for a great city holiday: historical architecture, a lively ambience and above all, it’s not a tourist trap.

Featured image © Pedro

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