Don’t you know there is more than Venice in Venetia? – – World Meanderings (n°17)
Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Whether you are planning a trip to Venice or having already been there you suppose there is little more to know about Venetia, you should think twice about it. Venetia has much more to offer and it would be a shame to miss visiting beautiful Padua and its charming surroundings. Padua is only 25 miles from Venice and you can reach it by car in less than an hour or do it as the rich Venetian nobles did during the Renaissance and go by boat. Aboard their luxurious boats called “burci” they sailed on one of the many rivers and canals linking the two cities to get to their summer villas built by the famous architects of the time such as Palladio, Preti or Scamozzi.
Slowly sailing you will enjoy the peaceful and romantic landscapes and admire at the turn of the Euganea River or of the Battaglia Canal, one of these typical Palladian villas half hidden by a weeping willow. Andrea Palladio was born in 1508 and quickly became a successful architect. He was a lover of classical Roman architecture and drew his inspiration from the Ancient Rome temples designed by Vitruve. All of the ornamentations of the Renaissance architecture were to be banished while mathematical and symmetrical proportions were to be strictly enforced to create “a harmony to the eyes” making people like it “without knowing why”. His style was copied by many of his contemporaries and during this period dozens of these villas were built and were all called Palladian Villas. His style was also very popular in other countries. Inigo Jones, a British architect of the 17th century popularized it: he first built the Queen’s House in Greenwich and then many others followed. In France Louis XV was so found of this simple classical style that he had the “Petit Trianon” built this way in the Versailles Castle’s park. Later Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd president of the United States who was both a man of action and an intellectual knowing Latin and Greek, had many American buildings designed in Palladian style.
You will be able to visit many of these Venetian Villas. Among them don’t miss the Contarini Villa built on the bank of the Brenta River. It is the biggest one of them all with its 180 meters long façade and its 125 acres park. But beyond its huge dimensions you will be amazed by the decoration: every wall, every ceiling was painted with frescoes by famous artists of the Renaissance such as Tiepolo and last but not least the ballroom is entirely covered with Stuccoes cut in the shape of shells!
Close by in the city of Stra get lost in the almost inextricable maze of the Pisani Villa. This round labyrinth made with box trees is centred buy a tower from which a lookout helps the poor tourists wandering like lost souls in this “green hell”. The villa itself is remarkable too and was the place of many historic events. In 1807 Napoleon bought it and gave it to his stepson, Eugene de Beauharnais, who was then viceroy of Italy and you will visit the room where the French Emperor slept. The villa is also known for being the place where Mussolini met Hitler for the first time in 1934.
Padua that was the capital city of Venetia in the Middle Ages before Venice took over, is located in the middle of a vast plain where green valleys give place to low hills covered with vineyards, to castles and villas, to villages surrounded by high ramparts and health resorts. You can visit Padua by boat or walking from one square to the other crossing its many bridges. You can start your tour at the “Piazza dei Signori” that is the heart of the city since the Middle Ages, then go to the “Piazza del Duomo” to admire the cathedral designed by Michelangelo or to the “Piazza del Santo” to discover the St Antonio Basilica dedicated to St Anthony of Padua. It’s a remarkable building harmoniously mixing Roman, Gothic, Byzantine and Moorish styles.
If you still haven’t seen enough paintings yet go to the “Scrovegni Chapel” to admire the frescoes by Giotto that are said to be his absolute masterpiece. Every morning you can take a leisurely stroll through the “Piazza delle Erbe” and the “Piazza dei Frutti “where the daily market takes place. It’s a wonderful opportunity to see and taste the colourful Italian produce while being called out by the shopkeepers and their singsong accent. In between these two squares stands a huge building built in 1218 called the “Palazzo della Ragione”. Climbing up the outdoor stairway, you will get to a monumental arched gallery giving you a great view over the lively market. From the gallery you will go inside the colossal hall, 81 meters long, 27 meters large and 27 meters wide! Realizing that there is absolutely no pillar to hold this immense ceiling and that every inch of the walls is covered by frescoes, you will be astonished by the skill of the 13th century builders. To make your stay easier in Padua you can get the “Padova Card” that will give you free access to 12 different monuments and to buses and tramways as well as free parking.
Make sure to have some time left to visit one of the many fortified villages of the region such as Montagna, Bassano dei Grappa or Citadella. Citadella was founded in 1220 at a time when conflicts for territory were raging unabated. The ancient medieval town is surrounded by high ramparts that have been completely restored from 1994 till 2013, including the 32 towers and 4 doors with their drawbridges. It’s now possible to go on the sentry walk for a guided tour or on your own on the “Camminmato di Ronda”. From there you’ll get a good view over the town and its maze of narrow streets and on a clear day you can even see the Dolomites in the distance. Back down in the village take a walk through the medieval streets with their small shops and workshops not to mention numerous good pizzerias and restaurants!
Of course Venice is an absolute must, but give Venetia a chance, leave these thousands of tourists on the Bridge of Sighs and enjoy the rest of this beautiful region.
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny