Think of Venice and you don’t only think of its phenomenal beauty and history, of languorous afternoons being gently punted in a gondola through shaded canals, of the Piazza San Marco, of strings of laundry and of gorgeously ornate mansions.
Because Venice is also about money, shedloads of it if you choose to stay at the Gritti or the Daniele or dine at Harry’s Bar. Rip-offs are legion, just as numerous as the armies of tourists who, every summer, tramp across the city. About 70,000 visitors come to the city daily, that’s more than the 55,000 inhabitants. After monopolising all available space on motoschaffi (boat-buses) they then empty their wallets at shop after shop filled with “Venetian” souvenirs made in China. Even Murano glass becomes suspect.
So Venice can be a wonder or a nightmare. Maybe it’s one of those destinations, like Paris, where Japanese tourists suffer a psychological trauma due to their (high) expectations being dashed? I doubt it. But to get the best from Venice, avoid summer, for one, and stay in Padova, for two. Because much of Venice at night empties out like a river into the sea, leaving potent melancholy and a deserted museum – except for the tourist hotspots. And staying there does not come cheap.
Instead, half an hour away by train, its stunning and stately neighbour, Padova, pulsates with life. At night, the vast Piazza dei Signori (above) fills with restaurant* tables overlooked by a 13th century clock tower while the neighbouring square is lined with cafes, and backstreet bars and enotecas heave with rowdy students. Every Wednesday evening they stage some kind of demonstration proving the revolutionary spirit is alive and well.
This isn’t surprising as it’s been a major university town ever since its 13th century heyday when religious, cultural and economic passions reached fever pitch, continuing into the 14th and, after a lull, resuming in the 16th. The artists Donatello and Mantegna both lived here and, before them, Giotto left a masterpiece of frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel. In fact frescoes are everywhere in Padova. Later, no less a figure than Galileo Galilei taught at the university.
At Padova’s heart looms the monumental Palazzo della Ragione, flanked by piazzas and home to arcades of dazzling food-shops beneath a vast, beautiful hall – blanketed in frescoes watched over by a gigantic wooden horse. Its equine scale becomes dwarfed by the soaring, raftered hall itself, in fact the largest Medieval hanging hall in the world. When I was there, only two other visitors joined me – had it been in Venice, there would have been queues at the entrance.
Outside, every morning, the Piazza delle Erbe sees dozens of canopied fruit and vegetable-sellers set up shop, revealing an unbeatable choice of produce. The surrounding Veneto region is known for its winter rain, and soil is fertile so, for example, asparagus comes in several shades and thicknesses, artichokes are prepared by hand, cheeses are from all over Italy, olive-oil bread comes in all shapes, and dangling prosciutto and salami whack you on the head as you walk by. It’s a foodies’ dream destination.
Like most of the Veneto, the city centre is totally flat, much of it pedestrianised, so you have to watch out for squadrons of bicycles, many ridden by elegantly clad middle-aged women. London’s racing maniacs they are certainly not. Some might peddle a block or so away from the beating piazza heart to the historic Caffe Pedrocchi, a porticoed, neo-classical building that was once a hotbed of 19th century revolutionaries but is now a rendezvous for Padova’s well-heeled bourgeoisie.
Down on the magnificent Prato della Valle, one of Europe’s largest ‘squares’ (it’s in fact triangular), canal-side statues watch over students chilling out on the central lawns while in the background loom the domes of Il “Santo” – aka the Basilica of San Antonio, the patron saint of Padova. Catholicism is ever-present.
With such a feast of history, this city should be visited in its own right. But if it’s the splendour of Venice and its soothing waters that you’re after, there’s nothing wrong with combining the two. The only slight hitch to this plan is if the Mayor of Venice implements a charge for day-trippers – something he reiterated a few weeks ago.
Wily Padovani are becoming aware that they can profit from their mythical neighbour by offering Airbnb – some are even building extensions in their gardens. Commuting is simple too: a tram whisks you from the arcades of old Padua to the station where regular trains take less than half an hour. Exit Mussolini’s grandiose station and you’re in Venice!
Walk, walk, walk, up and down those bridges (435 of them), along the canals, down the back-alleys (don’t miss the Ghetto, or old Jewish quarter, of Canareggio – a short stroll from the station and a little visited area), then to the unmissable but packed San Marco and Rialto. This is justifiably tourist central, but at the eastern end of Rialto bridge, make sure to search out the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, a high end department store (the only one in Venice).
A couple of years ago it was brilliantly converted from a functional 13th century traders’ centre by the Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas. The arched galleries of the atrium are stunning – rather like a caravanserai – overlooking a Philippe Starck-designed restaurant in the courtyard. Then take the lift to the top floor where a fantastic roof-terrace awaits you, offering blazing 360° views (both pics above). Breathe in, breathe out – Venice really is magical.
Venice:- If you’re not grabbing a lunchtime tramezzino at a corner bar, then aim for quality and location. The excellent Lineadombra on Dorsodouro has a wonderful terrace jutting over the water looking across to Giudecca. Be sure to book.