Pride of place in a vast glass cabinet in the circular room behind the altar in Padua’s Saint Anthony’s Basilica are some grisly artefacts. The Saint’s lower jawbone, complete with a row of remarkably long teeth, and his tongue. Both are displayed in ornate vessels covered with intricate metalwork with small glass panels set within them to view the items. Most of my River Countess cruise tour group could not resist our macabre interest, and so we silently shuffled in single file through the narrow balcony that ran along the side of the unit to get a glimpse of them. Unfortunately (or fortunately based on your predilections!) we were not allowed to take photographs.
My visit to Padua, known as Padova by Italians, came on the second full day of my Uniworld Venice and Northern Italy Gems River cruise. We had cruised away from beautiful, but crowed, Venice and were now some 40 kilometres away exploring the oldest city in the region.
The Basilica di Sant’ Antonio (Saint Anthony’s Basilica) is a magnificent multi-domed building that clearly drew on more exotic Middle Eastern and Byzantine influence than traditional European heritage when being designed. Its dense brickwork has added flourishes of white trimmed arches, while the domes are totally white. Our guide explained that this grand and impressive building was created in the early 13th Century for Saint Anthony. He was a Portuguese preacher who died near the city while fulfilling a remit to share his vast knowledge of the scriptures through all of Italy. It was built to host his remains and celebrate his success at converting many heretics and supposed miracles. When time came to move his bones into it, his coffin was opened and the story goes that everything had turned to dust except those two remains. Signs, it was said, of his great oratory and preaching.
A short walk from the magnificence, and weirdness, of the Basilica is the beautiful Prato della Valle. This is the largest square of its kind in Europe at some 90,000 square metres. Dating back to the 17th Century, when it was built to host mock battles on horseback and musical events, it evolved into a vast park with an oval shaped canal surrounded by 78 statues of various important Italian and local figures. In summer the square is the centre of social life, and people come to meet friends, bask in the sun and attend various events held here. On my visit there was a real sense of community, with teenagers sitting in small groups laughing, groups of cheerful nuns posing for photographs in front of the fountains and families playing.
In the town centre there are rows of sturdy and beautiful buildings. The locals are especially proud of two main features in the area. First, the 800-year old university, which pioneered developments in medicine and was an early advocate for allowing women to study and graduate. Dotted around the centre are various university buildings, with multitudes of young students swarming about. The second is the Palazzo della Ragione built in the 13th Century. It has a vast 81.5-metre hall on the upper floor, which is reported to be the largest roof unsupported by columns in Europe. There is a popular market held in the piazza in front of the building every Saturday.
After hours of touring the city, our guide finally directed us to go and relax in the Cafe Pedrocchi. It is conveniently located between the university buildings and the Palazzo in the main shopping district. The cafe, built in 1831, has played a central role in the story of Padua. It was a meeting place for revolutionaries plotting against Austrian control and came under attack in 1848 by Austrian troops trying to breakup resistance. Since then it has attracted famous writers, including Lord Byron, and today welcomes the nearby students to sit, study and discuss the issues of the day. So I sat and enjoyed traditional Italian espresso and flamboyant pastries, rested my tired legs and watched the people of Padua pass by. It was a restful, and enjoyable, way to end my day exploring this ancient city.
Watch my Tips For Travellers Padua city highlights video:
Disclaimer: I travelled as a guest of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises and Titan Travel UK on a 7-night cruise on the River Countess.