Mantagnan, Padua, Venice, Verona
29.05.1999 - 02.06.1999
DAY 19 SAT We left San Piero a Sieve just before 10am with mixed feelings of reluctance, eagerness for a new adventure and a mild fear of the uncertainties ahead. Once again we found ourselves on the dreaded A1 autostrada, travelling at 120kph in the slow lane behind trucks and caravans. Occasionally I would work up the courage to overtake a particularly slow vehicle and zoom into the fast lane at 130kph. During this procedure Margaret would close her eyes and pray for world peace, the welfare of our children and, last but not least, our safety. It worked! I received the gift of extraordinary driving ability, which lasted until we reached the next town.
We successfully negotiated the ring road around Bologna and left the A1 for the A13 in the direction of Padua. Once off the freeway driving became less stressful. Northern Italians seemed to be more sedate drivers than their southern brothers and we were able to focus our attention on finding the right combination of roads to take us to Montagnana.
After having become briefly lost (saved by an ancient, non-English speaking parking lot attendant), we found ourselves driving down a road bordered by a dry moat and towering medieval city walls. A right turn through the narrow city gate took us into the walled town of Montagnana, our home for next few days. The streets of Montagnana were a lot like those we were to see in Basel, the pavements sheltered by arcades which protected its citizens from both the rain and, while we were there, the burning sun.
The youth hostel, which we like to describe as a castle but which was really a large fortified tower, bore the ancient an evocative title Rocca Degli Alberi. We were a little early, it didn’t open until 3.30, so we parked the car in the street outside and strolled through the arcades to the town square. For such a small town, Montagnana boasted a plethora of cafes and restaurants, mostly clustered around the circumference of the square . We lunched on sandwiches and cappuccinos while revelling in the lack of foreigners and the even more pleasing lack of souvenir shops.
On the other side of the piazza stood a large, plain church whose bells tolled every fifteen minutes . Montagnana’s duomo was very homey on the inside, its walls and ceilings bearing many faded frescoes which, if one could judge by the unusual lack of scaffolding around the walls, were not on the list for millennium restoration. Not enough tourists around to make it worthwhile, I guess.
The hostel was just opening by the time we returned and we walked up to the reception desk to register. The manager spoke little English but managed to convey to us that our room was on the sixth floor. I waited in vain for a bellhop to carry our bags and, after a fruitless search for a lift, we began the long climb up six flights of very steep metal stairs. It was an effort we were to make many times a day for the next few days and when combined with similarly arduous climbs up the Arc de Triomphe, the Duomo in Rome and the bell tower in Florence, turned me into a super-fit man of steel for a few brief weeks.
Our accommodation was less inviting than a cell in the Bastille. Two sets of double bunks were crammed into a tiny room shaped like a quarter of an oil drum. The ceiling was curved from the roof to the floor and the only air and natural light was what managed to creep in through two eighteen inch long arrow slits. Margaret had a particularly hard time getting to sleep on our first night due to the almost airless closeness of the room and I was only able to overcome my own claustrophobia by screwing my eyes tightly shut. While Margaret unpacked I walked around the battlements admiring the town walls and the broad, waterless, grassy moat.
We went to Mass in the duomo in the evening, along with a fairly small congregation that included only a small number of young folk. I found myself more than a little confused as half the people stood when the other half knelt and vice-versa. I had little idea of what was going on as the service was in a foreign tongue (what happened to the Vatican II rule that Mass had to be said in English?) and was taken completely by surprise when everybody started shaking hands and kissing. I quickly realised that we had come to the dreaded “sign of peace”.
After Mass we had dinner at the Trattoria Stona as recommended by the youth hostel man. The food was genuine local Italian and not pasta, a welcome change. It was also a great deal cheaper than a similar dinner in Rome.
DAY 20 SUN Today we drove to Padua, a fairly short trip which passed without the usual complications. Padua was a lot bigger than we had expected and we decided to park the car in the first parking station we came across. This proved to be an extremely large building attached to a hospital. Unbeknown to us we could have avoided the $18 parking fee had we kept our nerve and driven a little further to a cheaper council car park
After walking about a kilometre through downtown Padua (and making serious mental notes of street names for our return trip) we found ourselves at the Basilica di Sant’ Antonio, an enormous baroque duomo which towered over the dozens of tourists who scuttled around its entrance like ants around their nest, only slower. Mass was in progress so we decided to return half an hour later to spare the worshippers our gawking presence.
In the building beside the church we found a small museum choc-o-bloc with photographs and paintings of people whose prayers to St Anthony had rescued them from life threatening situations. I was quite amazed at the number of people in Padua who have fallen from balconies to their near-deaths over the last few centuries. An entire glass case was devoted to dramatic depictions of such accidents and I could only speculate as to the number of clumsy people who had fallen from balconies and not been saved by the saint. The second largest case contained drawings of people whose carriages had collapsed beneath them. Clumsy people, incompetent carriage makers!
We returned to the church at a quarter to eleven expecting Mass to be over but it was only up to Communion. This turned out to be a rare stroke of luck as a rather large choir was singing that rousing hymn from my youth “Holy God we Praise thy Name”. The church was beautifully illuminated and we were awe-struck by the artistry of the frescoes on the ceilings. If we had visited when the ceremony was over the church would have been in semi-darkness and I would have thought it just another gloomy old building.
At the end of Mass we joined a line which wound round the high altar into an apse. We had no idea what the attraction was but guessed that if Italians were actually forming a queue there must be something interesting at the other end. Sure enough we found ourselves in a marble room containing a splendid collection of body parts housed in glistening golden containers. Saint Anthony could easily be reconstructed from his relics, though he would be missing certain important bits considered unsuitable for preservation as holy relics. Despite the fact that his jaw, vocal chords, etc., were housed in reliquaries, his body was also encased in an impressive marble sarcophagus nearby, suggesting a miraculous duplication of saintly remains.
Margaret and I agreed that St Anthony’s was the finest religious building we had visited so far. Leaving the duomo behind, we spent the next six hours exploring the town, which was pretty well closed for the Sabbath. Padua’s other great attraction was one of Europe’s biggest squares, Prato della Valle, which was a round park surrounded by a moat and bordered by a hundred or more Romanesque statues of once famous Padovans.
After a short rest in our hostel room we walked down the street to the Trattoria Stona. As I may have mentioned earlier, Sunday night is promenade night in Italy and on this evening we experienced it in all its fascinating glory. During the week the streets of Montagnana are virtually deserted, but this evening they were full of citizens done up in their Sunday best. Young couples proudly pushed strollers and held the hands of their highly polished toddlers. Elderly couples sat on benches and exchanged pleasantries with passing neighbours. Everyone stopped to talk to everyone else, almost as if they hadn’t spoken since last Sunday which would seem rather unlikely in such a small town. Even the teenagers were well-behaved and spick and span beneath their reversed baseball hats. I half expected to meet Beaver and Bud in the coffee shop.
In the centre of the piazza a stage had been erected and kids in Speedos performed aerobics and danced in front of an adoring crowd of adults. I couldn’t help but feel a heart-warming glow as I immersed myself in the warm pool of community spirit. After ten minutes of glowing we dragged ourselves away towards the trattoria.
Yesterday’s English speaking young waitress was busy promenading and we were forced to deal with an older lady (referred to as madam) who spoke not a word of English. We were not terribly hungry and intended to select only a salad to share and a main course each. There was no printed menu so Margaret attempted to explain what we wanted by pointing to dishes in her phrasebook. As Margaret pointed to each item and asked whether it was available, Madam would say something incomprehensible which we took to mean no or else smile and exclaim “Si!”. After a short wait the old lady returned with a bowl of salad, then another bowl of salad, then a pair of entrees and then a brace of main courses. By the time we had finished I was slightly beyond bursting point and Margaret had had elegant sufficiency.
DAY 21 MON We were both out of sorts today, made cranky by a couple of weeks of tension brought on by the terrors of the road. In retrospect this was a shame because it cast a pall over what should have been a very exciting trip to Venice. We caught the train at Montagnana station, changing at Montselice for the fast trip to the Bangkok of the West. The journey only became interesting when we crossed the isthmus to the island of Venice and disembarked at the Stazione Santa Lucia. A couple of day tickets for the vaporetto cost us 30,000 lire, which was not a saving as we only caught the boat twice. As we walked to the wharf I was called back by a chorus of yells to retrieve my bulging wallet which I had left on the counter.
The vaporetto slowly chugged down the crowded Grand Canal, which was exactly as depicted in the movies. We got off at the Piazetta of San Marco and were greeted by the imposing gothic Palazzo Ducale, home of the doges during Venice’s heyday as a great commercial power. The Basilica di San Marco next door was even more breathtaking and we eagerly joined the queue to enter its magnificent interior. The basilica was built in the ninth century to house the body of St Mark which had been stolen from Egypt by Venetian merchants. The whole project was paid for by Doge Giustiniano Participazio, who must have been an extremely wealthy gentleman . The insides of the church sparkled like an overdressed Christmas tree with dazzling mosaics and glittering gold drawing one’s eyes from the undulating marble pavement beneath one’s feet.
The Piazza San Marco was one of those places which registers indelibly in the memory. All over Italy we had found that the greatest buildings were obscured by formwork as a result of the big restoration effort for the year 2000. While restoration was in progress in the piazza, however, the facades of the buildings had been covered by huge and realistic paintings of the buildings they concealed and I had to look carefully before I realised that all was not what it seemed. We strolled across the huge square, marvelling at its magnificence and ducking periodically to avoid kamikaze pigeons.
We spent the rest of the day walking backwards and forward through Venice, mainly along the Cannaregio (a long pedestrian thoroughfare running between the station and Piazza san Marco) but with frequent diversions to landmark such as the Rialto and the Bridge of Sighs. We didn’t buy any beautiful Venetian glassware but we did purchase a couple of tasteful fridge magnets for the boys.
Towards the end of the day we caught a vaporetto back to the station and boarded the train back to Montagnana. We travelled in a silence which was to last till the next day when we resumed our usual jolly personae.
DAY 22 TUE After a particularly stuffy night in our cell-like room we left Montagnana bound for our next destination. I had pictured Verona as a small medieval town and was surprised to find that it was a medium sized city. We managed to find the railway station complex and the tourist office where Margaret booked the cheapest hotel in town. While Margaret rested I attempted to buy a Coke at a little kiosk. Buying food or drink in Italy is not a simple affair. One first pays for the item and obtains a receipt then gives the receipt to another person who hands over the item. In this kiosk a rather unfriendly ticket-giving person took my money but, when I looked expectantly at the drink cabinet, pointed to the back room to indicate that the drink-provider was not available. We both stood and stared vacantly at each other until the second lady returned five minutes later and handed me my drink
Unfortunately our detailed map did not show one way streets and we drove around and around searching for our elusive accommodation. When we eventually stumbled upon it we discovered that there was no entrance from the hotel parking lot at the back of the building and that we would have to drag our luggage around the block to the front of the building. The room itself was fine even if the shower was located in one corner in a glass cubicle.
A short walk down the road took us to the city gate, beyond which lay the Verona of Shakespeare’s time. Another kilometre’s walking led us to the Piazza d’Erbe, a large rectangular square bordered by buildings which had once been decorated with colourful frescoes or possibly tempura. They were long gone, faded into barely discernible outlines, but the square was still picturesque even though a little spoiled by the fete-like stalls of the souvenir sellers.
We found the famous balcony from which Juliet listened to Romeo’s grovelling attempt at seduction. The walls of the arch leading to the courtyard were covered in romantic graffiti scrawled on a dark blue background. As shocking as this may seem, the graffiti itself had become a part of the tourist attraction and one could purchase a T shirt bearing a print of the wall. The small courtyard contained a bronze statue of Juliet, her left breast glowing brightly from the hundred of hands which had rubbed it for luck. I refrained from seeking my own good fortune because I was afraid that the ignorant American tourists swarming around the souvenir shop might think me a pervert.
Not far from the piazza was a small cemetery containing a group of tombs housing the remains of a once-powerful Veronese family. It was a rather bizarre graveyard as the sarcophagi were all resting on large and ornate monuments high above the ground and each was surrounded by an elaborate ornamental fence.
We strolled to the duomo with the intention of giving it the once-over, however an unhelpful and unfriendly attendant informed us that the church was closing in ten minutes and that we would be wasting our 10,000 lire entrance fee. Surely he could have let us in for free so that we could have a quick browse, surly swine! We were irritated by his rudeness but not broken hearted as we had seen many, many churches, most of which were free (other than the one in Montagnana where, during Mass, the collection plate was presented to each worshipper individually).
At the end of the day I left Margaret to look through a few shops while I walked almost all the way back to the hotel in search of a secondhand record shop I had spotted earlier in the day. I returned, hot and sticky, to find Margaret sitting on the steps of one of the buildings surrounding the square. Following her example I bought a cup of granita to quench my thirst before we walked back to the hotel.