For me, travel throughout Italy is centered squarely on what I eat, where I eat, who I ate it with.
My trip to Padova was no different.
Padova is a city in Veneto, not far from Venice. It has a Venetian flair and great atmosphere. Often my “small city” stops are more about the atmosphere than a specific sight, but Padova has plenty for a tourist to see. For example, the botanical gardens, the Basilica di San Antonio, the second oldest university in Italy Palazzo del Bo’, the magnificent Cappella degli Scrovegni and Italy’s biggest piazza, Prato delle Valle.
We started with the botanical gardens. After dropping our bags off in a lovely apartment room near the center, I pushed everyone out the door and forced them to visit the botanical gardens. Since we arrived in the afternoon we’d only have about an hour to visit, and I was the only one convinced that they would be worth it.
See, Milan’s hidden botanical gardens inside the University of Brera are a bit bare and honestly, not really worth the visit. These ones were much more impressive.
The Padova gardens are the oldest botanical gardens in all the world. Started in 1545 for the students of the university, they’ve been protected by UNESCO World Heritage Status since 1997, which states: “The Botanical Garden of Padua is the original of botanical gardens in Europe, and represents the birth of botanical science, of scientific exchanges, and understanding of the relationship between nature and culture.”
With a huge outdoor park and seven greenhouses, we had a lot to see in just one hour. The greenhouses are stuffed with a mix of exotic and native flowers and plants, but also plenty of information about humans’ relationship with plants, from the time of the neanderthals to today. It’s an excellent reminder of how interconnected we are, with signs reminding us of all the medicine, make-up, fabrics, materials and of course food that comes from plants.
Unfortunately our time in the gardens was short, but it gave us a chance to tour St. Anthony’s Basilica, or the Basilica di San Antonio. We got there at the start of the mass and decided to participate and ended it with a stroll around the nave to explore the nooks and crannies of this impressive church. Hundreds of pilgrims visit the Basilica each year to see the site of St. Anthony’s tomb and other important relics. This year, in honor of the Holy Year of Mercy Jubilee, there was also a chance to walk through the “Door of Mercy” ordained by the Pope. We were able to pass through before our rumbling stomachs pushed us onward to dinner. The rest of the sights would have to wait for the next day.
And here is where our story turns to food.
We strolled down via Umberto I, the city’s main street, and lazily looked into multiple restaurants along the way, convinced we could take our pick. We chose a small trattoria so lively that waiters fought to move around the tables and chairs packed inside and people spilled out onto the streets with glasses of wine. It wasn’t such a surprise to find that they were booked.
Not to worry. We moved on, content in finding a place just as inviting with a menu just as delicious. Like any good Italians choosing a restaurant, we examined the menu displayed outside before deciding a place to try next. Satisfied, we pushed our way in to ask for a table.
Except they were full.
We regrouped with help from TripAdvisor. The next place was a hike across town but the reviews were great. When we finally got there we were met by a less-than-polite “no.”
Obviously Saturday night isn’t a good night for those without reservations, but in a city the size of Padova, we expected to eventually find a free table somewhere. Instead, it was full after full after full.
On our desperate march for food, we toured through Piazza delle Erbe, Piazza della Frutta and Piazza dei Signori, the towns three major market piazzas. We saw the ancient-looking Duomo, the perfect arches of Palazzo della Ragione and the narrow streets of the old Jewish Ghetto. As host after host sent us away, we looked up to admire the unique architecture. We looked around at the dozens of young Padovans filling the streets with skateboards and cigarettes and cool glasses of Spritz. We saw plenty of the city, but we couldn’t find a place to eat.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. We made desperate reservations at a random restaurant for 10:15 and went to enjoy a Spritz while we waited. There’s no better Spritz than a Spritz from the Veneto, and these didn’t disappoint. Though we were drinking on an empty stomach, we were certainly a part of the city.
In the end we waited until nearly 11 for our meal, and it was passable at best. Though disappointed that we couldn’t fulfill our long tradition of eating super, super well, we certainly learned the layout of Padova.
The next morning we woke up late to the warm autumn sun shining off the moat in Prato delle Valle piazza, Italy’s biggest piazza. Joggers and dog walkers looped around the oval piazza, others sunbathed along the moat’s walls or sat outside despite the chill to read the newspaper and have a coffee. We decided to make our way to one of the many cafés for a lazy breakfast. Luckily for us, the bar under our apartment had fresh, homemade croissants and enormous cappuccinos – and we didn’t even have to wait!