Travels in Italy - Part 7 - From Mountains to Plains: Padua

There are moments in life which are life-changing - but of course you rarely know this at the time. Only longevity and the wisdom of hindsight allow their significance to reveal itself. Isn’t that an exciting thought?

So when I reflect on that decision to accompany my boyfriend (not yet husband) to Italy for six months, I know how different my life would be if I hadn’t embraced that opportunity…

I was at a difficult time in my life when it came along. I had graduated in Modern Languages from St Anne’s College, Oxford, straight into a work culture and climate with which I could not identify. It was Thatcher’s England in the mid 80s and I ran away to do a ski season in the Alps before returning to dutifully take up a job in Travel PR. Two years later I left that job, realising it wasn’t for me. I wanted to be a writer, preferably in a magazine, with dreams of becoming a columnist. Despite trying hard at being a freelance writer, I wasn’t good at picking up a telephone and selling myself and my story to a stressed-out editor. My meagre income had therefore to be supplemented with temp agency jobs - and what a ghastly way to earn a wage that was: never knowing where you were going next, no-one bothering to get to know the ‘temp’, godforsaken mundane work involving typewriters, fax machines and photocopiers. It was utterly soul-destroying. 

No surprise, then, that when The Boyfriend got offered a job placement in Italy, I jumped at the chance to go with him. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain - lured in particular by a desire to get to know a new European country and to learn another language….


So here, at the end of our Italy Revisited trip, we come at last to where it all began: fair Padua. As the chief setting for Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, there are things about it which have not changed over the intervening centuries: it is indeed a wealthy provincial city, a cradle of arts and science, and undoubtedly one of the pearls in the necklace of delights which run west along the Po Valley from Venice. 

To better explain, Padua (or Padova, in Italian), was where I came to live with N way back in 1990. We were in our late 20s and life stretched excitingly ahead of us - and this chapter of our lives was no exception. In fact it formed the foundations for a love of Italy and an understanding of its people and culture which has never left us. 

We came for six months for a work placement and ended up staying for two years because we loved it so much. Yet before we arrived, I had no idea what I was going to: N had gone alone on his initial visit to discuss the job and when I asked questions I didn’t get much more than ‘yes, it’s nice’. So I went in blind, expecting little from the sprawling industrial outskirts of the city until suddenly we crossed a canal, passed under a stone archway and found ourselves in the middle of the most delightful medieval town I had ever seen: narrow cobbled streets with ancient arched walkways on either side all seemingly leading to the three beautiful piazzas forming the beating heart of the city. It was autumn, the air was suffused with the smokey aroma of roasting chestnuts, and the squares were packed with people out for their passagiata and aperitivo, all dressed beautifully in autumnal coats and colours and greeting each other warmly in a cacophony of lyrical Italian. I just stopped dead in my tracks and turned to N asking, incredulously, ‘why on Earth didn’t you tell me?!’ 

And so that was beginning of the love affair with Italy and one of the most amazing and formative experiences of our lives. At the end of our time there, N proposed (after 10 years together!), and we returned home, ready to start married life together, our hearts and minds united in the shared experience of living and working in this extraordinary, mercurial, frustrating, beautiful country. 

We have returned numerous times since but had not been back for a while until this visit, so it was lovely to reconnect. We met up with various old friends and strolled around those ancient streets reminiscing on all our yesterdays and feeling decidedly ancient ourselves! So much time has passed and much has changed since then - not least the fact that no-one dresses as smartly anymore, dressed instead in trainers and sportswear, and that there are far more chain stores creeping in where once there were simply individually owned shops. The cinema is no longer and many of the old restaurants have closed or passed to owners new. Such is the passage of time and sadly it doesn’t always seem like progress…but perhaps it’s just that I’m getting older while the world around me is getting younger…

I will leave you, and these tales of our ‘Italy Revisisted’ tour, with some of the things you shouldn’t miss in Padua which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site-

  • The Scrovegni Chapel with its newly restored frescos by Giotto
  • The daily fruit and vegetable market in the Piazza Dei Frutti
  • The covered market underneath the Palazzo Della Ragione (or ‘Il Salone’) which is thought to be the largest medieval market hall still in existence and separates Piazza dei Frutti from Piazza delle Erbe. The Salone also houses a giant wooden horse built in 1466 which is modelled on Donatello’s Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata (which in turn is sited in the piazza in front of the famous Basilica di Sant’Antonio) and a modern day Foucault Pendulum.
  • The famous 19th century Pedrocchi Caffe 
  • La Specola, once an astronomical observatory and now housing an astronomical museum
  • The world’s oldest Anatomical Theatre in the Palazzo Bo where Galileo taught from 1592 to 1610
  • The pilgrimage church, Basilica di Sant’Antonio, (or ‘Il Santo’ as it is known locally).With its extraordinary domes, cloisters and relics of Sant’Antonio it is something not to be missed, even if you are not religiously inclined!
  • The Orto Botanico or Botanical Gardens which have been recently renovated and extended 
  • The huge open space with its circular canal, statues and bridges which is Prato Della Valle, (or ‘Il Prato’) the largest ‘piazza’ in Italy
The best way to get around Padua is on foot or by bike as the historical centre is not very big and all the sights are within easy walking distance of each other. There is also a good bus and tram service. 

There are many hotels to choose from in all price ranges but the Majestic Toscanelli is lovely for being right in the historic centre and a stone’s throw from the Piazza dei Frutti.


Porticos of Padua

Cheese stall in the covered market
Piazza Della Erbe
Street scene
Fresh fruit and veg in the Piazza dei Frutti
Santa Giustina, Prato Della Valle
Basilica di Sant’Antonio

Fruit stall, Piazza dei Frutti

Giotto frescos in the Scrovegni Chapel

New glasshouses at the Orto Botanico

Ancient waterways


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