Italy’s Verona, Padova, and Ravenna
In the shadow of Venice, we visit three great cities. Padova ("Padua" in English) is famed for its venerable university, precious Giotto frescoes, and pilgrim-packed Basilica. Verona is a hit with aficionados of Roman ruins and Romeo and Juliet fans. And Ravenna, with its shimmering mosaics, was once the western bastion of the Byzantine Empire. We enliven each stop with a tasty dose of Italian dolce vita.
Anatomy Theater (part of the university's Palazzo Bò)
Access to Palazzo Bò is by a mostly underwhelming 45-minute guided tour, but tour does Europe's first great Anatomy Theater (from 1594). Despite the Church's strict ban on autopsies, more than 300 students would pack this theater to watch professors dissect human cadavers (the bodies of criminals from another town). This had to be done in a "don't ask, don't tell" kind of way, because the Roman Catholic Church only started allowing the teaching of anatomy through dissection in the late 1800s.
Basilica of St. Anthony
Friar Anthony of Padua, "Christ's perfect follower and a tireless preacher of the Gospel," is buried here. Construction of this impressive Romanesque/Gothic church (with its Byzantine-style domes) started immediately after St. Anthony's death in 1231. As a mark of his universal appeal and importance in the medieval Church, he was sainted within a year of his death. Speedy. And for nearly 800 years, his remains and this glorious church have attracted pilgrims to Padua. A modest dress code is enforced.
Lovers of early-Renaissance art come to Padua just to gaze at the remarkable frescoes by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel. To protect the paintings from excess humidity, only 25 people are allowed in the chapel at a time, and prepaid reservations are required — it's wise to reserve at least two days in advance.
This funky wine-and-grappa bar is still run by Oreste (with his Chicagoan wife, Beverly) like a 1970s, old-style enoteca. Browse and sample and clown around with Oreste. This historic enoteca was once the private chapel of the archbishop of Verona. Traces of the past hide between the bottles — ask Beverly to tell you the story (closed Mon).
Enoteca Cangrande is enthusiastically run by Giuliano and Corrina, who enjoy turning people on to great, well-matched food and wine. You can sit on a quiet street or in a plush little dining area inside. Their star offering is a set menu that's a festival of antipasti treats, an imaginative pasta, your choice of a meat or fish course, and dessert. They also offer a junior version at lunch for half the price: a pasta and your choice of salad or dessert.
The basilica — standing as a sanctuary of order in the midst of the madness after the fall of Rome — is covered with lavish mosaics. It's impressive enough to see a 1,400-year-old church, but it's rare to see one decorated in such brilliant mosaics, which still manage to convey their intended message: "This sense of peace and stability was brought to you by your emperor and God." The art is an intricate ensemble of images that, with the help of a medieval priest, would teach volumes. Standing here, we can witness a culture suddenly lurching forward out of antiquity and into the Middle Ages.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. The artichokes are in season, and I'm working up an appetite in the north of Italy: It's Verona, Padova, and Ravenna. Thanks for joining us.
I'm not in Venice, but it feels like Venice…just without the canals. In its heyday the island of Venice ruled a huge empire, and that included a good part of the Italian mainland — a region called the "Veneto." With much of the charm and far fewer crowds, you could call this part of Italy "sotto-estimato" — under-estimated.
We'll marvel at precious Giotto frescoes, join pilgrims at the tomb of St. Anthony, and celebrate an irreverent university graduation. We'll see an ancient Roman arena in a modern urban setting, admire exquisite Byzantine mosaics, and make friends over a little grappa.
Italy stretches, like Europe's boot, into the Mediterranean Sea. Venice sits near the top of the Adriatic Sea. Exploring a region called the Veneto, we'll visit Padova and Verona before finishing in Ravenna.
We're starting here in Padova. Like the rest of the Veneto, Padova was ruled by Venice from the 15th century until Napoleon came — at about 1800. Chafing under Venetian rule for four centuries seemed only to sharpen Padova's independent spirit.
And that spirit survives at its prestigious university. Nicknamed "the brain of the Veneto," it was founded in 1222, one of the first in Europe. Renowned in its day, it was a haven for free thinking, and attracted intellectuals from far and wide.
Four hundred years ago, the great scientist Galileo — notorious for disagreeing with the Church's views on science — enjoyed that academic freedom. He called the 18 years spent on the faculty here the best years of his life.
Everywhere you look there are memories of illustrious alumni and professors. And within these historic lecture halls is Europe's oldest surviving anatomy theater, from the late 1500s.
Back then, medical students would pack these steep balconies to watch professors dissect human cadavers. This was allowed by the government and Church as long as the cadavers were convicted foreign criminals.
This remarkable theater is an example of the importance placed on science during the Renaissance.
With 60,000 students, Padova's university is always lively, and you're likely to stumble onto some kind of spirited school event.
A unique ritual is the post-graduation roast. Friends gather around the new grad and the pranks begin. The gang presents a giant poster with a generally crude caricature of the graduate, and a list of embarrassing personal stories for all to see.
Then friends sing the catchy but obscene local university anthem, reminding their newly esteemed friend not to get too stuffy. Loosely translated: "You may be a doctor, a doctor. But you're still just a BEEP...go BEEP yourself, go BEEP yourself!"). Finally, there's the playful send off, like a rude birthing into the real world.
Padova's old town, even when crowded with today's students, has a colonnaded Old World elegance. Its charming lanes are lined with 17 miles of porticos, which come in a variety of styles.
The main drag leads to one of the most important pilgrimage churches in all of Europe: the Basilica of St. Anthony.
For nearly 800 years pilgrims have flocked here to venerate the tomb of St. Anthony of Padova. One of Christianity's the most popular shrines to one of the most popular saints, the basilica was begun a year after Anthony died, in 1232, and is filled with magnificent art. Gracing the high altar are a group of bronze statues by the Renaissance master Donatello — the Crucifixion and Mary, with Padova's favorite saints.
The church feels alive with pilgrims from all corners. The former Polish chapel was recently renamed for St. John Paul II, canonized in 2014.
And the side chapel containing St. Anthony's tomb is a Renaissance masterpiece from 1500.
The pilgrims believe Anthony is their protector, confidant, and intercessor. Votives from the faithful ask for help, or give thanks for miracles they believe he's performed. By placing their hand on his tomb while saying a silent prayer, pilgrims show devotion to Anthony and feel the saint's presence.
Behind the high altar, pilgrims visit the relics of the saint — considered miraculously preserved: his vocal chords, tongue, and jawbone. These relics befit the saint who couldn't stop teaching, preaching, and praying.
Padova's vast 13th-century Palazzo della Ragione — once the town's medieval law court — now hosts a sprawling market. The scene has changed little over the centuries, as merchants artfully display their goods. Since medieval times shoppers have come here for the best Veneto produce. It's known for having the freshest and greatest selection of herbs, fruits, and vegetables. As you wander, appreciate the Italian passion for good food: Merchants share recipe tips with shoppers. Locals can tell the month by the seasonal selections — strawberries and white asparagus? It's April.
And in springtime, there's lots of work for the man who preps the artichokes.
The indoor market, featuring various butchers and cheese shops, is a sensuous experience as well. Stalls and shops are often family-run, and the lineage of some of these merchants stretches back centuries.
Town squares take on different personalities as the day goes on. Early in the evening the stalls are gone and the piazzas become community gathering places. This is the time when, traditionally, students gather to enjoy the ritual of the aperitivo, lubricated by a spritz…or three. This is the perfect opportunity for a traveler to grab a drink, strike up a conversation, and become part of the scene.
Woman: Aperitivo, you know? It's just to relax after, you know, your long day at work or at university.
Rick: You come to the piazza, and you know you're gonna find friends.
Woman: Yes, it's always like, you know, you're going back home, and you come here, and you look around, and you always see your friends. And you stop and say, "Oh, let's have a drink together," and that's just normal.
Man: You always see somebody. We don't say, "Oh, my god, we're going to go have an aperitivo, it's going to be a fun night," we're just like, "Hey, I'm in Piazza dei Signori. Do you want to drop by before I go home and have a bite to eat?"
Woman: Mmm, true.
Rick: So, now, spritz. That's very trendy, I think.
Woman: Well, there's two different kinds of spritz. You see the color is different, OK, so it's basically — this is with Aperol, which is lighter, and that one is with Campari, and then you put a slice of orange, usually ice and white wine, or sparkling wine, and a bit of water also.
Whatever your favorite drink, everyone — including tourists — is welcome to enjoy this convivial Italian ritual.
Padova's Scrovegni Chapel, with its precious 14th-century Giotto frescoes, is one of Italy's most beloved art treasures. Considered too fragile to be seen by huge numbers of people, sights like this are open only to a limited number of visitors who make a reservation in advance.
Wallpapered with Giotto's beautifully preserved cycle of frescoes, the glorious chapel — painted in about the year 1300 — depicts the lives of Jesus and Mary.
Giotto, considered the first modern painter, painted scenes that were more realistic and human than anything that had been done for a thousand years. Moving beyond medieval 2-D with gold leaf backgrounds, with these realistic ground-breaking frescoes, Giotto introduces nature — rocks, trees, animals — as a backdrop for religious scenes.
His people, with their voluminous, deeply creased robes, are as sturdy and massive as Greek statues. Their gestures are simple but expressive: Arm raised shows anger, head tilted down says dejection, arms flung out indicate anguish, and a tender kiss? Caring love.
Giotto's storytelling style is straightforward, and anyone with a knowledge of the Bible can read the chapel like a picture book.
In the Betrayal of Christ, amid the crowded chaos of Jesus' arrest, Giotto skillfully creates a focus upon the central action: Judas embraces Jesus, looks him straight in the eyes, and kisses him.
In The Deposition, Jesus has been taken down off the cross, and his followers weep and wail over his lifeless body. John the Evangelist spreads his arms wide and shrieks, his cries echoed by anguished angels above. Each face is a study in grief. Giotto emphasizes the human vulnerability of these figures.
And, like a centerpiece on the far wall, is The Last Judgment. Christ oversees the action as the saved, on his right, emerge grateful from their graves…and the damned, on his left, are just kicking off a hellish eternity.
Satan is a grotesque ogre munching on sinners. Around him, demons torture the damned in a scene right out of The Inferno by Dante...who happened to be Giotto's friend.
Calmly isolated from the action is Enrico Scrovegni, who paid for all this art in an attempt to gain forgiveness for the sins of his wealthy and greedy father.
These frescoes are considered by many to be a precursor of the Renaissance to come. With this masterpiece — created 200 years before Leonardo and Michelangelo — Giotto seems to be making it clear: Europe was breaking out of the Middle Ages.
Getting around this part of Italy is easy. Padova and Verona are just minutes apart on the main Venice-to-Milan train line. Next stop: Verona.
Verona, at the base of the Alps and nestled in a bend of the Adige River, is another leading city in the Veneto.
Its main attractions are its wealth of Roman ruins — like this bridge, dating from the first century BC; remnants of its 14th-century boom time; and its 21st-century quiet, pedestrian-only ambience.
Ancient Romans considered Verona an ideal last stop before heading north over the Alps. This well-preserved arena — the fourth largest in the Roman world — is a popular venue for events even today.
Over the centuries, crowds of up to 25,000 spectators have filled this place: cheering Roman gladiator battles, medieval executions, and modern plays — including Verona's popular summer opera festival.
Climb to the top and imagine the spectacles this arena has hosted for over 2,000 years.
Verona's market square is Piazza Erbe. People have gathered here since Roman times, when this was a forum, or market. And it remains a market to this day. The 16th-century frescoes — characteristic of this region — earned Verona a nickname: "the painted city."
The Venetian lion has hovered over this square since 1405, when it reminded locals they were ruled by Venice. During medieval times, this stone canopy held the scales used by merchants. A fountain has bubbled here for 2,000 years. This statue, originally Roman, lost its head and arms. After a sculptor replaced them, locals dubbed her "Verona's Madonna."
And what's with this whale's rib? It's been hanging here for four centuries — likely a souvenir brought home from the Orient by spice traders.
I'm popping into a wine bar to learn about grappa. North Italy is grappa country, and Oreste, who runs this bar, introduces the local firewater with a passion clearly shared by a couple of his regulars.
Rick: Giancarlo! Bebita!
Once she can break free of Giancarlo's perhaps over-friendly embrace, my friend Valeria helps translate Oreste's grappa wisdom.
Valeria: The more the aging, the smoother it gets.
Rick: So wine is made out of grape juice. What's grappa made out of?
Valeria: Grappa is made out of seeds, skins, and stems of the wine. Same wine.
Rick: So it's the leftover material after the wine process.
Valeria: Exactly, exactly.
Rick: Extreme wine.
Valeria: Yes, yes. Do you like it?
Rick: A little bit.
Valeria: Not too much.
Rick: Not too much.
Rick: Valeria, scusi — in Italian, how do you say, "Grappa helps you make friends?" In italiano?
Valeria: La grappa aiuta faca de amici.
All: Exactly, of course, of course.
Rick: Oreste helps you make friends.
Medieval Italian cities were often dominated by a single powerful family. Just as the Medici family ruled Florence, this castle is a reminder that the Scaligeri family ran the city of Verona back in the 14th century.
The Scaligeri castle evokes Verona's Golden Age, when the city was one of Europe's great economic powers. If these ornate family tombs are any indication, the Scaligeri had no problem with self-esteem. And, by building their tombs on pillars, they made sure they'd be looked up to…even in death.
Sooner or later, those wandering Verona's streets will be flushed into a very crowded courtyard. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet made Verona a household word — and this is supposedly Juliet's balcony. But, alas, a visit here has nothing to do with those two star-crossed lovers, and Juliet never lived in this house. Still, busloads of tourists gaze at the almost believable balcony, scribble a valentine on the walls, and take part in the tradition of rubbing the breast of Juliet's statue. Why? For a better love life.
It's fun to observe the scene, knowing that all this commotion was started by a clever tour guide back in the '70s as a way to attract visitors to Verona.
The wall of padlocks is a popular fad, enabling lovers to prove that their hearts are eternally locked up.
Fans of Romeo and Juliet will be happy to note that Shakespeare's inspiration for the Montagues and Capulets was two real feuding families from here in Verona: the Montecchi and the Capuleti. And, if Romeo and Juliet had existed and were still alive, they'd recognize much of their "hometown."
Right now, my love story is all about food, and I'm joining local friends for dinner at Enoteca Can Grande. This is a classic little mom-and-pop restaurant with Giuliano helping diners match fine Italian wines with just the right local dishes, while stylish Corrina is in the tiny kitchen making sure every dish is just right.
My favorite way to eat in Italy is to trust the chef and just say "bring it on!" Giuliano is serving us an array of plates. Each celebrates fine ingredients of this region, and Giuliano, along with Franklin and Marina, are helping us appreciate what we're eating…and drinking.
Rick: This such beautiful food, and it's such beautiful wine. Can you imagine having the beautiful food with no beautiful wine?
Franklin: Not really. It would be like being at La Fenice, the opera, first row, and being in bad company, someone who doesn't appreciate opera music and would prefer rock music, let's say. It wouldn't be the right thing.
Next up? Eggplant parmigiana and burrata from Puglia.
Rick: Do you talk about the food as you eat it? Is this part of…
Franklin: Yes, absolutely, constantly. Any age without getting bored. We might get drunk, but...not bored. Italians love to talk about food. It's in their DNA.
As the cannelloni with fontina and duck ravioli with Amarone arrive, we learn that even in a fine restaurant like this, diners have a higher standard than you'd expect: la mamma.
Franklin: Italian men who adore cooking will always refer to "la mamma," their mother. That's — that's the answer to everything.
Rick: So it goes back to your childhood.
Franklin: Absolutely, yes, sure. To go to a restaurant is wonderful, but how la mamma cooked, no one, nobody can equal that.
And finally, beef cheeks stewed in Amarone with polenta, just as la mamma made it.
Franklin: Rick, salute. Cheers.
Rick: Salute! To la mamma.
Franklin: La mamma, OK.
A two-hour train ride takes us through the lush Po River Valley, just south of the Veneto, to Ravenna.
Ravenna is a charming if underwhelming town of 140,000 with a fascinating history, and some of Italy's most amazing art treasures.
Ravenna is on the tourist map for one reason: its 1,500-year-old churches, decorated with best-in-the-West Byzantine mosaics.
Imagine: It's the year 500 AD. The Roman Empire has fallen in the West, barbarians have sacked the city of Rome, and Europe is falling into the Dark Ages. Yet the Eastern half of the empire, ruled from dazzling Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), has morphed into Byzantium, and becomes the pinnacle of civilization. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian then brings order and stability to this part of Europe, making Ravenna the westernmost pillar of his realm.
His church of San Vitale stands as a sanctuary of order in the midst of all that chaos. Its interior is decorated with lavish mosaics — countless vibrantly colored chips the size of your fingernail — that served as propaganda for an alliance between the Church and the Emperor.
High above the altar, Christ is in heaven — sitting on a celestial orb — overseeing creation, symbolized by the green earth below his feet. And running things here on earth is Emperor Justinian — sporting both a halo and a crown to show he's leader of both the Church and the state.
Justinian brings together both military and church leaders — all united by the same vision. Facing the emperor is his wife Theodora and her entourage. The former dancer who became his mistress, then empress, is decked out in jewels and pearls and carries a chalice to consecrate the new church.
As pilgrims have done for centuries, visitors marvel. Appreciate the symmetry. At the top of the arch, the circle with the monogram of Christ (I for Jesus and X for Christ) symbolizes perfection and eternity. Floating above the arch, two angels hold rays of sun.
The ceiling above is a festive celebration of God's creation, with 80 different birds from the sixth century — most still flying around Ravenna today. All creation swirls around Christ as the sacrificial lamb, supported by four angels.
Everything sparkles with colorful Bible scenes told with a sixth-century exuberance. This was a time of transition — and many consider these mosaics both the last ancient Roman and the first medieval European works of art. For instance, this image of Christ is beardless — the style of the ancient Romans, and nearby is the standard medieval portrayal of a bearded Jesus. Yet each were created by artists of the same generation.
So much sightseeing greatness awaits discovery in Europe's second-tier cities. While you'll probably see Venice first, don't overlook the gems of the mainland nearby: its distinctive cuisine, its history and sumptuous art, and its people — embracing today with classic Italian flair.
I hope you've enjoyed our look at three delightful cities in the north of Italy: Ravenna, Padova, and Verona. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Ciao.
Rick: What does Giancarlo say about grappa?
Victoria: Cosa dici Giancarlo la grappa?
Giancarlo: È buono! [It's good!]