From Milan we took the train to Padua. Padua is a place I only knew of because it’s the setting of The Taming of the Shrew, and honestly I only knew that because the school in 10 Things I Hate About You is named Padua High School. But we went there because it’s less then half an hour from Venice on the train, and costs half as much to stay in.
As it turns out Padua is very cute and also quite multicultural. Chris was pretty excited because we went for both kebabs and Chinese food while in town.
The first time we took the train into Venice we mostly wandered around getting our bearings. Though small, Venice is super easy to get lost in because all the streets are narrow and windy and there are tons of canal crossings to navigate.
Visiting Venice nowadays is a bit weird because the city is kind of like a theme park version of itself. By that I mean, the economy of Venice runs entirely off tourism, so it’s not like you’re coming to a city that would go bustling along whether you and a million other tourists were there or not. Pretty much everyone and everything in the city exists to serve tourists. So while the city has an incredible history, today everything Venetian about it is there as a showcase to visitors. That being said, we did have a pretty great time.
There are a thousand souvenir shops in town, and most of them sell Venetian masks. Venetian masks originated from the Carnival of Venice, which is a big festival that the Venetians hold just for fun, basically. The masks are thought to have originally been used used to disguise one’s identity and social standing, so you could get up to all sorts of shenanigans. There are a number of classic mask styles, such as the Bauta (the one with the big chin), the Colombina (the feminine half mask) and the Plague Doctor (the creepy one with the long nose). However nowadays the masks can be anything, and we saw a lot of crazy ones like steampunk robots, humongous suns and moons, and pretty much every animal.
Art and History
Once we had figured out the lay of the land and wandered through the main tourists areas (i.e. the Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco), we headed over to the Penny Guggenheim Museum. Penny Guggenheim (of the New York Guggenheims, of course) was a wealthy art collector and also married to Max Ernst, so she had a pretty impressive collection. The collection is also neat because it’s housed in the original palace that was her home in Venice.
Our second day in Venice we decided to join a free walking tour and get some history, because Chris loves learning lots of facts. We learned that Venice was originally just a small island community of fisherman. After the Roman Empire fell, people started coming to Venice to take refuge from the Barbarians, since it was separated by the sea. Thus they expanded the city by building many more small islands. Technically Venice today consists of over a hundred small islands, all separated by canals and connected by bridges. The people made the islands out of piles of wood covered by rocks and clay. Because the rocks and clay protected the wood from the air and water, it didn’t rot, which is why Venice is still standing.
Despite the islands being so small and so close together, they were each self-sufficient communities with their own parish, well, and garden. People travelled between the islands by boat, and because of its position on the coast, it became a very prosperous and powerful town, gaining autonomy and building a huge trade empire and naval army. Venice was the most prosperous city state in Europe for centuries, before its slow decline as a result of the Black Death and the rise of other European trade powers.
Eventually they decided to bring tourism to Venice, building a bridge to the mainland and filling in many of the canals to make more walking routes for tourists. Today Venice basically runs on tourists, many of them which arrive on cruise ships. This has turned out to be a bit of a problem, because the waves caused by the big ships entering the canals is causing erosion, which is breaking down the islands and causing the wood underneath to rot. We saw quite a few signs protesting cruise ships hung outside people’s houses.
Of course the bigger problem may be that Venice is slowly sinking, due to being built on muddy ocean floor. In lots of areas you can see how much the water has risen, as the steps at boat docking areas are now underwater. Unless they figure out how to fix that problem, Venice will be underwater in a couple of generations.
Piazza San Marco
That afternoon we splurged and went on a special tour up inside the St Mark’s clocktower, which overlooks Piazza San Marco. Chris was super excited because he is fascinated with clock mechanisms. The tour lets you climb all the way up to the top and see the clock’s inner workings. At the top there are two bronze figures called “the Moors” that ring the giant bell. Apparently you aren’t allowed to be up there when the bell rings because it’s deafening. The view of the square from up there is pretty sweet though.
The clock is very fancy and in addition to the time, also shows the position of the sun in the zodiac and the phase of the moon. As such the inside is a very complicated system of gears and pulleys. Back in the day someone used to live inside the clock to make sure it was always working properly. Who knows how that guy managed to sleep with all the ticking.
We also checked out the Correr Museum, since it was part of the pass we had bought to visit the attractions of Piazza San Marco. The museum had a lot of nice art and some pretty crazy globes. Chris was especially impressed with this giant woodcut stamp that produces an extremely detailed map of Venice.
Padua Old Town
Went also spent half a day wandering about Padua, which is quite a cute old town. It has the famous Caffé Pedrocchia, where lots of artists and revolutionaries used to hang out, and Prato della Valle, the largest city square in Europe.
While wandering through the historic centre and eating gelato we stumbled upon Padua University. It’s one of the oldest universities in the world (second oldest in Italy and fourth overall) and was actually the first university to award a Ph.D. to a woman. It’s also notably the university at which Galileo taught. The Aula Magna, where he lectured, is still there, although we couldn’t get in since we weren’t on a tour.
That afternoon we headed back to Venice to visit Doges Palace, which is situated on Piazza San Marco. Random fact: I had always wondered that all those long tables/benches sitting in Piazza San Marco were for. I learned on this trip they are for building raised pathways between attractions during times of high tide, for tourists who don’t have rubber boots.
Anyways, the palace was the seat of the government back in the day when Venice was independent, and it’s pretty huge and extravagant. There are a lot of gigantic halls and even some secret passageways and the like. Venice in its prime was governed by a Doge and his Council of Ten, who were elected from the noble families and thus needed a luxurious residence.
As part of the tour you also get to walk across the Bridge of Sighs and into the prison. Supposedly it’s called the Bridges of Sighs because prisoners crossing the bridge would get their last glimpse of freedom and sigh. The prison was big and a little eerie. You can still see a lot of the graffiti scratched on the walls by past prisoners.
After finishing up in the palace the sun was setting outside, so we went to enjoy a Venice sunset. We also wandered around a bit enjoying Venice at night, before heading back to Padua.
The next day, it was time to go to Germany!