Around Northern Italy in a Fiat Panda

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The Contessa and the Commendatore Visit the Home Country

Thursday Oct. 18: Padova (Venezia)

food & lodging

Food & lodging notes

The plan was to walk to the train station after breakfast and head straight for Venice. For several reasons it didn’t come off this way. First, we both unaccountably woke in similar states of exhaustion and frazzlement. Second, the maps misled us, making the walk to the train station a long and roundabout detour in nerve-wracking traffic. Third, the Italian train system pulled one of the little tricks for which it is justifiably infamous. We purchased round-trip tickets and dutifully went to wait at the appointed track, where lots of others were waiting too. The scheduled time came and went with no train. We had been listening to all the doubly incomprehensible loudspeaker announcements, but never heard the word “Venezia.” Suddenly we noticed that no-one else was waiting around us; they had all melted away and reconvened at a different track. We ran. The train came in, already half full, and stopped leaving us positioned midway between two doors of a smoking car. Two trains’ worth of passengers crowded tightly around all available entrances, making it nearly impossible for those on board to exit.

The faithful Panda was looking better and better. We dropped our tickets in a wastebasket on the way out.

We had a calming walk through the streets of old Padova and stopped at the Caffe Pedrocchi, hard by the Piazza Cavour, for Alice to make a drawing. Pedrocchi is housed in a marble building of classical design; it occupies approximately the same position in the Italian psyche as Faneul Hall does in the American. It was a gathering-place of intellectuals in the years leading up to national unification in 1869. Probably Cavour met Garibaldi here for a caffe latte. The café is owned by the government now. Rumors several years ago that it was about to be converted to a fast-food joint caused a firestorm of protest across the country.

Onward to the Basilica Sant’Antonio. On the way we passed the sarcophagus known as the Tomb of Antenor, erected on the spot where legend says the original tomb had been located. Antenor was a ruler in antiquity of the local, non-Roman, people. Livy wrote about him; the sarcophagus that we saw was installed in 1309 on the 2000th anniversary of Livy’s birth. We had seen a reconstructed “death mask” of Antenor’s visage in the antiquary museum next to the Arena Chapel, though we hadn’t comprehended at the time exactly who he was.

In the Sant’Antonio Basilica’s plaza stands the first great Renaissance bronze statue cast in Italy, the equestrian Gattamelata of Donatello. (Gattamelata is the nickname of a Venetian condottiere, one Erasmo da Narni; it seems the Italians gave pet names to their generals the way we do to football players.) Saint Anthony of Padua died sometime before 1232, and they have been adding art onto his church ever since.

Alice came this close to buying for me a Saint Anthony in a golden snowstorm. We both regret now that I protested so much.

After lunch we piled into the Panda and drove to Venezia.

We had read in several places of the horrors of trying to get a motorcar near Venice, which is why we tried the train first. It wasn’t all that bad. We dropped the Panda off in a garage near the train station and walked into Venice.

“Nevertheless, it turns,” Galileo had muttered under his breath, turning away after recanting before his Inquisitors. “Nevertheless, it’s ravishing,” I muttered under my breath, walking into this disturbing and ambiguous city. Just because every painter in the last six centuries has felt its primal tug, and has come like a humble hajj; just because it is so oft-depicted as to have become its own caricature and clichè; just because it is so oft-visited that it feels impossible to voice an original thought here; just because Canaletto made wallpaper of it, doesn’t mean Venice is not ravishing. It is.

We walked in the straightest possible path for the Piazza San Marco. Our trajectory resembled Brownian motion.

We aimed to pick up a mask for Alice’s brother John, who is an anthropologist and a mask fancier and collector. We stopped into several shops before finding the right one. (There is a mask shop on every other corner, or so it seems.) The ceiling and walls of Mondonovo Maschere are covered in masks. The atmosphere of this workshop and showroom is indescribably strange. The proprietor has a full black beard and a glittering aspect. He stands six feet six. He made all these masks, and a good number of the ones we had seen in other shops as well. Alice selected a classic “tri-corner” for John, something like that worn by the Salieri character in Amadeus. It was to be a surprise Christmas gift.

When we had returned and Alice was talking to John about the trip, John mentioned discovering a new mask shop in Greenwich Village. The owner described the fellow who makes his wares: strange guy in Venice, black beard, stands six feet six. Needless to say the Christmas surprise was revealed early.

K We bought RT tickets for the train from Padua to Venice, then got chewed up and spit out by the Italian railway system. Bagged it. Walked some more, had two excellent pizzas for lunch, and drove to Venice. Not the most ceremonious way to arrive, but it served. There is too much to say about Venice; four hours was a good amount of time to stay. We walked to St. Mark’s Square of course. Stopped in the original Harry’s Bar and set a new “personal worst” for most expensive drinks.