June 12th to 22nd, 2011
This was our long travel day. Our Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt (8+ hours) was uneventful, but even having used miles to upgrade to business class, sleep was difficult for yours truly! After a LONG 4 hour layover, we finally made it to Venice. We were met by a Tauck representative and a driver took us to our first night’s hotel – The Villa Margherita in Mira. We arrived around 6:30 PM (almost 20 hours after leaving home!). After a quick shower and change, we went to dinner at the nearby restaurant of the same name. In spite of its wonderful reputation, we were “underwhelmed” by the very pricey food. The hotel was lovely, but we had little time to appreciate it, since we were heading out on our tour the next morning.
Tues. June 14.
Today is the day our long-awaited tour begins. After a typical European breakfast buffet, we met our Tour Director, Veronica, and our fellow travelers – a couple from Sarasota, a couple from Australia, and a couple from the San Francisco area – all very congenial and experienced travelers. Following a lively orientation talk we left at 11:00 on a comfortable small bus for our first stop in the historic university town of Padua. We first walked through the the Piazza Erbe (Herb Plaza) with a fabulous market of fruits, vegetables, flowers, and clothing. Before lunch we enjoyed an appertif called a “spritz” (proseco, sparkling water and orange flavored Aperol) – sweet, but refreshing. Then it was off to nearby local Osteria L’Aufora for a typical Veneto lunch. They change their menu every two days depending on what is fresh at the local market. I had the salad “vincino” – fresh greens, olives, raddichio, red onion and fresh tuna – delicious! Paul had fettucini with tuna – also very good. Portions were very generous and it would be extremely easy to overeat on this trip!
We met our local guide Christina who gave us a wonderful walking tour and history lesson through Padua. Her English was superb, with a terrific sense of humor. The first major stop was the Basilica di Sant’ Antonio.. I’m taking the liberty of inserting a little information about some of the attractions from Rick Steve’s Venice 2011 book since it was impossible to take notes while touring with our “Whisper” earphones and walking a LOT. This book or Rick’s website offers a boatload of information about travelling in this area. Friar Anthony of Padua, “Christ’s perfect follower and a tireless preacher of the Gospel” is buried here. This incredible Romanesque church with Bizantine-style domes began construction shortly after his death in 1231 (at only 36 years of age) and continues to attract throngs of pilgrims.
The next major stop was the famous University of Padua, founded in 1222! It was, and continues to be a haven for free thought attracting intellectuals like Copernicus and Galileo, who spent 18 years on the science faculty. Since we were on a guided tour, we were able to see Europe’s first great Anatomy Theater, dating back to 1594 where more than 300 students were able to watch human dissections from an amazing tiered area (not “officially” sanctioned by the Catholic church until the late 1800s). During our visit we saw several university medical school graduates. Here they graduate one at a time, with quite a ritual. They meet in a formal room with their professors for 20-30 minutes of questioning, then are given a laurel wreath for their hear and a chance to pose for photos with family and friends. After that the “crazy” rituals begin. After changing into outlandish clothes they are basically “roasted” by their friends.
The “must see” of the Padua tour was the famous Scrovegni Chapel – Recently renovated it is best known for Giotto’s 40 beautifully preserved frescoes (1303-1305). Prepaid reservations are required and a maximum of 25 people are allowed in for just 15 minutes after “cooling off” in an anteroom watching an informative 15 minute film – all to minimize humidity exposure to the precious frescoes. The scenes depict the lives of Jesus and Mary and are considered by many to be the first works of modern art. He and his assistants painted the works In just 200 days over a 2 year period, placing real people in realistic scenes with 3-D nature and bright colors, light, emotion and humanism. It was extremely impressive. Also of interest was the reason for its construction. The rich nobleman Enrico Scrovegni acquired the area of the Roman Arena in 1300 and intended to build a fine house. However, he also had a chapel built next to the house and dedicated to the Holy Virgin for the soul of his father Reginaldo, the userer mentioned in Dante’s Inferno!
About 6:30 PM we arrived at our hotel near Verona for the next two nights – The Byblos Art Hotel Villa Amista – truly an amazing place! The original Patrician villa dates back to 1400 and the present construction goes back to the second half of the seventeenth century. The current hotel was inaugurated in 2005 to merge art, design, fashion and hospitality and was named one of the “small luxury hotels of the world” (60 rooms). The décor is amazing – and sometimes a little shocking – with artwork, photos, sculptures, and furniture from well known contemporary artists from around the world. Nudes, lips, and brilliant colors are the stars here! If you would like to see more pictures... click here.
At 7:30 we enjoyed a lovely welcome reception by the pool with a view of some of the many acres of beautiful gardens around this unique hotel. The hors d’oeuvres included breadsticks with prosciutto, vegetable teriyaki, puff pastries with spinach or cheese and tomatoes, and salmon tea sandwiches… excellent! Next was dinner in the main dining room: pasta with rocket pesto and roast chicken with vegetables (both only fair – found out later that they have a new chef) and an amazing dessert of pudding cream with raspberries and a mixed berry sauce – divine (A+)! Local red and white wines were delicious.
Wed. June 15. After our breakfast buffet we left by bus at 8:45 for our tour of nearby Verona. Our local guide was passionate about providing a detailed history and art lesson during our three hour tour. The first stop was the Basilica of San Zeno Maggiore – the patron saint of Verona. This was indeed a beautiful church – striking, cool and calming, with massive amounts of local red and yellow marble, Italian Romanesque art, and bronze paneled 11th century doors. We appreciated the fact that only one (more recent) altar displayed the gold seen in so many newer churches. We then boarded the bus for a riding tour of the outskirts of Verona, giving perspective to the three sets of walls constructed over time to protect the city – 1st Roman, then Middle Ages – and finally the more recent wall (?1800s?). Next the walking tour continued with a peek at the Roman Theater, a walk over the Ponte Pietra (still containing stones from the original Roman bridge) and a slow tour through the city center to include stops at some beautiful cloisters, the Duomo (12th century), Scalligeri Tombs, and, of course, the tiny courtyard and balcony that most say (falsely) claims to be the house of Juliet. Our local guide said that while she thinks the story of the star-crossed lovers as immortalized by Shakespeare (and documented 60 years prior to his works) was true, it is known that Romeo’s home was destroyed and the exact home of Juliet Capulet is not known. Not surprisingly, that site was packed with tourists, but it was hard not to take a look while in Verona.
After walking past the busy Piazza Erbe (seems every city has one – but this dates back to Roman times!), we walked along the pedestrian shopping street Via Mazzini to Piazza Bra’ (a tourist hub) and our last stop at the impressive Roman Arena. It dates back to the 1st century AD and has impressive pink marble stonework. This venue is still used for concerts and the annual opera festival.
Lunch was on our own today. After cooling off with a glass of wine in the shade, we headed out in search of a quick bite at a place recommended in Rick Steves’ Venice 2011 book, which I highly recommend if you are planning to travel in this area. We found the Osteria le Vecete easily (32A Via Pelliciai) and enjoyed some delicious fresh tartines (tuna, mushroom and onion) with water and wine in a charming setting. (One warning: the toilet is “Turkish Style” – aka a hole in the floor, but with TP and a flush!) Then it was back on the bus to return to the hotel to relax for several hours in delightful surroundings!