14 December 2007
padova knows how to eat
Before last Friday, Padova still sat on our Northern Italy to-do list. So to take advantage of the long weekend (Friday, December 7th was a holiday in Milan), and to cross one more great place off our list, we took the train to Padova.
A day trip for us generally consists of arriving in a city and then spending most of the morning and afternoon wandering around eating. We'll occasionally poke our heads into churches and wander through museums, but after a year and a half of churches and museums and eating, we've found that one of the three activities most consistently holds our attention: the eating.
In addition to many other positive attributes, Padova is an excellent place to eat. Our day started with the standard brioche and cappuccino but quickly escalated into something far grander when we entered a miraculous 120-year old bakery piled high with the most delicious creations. We left with several chocolate and raisin buns but also a generous slice of marron glaces cheesecake. The cheesecake didn't make it but a few steps away from its former home before we stopped in our tracks and ate it all. The ricotta was light and the marron glaces (candied chestnuts) created a syrupy top that was rich, sugary, and wonderful.
The bakery is only one shop in an excellent covered market that boasts nearly a square block of fine food vendors. There are traditional stalls that run down the center of the market, and bricks & mortar shops along the edges. The never-ending supply of cheese, meat, seafood, sweets, bread and wine is beyond luxurious and warrants at least an hour to explore. And that's only if you're riding your bicycle past the shops at high speeds -- which, as is the norm in Italy, some people were actually doing.
In this covered market we found what we would now nominate as the best salami shop in Italy and on different occasions throughout the day purchased thinly sliced sheets of goose salami (aka heaven), wild boar prosciutto, and deer prosciutto. We ate every single slice, but not before stopping in a bar/café in the market for a glass of lightly fizzy moscato.
We had our lunch (cured meats, bread, various sweets) in the courtyard of the basilica that holds the relics of Saint Anthony. Not only did that mean we were within a stone's throw of Saint Anthony's miraculously preserved tongue but we also shared the courtyard with a storm of ravenous pigeons and a group of young nuns. Half of the nuns hated pigeons and shooed them away while the other half loved pigeons and kept luring them back with food, resulting in a consistent ebb and flow of pigeon activity. Lunch was a bizarre pleasure thanks to the Sisters.
In addition to the relics of Saint Anthony, Padova is also host to one of the most famous sets of frescos in the world. Completed by Giotto in 1303 these frescoes pre-date the work of Michelangelo and Da Vinci and initiated the soft style and perspective for which both of these artists are known. The frescoes fill the Scrovegni Chapel and not only feature seductive depictions of the vices but also a giant blue devil eating humans as they pass down into the opposite of heaven.
And not to be outdone by the hermetically-sealed entry system of the Last Supper in Milan, the Scrovegni Chapel has also installed a "state of the art" entry system to preserve the frescoes. While it feels more like an "automatic door" than "space age technology," if its installation means that people can continue to see the frescos I'm all for it.
Padova is also home to one of the oldest universities in the world. Established in 1221, Padova University gives the city a youthful kick in the pants and tries to keep the townspeople guessing. Last weekend the trees near several University buildings were papered-over with comic drawings of recent grads depicting both the highest - and lowest - moments of their teenage existences. There was also a lot of fanfare as graduating students were pelted with paint, eggs, and all manners of liquids by friends and relatives.
After zooming through the art museum connected to the Scrovegni Chapel we headed back to the city center to give one last go at food consumption. Luckily, we ran into one of the Padovan traditions that we'd read about but hadn't yet seen. A seafood vendor in the piazza was selling boiled fresh octopus. They were disgusting and gorgeous - slippery tentacled lumps of purple that came out of the pot steaming hot and were promptly sliced up by the vendor, then covered in green sauce and oil.
We might not have dug in so heartily had a couple already standing at the vendor not been eating a plate full of the stuff with big smiles on their faces. We couldn't resist. They hung around as we dug into our own plate of octopus and were very happy to see us enjoy it. The woman of the couple insisted that we eat every last bite (including the inner workings) while the man admitted that he was from Milan and had never tried this dish before today. In the end we "Milanese" agreed it was most excellent.
After eating every last tentacle we headed to the train station where we actually delayed a train from leaving the station by hitting the "Open Door" button at the very last second - we were that close to missing the train entirely. Once on the train, we settled in for our half hour ride to Venice. Because when you're that close to a city you love you can't go home without first swinging by.