Venice, the last stop on my journey across northern Italy, is 75 k from Vicenza. I could have driven, but it didn’t make sense to hold on to the car for an extra day, just to drop it off at the rental agency the minute I arrived. Especially when, for only 7€, I could take the train and be there in 44 minutes. Besides, as much as I love the freedom and flexibility the car gives me, I was looking forward to a few, car-free days. I booked my entire trip – flights, car, hotels, garden visits, cooking class – everything that needed a reservation. Months later an old bit of trivia floated up out of the depths. Years before, when I had been researching my previous trip to the region I had come across another way, a much, much more interesting way to reach the lagoon city.
Villa Pisani (previous post) wasn’t the only villa that had more to do with pleasure than farming. And it wasn’t the only one that was built, not in the middle of fields where owners could keep an eye on their crops, but along the banks of the Brenta Canal. At the first hint of summer, Venice’s elite would set off from Piazza San Marco in luxuriously outfitted boats called Burchiello. Feasting on sumptuous meals to the accompaniment of musicians – the entire household retinue and much of the furnishings were brought along – they would wine and dine their way to their summer pleasure villas, far from the sweltering heat, humidity and stench of summer in Venice. It was the beginning of the beloved Italian custom of villeggiatura. Summer in a villa. The recently surfaced memory was of a cruise today’s travellers can take in a modern day version – comfortable, but definitely not luxury – of the 16th century Burchiello. From Asolo, where I had stayed on that previous trip, the logistics were too complicated, but from Vicenza, it was absolutely doable. The only question was, would my dates work out? I remembered that the starting point alternated between Padua and Venice. I checked the website. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays the route was Venice >Padua. Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays it was Padua>Venice. But what day of the week would I be leaving Vicenza? By now my heart was set on the cruise. If I was one day off, that would be a big seccatura (sake-kah-too-ruh). Drying up of the spirit. I fussed around for a while. Cleaned up the kitchen. Put away some clothes. Watered some plants. When I started to think about doing a bit of dusting, that was it. I got out my itinerary. My departure date from Vicenza was Oct. 4. A Sunday.
It was pouring when the train pulled out of the station in Vicenza and it was still raining, although not quite so heavily when I arrived in Padua. By the time I reached the landing, the rain had stopped and there was even a patch of blue.
Most people make a mad dash for the front seats when they get on these pleasure boats, but I have learned that unless you manage to snag a front row seat, your chances of a clear view and photos without a bunch of half-cropped heads along the bottom are much higher if you go to the rear. I left my backpack on the bench next to the rear door (to save a seat in case it started raining again) and went up top. I flicked off as much water as I could from a front row seat and sat down. I’d had so many wet bums this far, I was beyond caring. Besides, the view and the air and the peace and quiet – there was no-one else up here of course – were absolutely enchanting.
Along the route, in addition to gawking at the villas, there is also the fun of going through the conche (cone-kay). Locks. It takes five of them to accommodate the 10 meter difference in water level between Padua and Venice.
Shortly after we passed through the first lock we came to one of the most beautiful villas. It is set back a distance from the canal and is called Villa Giovanelli di Noventa Padovana. It was in the headlines of the local newspapers recently following its sale to a misterioso soggetto. For five million euros. Più o meno. More or less. The estimated cost of restorations is another five million. The previous owners, the monks of the Villaggio Sant’Antonio, had been very particular about the nature of the buyer. They rejected all offers from private companies and joint stock companies, eventually agreeing to accept the offer from a trust which will be in force for 90 years. One of the clauses in the sales contract prohibits the mystery buyer from splitting up the property. Another restriction the monks had insisted on was that the property continue to be used for il benessere sociale. The social good. (The monks had operated an orphanage in the villa.) What happens at the end of the trust’s 90 year term is, like the identity of the buyer, a mystery.
By the time we reached the lock below, the sun had come out and so had many of the passengers who were now up on the top deck with me. But the good spirits the clearing skies had brought were somewhat dampened when it became clear that the gates, or whatever you call the moving walls of the locks, were stuck.
Even more interesting than the locks for the non-technologically inclined were the ponti girevoli (jeer-eh-voe-lee). Swing bridges.
At one point our captain pulled over to a landing. We had arrived at the first of three villas we would be visiting.
Only one room in the villa is open to the public, but that one room is all that’s needed to get a feeling for what these villas were all about. It’s rather small so the tour leader divided us into two groups. By language. German and Italian. That left three people – two Americans and me. Back at the landing in Padua, as we climbed on board the tour leader had checked our names against a list, where the length of cruise we had signed up for (there was a 1/2 day option) was noted, as well as whether we had ordered lunch, and our country of origin. This last presumably to let her know which languages she would have to use for the day. I had told her that notwithstanding the ‘Cdn’ next to my name I was perfectly comfortable in Italian. She was very happy to hear this, because, of course, it meant that at least for the second half of the day – the Americans would be leaving at lunch – she would only have to deliver what turned out to be a very detailed and thorough script in two rather than three languages.
She motioned to the Americans to go with the Germans. I stood there for a moment, feeling like the last one picked for teams in gym class. But she hadn’t forgotten me. ‘Lei va con loro‘ (You go with them), she said, waving me over to the Italian group. It appears I had been made an honorary Italian for the day. It was unseemly, but I have to confess to feeling a bit puffed up as I walked over to join the Italians. While we waited for the Germans to have their tour, we wandered around the garden.
It didn’t take long to go around the whole garden, so after a few minutes I joined a small group from the Italian cohort who were waiting by the entrance to the villa. They were a party of three couples, old friends who lived in and around Milan. The cruise was part of a weekend getaway for them. I learned all this because we ended up sharing a table in the cabin. The first time it started to rain again and I’d had to come down from my dreamy post up top, things had been a little awkward. Six people were sitting at my table and my backpack had been moved to the end of the bench. Buon giorno, I said guardedly. But I needn’t have worried. They were lovely and I was sorry to say goodbye to them when we went our separate ways at the landing in Venice.
As we stood there waiting for our turn, one of the women asked me what I thought of the garden. (During one of our rain shower chats they had asked me about my trip and I had told them about visiting gardens. Italian and French gardens.) Beh… mah…eh…allora. I stalled. Finally I just told them what I thought. Then another signora asked me which I liked better – Italy or France? A-a-a-llo-o-o-ra-a-a, I began. Before I could think of anything even remotely diplomatic her husband came to my rescue. ‘Oh dai, che la stai imbarazzando!‘ (Oh come on. You’re embarrassing her!) ‘Mi piacciono tutte e due’ (Both are pleasing to me), I cautiously began, and then, I’m not sure why – maybe because I was a bit rattled, I felt a need to balance things out – I had already told them how much more time I spend in Italy so ovviamente (obviously) I must like it more, I added, ‘Anche Parigi’. (Even Paris.) Why I felt the need to defend Paris is beyond me, but now that I was on that track, I talked about how so many people I’ve talked to hadn’t enjoyed their experience in the City of Light, which, from what I could gather, usually meant they hadn’t liked the Parisians, who I have generally found to be quite simpatico. Any that aren’t, I just try to steer clear of. ‘Ha ragione, Signora‘, my saviour said, ‘bisogna evitare gli antipatici’ (an-tee-pah-tee-chee) ‘You’re right, signora. The trick is to avoid disagreeable people.’ Since that day, whenever I have to deal with an antipatico, I think of his words.
We crowded into the Sala delle Feste. Odd to think that the now priceless frescoes were, at the time, an inexpensive alternative to the tapestries the owners used to cover the walls of their palaces in Venice.
We continued on our way. I was looking forward to our next stop – il pranzo (lunch) which had been delayed because of the stuck lock gates.
Our next stop was at Villa Pisani for a tour of the interior, which despite the tour guide’s enthusiasm and knowledge, left me cold. It was packed and I don’t do the herding thing well. Besides, it was the gardens I really wanted to see and they were closed because of all the rain. (previous post) The last villa we stopped at was Villa Foscari. I’d toyed with visiting it on my previous trip, but it was too close to Venice and on the ‘wrong side’ of the canal to make me want to tackle what I knew would be a stressful drive from Asolo and later, when I was in Venice, too far for a quick outing.
A lot has been written about this villa suburbana. Words like majestic and magnificent come up a lot in articles by people in the know, so I had been expecting something not quite so formidable. Even if the light hadn’t been all wrong – because of the delay it was late afternoon by now – I’m not sure how much less imposing it would have looked. I sympathized with the beautiful, young wife – la Malcontenta – who centuries ago had been exiled here by her husband on the pretext of adulterous behaviour. As if all of Venice’s elite didn’t engage in such extracurricular activities at the time.
Part of the formidable feel comes from the fact that unlike Palladio’s other villas, this one is raised. The ground is on the swampy side, so rather than digging down to create a basement, Palladio built it above ground which had the twofold advantage of making the living quarters somewhat less damp and of adding to the overall sense of grandeur, which is what the owners, one of the most powerful families in Venice, were really looking for.
Finally we reached the open water. To our left the industrial city of Mestre stretched out from the western limit of Venice.
A few minutes later, off in the distance, we saw them.
We left the demonstrators behind and continued on toward Piazza San Marco, the heart of this magical and doomed city. Our cruise ended at a landing to the right of ‘the drawing room of Europe’ as Napoleon described the square. My suitcase was in a back storage area so I had to wait until all the other passengers had disembarked. I was so engrossed in watching – in horror – as the young woman struggled with my suitcase along the narrow gangway – she had insisted on performing this last servizio for me – I didn’t notice a small group waiting on the landing. It was the three couples I had, in a way, spent the day with. They had stayed behind to say goodbye and to wish me a ‘Buona continuazione’. As each one of them reached out to shake my hand, I was reminded of why I really travel.
Next : I’m off to Puglia – tonight in fact – so will not be sending out any posts for a while. Hopefully I’ll have something ready from my adventures in Italy’s ‘heel’ by mid-June. In the meantime – tante belle cose!