The second part of our long-awaited (and well deserved – find part one here!) long weekend in Italy started off with a very comfortable train out of Bologna, heading North to the ancient city of Padova, which we would be using as a base to explore Venice.
But why are you staying in Padova when Venice is so close?!
It’s precisely because Venice is so close that we chose to stay in Padova! More often than not, Padova is simply another stop on the tourist trail to its famous neighbour. Most probably wouldn’t set foot outside the train station. Having based ourselves there for our final two nights of the trip, we can safely say that skipping straight to Venice is an injustice to Padova. It may not have the alluring canals, enticing alleyways and undeniable romantic charm which draws millions to Venice each year, but it is a beautiful city in its own right.
The icing on the cake for us – unsurprisingly – was that we saved a small fortune by choosing to stay here instead of Venice itself. A 25 minute train journey will take you to Venice’s main railway station – a no-brainer, if you’re on a budget!
Day 1 of 3: Padova
We arrived in Padova towards the end of a warm, humid afternoon. Despite the heat, we optimistically decided to head to our accommodation on foot, rucksacks on back. Anything to save a few euros, right? It’s normally a pretty good way to see a city for the first time, too. Unfortunately, 10 minutes into our trek we realised that our GPS ‘dot’ had barely moved – and the telltale signs of ‘sweaty back’ were already starting to appear. It was time to cut our losses, and we quickly plotted the rest of our route via the (excellent) tram system. Thank you once again, Google Maps!
An hour’s walk turned into a 10 minute tram journey followed by a 5 minute stroll, and we arrived at the lovely B&B Piazza Del Santo. Perfectly located a stone’s throw away from the beautiful Basilica Pontificia di Sant’Antonio, we’d booked a comfortable room with a small kitchen – always handy to have the option to sort out a quick breakfast! We’d chosen the B&B – as we often do – off the back of reviews which specifically called out how friendly and helpful the owner, Mauro, is. True to form, Mauro gave us a friendly welcome and some great tips on how to get the most from our limited time in his city. We often find it makes a huge difference to the experience of a place if you get lucky with your host!
By the time we’d got ourselves settled and ready to face the world again, it was pushing late afternoon – which meant stomachs were beginning to rumble, and we knew the hunt for dinner would have to begin soon. We took a quick wander down to Prato della Valle, Padova’s monumental square (which, at 90 thousand square meters, is the largest in Italy!), and spent a good hour checking out everything that was going on – picnics, street performers, groups gathered round guitars. A lovely atmosphere, and another reminder of the difference the weather can make to a place!
With time against us, we plonked ourselves down on the wall under one of the statues which circle the central area of the square and fired up the trusty TripAdvisor app in search of dinner. There were a few places dotted around the square, but we generally find that food quality & prices can be very varied in Italian city centres – so we have no issues with cheating the system a little and making sure we go for a fairly safe bet! We ended up at Marechiaro, a charming little independent nestled away on a quiet street a stone’s throw away from the Piazza dei Signori. Lovely pizza, friendly waiters, and no sign of any other English speakers – perfect! One final post-dinner wander, and it was time to get a good rest before tomorrow’s day trip into Venice…
Day 2 of 3: Venice in under 12 hours?!
Yep – we don’t exactly remember how long our day trip lasted, but it was definitely less than 12 hours. Still, our Fitbit counters (at a touch over 30,000 steps!) suggest that we did a decent job of it – without breaking the budget or forcing ourselves into a crazy early morning or ridiculously late night!
After wolfing down some of the breakfast snacks provided by our accommodation (thank you, Mauro!), we hopped back onto the good old Padova tram just after rush hour and arrived just in time to catch the fast train into Venice’s central station. We arrived around 10am, with no plans except to wander onto the island and get lost in the maze of alleyways and canals for a few hours. It was my first time in Venice (Lucy had been a decade ago!), and safe to say that nothing can quiet prepare you for the surreal feeling of looking down Venice’s Grand Canal for the first time after years of seeing it on postcards, Instagram feeds and travel shows – it really is as ridiculously beautiful as it looks.
Stepping off the train for the first time and arriving at the top end of the Grand Canal, you started to get an initial sense of the scale at which tourism operates on the island. The jostling for the ‘perfect shot’ had already begun – and we weren’t even close to being near the main sights. However, a couple of turns down the alleys off the beaten track and it’s (relatively) easy to forget that you are one of thousands visiting this tiny area every day.
The pictures can do the talking – enticing alleyways, gondolas navigating impossibly narrow waterways, the occasional glimpse of ‘normal’ life in Venice through a clothes line hung between two buildings. There’s a reason it’s so famous….
After a couple of hours wandering in the reasonably serene back streets, it was time to brace ourselves for the crowds again as we headed towards Piazza San Marco via the extremely Instagrammable Rialto Bridge. Heavyweights of the Venice photography trail, both these places are timely reminders that beauty comes at a cost – the ‘sardine effect’ was in full flow as we dodged selfie sticks and souvenir sellers. All part of the fun!
Piazza San Marco is, as you’d expect, gorgeous – and, at least when we visited, large enough to comfortably hold the crowds it attracts. With limited time on our hands, we decided to make a quick stop at the Tourist Info shop on one of the corner’s to pick up a map. Bad mistake! Our ‘quick stop’ became a 20 minute stand in a queue, as even the concept of a city map (normally free in almost all cities we’ve ever visited) has become a commodity in Venice’s tourist heartlands. We weren’t the only ones to fall foul of this, with fellow visitors from less polite places than the UK become audibly exasperated at the ordeal. Still – keep calm, and carry on.
One not-so-free city map purchased, we set off on the hunt for one of Venice’s famous Murano Glass shops. Lucy had fallen in love with the craftsmanship and was keen to find a piece to take home. We stumbled across a few before settling on a couple, and leaving the happy owners of some (very small) bits of colourful glass – and a cheeky painting print! Mission accomplished, it was time for the next big Venice challenge – finding somewhere to eat that didn’t cost the world!
Venice has a fairly dodgy reputation for the cost of dining out – you are, after all, a captive audience in a world famous place. Still, provided you use a bit of common sense (as simple as avoiding the main streets, getting used to saying ‘no’ to the offer of a menu, and making the most of good old TripAdvisor) you can have a good meal at a decent price. Pizza was the order of the day for us in a quiet square – fast service, reasonable prices and nice food. Hard to ask for much more given the setting.
Later, we made the tactical mistake of stopping for a drink in a bar right next to the Rialto Bridge. An hour later, having almost had to drag someone over at to take our order, deliver our drinks and then take our money, we wished we hadn’t bothered – unfortunately, it’s one of those places (thanks to its brilliant location) that will make money without ever having to really try. I’m sure there will be some hidden gems around there; Cafe Saraceno, however, is not one of them – as its 1.5 star review rating on Google will attest to. Well worth a read of the reviews, as they are truly the worst I’ve ever seen – bordering on hilarious.
Anyway, a lesson learnt. Continuing our mad dash around Venice, we headed across the Ponte dell’Accademia and down towards the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute – from where the view of Piazza San Marco and the famous Venetian waterfront is easily the best around which doesn’t require a trip onto the water itself. For those who want a more ‘birds eye’ view of the island, we’d suggest heading up the Campanile di San Marco – the famous bell tower on the square. Top Tip: you can book tickets for this online, for a specific time slot, between April and October. We discovered this early in the day and were able to bag 2 tickets for 3pm – allowing us to enter via a different door and saving us from standing in what looked like a 30 minute queue to get standard tickets. Do it!
The views from the top are spectacular, allowing a true sense of Venice’s scale across the island and beyond. It must be even more amazing at sunset – but, sadly, our frantic schedule didn’t allow for a relaxed wait up at the top!
After a final wander down the waterfront and through a few more squares, it was time to hit the Grand Canal itself for the start of our return trip back to Padova. The No.1 Water Bus takes you the full length of the Grand Canal, dropping its passengers – a great mix of tourists and local commuters – a 5 minute walk from the railway station. At a few euros a journey, this is by far and away the cheapest option for visitors wanting to get onto the water without having to splash out on a Gondola or private boat. Yes, you may have to share the journey with a hundred others, but this is arguably part of the fun – especially if you can claim a good spot with clear views out to the buildings.
With darkness beginning to descend, we waved one final goodbye to Venice – by this time, lit up like a Christmas tree with lights from restaurants and apartments – and hopped on the quick train back to Padova. Rumour has it that more pizza was ordered for dinner, from the lovely Trattoria San Pietro. We couldn’t possibly comment.
Day 3 of 3: Venice Treviso Airport – The Odyssey
The next day, we were forced into an early wake up – our flight had been brought forward a couple of hours by Ryanair and was due to depart from Treviso airport at 09:45. Do not be fooled by the name ‘Venice’ in the title of the airport – just like “Dusseldorf” Weeze or “Frankfurt” Hahn, Treviso airport is an absolute age away from Venice itself and is seemingly only accessible via robust forward planning! Having navigated Padova bus station and hopped on an nondescript public shuttle, we arrived at Treviso in a relative state of calm.
This, however, was short lived as it quickly became apparent that there was a strike by Italian ATC which began 15 minutes after our departure time. We were crammed in to the departure lounge like cattle, waiting an age for a plane which wasn’t even there yet. When it finally arrived, it was all hands to deck – run across the tarmac, fire up the engines and hope for the best. Sadly, it was all in vain, and our take off slot was missed. No sooner had the plane been loaded, than we disembarked and were subjected to 8 hours of occasional dubious pizza hand outs, with a slot on the handful of plug sockets to charge phones becoming the most valuable currency in our tiny holding pen. It was the ultimate first world nightmare.
We finally arrived back home a good 12 hours after we were due. Despite the relative chaos of the final day, it had been another great trip. New cities for both of us, plenty of great food, and – of course – some amusing mishaps along the way! I’m sure it won’t be too long before we’re back….