Florence to Venice

On The Road Travel Essays

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Florence to Venice

This is a fairly long journey of about 160 miles. You skirt three major cities: Bologna, Ferrara and Padua. On certain itineraries you will be visiting Padua. From Florence to Bologna the Appenine landscape is very attractive. Past Bologna you enter the Po valley and the landscape becomes dull and featureless. On leaving Florence you head past the airport and fields of wheat, corn, vines and tobacco. Then turn north to leave the valley of the Arno. The A1 climbs gradually up towards the pass at Roncobillacio (2,500 ft up) where you leave Tuscany and enter the region of Emilia-Romagna descending now towards Bologna on the other side of the mountains. Initially the hills are green and gentle, gradually rising to become more rocky and dramatic. The motorway at this point begins to enter a series of tunnels. The Appenines here are still fairly low mountains, averaging around 4,000 ft. The highest peaks are further down the spine to the east of Rome (Gran Sasso is the highest at 9,500 ft). After the pass the mountains slowly begin to soften again giving way to lush, green valleys dotted with little farming villages and fields of wheat and vines.

As you pass Bologna the huge building on the hill to the west is a former monastery where in 1860 Camillo Cavour and Vittorio Emmanuele first planned the military campaigns that led to unification. It is now Bologna's orthopaedic hospital.

Bologna (65 miles)  The capital of Emilia-Romagna, 500,000 inhabitants.

This is an important industrial and commercial city with a very beautiful historic centre, though you won't see any of it. It has been under Communist administration ever since the war. For that reason, as well as for the colour of its buildings, it is sometimes known as Bologna la Rossa or 'red Bologna.' It is also nicknamed la Grassa or 'the fat' because of its rich and delicious cuisine, the best in Italy, and la Dotta or 'the learned' because of its long and proud tradition in the field of education.

Historically Bologna's greatest claim to fame is its university, probably the oldest in Europe. It was founded some time in the late C11 or early C12. It quickly became very important. According to the census of 1262 it had 10,000 students, an enormous number for the time. Amazingly in the C13 women taught law at the university!! If this had been the situation anywhere in the world 120 years ago it would have been ground-breaking, but we are talking about 700 years ago. It is still Italy's prime university. Among its most famous graduates are the composer Rossini (The Barber of Seville) and Marconi, the radio pioneer. Bologna is also Italy's music and nightclubbing capital. Probably because of the university and music scene it is without doubt the coolest city in the country.

After Bologna the landscape is flat and empty, with only wheat fields and some fruit trees for company. You pass (95 miles) fairly close to the important historic city of Ferrara, home from the C13 to the C17 of the great house of Este. From the motorway you can't see it. A little beyond the exit for Ferrara you leave Emilia-Romagna and enter the Veneto on crossing the river Po.

River Po (100 miles)  This is now the Polesine, the fertile strip of land between the Po and the river Adige 15 miles north. The Polesine is one of Italy's major agricultural areas. You can see rice fields on either side of the road. In spring these fields are flooded with the waters of the two rivers. In this area there are also many fields of sugar beets, mulberry trees (for silk), wheat and vines. There are also dairy cattle. In the marshier areas fish farming has become a major industry. The town of Rovigo is the processing and distribution centre for the Polesine. The Po is Italy's longest and most important river, rising in the French Alps west of Turin. The Adige also rises in the Alps on the border between Italy, Austria and Switzerland. They both empty out into the Adriatic just 20 miles to the east in the Gulf of Venice.

Padua (142 miles)  230,000 inhabitants.

You will only skirt this city to the south and east. The Roman historian Livy was from here. Shakespeare's play The Taming of the Shrew is set here. This is another great university town. Galileo taught here; Dante, Petrarch, Tasso and William Harvey, C17 founder of the science of anatomy, were students. Padua's most famous adopted son, however, is St. Anthony. He was a Portuguese Franciscan monk who came to Italy where he died just outside Padua in 1231. He was a great preacher and a miracle-worker. Like St. Francis he preached even to the animals. It is said that even the fish understood him. He is the patron saint of loss: if you nave a purse or a passport or a baby you pray to St. Anthony. The stunning Byzantine C13 basilica dedicated to him here is one of the most important pilgrim shrines in Italy. Pilgrims come from all over the world to touch the green marble sarcophagus in which he is buried. The other great attraction of Padua is the Scrovegni Chapel, aka Arena Chapel, covered in frescoes by Giotto.

If you are visiting Padua you need to allow about three hours, including time for a quick lunch. You will not have a guide. You should certainly visit the Basilica of St. Anthony. Pick up a floor plan as you go in. St. Anthony's tomb is in the left transept. In the treasury you can see his tongue and his jaw if you really want to. Don't miss the High Altar, famous for its C15 bronze sculptures by Donatello. (The great equestrian statue outside, of the mercenary soldier Gattemelata, is also by Donatello. It was the first life-size bronze cast made since classical times, one of the defining moments of the Italian renaissance.) If you have the time and inclination you should then take the Via del Santo, lined with shops selling religious souvenirs, and its continuation Via degli Zabarella to the Scrovegni Chapel (entrances not included, buy tickets in the adjoining Museo Civico). It is tiny and doesn't take long to see but is a visual feast. It consists of 36 panels by Giotto (their authorship is actually is a matter of some controversy) illustrating the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary and the theme of Christian redemption.

Twenty miles or so beyond Padua appears the diabolical silhouette of the Marghera oil refinery. This charmless town and its equally unprepossessing twin Mestre lie to the right as you leave the mainland and drive along the causeway to Venice.


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