Venice to Milan

On The Road Travel Essays

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Venice to Milan

(COURIER: This trip is entirely on the Autostrada, which skirts the major cities along the way. You'll therefore want to avoid saying too much about these cities, as the group will catch only a glimpse of them at best. You might begin by talking about Italian highways in general (see "Italian Highways and Tourism"), about Italian hypochondria ("Italians and Hypochondria"), and any other topics of general interest that occur to you. If the group prefers to sleep, let it. But if it's alert, excited, and ready for a little information, use the following notes.)

Padua  This is still the region of Veneto, Venice being the dominant city. For centuries, in fact, Padua was part of the Venetian empire. It became independent after Napoleon took Venice in 1797. Padua is remembered today chiefly for two things: the life and legend of St. Anthony, and the great University of Padua. Padua in Italian is Padova.

St. Anthony of Padua: One of the most popular saints in the Catholic world. He was Portuguese in origin, born in Lisbon in 1195. He entered the Franciscan order, becoming known as a stirring preacher. After traveling in Africa, he came to Italy, where he died in 1231 just outside Padua. All kinds of miracles were attributed to him, including the ability to preach so forcefully that fishes in a stream could understand him! Just as St. Christopher is the patron saint of travelers, St. Anthony is the saint who helps you find lost articles. (Anybody lost a passport? This is the place.) After Anthony's death, his remains were buried in the Basilica of the Saint in Padua.

University of Padua: Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Padua's university was one of the most renowned in Europe. It was founded by the German Emperor Frederick II, who controlled northern Italy at the time. The university's reputation soon spread throughout Europe. The scientist Galileo was a professor here, and it was here that modern medicine was developed as a science. The medical students had plenty of patients to practice on: during the Renaissance, Italy was divided into a patchwork of city-states and tiny principalities, always warring among themselves. They brought the wounded in by the wagonload. Thus, new drugs, surgical techniques, better sanitary conditions, etc. were tried out in Padua first. In addition to science, literature flourished at the university: Italy's early literary giants, such as Dante, Petrarch, and Tasso, all studied here.

At its height, the university had over 6,000 students. Diaries and local reports tell of riots, brawling, kidnapping of professors, duals, drunken sprees, and other extracurricular diversions. Much of this lively atmosphere is captured in Shakespeare's play The Taming of the Shrew, which is set in Padua.

Po River Basin  The land we're crossing is relatively flat, because it's part of the huge Po River basin, where tons of water are brought down from the Alps each day. To the north, the mountains begin. The rainwater accumulated is drained off by the river, and this abundant water has made this region a major agricultural area in Italy. Rice fields abound, with patches of sugar beets. To grow rice, vast quantities of water are needed, and the Po River and its tributaries bring it in from the mountains. There's also fish breeding in the marches and ponds of the area, and fishing enthusiasts flock to the rivers during holidays.

Vicenza  This city lies just off to our right (north). It nestles in the foothills of the Berici Mountains. It has a proud history, with many wealthy families who built so many palaces in the town that it came to be called "Venice on land."

A single architect: Vicenza is unique in that its major buildings were all designed by one architect: Palladio, the last great architect of the Italian Renaissance. His influence was immense, in Italy and abroad, and he left behind many disciples who continued his style in the city. Result: a rare homogeneity in the design of the city's public buildings.

A gold medal: During the unification of Italy in the late-19th century, Vicenza distinguished itself on the field of battle, struggling against the foes of unification. After 1871, when the Kingdom of Italy came into being, Vicenza was given a gold medal for its contribution to the cause — one wonders just how the medal was pinned on, or onto what (maybe one of Palladio's facades!).

Soave  A small town just off the highway, surrounded by vineyards. These are the grapes which produce the famous Soave wine, some of the finest white wine in Italy, readily available back in the U.S.

Verona  A big city (pop. 240,000), situated on the Adige River, which we're crossing. It is a very old city, going back beyond Roman times. During Hannibal's rampage through northern Italy, the city contributed a citizen militia to the Roman army, which in fact was defeated by Hannibal.

Dictators: Throughout medieval and Renaissance times, the city was governed by a succession of dictators. The two most famous families who controlled the city's life were the Scaligeris and the Viscontis. They patronized artists and contributed many public buildings to the city. Their wealth came from the city's location as an important crossroads between the N and S, and E and W, and much trade flowed through the town.

Romeo and Juliet: Shakespeare's play about the star-crossed lovers was based on and age-old tale which had circulated in Verona ever since the 14th century. The two rival families were the Capulets, who belonged to a political party favoring the German Emperor, and the Montagues, who supported the party favoring the Pope. The political events surrounding the action of the play were based on history, and for all we know the substance of the story actually took place in Verona around 1302.

Lake Garda (You can just catch a glimpse of it on your right.) The largest lake in Italy, measuring 32 miles in length, and 11 miles in width. It's one of several shoestring-shaped lakes up in the north of Italy. Mostly shallow, its deepest point is 1,100 feet.

Oasis of the North: The lake boasts perfect climate: it is sheltered from harsh winter winds, its large size moderates the temperature in both winter and summer. Average temperature all year round: an amazing 55 F! Thus, it is an oasis of Mediterranean climate right at the base of the Italian Alps. The vegetation is Mediterranean too: cypress trees, olives, palms, and citrus orchards.

Wines: The wines from around this lake are world-renowned, and well known back in the U.S. The red wines, Bardolino and Valpolicella, are produced here, and we've already seen Soave, which produces a white wine. It's the lake that keeps the climate suitable for such excellent vintages.

Resorts: The ancient Romans were quick to appreciate the setting, and many of them built villas along the lakefront. Famous Roman poets like Catullus, Virgil, and Horace sang the praises of the lake in their verses, and more modern poets like Dante, Goethe, and Gide did the same. The most famous resort is the town of Sirmione, which sits on the end of a peninsula jutting out into the lake from the south, and is perched high up on cliffs for a breathtaking view of the lake. This is where Catullus lived, and he wrote endlessly about his beloved Sirmione.

Brescia  A city of almost 200,000 inhabitants, Brescia goes back beyond Roman times. The Romans called the town Brixia, hence its name. It is mainly an agricultural and industrial city. Chief industry: manufacturing of arms, as well as pewter ware.

Trade: During Renaissance times, the town's situation on the great trade route through the Alps brought in great wealth. With it, the leading citizens built handsome civic buildings and especially fountains. The latter earned the city the nickname, "City of Beautiful Fountains."

Mille Miglia: This is the name of the famous sports-car race which used to start and end in Brescia, and covered a hefty 1,025 miles. But in 1957 the race was discontinued because of many fatal accidents.

Tullia of Aragon was a well-educated woman from a noble family who became the leading social light of the town during the Renaissance. This often occurred in these times, when women of intelligence and breeding gained a freedom unheard of in previous centuries. Tullia read Greek and Latin, was a talented amateur in painting and music, and was reputed to be able to speak charmingly on any subject. You might think of her as a Barbara Walters with and education.

Bergamo  Actually it's two cities. The old city (Alta), still surrounded by its medieval walls, is situated up on a hill. The oldest communal palace in Italy (12th century) is inside, along with many splendid buildings of the Renaissance. The new city, spread out at the base of the hill, was an early experiment in town planning. In the 1920's, the attempt was made to build a "new city" with banks, shops, and residential areas all neatly separated. Students of urban planning today all come to Bergamo to examine the work of their predecessors.

(COURIER: As you approach the environs of Milan, begin your introduction to the city.)


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