Thursday, 7 May 2008

I took the night train from Lausanne to Padova, changing in Bologna. I shared my couchette on the way to Padova with three other people trying to sleep, one of whom snored intermittently. Drunken Swiss occupied the rest of the car. They drank wine, they yelled, from time to time they broke into song. This persisted across the border, until an Italian man boarded the train and swore at them until they fell silent. I heard nothing more from them.

There is a lesson to be learned here. I had asked them to be quiet politely in French. Everyone in the car heard the Italian, and “porco” — just about as bad as Italian insults get — figured prominently in his diatribe. In future, I shall subject all offenders to loud English and be sure to include a graphic description of their mothers’ habits.

The couchette was hot, stuffy, and uncomfortable. The conductor brought me two dry brioche and some acidic orange juice at 5:00 before I changed trains. But I arrived at 7:30 in Padova with the whole day before me. This is the only point in favor of the night train.

The Geneva pa kua instructor reserved rooms for us all at the Casa del Pellegrino next to the Basilica di Sant’Antonio. It’s clean (and the hallways smell slightly of disinfectant), as conveniently placed as is physically possible, and quiet when the basilica’s bells aren’t ringing. It’s cheap: €40/night for a single, and €50-80/night for a double. The staff are friendly. If the rooms had a refrigerator, what more could I ask? But they don’t, which makes it hard to keep food.

I unpacked and started walking. I saw the Basilica di Sant’Antonio and several other churches. I saw an interesting sundial. I saw a collection of old scientific instruments. The latter was sufficiently random to deserve further comment.

Pietro-Paulo Gallo is the physics teacher at a surveying high school (an Instituto della Geometria) on the west side of Padova. In two rooms on the school’s ground floor he has a couple hundred devices ranging from early lead batteries to telescopes. I followed a tiny sign in a back alley which named the museum, announced myself at the front desk in my broken Italian, and was introduced to a scruffy, older gentleman in a tweed suit, who spoke with a lisp that was pure dialect. He gave me an hour of his time, showing me his beloved instruments, and I have to say that it is a really fine collection.

Then I took myself south to the Prato della Valle to eat a lunch of bread, cheese, and apples in the shade of a tree — a pleasure somewhat spoiled because I had scalded the roof of my mouth on a cup of real, Italian hot chocolate that morning. But it was worth it: the milk frothed within an inch of its life, and the chocolate so thick you can stand a spoon up in it. No one makes hot chocolate as well as the Italians.

The Prato della Valle is a green park centered around a fountain, bounded by circular moat. The moat is full of fish, a fact that visiting school groups, all of which eat their lunch on the island, point out in loud voices daily. The school children fill the island’s interior during siesta, but the city has thoughtfully erected statues of famous Italians every 10m around the inner and outer rim of the moat expressly for people like me to recline against, or so I assume from the number of other people doing precisely the same thing. Beyond the outer ring of statues is a ring of grass, an empty, paved area, and then, and only then, a lane of traffic around the huge piazza.

This habitability is a characteristic that seems peculiar to Italian cities. Other countries have habitable towns — the south of France in particular — but major cities like Mantova, Bologna, Padova are as friendly to people as the villages. Constructing monuments to be sat on is only part of it. Padova, like Bologna, has arcades along all its streets. No matter where you go there is shade, shelter, something to lean against. It keeps the streets narrow so cars must conform to humans and not vice versa. But even these would be a prison if it were not for the magical sense of space. The streets bend continually, so what you can see is not much longer than it is wide. The buildings all connect, but they are different heights, different shapes, different colors, which sets a scale much smaller than that of the whole street. The effect is one of spcious back lleys you can span with your arms.

After lunch I went back to the hotel to sleep a couple of hours before the seminar’s first session started at 15:00. It started at 15:00, we took a break at 16:00, and continued until 21:00. Then Toni uttered the line, “Let’s meet in the hotel lobby in half an hour to go get dinner.” I was there. Ten minutes later another fellow showed up. We went on to the restaurant — it was apparently decided after I left — to find two more waiting for us. Toni and his girlfriend showed up about 22:00. Despite this, I had a very decent octopus salad and spaghetti alle vonghele.

Friday, 8 May 2008

After yesterday’s activity I need not say how well I slept. I awoke to my alarm just before the basilica’s bells rang 7:00. At this juncture let me add another item to my list of travel necessities: a knife. Fortunately I was perspicacious enough to hoard a plastic spoon from a cup of gelato yesterday, and it served to spread blueberry jam on bread for my breakfast.

I left the hotel with a simple agenda: buy food for lunch and dinner. In my walk from the train station the previous morning I had seen an open fruit and vegetable market in the Piazza delle Erbe, and I returned there.

Italian markets are glorious. It is torture to walk past butchers, fresh pasta stands, and seafood vendors, and know that I don’t have a kitchen. The stands in the piazza were part of just such a market, an open building whose passages hold the butchers, the cheese shops, seafood, fresh pasta, chocolate, coffee; the seasonal vendors set up in the Piazza delle Erbe to the south and the Piazza dei Fruitti to the north. I bought bread, prosciutto, and two kinds of cheese. I picked a fruit stand because he did not let customers choose or handle the produce, only supplied what they asked for, and bought strawberries and apples. And then I walked through the market one more time, salivating over neatly tied rabbit roasts, whole orata, and fresh ravioli.

But now my tale takes a darker turn. I wandered through Padova, followed the old city wall east, and decided to see the Giotto frescos in the Capelli dei Scrivegni. I went, I paid €5 for my ticket (that is the student rate), I checked my backpack, and went to await my admittion time, 10:45, at the glass and metal, hermetically sealed entrance to the chapel.

It is a cheat, pure and simple. The beauty of the frescos only makes it more infuriating. First they herd you into a chamber and make you watch an incredibly patronizing film for 15 minutes “while the microclimate stabilizes.” There is no such isolation when you leave the chapel. They do make sure you know you can buy the film in the gift shop, though why you would want to is beyond me. It includes such gems as attributing the “discovery” that Giotto got his three dimensional effects from using different shades of color for light and shadow to the experts who did the restoration of the frescos.

I could live with this inanity, but then you are permitted thirteen minutes to look at the actual frescos. This isn’t enough to give a third of them a cursory glance! I was so incensed when they shepharded me out — last, naturally — that I fear I was rude.

In short, the Capello dei Scrivegni is a preservationist’s wet dream. The frescos will be forever safe from the outside air and the prying eyes of art lovers. If we can’t come up with enough art of note to replace what crumbles during our age, who are we to have obsessive stewardship of the work of the past?

And now I will reveal a little secret. In the Oratorio di San Giorgio next to the Basilica di Sant’Antonio a bored attendant will take €2.50 of your money to spend as much time as you like looking at frescos painted by two of Giotto’s students. He’ll provide you with a one page description of the frescos’ subjects in you want, and you can sit on the chapel’s benches. Te art is less magnificent than that in the Capello dei Scrivegni, but not by much.

After soothing my anger in this chapel, I settled on a stone bench outside for lunch. The other benches were occupied by people asking frantic questions on cellphones, or frowning at guidebooks. The only creatures who seemed to know what they were trying to do were a German shephard and me, and we were watching the world go by and thinking about food. I, however, had bread and cheese and prosciutto. The dog had to content himself with an occasional glance in my direction. Then I got a gelato, one scoop each of baci and strawberry, and found another statue on the Prato della Valle in order to work on this account until seminar at 17:00.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

I ate bread, cheese, and prosciutto in the room last night, then awoke at 7:00 just before the cathedral bells, trying not to wake Manou and Manou, my roommates from Geneva who had arrived yesterday afternoon. At 7:00, the streets are empty, but the bakeries are open, and two brioche filled with marmalade fortified me for a morning’s exploration.

The most interesting thing I found today was a 15th century Franciscan church, not because it had amazing artwork, but because of its lovely sequence of vaults. I walked through many more streets before turning to the market. I found Manou and Manou when I got back to the rom, who informed me that Nico, another Swiss here for the seminar, had invited us for lunch, and off we went to the market again to buy antipasti to bring.

Nico found a lovely apartment on the edge of town to rent, though its two bedrooms appear to be rented separately. A very pretty young lady came and went several times from the other one. All the same, we had a nice spread: salad, tomatos and basil, pickled anchovies, grilled eggplant, grilled sandwiches on focaccia, and prosciutto and salami. Then the whole group walked over to the Prato della Valle. The others improvised rap in French, which sounds even more ludicrous than rap in English. I took a nap in the shade until seminar.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

I chose not to go out to dinner with everyone last night, and ate and read in my room. This morning I woke just before the Basilica’s bells at 7:00, forced myself back to sleep for 45 minutes, then took my bread and blueberry jam out in the piazza so as not to disturb the Manous.

After paying the hotel bill, I left the others at a cafe and walked down to the University of Padova’s Orto Botanico. The sign said entry for students cost €1, but when I presented my EPFL card, the attendant told me that university students don’t pay.

The gardens are easily the nicest thing I have seen in Padova. An assortment of hothouses, aboreta, and sprawling beds ring a walled, circular garden where each plant is carefully separated into its own plot. Several tour groups and the occasional wandering pair of English ladies infested the garden, but it winds enough where they all vanish among the plants.

My two favorte points were a hothouse full of carnivorous plants, with old hand drawings and typewritten captions,and a little wooded hill at the garden’s southeast corner. Two paths spiral to the top, but arranged so that each is invisible to the other. The view back down on the arboretum and the wall of the inner garden gives an illusion of height and space out of all proportion with an 8m high mound.

I returned to the hotel to collect my back, and we all descended on Nico’s apartment again for lunch, then set out for the drive back to Switzerland.

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