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Cruising the Brenta Canal from Venice to Padua

Ginda Simpson

At 9:00 in the morning, as we cross St. Mark's Square in Venice, the sky is clear, promising a glorious day. We are meeting friends at the nearby Piet Pier, where we will board the Burchiello for a leisurely cruise down the Brenta Canal. For decades, the Burchiello cruises have been taking visitors along the Brenta River between Venice and Padua, an excursion that grants them an unhurried glimpse at the natural beauty of the area, passing villas of significant historical and cultural importance. Our friends, Marianne and Bruce, arrive early at the Pier, as anxious as we are to embark.

Marianne and I settle at a table on the lower deck of the Burchiello, a name derived from the Venetian words "burcio beo" which means beautiful boat, while Bruce and Mike find seating above in the open air. To prevent the Venetian lagoon from silting up, the Brenta River was diverted over the centuries to keep it from flowing into the lagoon. The older canal dates back to the 15th century and because it proved to be an important transportation route, wealthy Venetians began to build elegant villas along its 22-mile length.

We cross the lagoon and enter the narrow canal, banked by poplar and willow trees. A woman walks along the banks, lost in a world of her own, carrying a huge bouquet of wild yellow daisies. The long feathery branches of a willow tree caress the water's surface. The canal meanders in the most pleasing fashion, past farmland and orchards, simple homes and magnificent villas. Field after field is planted in corn - feeding, no doubt, the Venetian's love for polenta.

Soon after the Brenta Canal was completed, the noble families of Venice realized the potential of these rich rural lands and began to exploit the agricultural possibilities. Having amassed a fortune in shipping and foreign trade, they were ready to invest in large-scale agriculture and transportation of crops to the population centers. There was a new crop - corn from the New World - and it was planted in abundance.

These wealthy city dwellers recognized the benefits of the tranquil countryside with its fresh air and thus began to build summer homes along the canal. The challenge was to build homes that were elegant enough to reflect their elevated social status, yet economical to construct and of a design suitable for a farming lifestyle. To achieve this, the architect Palladio used brick instead of stone. The brick was then stuccoed and painted to look like precious marbles. The capitals were made of terracotta and other architectural elements were made of wood, and then covered in straw lathing and stucco. Lastly, instead of using expensive tapestries to decorate and insulate, as was the custom in the grand palaces of the city, the proud patricians commissioned artists to paint elaborate frescoes on the interior walls.

Our first stop is the remarkable Palladian Villa Foscari, built in 1560, a home that reflects Palladio's architectural achievements - hallmarks of harmony, balance and proportion in color, textures and mood. Legend has it that the villa owes its name, "Malcontenta" to the wife of one of the Foscari who was confined here against her will. How could anyone living here be malcontent? This is a home I could live in quite contentedly. Villa Foscari is still lived in today by family descendents. The muted, restful colors of the frescoes seem to mirror the very countryside we have just passed through - pale wheat, melon, sage green, rose and peach. These colors are repeated in the fabrics, woven textiles of cotton and linen. Simple elegance at every turn, even in the flower arrangements - large sprays of magnolia leaves, pierced with a few blossoms - golden tiger lilies, white lilies or roses.

The next stop is at the Ristorante Il Burchiello, a restaurant that is reputed to serve up a memorable fish lunch, but we are happy to stay on board and spread our picnic right out in front of us - a lunch of salamis and cheeses, fresh grapes as well as grapes that have been bottled. It feels like a stolen day, suspended as we are in pleasures of Italy, of table and of time, both shared with good friends. If we never get off the boat again today, I could be happy.

But the tour treats us to two more stops - a visit to the Barchessa Valmarana in Mira and then Villa Pisani, the villa that represents the pinnacle of 18th century Venetian baroque architecture. Of its 114 rooms, most of them complete with their original furnishings, the ballroom is the most renowned, stupefying visitors with its stunning trompe l'oeil paintings and frescoes depicting the Glory of the Pisani Family by Tiepolo, the most prominent painter of 18th century Venice. Many notable guests have stayed at the Villa Pisani. Napoleon became its proprietor in 1807. In 1934, Mussolini and Hitler met here for the first time.

Our tour ends in Padova, a beautiful university city of picturesque streets and lovely canals. Not far from the Basilica of Sant'Antonio, we find a restaurant serving specialties of the Veneto and I am pleased to see Bigoli in Salsa, whole-wheat pasta with an anchovy sauce, on the menu. I don't hesitate deciding on my order and what a treat it turns out to be.

In my simple but comfortable room, I am drowsy in the warm silence, delighting in the new memories I have. My thoughts turn to Villa Foscari and its warm, welcoming rooms, with their restful colors. I could sleep there and be perfectly content!

Travel Details

Il Burchiello: www.ilburchiello.it
Canal cruise, runs from March to October, departing three days a week from Padova to Venice, and the alternate three days from Venice to Padova. Optional seafood lunch available. Bookings can be made online.

Hotels

Hotel Concordia: www.hotelconcordia.com (book thru our affiliate Venere)
4 stars, Via Calle Larga S. Marco, 367, Venice. For a real splurge in Venice, a stay at Hotel Concordia is unforgettable. Ask for a room overlooking the little piazza immediately to the right of St. Mark's - you can see the Domes from your window.

Casa del Pellegrino: www.casadelpellegrino.com
Via M. Cesarotti, 21, Padova. For a pleasant, spotlessly clean hotel right next to the Basilica of Sant'Antonio in Padova.

Restaurants

Trattoria al Prato: www.santantonio.info
Pato della Valle, 4/5, Padova. For a wonderful meal in Padova, here is a restaurant serving Venetian specialties. Closed on Wednesdays.

Ristorante Il Burchiello: www.burchiello.it
Via Venezia, 40, Mira Oriago, Venezia
Closed Monday and Tuesday dinner. Holidays 15 days in January and in July.
A Buon Ricordo restaurant since 1970.
This is the restaurant the Boat Tour stops at for lunch.

Resources

www.italiantourism.com/villas.html: Italian Tourist Board - Palladian Villas

www.turismopadova.it: Padua (Padova) Tourist Board

Slow Travel Community Photos: Eight Days in the Veneto by Roz.

About the Author

Ginda Simpson is an American artist/writer now living in the Umbrian countryside. It has been said of her work, "her paintings tell stories, her stories paint pictures." For more information, please visit www.gindasimpson.com.


© Ginda Simpson, 2005

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