It is noon when we walk into the Piazza delle Erbe, the market busy with vendors selling fruits, nuts, and vegetables. My mother-in-law goes off to buy panettone, a Christmas cake, at the Pasticceria Graziati, one of the oldest bakeries in Padua. Stefano, my husband, heads to the corner bar for an aperitif of Prosecco and a bite to eat. I follow him. The air is crisp and people seem to keep in constant movement to ward off the cold. We stand outside with our Prosecco in one hand, panino con la porchetta in the other. A light fog lingers over our heads. The sounds of people laughing and bargaining, heels on cobblestones, rusty bicycle wheels, crates being loaded mix into one ambient noise.
Our children run to the candy stalls that are set up at Christmas, and come back begging for a few thousand lire to buy the sweets of their choosing. We tell them they have to wait for the Befana, a witch who visits on the eve of January 6, filling their stockings with candies if they've been good and coal if they've been bad. There is a feeling of anticipation in the air.
When my mother-in-law returns, we go to buy prosciutto in the market that runs beneath the nearby Palazzo della Ragione. We weave between scores of stalls in two massive halls where merchants have been selling salami, cheese, poultry, meat, and fish since the Middle Ages.
By now it is almost one o'clock. People are beginning to disappear, the vendors packing up, shopkeepers beginning to close their doors. "Arrivederci, signora" can be heard from every direction. "Ciao, ci vediamo," as friends part. A strange and beautiful silence falls on the town, as though it were early morning again.
TWO DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS. WE ARE SPENDING THE holiday with Stefano's family in Padua, a city that is easily missed by tourists because of its proximity to Venice, and because the urban sprawl and reconstruction that followed its heavy bombing in World War II left it, at first glance, not entirely appealing. It is still, however, one of the most ancient and culturally rich cities of Italy.
Most of Padua's center remains intact, preserving its intellectual and artistic heritage. Dante, Petrarch, Giotto, Donatello, Mantegna, and Galileo all worked here. Saint Anthony preached in Padua until his death in 1231, and pilgrims have come to touch his tomb ever since.
Nicknamed La Dotta—the Learned—Padua is home to the brain trust of the Veneto; the University of Padua is one of Europe's oldest and most celebrated institutions of higher learning. And it was Padua's porticoed streets that provided the setting for Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew.
OUR SCHEDULE IS INVARIABLY THE SAME—A TRIP EACH morning to the outdoor markets for fruits and vegetables, a quick detour to the pasticceria for bread, home for lunch, a rest until 4 p.m., and then back into the center of town to shop or sightsee. One would think that after 13 years we must have seen everything, as most of the city's monuments can be viewed in a couple of days. But we continually choose to revisit the past.
That is Padua's beauty. I always loved to stroll with Stefano's father as he pointed out the medieval buildings, Galileo's tower, and the area that used to be the Jewish ghetto. I never tire of living with the city's ghosts, walking the same streets and shopping in the same shops that have been there since the 13th century. Places where Petrarch may once have passed are now, in what seems an effortless transformation, chic design shops, galleries, and clothing boutiques.
Today we decide to see the Nativity scene at the Basilica of Sant'Antonio. The courtyard exhibit is decorated by a new team of artists each year. It is a miniature animated theater that reminds me of productions at Disneyland when I was small, the figures tiny replicas of ourselves. After pushing our way to the front, we see that this time they have created a village full of shops, restaurants, and artisans. It looks more like a medieval version of Padua than Bethlehem. As the background darkens, candlelight begins to flicker inside the rooms. Suddenly one star shines brighter than the others and transparent angels take flight. The landscape starts to move, and we see the manger and the bed of hay. On a faraway mountain, three kings approach on camels. The only thing missing is the baby Jesus.
In Italy, Gesù bambino arrives after midnight on Christmas Eve. He's the one who gives gifts, rather than family members or a fat guy in a funny red suit. There are no elves in the North Pole; no stockings hung by the fire. Instead, San Nicolò brings a gift for all children on December 6, reminding them to obey their parents and do well in school.
Although I had been visiting Padua for years, my first Christmas here wasn't until 1989. It was magical; everything seemed so new and different.
Stefano and I had been been married for a year and had a month-old son. When we arrived at my in-laws' house, there was no Christmas tree in the living room. The decorations were understated—no colored lights or tinsel. There was a crèche in the dining room, peasants and animals making their way to an empty manger. Mistletoe dangled in the hallway and Christmas cards hung from red ribbons.
Stefano's elder brother, with his wife and two daughters, came to celebrate on the afternoon of December 24. The children went out with their grandfather to have a treat and ride the carousel in the center of town. When they returned, their cheeks were red and their eyes full of excitement. Stefano's mother, who had been helping to prepare the dinner, rang a small bell and the girls scurried to the dining room. The door was opened and inside stood a tree decorated with flickering candles, glass balls, and handmade birds that looked as if they had flown in from the forest. Presents lay underneath.
The table was set with white linen, china, more candles, and garlands of pine branches. In the crèche, Gesù bambino was now lying on his bed of hay. After prayers and song, the entire family—including Stefano's younger brother, sister, and uncle—sat down to eat a simple, elegant fish dinner.
Christmas Eve has traditionally been a time of fasting. My mother-in-law, from the city of Turin, in Piedmont, recalls that when she was growing up food was banned until midnight. So after marrying Stefano's father and moving to Padua, she was shocked to see his family eat on Christmas Eve. People from the Veneto, who have always lived a more secular life, maintain that they're fasting as long as they're not having meat.
Gifts were opened after dinner. Then we piled into cars and drove to mass at the Benedictine abbey of Praglia, south of Padua.
LIFE HAS CHANGED DURING THE PAST decade. My father-in-law is no longer with us. Stefano's younger brother and sister are each married. There are six new nieces and nephews. With more to do, everyone runs on different schedules.
Last year was the millennium, and the 2000 Jubilee celebrations in Rome were in full swing. Churches throughout the country were undergoing renovation, and the scaffolding that hid their beauty dampened the holiday spirit a bit.
We went to midnight mass at the Basilica di Sant'Antonio. I was amazed at how many people filled the massive church. We worked our way to the only space we could find, in the Cappella del Santo near Saint Anthony's tomb. Worshipers squeezed past, anxious to press their palms against his sarcophagus, which was covered with ex-votos, photos, and candles. Across from us, on the other side of the basilica, we could see the choir above the de' Menabuoi frescoes in the Cappella del Beato Luca Belludi. "Ave Maria" filled the air. My love for Christmas in Padua, momentarily checked by the renovations and the complications of family life, was instantly rekindled.
DURING ONE OF OUR LAST NIGHTS IN Padua, we dined with friends at Osteria Speroni, a favorite restaurant. Our guests, also from New York, noted that Padua is often overlooked because it is in the shadow of Venice. "People come for a few hours to see the Scrovegni Chapel or to visit the university, but they don't stay long enough to see that it's the living, breathing part of Venice," one of them observed. "They miss the palaces, the cobblestoned streets, the arched walkways." They miss Padua's rhythm and its magic, never more evident than at Christmas.
WHERE TO STAY
Majestic Hotel Toscanelli 2 Via dell'Arco; 39-049/663-244, fax 39-049/876-0025; doubles from $150. Thirty-two rooms. In the heart of the old town, close to Piazza delle Erbe.
Hotel Donatello 120 Piazza del Santo; 39-049/875-0634, fax 39-049/875-0829; doubles from $127. Forty-five rooms across the street from the Basilica di Sant'Antonio.
BEST VALUE Albergo Leon Bianco 12 Piazzetta Pedrocchi; 39-049/657-225, fax 39-049/875-0814; currently closed for renovations, call to confirm. You can't beat this 22-room hotel's location in the center of the old town, across from the famous Caffè Pedrocchi.
Osteria Speroni 36 Via Sperone Speroni; 39-049/875-3370; dinner for two $122; closed Sundays. Three cozy rooms, each with a fireplace. Fish is the specialty. The menu changes daily, so ask the waiter for his recommendations.
Hosteria Padovanino da Renna 1 Via S. Chiara; 39-049/876-5341; dinner for two $105; closed Sundays. Excellent radicchio dishes, pasta, and a huge selection of desserts.
FOOD AND DRINK
Per Bacco 10 Piazzale Ponte Corvo; 39-049/875-4664; dinner for two $55. Innovative dishes made from outstanding ingredients that come from all around Italy. The wine list has more than 900 labels.
Osteria dei Fabbri 13 Via dei Fabbri; 39-049/650-336; dinner for two $39. A trattoria that serves good pasta dishes.
Offelleria dell'Oca 6 Via San Martino e Solferino; 39-049/876-3034. Quiet café that also serves light lunches.
Enoteca 1 Via Pietro d'Abano; 39-049/875-0083; dinner for two $44; closed Sunday and Monday. Tavern with live music on weekends.
Enoteca da Severino 44 Via del Santo; 39-049/650-697. One of the city's oldest wine bars.
Caffè Pedrocchi 3 Via 8 Febbraio; 39-049/876-4674. Built in 1831, this café, across from the University of Padua, was once a hangout for intellectuals. While most Paduans consider it overpriced, it's worth a visit for its eclectic architecture.
Caffè Cavour 10 Piazza Cavour; 39-049/875-1224. Great for ice cream and people-watching.
Pasticceria Graziati Piazza della Frutta; 39-049/875-1014. The oldest pastry shop in town.
Pasticceria Brigenti Piazza dei Signori; 39-049/875-1560. Excellent pastries, including panettone, a Christmas cake.
Roberto Callegari 8 Via Davila; 39-049/875-5803. The best place in town for jewelry.
L'Antiquario Gemmologo 6 Via Davila; 39-049/664-195. Callegari's brother sells antique silver and jewelry next door.
Makola 6 Piazza Garzeria; 39-049/876-2486. Women's clothing that makes you wish you had lived during the most elegant periods of the fifties and sixties.
Al Duca d'Aosta 48 Via San Fermo; 39-049/876-1466. Like Barneys, with the latest chic fashions for men and women.
Minuzzi 66 Riviera dei Ponti Romani; 39-049/875-1578. Designer wear from Missoni to Dolce & Gabbana.
Paolo Tonali 10 Via Giacomo Matteotti; 39-049/875-6600. Women's clothing.
Amadio Galleria Pedrocchi; 39-049/875-2150. A century-old specialist in men's sportswear and furnishings.
Fuso d'Oro Galleria Ezzelino, 21—25 Via Marsilio da Padova; 39-049/661-316. Zegna fabrics; men's suits, shirts, ties.
Camiceria Moderna 139 Via del Santo; 39-049/875-1923. Tailor-made shirts.
Via San Fermo A street with a wide variety of designer shops, including Hermès, Gucci, Prada, Armani, and Max Mara.
WHAT TO SEE
Basilica di Sant'Antonio Saint Anthony came to Padua in the early 1200's and preached here until his death in 1231. A year and a half later, his tomb was attracting enough pilgrims to warrant the construction of the basilica. Inside are works by Giotto, Donatello, and de' Menabuoi.
The Baptistery The 13th-century Baptistery, beside the Duomo, features frescoes of the Old and New Testament by de' Menabuoi.
Scrovegni Chapel Commissioned in 1303 by Enrico Scrovegni to atone for the sins of his father, a usurer so vicious that Dante gave him a place in the Inferno. Scrovegni hired Giotto, Dante's favorite artist, to illustrate the lives of Mary and Jesus and the story of the Passion.
Palazzo della Ragione Padua's assembly hall, built in 1210, is one of the largest medieval halls in existence. Miretto frescoes depict astrological theories and secular life.
The Eremitani One of the biggest artistic losses of World War II was the destruction, by Allied bombing, of Mantegna's frescoes in the 14th-century church. The rebuilt church features the Martyrdom of Saint Christopher, which was removed before the war, and fragments of a fresco portraying the martyrdom of Saint James.
University of Padua Italy's second-oldest university was established in 1222. Galileo taught physics here. Dante and Petrarch studied at the school. The world's first permanent anatomy theater was built here in 1594. Its medical and law schools are among the best in Europe.
Prato della Valle The largest square in Italy, surrounded by a moat and 78 statues of famous Paduans.