Jacqueline Harmon Butler - International award-winning travel writer/author - JacquelineHarmonButler.com Jacqueline Harmon Butler
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Up a Lazy River - Riviera del Brenta (Italy)

I was feeling restless and disappointed because somehow the tiny, twisting streets of Padua didn’t hold the charm I had expected them to. Everything seemed so dark and moldy and, well, old. My planned visit with St. Anthony was thwarted by barriers completely surrounding his Basilica. The church was closed while undergoing a bit of a facelift.

Actually, I hadn’t planned on visiting Padua. I had planned on spending most of my vacation days in Tuscany, but since I intended to end my trip in Venice, I decided to use a couple of days to explore a little of the Veneto.

I consulted my map, marked my trail and headed for the Autostrada. My rental car, a shiny sapphire blue Ford Fiesta, was equipped with an air conditioner and stereo cassette player. I slipped in a tape of Andrea Bocelli’s music and sang along as the kilometers sped by. Within a few hours I was nearing my destination and still hadn’t figured out where I was actually going to spend the night. The Padua exit caught my eye and I left the Autostrada and drove into the city.

But, as it turned out, Padua wasn’t for me. After driving around for a while, I decided it was time to get out of town and, on impulse, followed a sign pointing to something called "Riviera del Brenta."

The road, route SS 11 between Padua and Venice, follows the Brenta River. Within minutes I found myself transported to a pastoral Eden as the little towns of Stra, Mira and Dolo came into view. Dotted here and there were dozens of magnificent villas. It was as if I had been magically transported back to the time, between the 16th to 18th centuries, when rich Venetians commissioned great architects like Andrea Palladio to design summer homes for them along the Brenta.

When the summer heat became oppressive in Venice, the nobles would have themselves rowed across the lagoon and up the Brenta to their palatial villas along its cooler shores. The mansions were designed and decorated by masters of Italian art and often visited by royalty, popes, artists and other illustrious guests. They celebrated the summer with ritual floating processions, sumptuous dinners, parties and balls that often lasted until dawn.

Even though it was late in the day I noticed people wandering around the gardens inside the walls of the Villa Pisani, in the small town of Stra. I decided to park the car and have a look.

Available tourist information mentioned that the 18th century home, also known as the Villa Nazionale, was built for Doge Alvise Pisani. It was used by Napoleon and was the site of the first meeting between Hitler and Mussolini. The famed Tiepolo frescoed ceiling was incredible and magnificent Murano glass chandeliers sparkled in every room. Extending in all directions surrounding the house, were gardens filled with ponds, fountains, statuary and greenery. The Villa, viewed from a distance, looked like a grand confection of creme and ivory gleaming in the afternoon sun.

Looking through the bits of tourist information, I found that many of the villas are open to the public and there was a map indicating their location as well as the days and times they were open. I also found a suggested itinerary for easy to follow bike tours. However, what really caught my attention was the little brochure for the Il Burchiello, boat tour that begins at the Piazza San Marco in Venice and ends in Padua or visa versa, on alternating days. The tour is a full day’s excursion that includes lunch with stops at some of the most beautiful villas, including Palladio’s incredible Malcontenta, and follows the classic itinerary of the original Il Burchiello, made famous by Carlo Goldoni in his Commedia Dell’Arte.

Continuing along the SS 11, I saw a multitude of incredible villas and homes. Each one had their own little boat dock along the river. It was easy to imagine arriving by gondola and being welcomed by one’s staff into the bucolic setting. Yes, I thought, it would be great fun to live in such a place.

A little further up the road, in Dolo, my eye caught a small discrete sign for the Villa Ducale Hotel. I immediately made a U-turn and went to check it out.

Even though it was the middle of October, it was still considered the High Season and the hotel was full, except for one cancellation. The price seemed reasonable, and included a safe place to park the car, so I took it.

The hotel was built in the 1884 as the country home of Count Giulio Rocca, a noble Venetian. It remained in the family until 1960, when it was turned into a hotel. It was sold again in 1998 and the 11 spacious rooms, some of them mini-suites with stone balconies, were totally redecorated using typical Venetian-style furniture and decorations including lots of glass fixtures and frescoed ceilings. It is completely surrounded by lush gardens with old-fashioned pergolas, statuary and fountains. And, of course, right across the road was its own little boat landing.

My room was large and beautifully decorated. Both the bedroom and bathroom had huge windows overlooking the gardens. The evening sun was just setting, shooting golden rays through the leaves of the gnarled old trees. I turned on the radio, fiddled around with it until I found some classical music, filled the big bathtub with steamy fragrant bubbles, opened a small bottle of red wine and enjoyed a nice, comforting soak.

I decided to try the hotel’s restaurant and was happy I did. The dining room was filled with interesting furniture, antique objects and more glass sconces and chandeliers. As I looked around, it occurred to me that Count Rocca must have owned a glass blowing factory. The floors were traditional travertine in the Venetian style and the tables were covered in soft yellow damask and cut glass vases held small bouquets of roses.

I considered the menu offerings while sipping a tall, cool glass of Prosecco. The restaurant specializes in fish dishes, so I decided to try several of their evening specials.

I began with an assortment of shellfish, including tiny shrimps, spider crab and my favorite, canocce, a small local crustacean. I was thrilled when I saw them on my plate and exclaimed "canocce!" The waiter was surprised and inquired where I had learned the Venetian dialect for cicale del mare. There really isn’t anything in America that is similar. They are best described as looking like prawns, with broad, flat bodies and mantis-like front claws. There are only a couple of small, heavenly bites in each one.

This was followed by Spagheti con Seppie Nero, which is spaghetti tossed with a sauce of inky black Cuttlefish. Although it looked rather strange, it was incredibly delicious.

For my main course, I ordered Coa de rospo coe patate, served with boiled potatoes and sprinkled with fresh, chopped parsley. Coa reminded me of Monk fish and tasted divine.

By this time I wasn’t sure if I wanted desert, but when I noticed someone sitting nearby enjoying a dish of fresh raspberries and cream, I knew I wanted a bowl for myself.

I finished my feast with a small fiery glass of grappa.

The complimentary breakfast was a buffet with an assortment of breads, rolls, cold cut meats, cheese, yogurt, cereals and fresh fruits. After my feast of the night before, I wasn’t very hungry, but I couldn’t resist a saucer of the fresh berries, this time topped with yogurt.

The morning was somewhat misty and the sun made a weak attempt to burn through as I made my way toward Venice. The Brenta slowly meandered by and I stopped here and there to marvel at the views. It was a Monday and, much to my disappointment, none of the villas were open. I was reluctant to leave this land of enchantment and vowed to return…perhaps by boat or gondola to tie up at one of the little boat docks and explore more of the fabulous villas.


If you go:


Sita SPA - Regional Direction of Veneto Tourism and Navagation Il Burchiello
Via Orlandini 3
35121 - Padova
Tel: 049.8206910 - Fax 049.8206923

Tuesday - Thursday - Saturday, depart at 9:00 AM, P.le Pontile Pieta ,San Marco, Venice
arrive 6:15 PM, P.le Boschetti, Padua

Wednesday - Friday - Sunday, depart 8:15 AM, P.le Boschetti, Padua
arrive 6:20 PM, P.le Pontile Pieta, San Marco, Venice

For further information, please do a Google search on Burchiello boat tours.

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