The charming Italian city of Padua rewards visitors with a day of prayer and pilgrimage, devoted to one of the most beloved saints in the Catholic Church: Saint Anthony, patron saint of lost things. And while we were there, we found quite possibly the world’s best pizza!
Road Trip to Padua
I visited Padua as a halfway stop on a road trip to Milan. Many people visit on tours from Venice, only about an hour’s train, bus or car trip away.
Following our GPS and signs pointing to the Basilica del Santo, we pulled off the main autostrada A4 and navigated the twisty streets. We reached the imposing church, only to find no parking anywhere nearby. Even street parking was hard to come by, but a space miraculously turned up in a residential neighborhood on the far side of the city’s main square.
Prato della Valle: Europe’s Second Largest Square
After figuring out the Italian-only instructions on the parking meter, we set off on foot across the sprawling Prato della Valle. It is considered to be the second largest square in Europe, behind only Moscow’s Red Square.
The central green island, ringed by a canal, has been the scene of public happenings since Roman times, when it was an amphitheater and race track. Today the ‘Prato’ is a laid-back meeting spot for local students and romantic young couples. Don’t miss the photo opportunities against a backdrop of historic palazzos and statues of 78 local dignitaries.
Sadly, the old streets of the pedestrian zone around the basilica seemed dead by comparison. Covered walkways with occasional souvenir stands led to the reason for our visit: the magnificent basilica complex dedicated to Saint Anthony.
Prayer and Pilgrimage to Saint Anthony
Admission to the basilica is free, but there are rules. Shoulders and knees must be covered. Anyone sporting shorts or a tank top might be asked to purchase a coverup at the door. However, we didn’t see consistent enforcement of the dress code as long as people were respectful.
The basilica is open seven days a week, with access restricted during Holy Mass.
Another rule: no photos inside. This was repeatedly violated by almost anyone with a smartphone. It might be aimed at commercial film crews with professional equipment, but I didn’t want to take a chance of having my phone or camera confiscated.
Besides, we came here to pray! A short line led up to Saint Anthony’s ornate tomb, where the faithful place their hands on the stone in silent contemplation. It’s easy to understand why the church would want to protect the privacy of those praying to Saint Anthony for the lost causes in their lives.
Why Saint Anthony is the Patron Saint of Lost Things
The splendid basilica and cloister complex is in marked contrast to Saint Anthony’s simple, monastic life. Born to a wealthy family in Portugal, he became a learned Franciscan friar. He astounded believers with his sermons. When a crowd failed to pay attention, Anthony famously turned to the water and preached to the fish.
Saint Anthony lived in the 1200s and his legend grew over the centuries that followed. When a student stole his favorite psalm book, Anthony is said to have prayed for the thief to have a change of heart and return it. Thus, it became popular to pray to this saint for everything from lost car keys to lost causes.
Another legend tells of Saint Anthony having a vision of the Christ Child in a room where he was staying on a pilgrimage to France. Often portrayed with the young Jesus, Saint Anthony is revered as a bridge between God and humanity.
The Relics of Saint Anthony
A pilgrimage through the basilica winds past priceless art masterpieces by Donatello and Giotto to the Chapel of Relics. Signage is mostly in Italian only.
Saint Anthony died in 1231. Thirty years later, when his burial place was moved to the present-day church, his body had completely decomposed. Except for his tongue, which remained remarkably lifelike.
This legend has come to symbolize the power of the saint’s preaching. The tongue, as well as Saint Anthony’s jawbone, are preserved in ornate golden relic-holders in a chapel behind the main altar. In a neighboring chapel, a cleric stands by to administer blessings in a choice of languages and sprinkle the pilgrims with holy water.
I wandered through the peaceful adjoining cloisters in the huge complex, with additional history exhibits and a gift shop. I couldn’t resist buying a key holder for my mom, who’s had a lifelong devotion to Saint Anthony whenever something in our house goes missing:
Dear Saint Anthony, please come around,
Something’s lost and must be found.
Pizza in Padua: A Work of Art
We didn’t find many restaurant choices on the back streets of the historic center, which seemed mostly deserted on a steamy June afternoon. Sitting down at Fresco, a mid-priced eatery across the street from the basilica, turned out to be a memorable lunch stop.
The pizza, handcrafted by an artisan baker in a small booth inside the restaurant, was quite possibly the BEST pizza my companion and I had ever tasted. And our family is obsessed with pizza, so that’s saying a lot. The soft but crunchy crust was in perfect harmony with the fresh toppings. I would drive to Padua just to taste this pizza again.
Terry’s Travel Tips
Driving to Padua: Driving to Padua on the A4 toll road is easy, if your nerves can handle the Italians zooming by at twice the 130 KPH speed limit. It’s a lot more complicated once you pull into the town. There are few street signs to correspond with the GPS directions. Don’t be surprised if you’re lost and praying to Saint Anthony to find your way!
Pro Tip: The toll booths accept major credit cards and euro cash if you don’t have the automatic toll pass. Gas stations along the toll road charge extra for an attendant to pump your gas and clean your windshield. Exit the toll road for cheaper fuel you can pump yourself. You’ll also save money by reserving your rental car on Auto Europe before you leave the USA.
Stranger Danger: Avoid driving your car through the historic district of most Italian cities. The ZTL (Zona Traffico Limitato) requires a special permit and is enforced by cameras. Taking a wrong turn can result in a nasty surprise ticket when your trip is over. Find a detailed explanation of ZTL on Auto Europe.
Staying in Padua: In hindsight, I wish I had planned an overnight stay in Padua. The historic Hotel Donatello is across the street from the Basilica del Santo. The amazing pizza place described above is the hotel’s restaurant. Thanks for browsing the reviews and reserving your stay on Trip Advisor. It supports this blog with a small commission at no cost to you.
Other attractions in Padua: Staying overnight would have allowed me to reserve a ticket for the Scrovegni Chapel, splendidly decorated by Giotto’s 13th century frescoes. Many Italian masterpieces, including the Last Supper in Milan, can now be viewed only by reservation. Padua also has a splendid botanical garden.
Another great stop on the road to Padua is the historic city of Trieste. It makes a nice day trip from Ljubljana or the Slovenian Coast. Like Milan and Verona, it’s also a great place to see authentic Italian opera.
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