Simon Calder: Padua's finest barman will inherit the earth
The man who pays his way
Saturday 11 September 2010
A visit to the birthplace of the Renaissance should be on the agenda for every traveller. The location where man first properly demonstrated the power to emulate nature – indeed, the place where art was born again – is Padua. Handily, that city is only 40 minutes from Verona, where I was researching today's 48 Hours story.
Seven minutes' walk from the railway station of this north-east Italian city takes you to the Scrovegni Chapel. From the outside, in the 21st century, it looks slightly awkward and isolated. (Don't we all?) But the interior tells a different story. Eight centuries ago, Giotto di Bondone painted frescoes here. He chronicled the lives of Mary and Jesus with perspective and humanity.
As a tourist, your appetite for this artistic breakthrough is whetted with a mandatory quarter-hour in a sealed ante-chamber, where your body's excess moisture is silently and discreetly extracted to avoid it damaging the fragile frescoes.
After evaporation, revelation: you are invited inside for another quarter-hour to see the location where at last the human body, as represented on the chapel walls, was endowed with physical strength and frailty, and properly charged with emotion.
Once you have witnessed the place where the Renaissance touched down, the only thing to do is go for lunch. So along with four companions, I wandered along the colonnades of drowsy Padua and settled on a restaurant with the distinctly unpromising name of Frenky's Bar (the charming proprietor of which is pictured below).
When you need pasta al ragu with a salad laden with olive oil, bread to soak it all up, plus one of those very slightly salty mineral waters in which Italy excels, oh and a coffee please, then aim for the bar at the corner of via Marsala and via Barbarigo. It is possibly the first place I have dined where I felt obliged to ask if I shouldn't pay more? The bill for five of us came in at €35. "You've overlooked Nick's beer," I pointed out. "There are five of you," he shrugged. "It evens out."
In this part of Italy some traders feast on hoodwinking tourists – particularly British visitors, who are accustomed to being the mugs of European travel. You might as well announce, "Here I am, and here's my cash, do help yourself." Across in Mestre, the dowdy mainland sister of Venice, a taxi driver demanded €14 at the end of a four-minute journey. I checked the meter. "But it says €11." We settled on €12.
Frenky's takes the opposite approach, and will surely inherit the earth for providing a delicious version of the dish we like to call spaghetti Bolognese, with salad, water, bread coffee and a beer bonus for €7. Treating tourists decently is a shrewd investment.
Oh, and if the piano music dribbling out of a tinny loudspeaker in his restaurant irritates, do bear in mind that the piano was invented in Padua around 300 years ago. A man named Cristofori realised the harpischord could be modified into a subtler, more versatile instrument. A city of artistic firsts.
The euro in your pocket (or his)
Being taken for a chump can take the edge off a holiday, but you have to admire the style of some Italian scams involving handing over change. Not the familiar taxi one that still seems to be doing the rounds (you pay with a €50 bill, he gives you change from a €20 note, leaving you €30 out of pocket and exasperated), but a simple and very effective way to earn a bonus.
I bought a bottle of water from a vendor in the Arena in Verona. Three euros, he wanted, which was triple the going rate. I don't class this as a scam at all, because he was providing a service; if I didn't like the price, I could have gone thirsty. I handed over a €5 note, and received as change a large coin with a silver band around a bronze centre. Two euros? No: as I discovered when I tried to spend it, I had been handed a worthless token advertising an Italian garage. It may have been a genuine mistake, but somehow I doubt it.
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