The Euganean Hills (Colli Euganei) are at the center of a small but renowned wine industry located southwest of Padua. You can pick up a Strada dei Vini wine route map from the tourist office. It also leads you to the small city of Terme di Abano (12km/7 1/2 miles south of Padua), famous as a center for radioactive springs and mud treatments unique to this volcanic range.
The Forgotten Riviera: The Brenta Canal
The navigable Brenta Canal links Padua with Venice in the east. Ambitiously called "the Forgotten Riviera" because of the dozens of historic summertime villas built here by Venice's aristocracy and wealthy merchants, it can be visited by car or by boat -- you can even stay in a few of the villas. Only one was designed by 16th-century master architect Palladio (the Villa Foscari), but many are Palladian-inspired. The best way to see the villas is on a cruise down the Brenta. Call the Brenta Canal tourist office at tel. 041-424-973 for more information.
More than 30 villas can be viewed from the boats (some just partially or at a great distance), but only three are visited. The important 18th-century Villa Pisani (tel. 0425-920-016; www.villapisani.com) in Stra was commissioned by the family of a Venetian doge and is famous for its ballroom frescoes by Tiepolo and its extensive gardens. The hedge maze here -- something to engage youngsters bored with having to tour all these frescoed mansions -- sprouts a tower at the center so that you can get a bird's-eye view of the trip back out; during the crowded summer season, a young man stands up here calling out instructions to maze-goers to hurry them along so the next group can get in. The villa is open Easter to September, Tuesday to Sunday 9am to noon and 1:30 to 6pm (to 4pm in winter). Admission is 6€ for the villa, or 5€ for just the park and gardens. It's free for seniors older than 60 and children younger than18.
The other two biggies are in Mira, and fair warning: Both keep erratic hours. The 18th-century Villa Valmarana (tel. 044-321-803) is dramatically set amid weeping willows; it's open Tuesday to Sunday from March to November (Dec-Feb open only on weekends) and costs 8€, free for children younger than 12. The Villa Foscari (also known as Villa Malcontenta, "The Unhappy Woman"; tel. 041-547-0012 or 041-520-3966; www.lamalcontenta.com) is one of Palladio's finest works. It's open May to October Tuesday to Saturday 9am to noon and costs 10€.
Touring the Canal -- There are a number of companies willing to take you up the river for anywhere between 50€ and 95€. The tourism office promotes two of them: I Battelli del Brenta, Via Porciglia 34 (tel. 049-876-0233; fax 049-876-3410; www.battellidelbrenta.it), and Delta Tour, Via Toscana 2 (tel. 049-870-0232; www.deltatour.it). Other companies come in and out of the market. For more info on plying the rivers, canals, and other watery byways of the region, check out the local river-craft consortium's website at www.padovanavigazione.it.
I Battelli del Brenta embarks in Padua from the Scalinata del Portello at 8:30am on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, arriving in Venice at 7pm; from Venice's Zattere ai Gesuati, they leave Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 8:30am, finishing in Padua at 7pm. The trip costs 85€ for a full day, including lunch and entrance to all of the above-mentioned villas, while a half-day, at 48€, includes a visit to the Villa Pasani, but not the optional fish lunch that adds another 27€.
Delta Tour greets passengers at the Villa Pisani at 8:30am (Tues-Fri), visits each of the estates, along with a tour guide, and finishes up at Fusina on the coast south of Venice. For an extra 3€, the boat will take you for a panoramic view of Piazza San Marco. The 65€ fee includes a fish lunch, the tour guide's services, and entrance to the villas.
If you want to do the tour yourself, the largest concentration of country villas can be found between Stra and Mira. A car tour does require some planning, since visiting hours and days differ from villa to villa and season to season. See the tourist office about a map. Note: If you want to try this by bus, know that difficult, erratic visiting hours and public bus connections may make this close to impossible for those without their own wheels.
A Perfect Picnic Spot
The secondary road S11 runs alongside the canal in spots; it departs from the canal here and there but remains the best roadway for viewing the villas as it skirts the little canal-side villages. If you take a right-branching street through any of the towns, you'll come upon grassy verges leading down to the water -- a perfect spot for a picnic (though you might want to bring bug repellent).
Where to Stay on the Brenta
An excellent budget alternative to the admittedly pricey villa hotels below is the Ostello di Mira, Via Giare 169 (tel. 041-567-9203; fax 041-567-6457; www.casasoleluna.it), a bare-bones hotel just outside Mira; it charges 18€ for a bed in an eight-bed dorm or 25€ per person in a shared double, breakfast included. It's open March to September; the reception desk is open 7:30 to 9:30am and 4:30 to 10:30pm.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.