Monselice and Arqua Petrarca: Two North Italian villages worth visiting

Some years ago, I had seen this George Clooney-starring thriller called The American, revolving around an assassin hiding out in a village for his last hit job. While I was taken in by the story, it was the place that the movie was set in — Abruzzo, Italy — that really impressed me. The last time I was as impressed by the Italian country side, was while watching The Godfather.

Cobble-stone roads going up and down hillsides, church bells ringing in the background, old nonnas going about business in their Sunday finest – were scenes I had formed in my mind to associate with Italian villages.

In the summer of 2016, while travelling to Venice from Munich, a detour in north Italian town of Trento had increased our appetite to see smaller non-touristy Italian towns. Our Airbnb in Jesolo wasn’t very far from two well-known villages in northern Italy – Arqua Petrarca and Monselice. The plan was to head to Padua directly, but since these two villages were on the way, the decision was made, to make it a staggered journey with two pit stops.

Monselice is located around a mountain valley. The entry to the mountain, called Rocca hill, involves walking through an arched gateway – a definite throwback to its walled past. There weren’t many people around, apart from the local hangers on outside a Gelateria. These sort of communal places are so abundant in small towns, be it anywhere on the planet.

Walking up the stony pathways, reminded me of one travel show I loved watching on TLC (back when it had genuine travel shows) – Grandma’s Boy – where a chef tries his hand at cooking traditional Italian dishes under the guidance of Italian nonnas (grandmas). Throughout the show, there used to be montages of Italian villages used as fillers. The scene in front of me, could easily have been one of those very montages. Cloudy skies. Temperatures on the slightly higher side for a European summer. Only locals to be seen around.

At the top of the Rocca hill is the Monselice Castle. Somewhere close to the highest point of the hill is the church of San Giorgio, and if you continue walking further, there are rows of six small chapels – the Seven Churches Sanctuary. These form part of a pilgrimage which is at par with the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome.

These chapels are located at a slight height from the regular road, with the connecting wall covered in lush green vines. The immense use of stone in the architecture, as well as with the pathways, certainly makes this area fire-proof.

Arqua Petrarca makes it to every ‘Villages to be seen in Italy’ list. But it is more renowned as the home of poet – Francesco Petrarca aka Petrarch – who lived here in the 1370s. I just happened to see the house from the outside, but since I had just learnt about the poet while researching the town, there wasn’t much to do going inside.

Arqua Petrarca, just like Monselice, is a town located around a hill. Although I didn’t notice too many religious places while walking around this town. I did spot a couple of cafes and gelaterias which looked like they were meant for locals. In terms of activity, there wasn’t much happening here either.

One cafe had an Italian football-jersey wearing old man, sitting on a bench, staring into space. Even his dog was mimicking him, for a while, before getting back to playing around.

I kept my camera aside. Settled down myself under the shade of a tree. Watching Vespas pass by. Tying my best to mimic the guy the in blue jersey, who seemed to be attracting a crowd.

Both Monselice and Arqua Petrarca, are located within a 20 km radius of the more popular Italian university town of Padua.

If you are headed to Padua, make sure you take some time out to see these two beautifully laid-back villages as well.

Trento: A detour in Northern Italy, which reset my expectations from the country

Outside of India, I have never been on road trips.

So when my cousin floated the idea of going to Venice from Munich via road, I was completely on board. Unlike travelling straight to the city via a plane or train, road trips present immense opportunities for doing things at your own pace. The presence of a fixed train or flight schedule can be limiting to travel. This road trip just reiterated that fact.

On crossing the Austro-Italian border, one of the first detours we took for lunch was in a small town called Trento. This was completely unplanned, with the only agenda being having a traditional Italian pizza.

Off the highway we were quite close to the city centre of Trento. But just like most European cities, as I would later learn, there are lots of restrictions on parking your vehicle. If you are near a medieval city centre, then you have to look out for the No Parking zones. As only the citizens have the privilege of parking within.

Entering the city centre, the first thing I saw was the facade of a church. Taking a left, we entered a traditional Italian square, which I later learned was called the Piazza Duomo. With a fountain located in the middle of the small piazza, which had a church right behind and mountains on the right, it took me no time to start using my camera.

The church, called the St Vigilio Cathedral, was made in brown sandstone and unlike many European churches, did not have towering spires. The front facade of the church had the Romanseque circular window – the rose window – something similar to the one on the Santa Maria Del Pi of Barcelona or the Notre Dam Cathedral in France. One side of the church had an onion-shaped dome top. Whereas just above the apse region was an octagonal roof structure. The Cathedral is said to have been built atop an existing church going back to the 6th century. Behind this church, were remnants of what looked like fortifications with a clock tower at one end.

The Piazza Duomo had a fountain in the middle, which had the trident sporting Neptune on it. Surrounding the piazza, were buildings which looked like they were from another era. Some of these buildings had facades painted with biblical scenes. A gelateria here. A farmacia there. A ristorante around the corner. Most of the buildings were four to five stories high with semi-cylindrical orange coloured roofs covering them on top.

The restaurant we went to for lunch was much more modern. The pizza I ordered for, was hot, thin-crust, uncut, ham-mozarella pizza with lots of olive oil and pickled tomatoes on the side. Washing that down with Paulaner beer while it drizzled outside is one memory I now associate with the place.

Since this was just a detour, I didn’t really get to explore the town much. But Googling the place later, I came to learn that Trento was annexed to Italy only in 1919, till then it was part of Austria. It is an autonomous town, that explains why there were flags with a coat of arms, and which didn’t have Italian colours, in a lot of establishments. It is located in the Aldige river valley region of North Italy.

Unlike most detours, this one turned out to be a great experience. Suddenly I wanted to see more such small Italian towns. With their grand cathedrals behind charming piazzas.

We did do that. But that’s another post, for another time.