June 5

    In a stunning departure from their history of closely fought battles, Italy devastated the team of David and Susan in two consecutive contests, Ravenna and Padua.

    Utilizing their nation’s traditional strengths--lunatic drivers, serenely unhelpful “service staff,” treacherous roads, tawdry campsites, inaccurate information and oppressive weather--the home team easily turned aside the visitors’ attempts to fully enjoy the splendors of Ravenna’s Byzantine mosaics and Padua’s medieval/Renaissance paintings and architecture.

    Only in the presence of Giotto’s magnificent frescoes in Padua’s Scrovegni Chapel, cited by Michaelangelo as his greatest influence, did the overmatched Americans manage to eke out anything close to the sort of pleasure that had motivated them to come to this d... country in the first place. (No pictures allowed, of course, so the memory of this experience will quickly fade, while the fresh scrape on Rover’s portside mirror will remain all too tangible.)

    (Spoiler alert: it gets better when we get to Venice.)

    It was just a short drive into Ravenna. Even though we had a camper parking location on our GPS, we drove into the city with more apprehension than confidence. (After all, this is the same GPS that on the previous day had insisted we were 200 yards to the right of the autostrada, ploughing through farm fields, and kept trying to get us to make a left and then a right to correct our path.) Today, however, it seemed to be right with us and brought us right to the parking place . . . which was barricaded at the entrance. But no problem: we could see RVs parked there, so we proceeded around the block (not as simple as it sounds) and approached the parking lot from the other side. A couple of tight turns later we were parked in a fairly large lot with half a dozen other motorhomes that looked like they had been there for a while. We locked Rover up tight and in 15 minutes had walked into the city, where we were rewarded with the sight of 1500-year-old mosaics on several church and basilica domes and walls. They are bright, clear and shining and must be well cared for since they don’t look a day over 1400 years old. Most of the city’s crowds consisted of students, and there wasn’t a tourist market stall in sight. Ravenna is a lovely place with many modern buildings, even in the old city, where they replaced ones lost to bombing raids in the war.

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    We left the city without too much difficulty and drove up the coast through swamps and then inland toward Ferrara and the autostrada to Padua. The road to Ferrara was in poor condition, with lots of ruts and grooves in the road and plenty of patches to bounce over. So we were glad to finally get on the A and head north to Padua until, after about 15 miles, we came to a dead stop on the highway. A truck driver told us there had been an accident about 4 km ahead of us. Everyone shut off their engines, and people were walking around (except the motorcyclists who still roared by and the drivers who decided they could drive up the shoulder on the right). After 20 minutes or so we started inching forward and were able to exit into a small town where we found a large grocery store and waited for traffic to clear. But it did us little good: the road north out of town was just as slow and crowded as the highway had been, and when traffic did get moving it stayed very busy all the way to the campground.

    Italian drivers apparently don’t understand “busy” (OK, OK . . . some Italian drivers--well, OK . . . make that many Italian drivers). Regardless of traffic conditions, some of them still pass when there is oncoming traffic and still push their way out in to the road from side streets. At one point the road narrowed where a bridge abutment jutted close to the shoulder and a truck came flying at us, never slowed down or pulled over, and hit our left mirror with his. Fortunately, the mirror gives when it is hit so it just moved in a bit, but it was frighteningly close and made a nasty whacking noise. We arrived at the campground in a pretty frazzled state, where we discovered there was no internet and no convenient bus service into Padua.

    We usually travel in the morning and do tourist things in the afternoon or the next day. Because this campground was 8 miles from the city center, that’s what we would have to do the  next day also: drive into the city and find a place to park. This time we had the added tension of having reservations for 11 a.m. to see Giotto’s frescoes. Once again we had a GPS for a parking place.  And, once again, when we got there it was barricaded. Once again we did the “around the block” thing--only this time it was about 12 blocks. And to no avail: the parking was reserved for buses since it was some kind of fete day (we keep hitting these). When Susan asked the guy in charge where we might park he suggested the campground we had just left, 8 miles back down the road. So we were on our own. We drove around town, heading in the direction of the frescoes, and stumbled upon an unused parking lot within walking distance of the church (maybe a mile or so). We arrived at the church at 10:50.

    The frescoes (paintings on wet cement) are in a chapel built by a man repenting for his sins--he was a usurer! what an idea!--and trying to save himself and his father from hell by building this incredible chapel and then hiring Giotto to fill its walls and ceilings with frescoes. The effect is not unlike the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, but these were done about 200 years earlier, in 1303-05 (end of history lesson). The chapel’s temperature and humidity are carefully controlled. We were first ushered into an anteroom for 15 minutes, then brought into the chapel for another 15, and then, at the sounding of a buzzer, quickly ushered out. This is the same way the crowds had been handled to see The Last Supper in Milan a few years ago.  (Having visited Milan 5 years ago we decided to skip it this year).

    We also visited the Eremitani Church, where other frescoes have been pieced together and restored like an 80,000-piece puzzle after being destroyed by bombing in 1944. These are by Andrea Mantegna, who liked to paint his figures from extreme perspectives. The effect is startling, even without much color.

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    After walking around the city center and buying some vegetables in the market, we hopped on a bus and made our way back to Rover and safely out of Padua. It was a busy but fairly easy 25 mile drive to the peninsula overlooking the Venetian Lagoon. We are camped right on the water, where we can see Venice sparkling (looking very flat) in the distance. Almost as good a view as Lake Iseo, but this used to be (or still is?) a malarial swamp, and the mosquitoes have driven us inside. Just like Minneapolis . . . .