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Over the volcanic mountains in the hinterland of Venice

Silent and deserted, the Diana Gate lies robbed of its original purpose.

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Over the volcanic mountains in the hinterland of Venice

Silent and deserted, the Diana Gate lies robbed of its original purpose. It has been a long time since festively illuminated barges moored at the blue and white ringed poles and no dignitaries in magnificent robes walked over the low steps of the entrance portal of the Villa Barbarigo. The ravages of time nibbled at the columns and balustrades, statues and coat of arms of the villa in Galzignano Terme in Veneto, just under an hour's drive south-west of Venice.

The magic of the ephemeral also lies over the artistically designed garden of Valsanzibio, which extends in front of the villa, with its watercourses and fish ponds, fountains and wells. According to its planner, the Vatican architect Luigi Bernini, the garden, which was laid out in the 17th century, is intended to symbolize man's spiritual path to purification and salvation. The box hedge of the labyrinth is still meticulously trimmed as ever.

The noble Villa Barbarigo with the circular "Fountain of Ecstasy" on the forecourt shines in soft red and yellow. Only the canal, on which the boats with the expectant party once sailed, has disappeared. Turtles and herons now frolic in the tiny lake at the foot of the Diana Gate.

The complex now markets itself as "Little Versailles" and the "Pearl of the Euganean Hills". For the rich patricians of Venice, the hills were once both a refuge and a showroom.

When the summer heat made life in the lagoon city unbearable, the noble society fled to the green hills, where feudal estates were built on huge plots of land. The Canale Battaglia had already been excavated in the late 12th century. It is part of an extensive canal system that still connects Venice with Padua today.

Artists and merchants sailed the waters, where magnificent buildings such as the Castello del Catajo with its frescoed halls or the Villa Molin are lined up. You can still see the historic bridges, the old locks, the colorful houses of Battaglia Terme facing the canal and the towpaths of the draft animals.

Today, cyclists roll over the embankments of the dead-straight canal. Your goal: the 60 km long "Ring of the Euganean Hills", which, apart from a short climb on Monte Sereo, leads around the Colli Euganei - as the hills are called in Italian - in a fairly energy-saving way.

The great Italian poet and historian Francesco Petrarca (1304 - 1374) loved this region with its dense deciduous forests, vineyards, olive groves and orchards.

Like oversized molehills, the Euganean Hills suddenly rise out of the flat Po plain. 30 to 40 million years ago there was a sea bay in this area between the Alps and the Apennines. Volcanic eruptions shook the land, leaving a mound of lava behind after each eruption.

Even well-meaning people will hardly describe the conical elevations as mountains - Monte Venda with its dry, sunny south side and the wetter north side reaches around 600 meters, its neighbors are modestly satisfied with 200, 300 meters. But for hikers and cyclists, the "Parco Regionale dei Colli Euganei", designated in 1989, is an endless playground.

You walk to the former Franciscan hermitage of Santa Domenica, from where the view sweeps over the Po Valley. You dare to tackle the 41-kilometre high-altitude trail with its impressive 2000 meters of altitude difference. Or they get on an e-bike for a change to pedal the narrow, winding roads between the hills.

Today, Venetians appreciate the volcanic hilly landscape as a local recreation destination for the whole family, where they taste the wine grown here in hamlets and enjoy the pink Montagnana ham. It's not as famous as its big brother from Parma, but it's said to be on the Pope's table.

At an advanced age, the poet Petrarch came to the picture-perfect village that bears his name: Arquà Petrarch. In 1369 the then ruler of Padua gave the humanist a small stone house on the southern slope of Monte Ventolone. Petrarch personally managed the renovation.

He wrote: "I escape from the city like a prison for life and decide to live in a lonely little village, in a lovely little house, surrounded by an olive grove and a vineyard." In his garden he grew grapes, apples and herbs on. "Here I spend completely quiet days, away from all tumult, all noise and all obligations and read and write constantly." It must have been a nice retirement.

The poet's retreat, where he spent his last happy years with his daughter Francesca and granddaughter, despite being ill, now houses a museum. Strolling through the Casa del Petrarch, you can feel the spirit of the writer. Imagine the eloquent man sitting in his study, surrounded by his beloved books, pen in hand.

A whimsical exhibit is a cat mummy behind a glass wall niche. However, assumptions that it is the pet of the cat lover Petrarch are demonstrably wrong. The house tiger on display first crept around the town's houses in the 17th century, hundreds of years after the poet's death.

Arquà Petrarca is considered one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. The jewel box spreads out over several terraces, towered over by the church of Santa Maria Assunta, which can be seen from afar. Winding stairs lead from the lower town up to the upper town - and from the present straight into the Middle Ages.

Two-storey villas and palazzi with tiny windows line the cobbled streets, which are not made for modern carriages. Simple and solidly built of trachyte, but adorned with recurring architectural details such as gates and boxes. The trachyte was once mined in nearby Monselice. The light gray volcanic stone was used for walls and paths and is also installed on St. Mark's Square in Venice.

In the lower town, on the other hand, where the narrow streets give way to slightly wider streets, you will find the famous poet's sarcophagus in red marble, surrounded by rose bushes and orchards. However, the remains are not complete: in 1630 a clergyman stole Petrarch's arm bone. He wanted to incorporate his "vis poetica", the power of poetics.

A few kilometers further in Monselice the pilgrimage sanctuary Sette Chiese towers like an eagle's nest on the mountain; a steep pilgrimage path lined with six tiny chapels leads up.

Right next to it is the elegant Villa Duodo, which once belonged to a wealthy Venetian patrician family. He was said to have the best connections to the Holy See, which she knew how to use profitably: by means of letters of indulgence.

A pilgrimage to the chapels is said to be just as conducive to salvation as a pilgrimage to the seven largest basilicas in Rome. At least that is what a papal bull from the early 17th century proclaimed.

Those who travel to the Euganean Hills today probably have their physical well-being in mind rather than their mental well-being. The hot springs and the mineral mud of volcanic origin make the region one of the largest spa centers in Europe, with Abano Terme and Montegrotto Terme as flagships.

Even in ancient times, the well-to-do citizens recognized that there is hardly anything better for old bones than a bath in steaming pits that smelled of sulphur. The archaeological site in Montegrotto Terme testifies to this, where thousands of glasses, cups, vessels and objects made of bronze were found.

Today, health-conscious people from home and abroad let the hellishly hot fango mud pack on tense muscles and abused joints.

They are not a beauty, the two sister communities Abano Terme and Montegrotto Terme. After the Second World War, the hotels here shot up like mushrooms, rather haphazardly and mostly without any architectural claim. There were far more than 100 hotels at the peak, and thanks to the state spa system, there were hardly any vacancies. The slogan “fango in the morning, tango in the evening” comes from here.

However, the much cheaper competition in the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, as well as cuts in the Italian healthcare system, are now making life difficult for the bathing communities. The implications for the thermal center of the Euganean Hills are unmistakable.

If you stroll through the streets of Abano and Montegrotto, you will see peeling plaster, empty window sockets and desolate hotel ruins in the midst of rampant vegetation. The most striking example of the decline: the "Grand Hotel Orologio".

In the beautiful building in the middle of the pedestrian zone of Abano, high society once met under magnificent crystal chandeliers and swayed to the rhythm of the waltz. The grand hotel has been empty for years now and is becoming increasingly dilapidated. Its at best morbid charm - a contrast program to the usual charm of the Colli Euganei.

How to get there: The Euganean Hills are south of Padua and can be reached by car via the A4 (Milan – Venice). We recommend arriving by train at Padua train station. Buses to Abano Therme leave in front of the train station every 15 minutes, journey time around 15 minutes.

Accommodation: There are hotels in all price ranges in Abano Terme and Montegrotto Terme. Many hotels offer wellness packages.

Further information: Italian National Tourist Board ENIT (; regional tourism marketing company Terre Colli Markting (; Regional Park website with information on the “Ring of Euganean Hills” cycle path (

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