Dear fellow travellers
Head west from Venice into the Veneto region and the terrain is very flat. But not unremittingly so. After a stop in Padua, the train to Bologna swings south, dashing on straight track towards the River Po. Suddenly, on the right, there’s a low ripple of hills.
These are the Colli Eugánei (Euganean Hills) where Shelley hid away and wrote many memorable stanzas about a green isle in "a deep, wide sea of misery." This is of course a fairly damning indictment of the flatlands of northern Italy, even if the green Euganean hills survive the poetic encounter without blemish.
Around the northern and eastern edges of the Euganean Hills are a number of small spa towns noted for their mineral-rich thermal waters. They’ve always been popular and have over the years pulled their fair share of literary celebs. Stendhal and Heine both had recuperative stays at Battaglia Terme, through which the train speeds about a dozen minutes after leaving Padua.
The area where the volcanic hills meet the plain has more than its fair share of stylish Renaissance villas, almost all of them oozing that Palladian style which is a real feature of the Veneto. But to the left of the railway, just north of Battaglia Terme is one striking palace which bucks the Palladian trend.
The Castello del Catajo is an extraordinary confection. When the poet and writer Peter Ratazzi visited the castello over half a century ago, he found it still occupied by three sisters, all of the Dalla Francesco family, who had bought this stately pile at a knock-down price in an auction in 1929.
"Nothing must be published in Italy about this place. Niente!" insisted the sisters. Ratazzi described the palace as a sort of Xanadu in the Veneto, recalling "vast shades of Tartary against a hill, a medley of styles… an off-white, stucco, Tibetan lamasery in Europe."
The three sisters are long gone; all died in quick succession. And, despite their wishes, quite a lot is now published in Italy about the sisters’ one-time home. The Castello del Catajo has been open to the public for 20 years or more, and it remained in the hands of the Dalla Francesco family until 2015. It was thoroughly renovated in 2016.
The Castello del Catajo occupies a gorgeous location by two of the canals which were constructed during the Renaissance to allow barge traffic to reach communities in the Veneto. Trade brought immense wealth and contacts in far-flung lands. The 16th-century palace, built by the Obizzis, a prominent Padua family, features an eclectic mix of styles. Ratazzi again: "It survives in Italy’s Adriatic zone as a kind of shipwrecked aesthetic hulk. Over it hangs an air of something undefinable... a vaguely regal, vaguely Asiatic atmosphere."
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)
The Castello del Catajo reopens to the public this weekend after a spell closed due to Coronavirus. The quotes from Peter Ratazzi are taken from his book "In Strangest Europe", published in 1968 by The Mitre Press (London).