A Rough Guide to Lombardy in Italy : Things to do in Mantova.
Mantova, or 'Mantua' in Italian, is situated in the North-West of Italy not far from Verona and the tourist area of Lake Garda.
Therefore if you are on holiday on the Lake or sampling the historical delights of fair Verona then a visit to Mantova is a worthwhile excursion for a day trip.
If markets appeal to you then Thursday is the best time to visit when the medieval squares are thronged with eager shoppers.
TOP 5 PLACES TO VISIT AND THINGS TO SEE IN MANTOVA
1. Enjoy the history of Piazza Sordello including the castle and cathedral.
2. See the museum and exhibits within the Renaissance Palazzo Te
3. Visit the house of Rigoletto, the jester from Verdi's Opera.
4. Wine and dine at Piazza dell'Erbe or shop at the weekly market.
5. Relax in the sunshine on the grass at the park beside Lago Inferiore
It is a small city of around less than 50,000 people but such is the high regard in which it is held that it has been designated a UNESCO Heritage Site having been recognised as an important area for art, culture and music.
Most notable among these worthy pursuits for its role in the history of Opera music. It is an ancient city founded around 2000 B.C. and named after the Etruscan God, Mantus.
Undoubtedly it's most famous and ancient resident was Virgil, the poet, who was born near there in 70 B.C. and who sang the poetry "of this deep sweetness of a green-coloured landscape" about the country fields of the land that he loved.
On the road to Mantova
On the way I took in the local countryside and it's various rural sights and scenes, such as a tailor's dummy that served as a scarecrow.
It was very well dressed in sky-blue polo shirt and cream knee-length shorts so it seems even the scarecrows have fashion sense over here.
Then passing through a small village there was an artillery piece on a patch of grass beside the road and which seemed to be in perfect working order. Not a hint of rust or decay and indeed gave the impression it was well maintained in readiness.
I don't know why it was there, perhaps to scare the living daylights out of the more valiant crows or maybe just to keep the local kids on their best behaviour.
Of course on the way the bus travelled through several attractive towns and miles of countryside typical of the region replete with vineyards, olive groves and occasionally brown fields of soil tilled in straight lines like huge oaken floors awaiting a home.
On the entry into Mantova from the northside you'd be forgiven for thinking that you were passing over a wide river into the city. In fact the road I travelled on is a land bridge between two of the three small artificial lakes that surround over half of the city.
These are called Lago Superiore, Lago di Mezzo and Lago Inferiore, all of them created by Alberto Pitentino in 1198 using water from the nearby River Mincio.
There was actually once a fourth lake called Lago Pajolo which completed the circle but that dried up with silt in the 18th century. They offer a pleasant border around the city limits although in summer perhaps their still waters explain the prevelance of mosquitoes in the area.
I got off at the bus-stop which is opposite the train station and also near to the university so there were lots of young people around the streets. The university is noted for engineering, science and medicine amongst many other subjects.
I think the presence of students milling around always lends a spirited atmosphere to urban surroundings blending a mixture of youth, intelligence and not a little fun. A big plus for me was that being impoverished students, as they are wont to portray themselves, some were as scruffily dressed as me.
I could've stopped off earlier and nicked the scarecrows gear and would've surely stood out from the crowd.
Mapping out the afternoon
I went wandering towards the old historic part of the city following the helpful signs. These were handily placed around the streets but I also bought a map too. Usually I like to just wander around aimlessly in towns and cities but I only had around 4 hours this afternoon.
I was at the mercy of the springtime bus timetable and wanted to make the most of the time. But perhaps a good time of the year to visit as Mantova can become very hot in the summer months.
I picked a small roadside cafe, the 'Bar Mon Ami' and ordered a beer which at €3 was very reasonable at Italian prices. I opened up my map for perusal and to carefully plan my afternoon. About 30 seconds later it was sorted.
The most important historical areas of Mantova are really only to be found concentrated in two locations. Therefore my task was completed in double-quick time. But before I had actually sat down I noticed a dog about 30 yards away staring at me. So I stared back for a few moments but he didn't back down.
Maybe he was figuring out who was the stranger on his territory. I gave up and sat down, then had a peek at him to the side. He had lifted his leg and was urinating against a traffic cone on the pavement. Perhaps he had been on the lookout for the Carabinieri.
Maybe the authorities have a zero tolerance approach to public fouling by the local four-legged population and that was the real focus of his attention. Certainly he paid me no notice a couple of minutes later when he came up to the tables and said hello to one of the old gentlemen sitting there.
A resolute dog who no doubt would not have literally followed the lead like one of his contemporaries I later saw dragged along by a lady on a bicycle.
I suppose it highlights the obsequious nature of your average canine since just a simple digging in of the paws could easily de-saddle the most inconsiderate dog-walkers.
The Palazzo The
I walked along the Corso Garibaldi, which naturally had a fine statue of the famous man himself with fearsome beard and all. After that I visited the Palazzo The.
This was an interesting building in Renaissance style within the surroundings of a pleasant park. It was completed in the 1530's and designed by the architect Giulio Romano.
There is also a cafe and a shop at one side of the Palazzo which you can enter for a coffee or a browse for souvenirs. Therefore, although the Palazzo The stands alone in this area of Mantova you could spend some time there.
On a nice day it offers the various attractions of art, architecture, the shop facilites and of course the amenities and scenery in the park.
Tragically not all visitors have come to marvel at the sights inside the Palazzo. It was once sacked by invaders in 1630 who completely looted the insides.
The current exhibits are housed within the Civic Museum that forms part of the building and which contains a fine collection of Mesopotamian art. Entry was €10 for adults with obvious discounts for children and senior citizens. The museum was endowed by the Italian publisher Arnoldo Mondadori.
There were a lot of schoolkids being forced-marched into the museum by their enthusiastic teachers. But I hope the children would have appreciated the many exhibits inside, unless they would rather have played outside in the park as many other younger children were doing.
Hopefully they would have been astonished to view Romano's famous fresco 'Fall of the Giants' towering overhead, an illusory dome-like feature and a classic of the Mannerism style.
After that I wandered along past Mantova Football Team's small stadium as they are only a modest club living in the shade of the great Milan teams of North-western Italy.
Before entering the old medieval sector again I relaxed in the parkland on the shores of Lago Inferiore.
I sat watching fishermen patiently awaiting a catch while in the background the factory chimneys of the industrial area rose above the trees on the opposite shore.
Unfortunately these factories of chemical works and such-like have allegedly been blamed for deposits of mercury in Lago Superiore.
However all was peace in the shade of the trees on my side exampled by an old white-haired gentleman sat at a table. He was engrossed in a book and seemingly oblivious to the people strolling or cycling past.
Walking back into the streets I passed the Palazzo Sordi, a fine building with a grey and white facade of baroque design built by the Flemish architect Frans Geffels in 1680. Unfortunately it is in private hands and not open to the public.
The Piazza Sordello
Then I eventually reached the Piazza Sordello which is the main tourist attraction in the city and which was the seat of the ruling Gonzaga family for 400 years up until the 18th century.
Mantova has had many rulers in ancient times including The Romans, the Byzantines and the Franks but in 1328 the ruling Bonacolsi family were overthrown by the House of Gonzaga.
They rejuvenated the architecture of the city but also ruled with an iron grip and it was not until the Renaissance that a more benign regime existed that fostered culture and the arts.
The city rulers patronised such creative luminaries as Leone Battista Alberti, Andrea Mantegna, Donatello, Peter Paul Rubens, Pisanello, Domenico Fetti, Luca Fancelli and Nicolo Sebregondi.
A significant authority figure was Lodovico II Gonzaga who, acting upon complaints by a visiting Pope in 1459, decided to order a huge facelift of the city and recruit artists and architects to enhance the look of its buildings.
The square included the cathedral which although picturesque did have the middle section of the baroque facade extending way above the roof. This made it look much bigger than it actually was. That's architectural conjuring in my book, but an exquisite frontage nonetheless and a major attraction in the city.
The old palaces either side were built by the Bonacolsi although the Palazzo Ducale houses Mantegna's celebrated fresco of the Gonzaga family.
Just around the corner on the lakeside is the imposing Castello San Giorgio which still looks strong after many years. Behind the cathedral was the 'Casa di Rigolletto' which is represented as the fool's residence in the famous opera by Verdi.
There was a statue of Rigoletto in the garden but I must say he didn't look too jolly a jester to my eyes.
Elsewhere in literature Mantova was described as "the most romantic city in the world" by writer Aldous Huxley and also gets a mention by Shakespeare in 'Romeo and Juliet' as the town where the lovestruck hero spent his exile as a punishment for killing Tybalt.
As Verona is only 45-60 minutes away by train I'm sure Juliet could have paid him a visit on an away day ticket at a very reasonable cost, especially considering her tender age.
Incidentally, the city train station is also served by a railway line from Milan although at two hours journey time represents a fair distance to travel for a day-return journey.
Under the empires
As for the Gonzaga family, their dynasty came to an end in 1708 on the death of Ferdinand Carlo IV when Mantova passed into the hands of the Austrian Habsburg Empire.
After this the city enjoyed a revival in fortunes with Royal Academies and also many palaces being built.
However turmoil lay ahead as France and Austria fought for the spoils of Northern Italy and the city went back and forth under Napoleonic and Austrian rule over many years in the late 18th and early 19th century.
Eventually there was a revolt against the Austrians in the 1850s during the 'Risorgimento', the struggle for Italian independence, including the significant battle of Belfiore. Finally the city of Mantova was incorporated into a united Italy in 1866 by the King of Sardinia.
For me the most attractive square in the city is the Piazza delle Erbe which has cafes and restaurants in which you can sample the welcome refreshments and fine cuisine that the city has to offer. It also has a small daily market as well.
On the square is the oldest church in Mantova, the 11th century 'Rotonda' which has benefited from restoration by subsequent generations and still contains the remnants of frescoes from the 12th and 13th centuries.
Again, for the shoppers there is an elegant arcaded street just off the square which provides relaxing shade and a large variety of small but attractive stores.
Walking along these streets I observed that there is lots of crazy paving in Mantova, a fact I noticed as I walked back to the bus stop. Almost every pavement I had walked on was comprised of mis-shapen chunks of grey and brownish stone cemented firmly into the ground.
An undue worry for the superstitious and a nightmare for the obsessive-compulsive but certainly quite unusual and a nice supplement to the cobbled streets that caused car tyres to softly rumble in muffled revolutions as they passed gently by.
As it was just after 5pm I was surprised that the traffic out on the main roads and roundabouts seemed so orderly for the rush hour. Compared to a city such as Milan it was incredibly civilised.
Not a horn, a shout nor even an ill-advised hand gesture to be witnessed. Perhaps they are all polite and tolerant commuters in Mantova.
Travelling back on the bus I even saw what looked like an exquisite looking water tower hovering over some houses. It seems the Italians can't resist even a little embellishment on the most mundane and utilitarian of urban structures.
In comparison, back home on the housing schemes of Glasgow in Scotland from where I hail, they are nothing but sinister looking eyesores encased in grey concrete.
My last view of the city was of kayaks, canoes and rowing teams coursing through the sparkling water on Lago Superiore as the low evening sun shone on the ripples in the lake.
A pleasant way on a sunny evening in which to depart a memorable city.