A few kilometres south of Verona, Mantua has kept the rich heritage of the Gonzaga dynasty intact, with its magnificent buildings and “piazze” or squares as well as its important gastronomic traditions. This Italian cultural centre is also a popular shopping destination.
Mantua was recently named the 2016 capital for Italian culture. It’s appropriate recognition for a city that hosts an international literary festival every year in September throughout its squares and theatres. There’s no shortage of reasons for visiting this small town, 30 km south of Verona, and it is easy to reach by train or auto.
Mantua is a little gem both geographically and architecturally. Arriving from the west, you see it pop up on the horizon like an island. While Verona is embraced by a bend in the Adige, Mantua is surrounded on three sides by lakes formed by the Mincio River which originates in Lake Garda and empties into the Po. These bodies of water help isolate the historic centre from everything else around it. It feels even more so since the perimeter of the city is also fortified by walls.
In this way, entering Mantua from “Il Castello di San Giorgio,” or Saint George’s Castle, feels like crossing a threshold into another world. What unfolds before the visitor’s eyes is a succession of magnificent squares and palaces that bear the mark, for the most part, of the Gonzaga family who ruled the city for five centuries.
The historic residence of the Gonzaga, the Doge’s Palace, is particularly famous for its bridal chamber with frescos by the great painter Andrea Mantegna. He is the most famous person from Mantua after the Latin Poet, Virgil.
My favourite place in Mantua, however, is slightly south of the city centre and 15-minutes by foot from the central square or Piazza Sordello. It’s the “Palazzo Te” or Te Palace, a peaceful oasis with artistic wonders from the 1500s by the celebrated Italian architect, Giulio Romano.
Visiting the Palazzo Te is like stepping into a painting gallery. Except that, in this case, there are no paintings on the walls. The paintings… are the walls. Each room is completely frescoed with classic scenes from Greek mythology including the “Cupid and Psyche” room and the “Fall of Giants” room (the most scenically spectacular of all, in my opinion). If the weather is nice, you can enjoy the surrounding park which offers an ideal place for a picnic.
And speaking of food, what makes a visit to Mantua especially enjoyable is its rich gastronomic tradition. Mantua is part of the Lombardy region and Emilian gastronomic traditions have had a strong influence. For this reason, you find pumpkin tortelli, tagliatelle, stews, boiled meat, and freshwater fish in its restaurants and trattorias, as well as the city’s traditional dessert, “sbrisolona,” an almond pastry.
Friends who are natives of Mantua have recommended some traditional places to eat in their city. The one I remember the most, not only for its unusual name, is the Osteria Quattro Tette (the Four Teats Osteria). It serves basic dishes at shared tables and gives hearty portions at moderate prices, all in a homelike atmosphere. The only problem is it opens only two hours daily (from 12.30 to 14.30) and does not accept reservations. So, you have to be prepared to be patience.
Often, I go to Mantua without even setting foot in the city. This happens when I head to Mantua Outlet Village, an actual shopping village just outside the exit to the motorway. It has dozens of shops with famous brands and a wide range of competitively priced clothing.
Before the Christmas holiday and during seasonal sales, the Outlet is filled with thousands of people and long lines of traffic form just beyond the motorway exit. In that case, it’s better to give up on shopping and head straight for the centre of Mantua. I leave my automobile in the Sparafucile parking garage and go across the Ponte San Giorgio (St. George Bridge) by foot. I immerse myself, in the city, an oasis of peace, far from the hustle and bustle.