Great Italian Cities: Mantova
Many years ago not long after Mr Prada and I were married, we went on an Italian road trip. What is most surprising is that we were still married at the end of the trip as we always argue in the car! This is of course his fault rather than mine! Being in a car with an Italian, especially when they are suddenly back in their homeland means all sorts of insane driving practices seep out! How we got to Mantova is beyond me but it is one of our most memorable trips.
We drove from Bormio in the north to through Lake Garda, Parma, Perugia and many other destinations large and small throughout the trip. I knew nothing about Mantova but Mr Prada was determined to stop there as he knew it was a bit of a hidden gem. Like most Italians for all the complaining they do about their country (Quite rightly in some cases), he knows what is great about it, and Mantova is one of those places.
As our Fiat hire car crawled into town, overheated and literally about to collapse from the journey (There was a July heatwave!) I realised that now and again my Husband is right! Mantova is a stunning, unassuming and a very livable city.
In 2016 Mantova was named the Italian Capital of Culture, in 2017 European Capital of Gastronomy. The 'Centro storico' Historic Centre is a declared UNESCO World Heritage Site. Romeo was exiled here from Verona! But what does all this mean for the average traveler and lover of Italy?
I found that the most striking thing was the architecture. The beautiful rustic brown stone. The circular Rotonda di San Lorenzo, imposing San Giorgio Castle and grand Palazzo Ducale. You can see the difference in the type of buildings, the structure and colours coming from the north of Italy and heading towards central Italy. You feel like you're gradually being introduced to a different type of architecture and a warmer coloured stone that's typical of red Bologna and the honey colours of Parma.
This is a legacy handed down from the Gonzaga family, a royal household that ruled Mantova from 1328. They are credited with increasing the level of artistic, creative and musical excellence in the City. Even now apart from visiting the many beautiful sites you can come for music festivals or opera performances which the city is famous for.
The most prominent sights are:
Rotonda di San Lorenzo - My favourite!
Palazzo de Te - Beautiful Palace and summer residence of Frederick II of Gonzaga
Palazzo Ducale di Mantova - This is really the whole court of the old royal residences and includes the San Giorgio Castle, the royal apartments and Corte Vecchia, which is accessible from Piazza Sordello. This old court holds the oldest buildings: Palazzo del Capitano and the Magna Domus.
Piazza delle Erbe - Find somewhere to eat here. It's incredibly beautiful and you will feel like you're in a film set.
Don't feel you need to write a list of these and follow rigidly. Mantova is not a huge place and you can explore without the worry that you will miss something. There is also a great open air market to take in, where you can eat delicious street food.
So most importantly, what is great here? Well you're in Italy so pretty much everything! Mantova is famous for simple ingredients but quite rich sauces. One of the most well known dishes is 'Tortelli di Zucca', which is pumpkin tortelli.
One of the things I love though is Bigoli. This is like spaghetti but much with thicker strands and in my opinion is much more satisfying to eat.
They also make incredible sausages and are the original creators of 'Cotechino'. This is a large sausage made with bacon, salt, spices and other seasoning. It's sliced and served with lentils and is eaten for good luck on New Year's Eve in many areas of Italy.
Salame Mantova is a special type of salami filled with peppers and garlic. You can't go wrong!
If you need a cake their signature torta is 'Sbrisolona' a crumbly brittle flat cake made with butter, eggs, almonds, lemon peel, and vanilla seed. It's so delicious and perfect for dipping in your cappuccino at breakfast.
On our last night we went for dinner in Piazza delle Erbe. I ordered what I thought what was a steak. Not an English steak and chips type of thing but I thought I would get a little thin bistecchina with some green vegetables on the side which is the norm for a secondo in Italy. It came and what I had actually ordered was Bistecca alla fiorentina a Mantova!
This was literally an enormous steak with pretty much a leg attached to it! The bone itself was 2 inches thick! I tried to eat some. It was delicious, but I couldn't eat very much. My waiter when he put it down looked very amused!
What was worse, my Husband then proceeded to eat it all. Which meant that when the waiter came to clear away he thought I had eaten the whole thing to myself! He looked part impressed, part disgusted that this young girl had eaten what looked like a whole cow in one sitting!
This memory of the waiter's face always has us laughing when think of our Mantova trip!