I'm on a mission. I'm going to return to Italy someday. But when I do, I do not want to spend any time where everyone else in God's Green Earth is going... Venice, Florence, Rome or Naples. They'll be no Vatican Museum or St. Peters Basilica on our "must see" list. In fact, there won't be a "must see" list. Maybe a "must do" or "must feel" or "must saturate" or "must relax" or "must enjoy" list.
So where do I go and still fill my soul with the beautiful architecture, food and lifestyle Italy is famous for? The art, the gardens, the castles, the cobbled streets? Well, the truth is, just about anywhere in Italy has something to satisfy the non-tourist--the person who just wants to be Italian for a while. How about Mantova (also known as Mantua). Both are names for the same town in northern Italy in the southern part of the Lombardy region, halfway between Genoa and Venice.
In 2007, Mantua's centro storico (old town) and nearby Sabbioneta were declared by UNESCO to be a World Heritage Site. Mantua's power and influence made it one of the most important artistic and especially musical hubs in Northern Italy. Opera is one of Mantua's main attractions, but it also offers wonderful examples of medieval and Renaissance artifacts, palaces and a beautiful cityscape. Monteverdi premiered his opera L'Orfeo here, and this is where Romeo was supposedly banished to in Romeo and Juliet.
Mantua is surrounded by three artificial lakes, engineered and built in the 12th century as essentially a tremendously large moat. The lakes get their water from the Mincio River, a branch of the Po. The three lakes are called Lago Superiore, Lago di Mezzo, and Lago Inferiore. There used to be a fourth lake that dried up in the late 1700s, which completed the circle of water protecting the town. Lago Superiore has a unique feature floating in it... a mile long, leaf shaped (when seen from the air) bed of millions of water lilies called Isola del Fior (Flower Island).
There is so much to see in Mantua that it could very well be a hub for a longer stay in Italy, with side trips to Verona, Venice and Bologna. For example, there is the St. George Castle, a thick walled medieval structure with some precious art inside... like the Camera degli Sposi (The Bridal Chamber). This has some of the most beautiful Trompe l'oeil paintings in the world. The frescoes on the walls seems to open up into a medieval courtyard with lively scenes. The dome above with its painting occulus makes it feel open to the sky above with onlookers peeking down at you. Imagine spending your luna di miele (honeymoon) looking up at that view!
There are also many towers in Mantua that rival those of San Gimignano, or how about the opera house--Bibiena Theatre--where Mozart revealed his talent to the world in 1770 at the age of 13! Add to those a magnificent basilica, swans on the lake, sunset cruises on lake boats and more... all in all, Mantua is a non-touristy town with much to enjoy.
A few miles away, there is another gem to search out... how about a magnificent storybook castle with a moat? Then take a ride to Palazzina di Caccia (Little Hunting Palace) in the middle of Bosco Fontana (Fontana Forest). The Bosco Fontana is a nature preserve, so besides visiting the castle, plan on bird watching and taking a hike in one of the few remaining old growth forests in the region.
About 20 miles further west of Mantova is Sabbioneta. The name is derived from the Italian word, sabbioso, meaning sandy. This is because the town was built on the sandy banks of the River Po. Sabbioneta is well worth the 20 mile trip from Mantua. One of the more interesting sights is the Teatro all'Antica, basically, a court theater for the elite. And as you can see from the photo above, Sabbioneta is actually a star-shaped medieval fortress.
One more treat lies about 20 miles north of Mantua... yet another star-shaped fortress town of Peschiera del Garda, but this is a fortress with much more than a mere moat. The entire fortress is built on an island in the river Mincio at its outlet from Lake Garda--a wonderful destination in itself, although it could be crowded with tourists in summer, especially in August when most Italians take a month long holiday. Keep in mind that the area immediately surrounding Peschiera del Garda is chock full of caravan camp villages and other compounds with hundreds of vacation cottages.
There are lake tours, fishing, and views of the snow capped mountains surrounding the lake. Two days here would be well worth it, especially if you want to give the kids a treat. In that case, check out Gardaland in the nearby town of Ronchi. It's a full-fledged amusement park with lots of appeal for the little ones and bigger kids alike, and one of the scariest, twistiest, roller coasters imaginable. One day could be spent at the Peschiera fortress, the other could be spent at Gardaland, or one of the other water parks in the area.
Mantua/Montova and the surrounding area is a great place to visit, and the town would make a great hub for a longer stay. Coming to a town like Mantova will leave the throngs of tourists back in Venice, Rome and Florence. If you're so inclined, it's only about 2 hours from Milan and 1-1/2 hours from Venice, making day trips to either very doable (although not necessary). If your goal is to have a less typical vacation, there is enough here to satisfy any voyager. If you insist on going to Venice, I'd really recommend slowing down a bit and planning a two day visit, staying in Venice on one of the islands and getting lost in the back streets. Wherever you see tourists, point your nose in the opposite direction. There's always more to see in Italy than just the obvious...
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