Our second stop in Italy on the way to Switzerland was the town of Mantua—or, as the Italians call it, Mantova—about 2 hours east of Milan. We chose Mantua as our northern stop because we wanted somewhere quiet after Rome, so we stayed away from bigger cities in the area, such as Bologna and Verona (which was being inundated with visitors for the start of its famous opera season).
Just about the only thing I knew about Mantua is that it’s where Romeo was exiled to in Romeo and Juliet. The town turned out to be an interesting counterpoint to Orvieto. Whereas Orvieto is perched on a hill in rolling countryside, Mantua is flat and almost at sea level. And whereas Orvieto’s heyday was in the 1200s and 1300s, Mantua reached the height of its power in the 1400s and 1500s, when it was ruled by the Gonzaga family of dukes, counts, and cardinals. The town’s major churches, palaces, and municipal buildings date from that period.
Mantua ranks high in Italian surveys of towns with the best quality of life, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a very pleasant, livable sort of place: compact and walkable, full of piazzas lined with cafes and shops under wide arcades. The town is bounded on three sides by artificial lakes (created in the 12th century as a defense for the city), with green park land along the shores for strolling and cycling. When we walked there, we passed people fishing with the longest poles we’ve ever seen (easily 15 feet long and held up on stands).
On a summer weekend there were plenty of tourists, but very few foreigners. Mantua mostly attracts other Italians coming for weekend getaways to enjoy its local foods. Specialties include pasta filled with pumpkin and a hint of mustard, sausage risotto, and a shortbread-like cake made with equal parts white flour and corn meal. We tried them all and liked them, though we skipped another Mantuan specialty, donkey stew.
During our day in Mantua, we visited the main fortress and palace of the Gonzaga dukes. The jewel of the rambling complex is a bedroom painted floor to ceiling in the late 1460s with scenes of the ruling family. The restored paintings were so detailed and vibrant that I felt like I was looking at characters from my favorite novels about Renaissance Italy. The ceiling was notable as one of the first examples of a trompe l’oeil effect that became popular across Europe in later centuries.
A few blocks from the palace, we were charmed by a small theater that opened in 1769. The space was designed so that the audience members had as good a view of each other as of the stage. It was easy to imagine the tiers of tiny boxes filled with people in their finest 18th-century suits and dresses, fluttering their fans as they listened to a piano recital by one of the theater’s first performers, 14-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I don’t think I’ve ever before stood next to a stage where Mozart played!
In the late afternoon, we took a boat ride around the lakes and saw city from the water. As the boat motored slowly along, the guide pointed out large groups of swans and cormorants and played arias from Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, which is set in Mantua. Then it was time for another good dinner and finally a stroll with a cup of very good gelato, as we said goodbye to the pleasures of Italy.