In our connected world, using the term ‘hidden gem’ about a beautiful town in the Lombardy region of northern Italy seems insincere. Mantua though, actually feels like a place overlooked by the hordes that flock to other nearby cities. Even though it features in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as the place where Romeo is banished and learns of Juliet’s death, it’s not a town of which I’d heard before a friend suggested visiting. It was a top recommendation, Mantua is remarkable.
The 16th century poet, Torquato Tasso, said of Mantua, “This is a wonderful city, it would be worth travelling a thousand miles to see it.” Admittedly, Tasso is generally considered to have suffered from mental health issues, and he was in the employ of the family who owned the town, but he was also reflecting the fame of Mantau’s cultural, artistic and political power. We travelled well over a thousand miles to see it.
That Mantua isn’t better known is surprising, it was European Capital of Culture in 2016 and the entire historic centre was made an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. This is a town with impeccable credentials. While Mantua’s history stretches back before the Romans settled here in 220 BC, and was well known in the early Middle Ages, the town’s rise to prominence really began in 1328 with the arrival of the Gonzaga dynasty.
Despite being ejected from Mantua in 1707, the four centuries during which the Gonzaga’s dominated local politics have bequeathed a town of fewer than 50,000 people a genuinely impressive array of sights. The centrepiece of which are three interconnected squares: Piazza delle Erbe, Piazza Broletto, and Piazza Sordello. The majority of Mantua’s noteworthy buildings date from the Gonzaga period, which coincided with the cultural flourishing of the Renaissance.
Mantua was designed in the image of the Renaissance, and the Gonzaga family played a major role in propagating Renaissance culture across the region. Their urban vision, dotted with square towers and domed church roofs, is all the more impressive viewed from across the three lakes that arch around the town. Mantua commands one of the most picturesque settings imaginable. Even in a region filled with architectural glories, it stands out.
We arrived in the mid-morning and after a warm welcome from our B&B owner, who gave us some top culinary tips, we set off to explore a town centre closed to most traffic. An archway led us into the vast space of Piazza Sordello. Flanked by magnificent palazzo on one side the vast Ducal Palace on the other, at the far end sits the Cattedrale di San Pietro, its white Carrara marble exterior glowing in the sun.
A couple of the Gonzaga family are buried in the cathedral, including Luigi I, the founder of the dynasty. We planned to tour the Ducal Palace the following day when the weather was forecast to be grey with possible rain. While the sun shone we walked around the town. Mantua was quiet, and it was easy to see why Verdi set his tragic opera, Rigoletto, amongst these atmospheric streets.
We lost track of time as we walked, but it gave us an appetite for a late lunch. To add to its other plaudits, Mantua was European Capital of Gastronomy in 2017 and its culinary heritage runs deep. Pumpkin filled tortelli are top of the list, but the Po River valley has been a centre of rice cultivation for centuries. In the Osteria Leoncino Rosso, I tried one of the town’s most famous dishes, risotto alla pilota.
Featuring Mantova’s salamella sausage and grated Grana Padano cheese, if risotto alla pilota is a risotto at all, it’s a dry one. White rice and pink sausage meat made it one of the less attractive-looking dishes I’ve ever eaten and, while not untasty, the flavour and dryness were a bit disappointing. Luckily this is Lambrusco country, and I was able to wash it down with a cheap and cheerful carafe of a lightly sparkling white.