Monday, December 07, 2015


The fact that the title of the post speaks of an arrival is cause for celebration. It was no small feat to finally pull into the train station in Mantova.

It's funny how journeys have certain auras about them. I've had so many smooth and worry-free ones! Others have resulted in utter chaos, culminating in lost days, lost bags, lost documents, lost patience. This trip had none of the extremes, but it was riddled with ripples and the fact that at each stage I almost almost didn't make it caused me to feel like I was walking (or more often running) a tight rope: one wrong move and I'd tumble into the great unknown.

Of course, once my flight left Detroit and was more than halfway across the Atlantic (delayed: fog, falling air masks, a sick passenger, but an optimistic captain who assured us he would make up the time; he was wrong) -- further issues and complications were nothing to fret about. Does it really matter if I do not sleep the first night in Mantova?

Perhaps the worst part of the trip was the transit through Paris. I think we had all coached ourselves to be extra patient at the border control. We expected the agents to take more time and we knew to remain gracious. Still, the fact that there were hundreds in line and only two agents screening passports raised eyebrows. And when one of them took a break and returned after fifteen minutes with a can of Fanta and chips, as our flights departed and connections were missed, the resolve to stay gracious faltered. Perhaps it was in the agent's contract to take a nourishing break at the height of arrivals and transfers, but our man moved slowly, spread his snack with the utmost care, got up twice to unbutton and rebutton his jacket -- all this just made it appear as if he was indifferent to the chaos reigning outside. Which perhaps he was. People commented. Though in gracious tones.

But honestly, for me it was already just part of the story. There would be other flights, other trains. I was already here, on this side of the ocean. I merely have to watch the day unfold.

In the end, just like all previous flights, my Alitalia flight, too, was delayed and I ran onto the plane puffing like a long distance runner unnecessarily. I had five minutes to spare.

Flying over a faintly misty Paris:

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And of course, to get to Milan, you have to pass over the Alps.  It's been warm here so far! If you're looking for snow, go to Colorado.

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Mantova. Mantua in English, but it feels awkward using that pronunciation here. How might you picture this medieval Italian city? First, let's place it on the map: forty miles south of Verona and Lake Garda. That may be a long journey for poor exiled Romeo, but for those speeding on a train from Milan it's child's play.

Here's what first stands out about this city: Mantova is surrounded on three sides by a fortification of large, artificial lakes, created all the way back in the twelfth century. (There was a fourth lake, effectively making this an island city, but that lake dried up a few hundred years ago.) Mantova hasn't grown much beyond this natural boundary. So, think "compact."

I'm staying at a very small bed and breakfast (just three rooms, but they are very large rooms!) called Palazzo Arrivabene. Maybe you think that in translation, the name stands for a hearty and healthy welcome to those who arrive at its massive front door. Arriva bene! Come in good health! It does not. It's named for the Arrivabene Brothers who built this property toward the end of the 15th century.

Here's my room:


But I do not rest in it. Yes, I am tired. So much so that if Mantova hadn't been the last train stop, then I may have dozed through it. But mostly I am hungry. There was no time for a Paris airport breakfast. Or a Milan train station lunch. I am coasting on last night's plane food.

And so this is my goal: find the bakery-bar that my hosts recommended for a snack and then walk around the town a bit, the fine mist notwithstanding and get a sense of the place.

My photos, to give you and me an orientation:

Basilica Sant'Andrea in the mist

But let's pause for that refresher snack: croissant with prosciutto and fontina and mushrooms. With a glass of Prosecco.


A Mantovano prepares my macchiato:


A family outing:


The Clock Tower on one of the lovely open squares of the city:


Mantovan shoppers are complaining about the cold (the mist makes me very happy that I took my warm jacket), but they fill the arcades anyway. Much of the focus is on food.


Two popular items: the prosciutto...


... and the pastas. If France has the mouth watering pastry displays, Mantova bakeries show off home made pastas.


The 14th century tower rises above the medieval Palazzo Accerbi. In the beautiful Piazza Sordello -- a Christmas market, much of it with home crafted items made by an older generation of Mantovians:


If there is a Christmas market, there must be hot mulled wine...


Evening comes and with it the fog grows thicker, soupier. I will myself to stay awake until the restaurants open for dinner. Italians eat even later than the French. How do they hold out? Here's one well practiced method: before sitting down to dinner, they go for an aperitif at a local bar.

There's an idea! But where?

I read an essay by a Guardian staff writer on this fantastically ancient city. He writes that Mantova has a bar that's worthy of his list of top ten in the world. Well now! (Never mind that he also praised the Mantovian staple -- stewed donkey meat. I don't have to follow his advice on everything.)

The evening streets of Mantova are crowded with a strolling public. The shops are busy.


I find the bar easily enough -- Bar Caravatti. It's crowded, but that's fine.


I don't want to sit down. I join the few at the counter and I have the Caravatti house special: a spritz made of wine and a secret concoction of bitters and who knows what else. Amazing!

A Mantovano prepares this classic:


Oh! A mirror? Okay, a selfie!


And finally, I walk just a handful of blocks (remember: compact!) to a restaurant my hosts recommended for tonight -- L'ochina bianca (the white goose). It dates back to the first decades of the Slow Food movement (which I should remind you flourished in Italy more than it did elsewhere; the French never quite latched on, believing, most likely, that they didn't need a movement to teach them about slow food).

Apart from stewed donkey meat, Mantova is known for its pumpkin dishes and so I have the pumpkin soup, followed by a house special that properly calls itself an Amalfi pasta dish as it has seafoods mixed in with a delicate sauce, blended into the home made rigatoni.

Italian trattorias are different than what you would find in France. They're nearly always more casual, people are less intense about what's placed before them and of course, there is plenty of choice. Your kid likes pasta? Italy is the place to visit. You like sea food? Ditto.

I walk back to the Arrivabene and I am so full of good food that the air feels hardly even cool. The mist swirls and dances and it all seems rather magical. Romantic for some, peace-filled for others.


I'm back at the b&b now, climbing the stairs of this grand home, looking up up up at the frescoed ceiling.


 "Up up!" Isn't that what Snowdrop would be wanting after a long day of play?

I miss my guys back at home. Still, it's been a magnificent arrival.