Tuesday, December 08, 2015

misty Mantova

Signora Luciana presides over the breakfast table at the Palazzo Arrivabene b&b. She is the mother of my host, Claudio, and she has an elegance about her that allows me to think of her as a person with probably a life's story to tell. And it's true: Claudio explains that his mother was born just a few kilometers away from Mantova, but what with the war and political changes in Italy, her family moved to Africa for a number of years.


I learn from my host that the b&b, open for business for a handful of years, is really just a hobby. It pays the bills of the house, but Claudio is actually an accountant in his real life. If you can call working outside your hobbies a real life.

I munch on home made bread and cheeses and apple strudel while listening to this. Claudio was born in Mantova and so he is, for me, a great source of information about the place. For example, I would not have thought to even ask about the best place to see a sunset...


Unfortunately, the sun stubbornly refuses to burn off the mist that cling to Mantova in the way that central European mists tend to do in December.


This, of course, does not keep Mantova men from pausing outdoors for a long chat.


I'll allow myself a generalization here: so often, older Italian men gather outdoors to talk. They stand or sit to do this. Women, on the other hand, rarely stand or sit outside.  They talk as they walk. Or, they talk over a cup of something warm, indoors. (Or, like Luciana this evening, they play poker in thick clouds of cigarette smoke. But that's another story.)


Back to the mist.

In the tourist office, I asked where I can go to see the Mantova skyline. It's actually quite pretty, as the handful of medieval towers give it a sky-scraper kind of appearance. But the bridge I am directed to offers none of this. Too foggy. Nonetheless, I'm glad I did the walk -- mists and lakes go well together.


My real goal today is to see half of the main cultural attractions of Mantova. There are many, but without question, the most famed is the Palazzo Ducale. It was home to the Gonzaga family of dukes and if you've not heard of them, it's because Mantova just doesn't have the acclaim it once had. The Gonzagas once did to Mantova what the Medicis did to Florence. For centuries (until 1707), they created artistic wealth, so that during the Renaissance, Mantova was a dream city and the ducal palace was second only to the Vatican in terms of residential size. (It's still huge! It's a good thing that most of it is closed to tourists or I'd have to suffer a historic overload.)

Claudio told me today is a holiday for most Italians and not surprisingly, there is a line to the Palazzo ticket office. A short one, of Italian families learning about their past. I use the opportunity to take a photo of the arcades -- it's where we stand waiting.


Inside, one family's kids keep themselves occupied while the parents make the terribly complicated decision as to which tickets/guides/passes to buy and with what discount, considering everyone's age and residential status (hence the line: each transaction takes forever).


For me, it's simple: I buy a museum pass, valid for two months (!). No more lines anywhere. (On the downside -- I feel I should pop into as many museums as I can -- after all, it's all "free" now!)

I'll just show you what, for me where the highlights: the frescoed ceilings...


The ornamentation...


Well, this wasn't a favorite, but it demonstrates that I do sometimes wear a skirt when I travel to cities!


Did I mention that the ducal residence is large? It's like a little town in its own right. I'm walking through this courtyard to reach what turns out to be my favorite room...


I wont bore you with the beautiful frescoes at the "Camere Sposati," nor with the details of who painted what and for what reason. But just look up at this one fresco with me! The perspective is amazing, creating a feeling of height and luminosity that is just breathtaking.


Two hours later, I am walking the misty streets of Mantova again.


I come across a wonderful store of children's clothing. You're going to tell me that Snowdrop does not need yet another outfit.

You would be wrong.

That girl grows in leaps and bounds and most of the stuff I bought her for the fall barely fits her today. I'm upping the size here.

I ask for simple everyday stuff. The clerk shows me an outfit for a little girl. No no, I recognize the label -- it's French. That's just wrong. She smiles and brings down these two things, assuring me that especially one of them is very very Italian! I buy her choice which is also my choice and I'm sure you'll guess correctly which of the two it is, but I'll save the disclosure until I have a chance to put it on that little girl down the road.


My next stop is actually very special to me. True, it dates back to a time when Mantova was no longer under the rule of the Italian dukes. They virtually handed it over to the Habsburgs and for the next several hundred years, Mantova bounced around between their Empire, Napoleon, and Austria, reuniting with Italy only in 1866. (Interestingly, Lombardy, the province of Mantova, ceased to be part of Italy in much the same way that in this period, Poland ceased to be part of Poland! The Polish anthem refers to this shared loss of statehood, as does the Italian anthem,  using lyrics of a poem that speak of Austria's thirst for Italian and Polish blood. Aren't you glad you know that!)

Back to my story about one special sight: the theater, completed in 1770, so when Mozart was just 14 years old. The young composer performed an inaugural concert here that year.


Outside, the mist clings fiercely to the city scape. This does not prevent some Italians from doing what the French would never do: catching a bite to eat (pizza) standing up outside.


As I round the corner, I hear music. Fratelli d'Italia!... People join in. It's the national anthem, no? A brass band, plummed hats, an applauding audience. I've stumbled onto a feeling of patriotism, but of course, this leaves me wondering -- is there more?


Later, I run into the band members again. They're taking a break and I find one who speaks a little English to compliment my little Italian. (He is the only one of the whole lot who knows more than hello how are you.) They're the  Bersaglieri. And even as I read about them now, in the quiet of my room at the b&b, I wonder -- do I really understand the place they hold in the Italian soul?


I'm hungry. I go back to yesterday's cafe (the Borsa Mantova) and put in a simple order: I'll have what she's having -- pointing to the table next to mine (it's a vegetable sandwich, heavy on the roasted pumpkin,  with melted Fontina).


I take a photo of the couple at the bar, not because they are unusual, but because I notice her heels and think back to my walk across the numerous squares where the cobble stones are so pronounced that even my flat boots do not feel comfortable on them.


Let me throw in, too, a photo (with proud permission this time) of a woman at a table just beyond. I love her dedication to her little guy...


Outside, I hear strains of holiday music. That doesn't surprise me. American jazz and pop Christmas songs are ubiquitous here at the cafes and even outdoors -- piped through megaphones along the main shopping arteries. I guess we help put people in the buying mode.

I come across another Christmas market and I pause to watch a game. Anyone can join in. Here, the older girl is winning. Can you tell what they're trying to do?


And finally, through the misty skies, I see a bit of sunlight. Everything changes now as the beams cast a different light on the cobbled streets.


Yes, even the old squares look refreshed.


I know where I must go. Past the park with the statue of Virgil, Mantova's famous poet (yes, a child is doing cartwheels, perhaps in appreciation of the local hero, more likely because there is the open space where all things are possible).


I come to Mantova's lakes again, now eerily golden in the setting misty sun.


I walk along the water's edge. I watch a swan drift back and forth.


It's all strikingly beautiful.

I turn back toward the city.

I'm on the cobbled streets again. I walk past one scene and the next, giving my own interpretation to the vignettes I encounter.


But I know this to be true: everything looks brighter, less complicated, absolutely golden when a spark of sunshine pokes through the misty skies.


Tonight, on the recommendation of Claudio Bini (my host), I go for dinner  to Aquila Nigra, where Giorgio Bini (no relation, but a friend) looks after the guests, and where his wife Vera Caffini cooks, with the assistance of their son Andrea. Together, they have created a Michelin starred restaurant -- informal yet special. I've been eating so cheaply up to now that this is suddenly affordable.

I'm excited.

Ah, now comes the tough part of the post. How do I describe the evening?

The easy part: it's foggy. Really foggy. Really really foggy again.


The square where the brass band played earlier looks so different now!


Dinner isn't until after 8, so I again go to the Bar Caravatti, this time to sample their Americano Caravatti aperitif. For the innocenti among us, an Americano is a drink with Campari and vermouth and soda water. Apparently these guys add some special bitters to give it its quintessential Caravatti flavor.  Over the rim of my glass, I watch the bartender mix countless others.


It's delicious and light and bouncy and I settle in (again standing at the bar) to look at the clientele. I notice a lot of children. You don't see many young ones in restaurants in Italy or France in the evening, possibly because people eat so late in both countries, but surely I've seen a number of wee guys at the witching hour of the aperitivo. Here's a grandma enjoying her little one. I wonder: would Snowdrop recognize me if I cut my hair this short?


It's 8 pm. I proceed to the restaurant. And now here's the dilemma: should I write the post as if we followed path A, or as if we followed path B? Both would be honest, but path A got interrupted by the appearance of diners who belonged to path B. After that, path A seems dishonest. But is it?

Let me first say that the food was excellent. I splurged and ordered the tasting menu. Unbelievable. I'm aghast at how good it is. Take the first dish: thinly shredded zucchini with tiny riverbank shrimp, beautifully fried to a tenderness, with a flavor that would give you reason to stop and go no further. Why mess with more complicated stories?


And the pumpkin stuffed ravioli -- who could imagine such a grand taste?! I talk to the affable waiter about it. He, by the way, hails from Tunisia and has been on the staff here for ten years. His primary language is Arabic. Then French. Then Italian, Then English. We settle on French as our best compromise between his talents and mine. The spices in the pumpkin have a touch of amaretti crumble.  Whoa.... delicious! There are other remarkable plates -- the fish, the desserts...

And then there is the table next to mine.

I was intrigued. Some spoke only Italian. One spoke English with a bit of French. The person whom I would call the host spoke it all.

There were various incidents. Comments. Bottles of champagne and good wine flowed. Truffled dishes were requested. Still, I thought nothing of it. You go to a restaurant with a good reputation, you'll run into people who can afford to spend money over and beyond what you would call reasonable.

I was about to leave, but I really felt for the woman who spoke only English and a smattering of French. She and I had exchanged glances and smiles. She was clearly from an African nation and she was strikingly beautiful. She seemed to indicate the need to connect.

And before you know it, I was part of their dining experience. At first, the topic was what brought us here: food. But then came the other stuff. The art deals (the purchase of a Tintoretto at Christie's), the modeling career, the helicopters that fly you to this place and the next. The Venetian bars, the Mantovian bars, juxtaposed to the life of an academic, a writer -- all that.

I only skim the surface here.

And suddenly I felt like Ocean had been touched by a whiff of a culture that perhaps had a far bigger influence on the planet that I cared to admit. In searching for the simple, I stumbled on the complicated. Do I ignore it? Do I face up to it?

As you can see, I go the half step: I mention it, but give you no real answers.

I leave the lively group and step out into the soup that has thickened the air outside.


And still, the Christmas tree by the Clock Tower shines brightly through it all. And isn't that such a good thing!