Wednesday, December 09, 2015

foggy Mantova

At breakfast, I was reminded just a little of a scene from the movie A Room With a View. My host's mother, Luciana, was describing to me her younger years in Africa -- a place for which she has tremendous affection, while a second guest was eyeing me quizzically, finally admitting to seeing me at the Palazzo yesterday. You were in the Camere Sposati, right? Since as you know, I surely was not the only visitor there, I had to wonder what I was doing/saying to catch her eye.

The fire in the ornate fireplace sizzled...


I nodded meekly and continued with my meal.


The fog is relentless. I will remember Mantova as a city that succumbed to the plague in the 17th century and to the fog (of lesser consequence to be sure sure) in December 2015.

I have the second great sight on my schedule for today: the Palazzo Te. Same Gonzaga family, but whereas the Palazzo Duccale was their formal residential compound, Palazzo Te was their suburban retreat, gardens and all. Never mind that it is only a half hour walk from their principal home.


The Te was built in the 16th century and you could argue that its interiors are equally stunning. Consider this:


Or, the absolutely breathtaking Chamber of Giants, executed by the artist Giulio Romano (looking up):


There are no clear divisions between ceiling and wall, no demarcation as to where the dome begins -- is it even a dome, or is it an illusion?

Yet somehow this hasn't the visitor draw of the Dukes' principal residence. I am nearly the only one here. Maybe it's that the Italian holiday has come and gone. And as I said many times, Mantova is simply not a tourist destination. My host Claudio blames it on the fact that it's a city without a major highway link to the rest of Italy.
Compare it to Verona, he tells me. People go to Verona. It's on the Milano - Venezia line. You stop for a few days in Verona, even though there's not that much to see there. People think: Romeo and Juliet! As if this fairy tale really took place there! 
I have to laugh. Well, in that way, Mantova should also be on the tourist trail!
We say in Mantova that the girls are better in Verona. If you're a young man, you go up there to find a girlfriend. (His mother later tells me that indeed, his "friend" lives in Verona.)

At the Palazzo, I see room after room of extraordinary beauty. Here's one last photo from the interior -- this one is a cropped shot from the Room with the Horses.


And here's a corner of the building from the outside:


Near the exit, there are a few rooms devoted to more contemporary artists, including the Italian born Impressionist,  Federico Zandomeneghi. Can you tell that he was greatly influenced by Cassatt and Renoir?


Alright. That was lovely.

I walk back to the center of town. I'm passed by many people on bicycles -- it seems to be the transportation of choice here.


We're spoiled back home with our lanes and paths. Imagine riding that thing on one of the many cobbled streets here!


It gives you pause.


Oh, let me include photos of two bakeries displaying your most typical Montavian foods:



And where to now? At the Palazzo, I had seen a poster ad for a display of art by early 20th century Mantovian painters. I look for the gallery now.

Here it is!


It's an immensely interesting place -- a bookstore really, hidden deep inside a courtyard. There seem to be random art books. And other books. And papers, and various things you'd find in a very old shop with a genteel and somewhat scattered air about it.


I love it here! The owner is engaged in a conversation, but he pauses to comment on my picture taking. Usually I am discreet, sometimes even clandestine. But not here. He makes me feel welcome and it is so pleasant to for once relax with the camera.


And now it's early afternoon and if I were a true woman of Mantova, I'd stop at a cafe bar with a friend, man or woman and eat a sandwich. But I feel satiated still from last night's meal. And I feel tired. I had willed myself to stay awake to write a post last night, copious amounts (for my age) of food and wine notwithstanding and then I couldn't sleep at all (that's what happens when you fight sleep for four hours: when you win, you really win). That's okay -- I am now in the Mediterranean lull, where much of the city (sights and shops included) shuts down for an afternoon break. I can follow suit.

I take a delicious nap at my own palazzo, or rather in my rented room of Luciana's palazzo.

In the late afternoon, I am up and in search of a cup of tea and Italian cake.

And I check off my last big Mantova attraction -- the 15th century Basilica S. Andrea -- the city's most beautiful church.


It's rather loud inside, as the repair persons are fixing cracks in the ceiling. I suppose it's allowed to show signs of wear and tear after 500 years. Our farmhouse has cracks and it's significantly younger in age.


And now  for my tea. I pick a cafe that I have passed many times. It's the old Bar Venezia and it has literary pretensions, or at least a reputation for such pretensions. And it does feel modestly bookish or at least paperish...


But what's amusing is that this was on my list of bars to explore for that predinner aperitivo, except I got stuck at the Caravatti and now I can't let go. The helicopter flying dining group of last night hangs out in the evenings at the Venezia and I was to join them there tonight, but now I have the perfect excuse not to (in this small town where everyone sees everyone else)- I was there, just a tad too early! (Hanging with a helicopter hopping Tintoretto purchasing pack seems, in the light of the day, even a foggy day, a tad risky for a person whose entire trip budget matches what these people spent on champagne last night.)

I settle in for a currant-blueberry cake and a cup of warm tea.


As I get up to leave, I notice that a group of some eight high school aged boys comes in and commands a table in the corner. Most of them order pastries, others settle for a coke or a hot chocolate. It strikes me that this is it -- cultural differences right there, in your face. It is impossible for me to imagine American high school boys choosing to pause after school at a fancy cafe to eat pastries and talk about life's vicissitudes.


An essay I had read about Mantova said that the Bar Venezia grabs them all -- from all walks of life. I would have to agree.


Outside, a handful of girls hangs out, singing very excellent renditions of American and British pop songs (for example, one by Adele, who, like the cafe, seems to have figured out how to gather fans from a wide range of demographics).

In the evening, I pay an impromptu visit to Luciana's rooms at the b&b. (She sees me returning from my tea and invites me in.) We exchange sanitized versions of life stories and though she is a generation before me and has visited more of the world than I will ever see, it is nonetheless amazing how much common ground we have. If you think you have an original story to tell about your life -- think again. Chances are someone else has both lived it and spoken of it.

And later still, I go out for my evening meal. First, though, I stop at Caravatti, where for one last time I ask for their house aperitif -- the Caravatti wine plus mysterious ingredients spritz. The young staff is as energetic and affable as ever. Someone brings me a small anchovy sandwich, insisting that this is the true way to enjoy the Caravatti. But the room's attention is actually riveted elsewhere. There is another, younger person at the bar...


 Oh, do the Italians fuss when a sweet baby appears in the room!


True, this child may be the babe of a partner of one of the bartenders. And the staff all like each other and it is quite common to see their partners or lovers stop in for their own aperitif. Smooches and back rubs are exchanged.  Nonetheless, when there is a baby, an adorable but screeching eight month old, work stops and delight pours toward the little one.


It's a beautiful set of minutes and of course, it recalls my own times with my little ones and more recently with Snowdrop.

Finally, I make my way to a simple trattoria, again recommended and booked by Claudio -- the Cento Rampini. He told me I should definitely have the Mantova specialty of risotto alla pilota -- which I think has bits of pork in it. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how tasty it really is) that's a dish offered only for those not dining alone. I order the local river fish instead and here's a wonderful surprise -- there is a fresh artichoke salad with slivers of parmesan on the menu and so of course, I order that and  it is, predictably, delicious.


And you could say that the dish lays an introduction to the days ahead because tomorrow morning, I'll be taking the train to Parma -- home to Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and also to Prosciutto di Parma.

But that's tomorrow. I walk home on a misty night. Not nearly as foggy as the nights before. Perhaps the wet blanket is lifting? I cannot tell.

Oh! A store mirror. Time for a final selfie from Mantova.