Sunday, 14 September 2014

Mantova for a weekend?

Traditionally, the last weekend in August is when the Milanese stream back into the city after their summer holidays at the beach.  But as we had returned a couple of weeks previously, we decided to make our own "end of summer tradition" by catching a Friday evening train to Mantova (known as Mantua in English).  
So where is Mantova?
Like Milan, it is in the province of Lombardy, but in the southern corner, so it's closer to Verona and Parma.  Only two hours from Milan by train, we hoped it would be the perfect place to celebrate the last weekend of summer.
Map from
As we dragged our little wheelie bags along the rather ordinary streets from the station, it crossed my mind that we knew very little about this city.  Our decision to spend the weekend there was based on a brief mention in the Lonely Planet guide which recommended Mantova as, "a city in which to experience an unchanging slice of Lombard life".
Our first impressions were not good.  Perhaps we'd made a mistake?
As we got closer to the centre, we came across one of the many piazzas in Mantova.  The place was buzzing with the evening "passeggiata" in full swing. 
Everywhere people were catching up with friends, chatting about their holidays, stopping for a leisurely aperitivo, or slowly cycling through the crowds of window shoppers strolling along the cobblestone streets.  My doubts about our weekend quickly vanished.  

Here's why we loved Mantova. 

Bikes, bikes and more bikes.  
Most of the old city has no traffic, making it perfect for walking and cycling.  Mantova is a city of cyclists of all shapes and ages.  Everyone rides everywhere.  Joining them was easy as we hired bikes from one of the rental shops in the centre.  So we spent Saturday exploring the network of cycle paths extending in all directions from the city, around the lakes and into the countryside.  
Beautiful lakes.
Although this little city is a long way from the sea, Mantova is almost surrounded by water.  It is in the middle of three artifical lakes, Lago Superiore, Lago di Mezzo and Lago Inferiore, which were created as part of the city's defence system in the 12th century.  These days they provide the Mantovese with endless opportunities for swimming, fishing and boating, as well as making it a picturesque area for cycling.  And as you can see, the riding was easy as the countryside is completely flat!
Fabulous food.
When I mentioned our plans to visit Mantova to my friend Nicoletta, she replied with great excitement:
"Ottima scelta!  Il cibo a Mantova e' buonissimo!"
Nicoletta knows her food and she was right.  

There's nothing like a ride through fields of rice and corn to develop an appetite.  We set out under bright blue skies in the direction of a small town, Soave, about 10 kilometres from Mantova. We hoped to find a restaurant, or bar, where we could enjoy a relaxing lunch stop.  It's been our experience that even in the tiniest of villages, it is possible to find a really good restaurant in Italy and once again, we did.  
At Trattoria La Stelle we were welcomed with a glass of deliciously chilled prosecco whilst being seated in the shady courtyard.  Such a friendly welcome doesn't happen in every Italian restaurant, but when it does, especially on a warm summer's day after clambering off a bike feeling a little sticky and grubby, it's enough for me to immediately declare the meal, sensational.  Even without the welcoming bubbles, I think we would have raved about our meal at Trattoria La Stelle.  A fresh garden salad, followed by generous plates of homemade tagliatelle with duck ragu and pumpkin tortelli left us with no room for dessert.  But we didn't leave without a sweet fix as the young chef gave us a traditional Mantovese cake Sbrisolona to enjoy later with coffee. 
Although we were tempted to find a cool spot for an after lunch nap, we managed to get back on the bikes and meander along the irrigation canals, returning to town eventually.  By the time we arrived in piazza Broletto, I'd convinced Stefano that we needed a cooling gelato.  Can you guess which local speciality caught his eye at Gelateria Loggetta?
A grand palace
The following day we set out to explore more of Mantova by foot.  The city was ruled for many centuries by the Gonzaga family who built the magnificent Ducal Palace over a period of 300 years, from the 13th to the 16th centuries.  Although this extensive complex of buildings is mostly empty, the frescos and stunning rooftop garden have been restored making it worth spending a couple of hours wandering through its cavernous halls.  
The scaffolding framing, or covering, many of the buildings in Mantova puzzled us, but a quick search on google explained their significance.  On the 20th May, 2012 northern Italy was hit by an earthquake with the centre located not far from Mantova.  As a result, the Ducal Palace and many other buildings have developed structural cracks which are gradually being repaired.  Although the scaffolding is slightly distracting, it didn't dampen our enthusiasm for this lovely city.  

And a medieval festival!
Topping off our wonderful weekend in Mantova was a medieval festival. It was held on the grassy common between the lake and the palace, and just in front of the apartment where we stayed.  Hundreds of folk dressed in long flowing robes, shiny chain mail and assorted headdresses engaged in sword fights, archery contests, mock duels and all sorts of medieval pastimes. 
Every summer, Mantova holds several popular medieval festivals with participants coming from all over Europe.  But that's not the only event in this social town.  While we were there, they were setting up for the annual Literature Festival which will be followed by a Bike Festival at the end of September.  There's so much to see and do in Mantova, but there's only so much that you can do in a weekend.  I'm sure we will return.  

Martina e Regina, grazie per dite ciao la sera altra.  Molto piace di conoscerti, finalmente.
Settimana prossima andiamo a Rapallo e speriamo che il soggiorno tempo bella.

Where we stayed:
We stayed in a comfortable one bedroom apartment which is privately managed. It was spotlessly clean and in a great location.  For the price of 75Euros, we thought it was excellent value.  Melina and her husband were very kind and helpful.  You can contact them by email HERE.
Where we ate:
via della Liberta
Soave, di Porto Mantovano
Where we ate gelato:
Gelateria Loggetta
Taste test summary
The  nocciola was really good but the lambrusco, according to Stefano, was just okay.  Wish I'd read the noticeboard more closely as I like the sound of the speciality of the day - gelato alla sbrosolona con crocanti al cioccolato.  This foolish oversight has prompted a new gelato ultimatum.  ALWAYS try the specialita del giorno.  
Gelato ranking *** 
Possibly didn't taste their best flavours.
Try it here
Piazza Broletto 12, Mantova

If you'd like to read more about Mantova click HERE.


  1. All sounds gorgeous Jen and love your bike top!

  2. Yes it was a great weekend. Love that top! An oldie but a goodie. Grazie mille.

  3. Nothing beats a good Medieval festival...especially for my lot, I'll go the cakes, bikes and gelato xx

  4. Haha Lisa. Yes I think Luca would love the action of the sword fights and Carina might enjoy the gorgeous flowing dresses. You can park a campervan on the edge of town which is really just a few streets from the centre. Worth taking your van on a trip to Mantova one day...