Like in any sport or hobby you play against yourself, after a certain point a person engaged in it begins to seek handicaps in order to keep the game interesting. For most travelers that involves going to adventurous and far-flung locations (“you mean you’ve never been skydiving in South Sudan?!”), but when you’re in a place like Italy where one often sees more tourists than locals it can be a little difficult to get off the beaten path and keep things interesting.
All in all, my solution to this was to head to Verona, already a less-touristy sort of town, and head to Mantua (Mantova) for a day trip for no real reason except the B&B owner where I was staying suggested I should. I didn’t know a thing about Mantua except that it was where Romeo gets banish-ed to (written like that because I’ve never seen a Romeo & Juliet production where it’s not pronounced like that), and that it was a 40 minute train ride from Verona. No map either- I just started heading towards the interesting-looking spires one could see from the train station, and when I arrived was pleasantly surprised. Mantua is gorgeous!
As you can see it is an absolutely lovely small town, but the strangest thing about it was I was in the middle of northern Italy exploring a very lovely place (heck it’s even a UNESCO World Heritage Site!) but there were absolutely no tourists in the place because most have never heard of it. Instead Mantua was filled with locals bartering in the market, drinking espresso by the gallon, and giving me the quizzical look one gives strangers in a place where it’s unusual to see a tourist wielding a camera. And there were quite a few interesting things to see…
Two examples of uncovered gems I was not at all expecting to find, the first one pictured above, an old church dating to the 11th century known as Rontonda di San Lorenzo. A cool cavern with fragments of Byzantine frescoes on the walls, it stopped being used as a church in the 1500s and was completely covered by the surrounding buildings until a century ago when it got restored. Turns out someone realized it was one of the finest examples of a round church from the Romanesque era in Italy…
My favorite discovery by far, though, was the old ducal palace in Mantua. It was the seat of a powerful noble family for hundreds of years which included the Italian Renaissance, and after the 18th century when the family line died out it housed some ever-ubiquitous-in-Europe Hapsburgs.
The place is stuffed to the brim with magnificent frescoes, tapestries, weapons, gardens, and all the other trimmings that one finds in an Italian palace… but without the crowds. There were a few Germans, of course, but I can confidently say that the total number of tourists the day I was in town numbered no more than a few dozen.
Really, the entire adventure just went to remind me that Italy is the sort of place where you can throw in a few world-class jewels and no one will notice because, you know, it’s Italy. (Italy has the most UNESCO World Heritage sites of any country at 47- obviously it’s a bit political a list, but you don’t get a palace like this just anywhere.) I mean if just one or two of these frescoes made it to the other side of the pond we’d be lining up in the streets clamoring for a glimpse in a hall packed with people… but in Italy they just have so many that you find astounding things even when you leave the usual trail.
What a great country this is!