A wonderful time to visit Mantua and Sabbioneta is the week before Christmas. Empty of tourists and Italian school trips it is likely you will be the sole visitor to Mantegna’s famous Camera dei Sposi in Mantua’s Palazzo Ducale and, indeed, the only foreigner in this very beautiful town. The streets are crowded with local residents who also flock in also from the countryside to do their Christmas shopping but also simply to enjoy the crowd of merry-makers with street markets, music and delicious food.
The large tourist office right in the centre in Piazza Mantegna is open all day every day and will supply you with all the information you could possibly need as well as a ‘Mantova Card’ which for just €20 allows you free entrance everywhere in Mantua and Sabbioneta, as well as free transport.
The vast Palazzo Ducale is undergoing exciting changes under its new director from Austria, Dr Assmann, who arrived two years ago. You can now walk through some of the courtyards and the visit includes four rooms of the Gonzaga’s classical antiquities (Greek originals as well as Roman), recently opened in a splendid display with ingenious lighting from below (and heating beneath the carpet). Indeed perhaps the only drawback to visiting Mantua at this time of year is the freezing cold temperatures (most days below zero) becasue the vast halls and galleries of Palazzo Ducale are otherwise without heating. But you become lost in wonder at the extraordinary energy that the Gonzaga rulers and Isabella d’Este (who married Francesco II) put into decorating their residences in the late 15th century (with, in the early 16th century, the visionary skills of Giulio Romano). We know that the Gonzaga were particularly devoted to horses and dogs, and fine portraits of their animals in several rooms, here and in their summer villa, the masterpiece of Giulio Romano, Palazzo Te at the other end of town (where each horse seems to have ‘stood’ for its portrait and where the favourite dog of Isabella’s son, the first Duke Federico II, is immortalised in a relief showing him sitting on his sarcophagus in a secret garden amidst carvings of other animals from Aesop’s Fables).
The bus line to Sabbioneta, which takes around an hour, is free with the Mantova Card and there you can walk in this tiny town planned at the end of the 16th century by another eccentric Gonzaga, Vincenzo, who after a successful operation on his brain to relieve his migraines (the hole in his head was discovered when his tomb was opened) decided at the end of his life to create an ideal city here, taking his inspiration from ancient Rome.
As in Mantua, the chief treasures of Sabbioneta are the ceilings, whether carved or painted, and the long Galleria is an unforgettable sight, as is the Theatre. Like Mantua, this sleepy little remote town is full of jollifications for families just before Christmas, including mulled wine in the piazza, and bagpipes played in the streets. You can now walk along a grassy path beneath the walls at the edge of the ploughed fields, and appreciate how well Sabbioneta has been preserved.
Mantua has always been difficult to reach by train—it is still approached by single-track railway lines from the south (Modena) and the north (Verona)—but for all that the trip is a memorable experience and, as the director of Palazzo Ducale proudly showed me on the graph in his office, the number of visitors is steadily growing. The culinary delights, from the ubiquitous sbrisolona (a delicious crumbly biscuit with almonds which puts Scottish shortbread to shame) to mostarda (made with fruit and a sharp syrup of mustard), can be tasted in numerous good trattorie as well as in very cheap bakeries. Although the boat trips on Mantua’s three lakes are suspended in winter, you can take a bracing walk or bike ride (again provided free with your Mantova Card) along the lakes, since they all now have bike lanes in their parks.
You couldn’t do better than choose Mantua for a winter holiday.
Alta Macadam, who was in Mantua and Sabbioneta for four days this week, is preparing new text for a forthcoming Blue Guide to the area.