Where were we? A rustic drive in Piemonte. Nicola at La Villa had given us expert suggestions and guidance for a scenic drive in the area and a few noteworthy towns in which to pull over and catch our high-altitude breath. She gave us the low-down, the local’s take; in other words, the truth, a welcome plus of staying in a small, family-run bed and breakfast. We bypassed the towns in which we would have likely wasted our time if not for her advice, and found ourselves in the adorable town of Acqui Terme, in the hills of Alto Monferrato.
You may have heard of Acqui Terme (or maybe not) for its ancient hot springs, bubbling up in the center’s piazza at a tepid 167 degrees fahrenheit. There is more to Acqui Terme than hot springs and DOCG Branchetto d’Acqui wine. The center is lined with adorable shops, fantastic gastronomie, and pristine pastel architecture, an ambience perhaps suggestive of an Alpine ski town. As always, we arrived just in time for the afternoon rest, when all the shops close and take a three (or four) hour lunch. Onwards.
Mantova. Or is it Mantua? You have probably heard it both ways, if you’ve heard it at all, and maybe you assumed it was two different cities. Actually, this atmospheric, cobble-stoned town between Verona and Parma is one in the same. Mantova is its outward name, Mantua is its Latin name, and also how the Mantovese refer to Italy’s 2016 Capital of Culture.
On first glance, Mantova might be compared to Versailles, for its elegance, harmony, and romantic history. Settled by the Etruscans in the 10th century, ruled by the House of Gonzaga until 1708 when the Austrians took over until Italy’s unification in 1866, Mantova is a perfectly maintained UNESCO World Heritage site, one of those cinematic European cities that feels frozen in time. Home to Virgil and the set of one of Verdi’s operas, its dedication to its literary and intellectual history is palpable. A walk through its center sees numerous ducal palaces, Romeo & Juliet style balconies, and endless outdoor cafes viewing magnificent piazzas. One gets the feeling that this is a rather prosperous city, and in fact it always has been.
At the edge of town you will find the River Po and a pristine grassy park perfect for resting your legs, reading a book, or going for a jog. Mantova is surrounded by 3 lakes, an unusual amount of nature for such a decently sized city. I suspect that the quality of life here is quite high.
Do not miss Palazzo Te on the outskirts of the historic center, commissioned by Gonzaga in 1524. It is no surprise that this sublime property, designed by Giulio Romano (a pupil of Raphael), was commissioned by Isabella d’Este’s son. Noted as one of the most important examples of Mannerist architecture, the Palazzo and its whimsical frescoes, magnificent carvings, central court, and splendid gardens are a whirlwind tour through a mythological world. This is a masterpiece in itself not to be missed, never mind meravigliosa Mantova. Between Piemonte and Lombardia, visually astounding explorations know no end.