Off the beaten track: Art and Culture in the heart of Northern Italy

There is a unique beauty to the way the Italian landscape lends itself to the strive for higher understanding of the human condition. It’s as though its hills are soaked in the sweat of a thousand dukes, working to stake their claim to the greatest centers of art, of culture, of civilization itself. The understated opulence of Northern Italy is steeped in a History both long and bloody, but to the weary traveler, it might be easy to miss some of the historic greats the region has to offer in lieu of making a TripAdvisor bucket-list work.

In December 2018, my husband and I decided to get off the beaten track, away from the bucket-list must-do’s and the less thought-provoking tourist-traps, to a deeper, more personal experience of Northern Italy, both the Northern Italy of today, and the historic one. We flew to Milan, rented a car, and started driving. A short fifteen minutes into our drive, the Italian landscape already started offering up some of its secrets. It knows things unfathomable. It has survived so much that cannot be archived or displayed in museums and tourist attractions. It is both Italy’s greatest monument to its rich cultural tradition and its most unvisited holy site.

With the magical Alps in the rearview mirror (they turn pink in the dusk!), we made the first stop on our journey: Piacenza. Literally translating to “Place of Rest” or “Peaceful abode”, it is hard to believe the initial walled city of Piacenza was built amidst a siege (between the Romans and the Gauls) over two thousand years ago! But as it began that way, it is not that hard to believe that this city would endure conquest and rebuttal for the rest of its history. And yet, its greatest asset lay not in its great thinkers or artists, or any of the great houses it hosted over the centuries, but in its peaceful hills, where the simple folk planted the vineyards and crops that would ultimately turn Piacenza into one of the richest trade-cities in Medieval Europe.

Sticking to our plan to veer away from the traditional method of travel, i.e. rushing from landmark to museum and eating at Internet-approved vendors, we disregarded our host’s suggestions of the top landmarks (there are some great ones, definitely worth the visit for the more traditional traveller), and set out to get a feel for the streets, the locals and the way they live and eat. We visited one of the many tobacconists to find out about an international calling card and bought pastries that speak of divinity from a bakery so small that three men couldn’t stand astride inside it. We had magnificent pizza with the locals at a pizzeria that wouldn’t show up on TripAdvisor or any other travel site (but had a whopping 127 pizzas to choose from!) and we drank the local sparkling red house wine, somewhat to our distaste, while crunching breadsticks and listening to Italians disagreeing about which sports team was the better to support. We weren’t doing anything special. We may as well have been at home. But we weren’t. We were doing the normal, everyday stuff in this place, where a 1700 year old basilica is still in use today, where the Council of Piacenza proclaimed the First Crusade nearly a thousand years ago, where the Sforzas, the Farneses and the Habsburgs all once held courts. This small town of rolling hills and young families walking the streets at night vibrated with historic energy and a culture of kindness so deeply ingrained that we felt oddly at home here and not like tourists at all.

The next day, on our way to Parma, we did a drive-by of historic sites in the Old Town while reveling about the way modern Piacenza’s people had this old-time vibe about them. No one in Piacenza had seemed rushed. Families had walked together to work and school, holding pastries from their local corner shop. The butcher and the flower-shop lady each stood in the doorway to their shop, exchanging pleasantries with each other and passers-by. The easy comfort of it all was deafening in the quiet, sun-lit streets.

We had been to Parma once before, for about an hour, to buy the sought after Parmesan cheese and Parma ham (prosciutto), both of which can be bought anywhere in Parma and enjoyed anywhere in the world. If you’ve tried the local Parmesan product, no trip to Italy can ever be complete without it again, so we opted for another afternoon stop in Parma, mainly in pursuit of local gourmet. The cheese tastes better in Parma and the ham is an offering from the gods that should not go unappreciated or ignored! Pair it with Balsamic Vinegar from nearby Modena, Genovese Pesto and locally baked bread, and you might find yourself longing for simpler times, when bread was broken with family, in small gatherings filled with love and laughter and little else.

What kind of a town must Parma be, we wondered as we pulled away from a local shopping center, if its people could take something as banal as cheese and ham, and make it remarkable? What kind of a place produces food that makes you crave the simplicity of country life? The answer, perhaps, is not in Parma’s governance or economy or even its great educative history, but in a deep respect the locals hold for heritage and culture, and its magnificently beautiful countryside. We will have to find out properly later, however, because even though we’ve been to Parma twice, we’ve never “visited”. When we finally do, I’ll be sure to tell all about it here!

Our next stopover was in the heart of the wonderfully musical city of Bologna, home of the other leaning tower.

As capital of the Emilia Romagna region, Bologna is the quintessential hub of the region’s culture and cuisine. Like most other cities in the region, Bologna predates the Roman Period and is essentially Etruscan in origin. Bologna is also home to the Western world’s oldest (continuously operating) University, an institution that to this day is at the heart of this city’s unique culture. In fact, I would go so far to say that walking in the old-town was like being on a vast, ancient university campus, surrounded by happy, confident students and modern comforts.

The night-life in this city was vibrant, in an old-worldly kind of way. Young people congregated in its squares and many restaurants to discuss concerts and plays. Its exceptional cuisine and local gourmet was visible and obtainable from stall-like shops which stayed open late, serving passionate Italians and curious visitors every kind of delicacy the north has to offer. Street-musicians of exceptional quality made offerings to the public on street corners. Bologna was buzzing with life, and as the richest city in Italy (and regularly voted the city with the highest quality of living in Italy), we could see why.

At the very heart of this city of modern chic and ancient opulence, the other leaning tower, the Garisenda, leaned away from one of the busiest streets in Bologna (as well as another, taller tower, the Assinelli). Looking upon the two towers for the first time was both a marvel and a great consternation. To me they seemed impossible; one for its height, the other for having remained upright for hundreds of years despite leaning so very, very much. But they are remarkable. So remarkable that Dante Alighieri, who himself was once a student at the University of Bologna, immortalized one of them in his seminal Divine Comedy:

What an incredible feeling, visiting this ancient city and sharing an experience with the Supreme Poet! After seeing the two towers, we were tempted to revert back to the old bucket-list experience and rush around Bologna, trying to soak it all up in record time, but we didn’t. Instead we visited a local luthier and heard him play one of his wonderful violins, we watched through a shop-window as women rolled out and hand-cut pasta and we asked one of the locals to parallel park our car in the narrowest two-way street known to mankind. We also had something resembling Bolognese, which was underwhelming and somewhat overpriced, after which we opted for a much better received pizza. We drank the local sparkling red wine, which had something on the Piacenzan variety and we walked all across the old town to visit a Christmas Market, and then a local food market, both of which offered the very best of northern Italian culture and cuisine. In this process of avoiding the tried and tested, we stumbled upon beautiful discoveries: the kindness of strangers, the magnificent architecture of ancient Italy, and an inherent culture of appreciation for life and all its finest things – art, music, food and time spent with friends and family. Had Dante’s Bologna boasted these traits?

The last stop on our trip was a place so majestically beautiful that it is an artwork in and of itself. The old town of Mantua, or Mantova in Italian, is a UNESCO World Heritage site that has been lovingly maintained and protected and as such remains virtually untouched by modernity.

Mantua is an ancient city in every respect. The first evidence of habitation in the vicinity of modern-day Mantua dates back to the Neolithic period, in the 5th millennium BC. Just as the other centers we visited, the village of Mantua was initially settled by the Etruscans around the 6th century BC, before eventually becoming a Roman colony.

To enter the ancient city of Mantua, we had to cross one of the three (remaining) artificial lakes and natural defenses that still surrounds it today and pass through the time-space continuum into another century. After buying a time-stamped parking pass from our hotel (as a World Heritage Site, motor vehicle traffic in Mantua is strictly controlled), we set out for a walkabout through the old town. First stop, somewhat conveniently located next to our hotel, was the Piazza Sordello, the square on which the Mantuan Ducal Palace sits.

The Ducal Palace on Palazzo Sordello in Mantua.

The Duchy of Mantua (read House of Gonzaga), was once one of the great duchies in Europe. It not only enjoyed a heritage rich in the arts, architecture and music, but also cultivated among its constituents a fondness for this heritage that can still be seen and felt in its streets and buildings today. This was evident on the Piazza Sordello, where the palace of old watches quietly as modern Mantuans go about their day, visiting the small but beautiful cathedral with its impressive facade, one of the many restaurants in the area, or the underground archaeological excavation of an ancient Etruscan home, complete with mosaic floors and sub-divided rooms.

As in Piazza Sordello, so the rest of the old town bustled with life and signs of this city’s great artistic tradition. Advertisements for everything from informal music evenings to professional opera and theatre were abound in hotel lobbies, souvenir shops and restaurants. Around the back of the cathedral, we unexpectedly came upon (the fictional) Rigoletto’s House, which in actuality is a small building housing the local information center, as well as an exhibition of photographs of Mantua. Here we were told about the local Christmas Market (on Piazza Virgilliana, named after the great Virgil, who was from Mantua!), and how to get to it, so after stopping at a souvenir shop for our very own Rigoletto keepsake, we headed down the cobbled streets of Mantua to check out how locals celebrate Christmas. We were not disappointed. As European Christmas Markets go, Mantua’s Christmas Village is a must visit. It was a cold night, and late at that, but the athmosphere in this place couldn’t have been more inviting had we been surrounded by our own friends and family. The kids ice skated on the makeshift ice rink in the center of the village, while Mantuans enjoyed hot drinks and Italian street food and shopped the array of high quality hand-crafted items. Art too, of course.

With bags full of Italian goodies to try and to take home with us, we headed for a restaurant we’d noticed near our hotel. Built into the alcove of the original palace stalls and servant quarters, the Duke’s Tavern boasted a menu of Mantuan gourmet, specializing in the local delicacy, donkey meat. As donkey stew was a bit above our budget, we opted for another local favorite, sweet pumpkin and ricotta ravioli, served with a flavorful citrus oil that both surprised and delighted. Along with it, we ordered antipasto and the local wine, which was definitely the best we’d had on the trip.

The next morning, after being served the two best coffees I’ve ever had the privilege of tasting (at Il Trovatore), we headed to the Ducal Palace for a bit of history. We visited the queen’s rooms, the most fascinating exhibit on inlay art (A MUST SEE!), the king’s quarters and war room and the gardens. The Camera degli Sposi (painted by the massively talented Mantegna) is undoubtedly one of the greats the Ducal Palace has to offer, and it came to us as a gift, as we had purposefully done no prior research, hoping each town would invite us in and show us the way. Mantua lead us straight to its magnificent palatial complex where we were awed and fascinated in equal measure not only by the artistic achievements championed by the Duchy of Mantua, but also by the complexity of its history.

After visiting the Ducal Palace, we walked through town, sightseeing in the true sense of the word. As in the other centers we’d visited, perhaps even more so, this town spoke of a spirit of conviviality and a vitality that can only be achieved where the underlying emotion is one of happiness, or at the very least a great sense of contentment. Which brought us to the great question: were the inhabitants of these towns privy to a well-kept secret, the greatest secret in life, perhaps? That to achieve true contentment, it is necessary to surround yourself with great art, excellent food, and perhaps above all, a history and tradition worth monumentalizing?

We did not have time to visit the Palazzo Te, Mantua’s answer to Italian art, but I include here a video by the wonderful Michael DeMarco about Giulio Romano’s Room of the Giants (Sala dei Giganti), a whole room in Palazzo Te dedicated to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I look forward to visiting it on my next visit to Mantua, and so should you!

You will notice that I barely name attractions or artworks in this post. This is not because we failed to see any or to remember them, but because this is not a travel blog as much as it is a perspective on traveling. I want to encourage you to attempt this kind of traveling, to experience the road less traveled, to let your destination open itself and all it has to offer up to you. You may make new friends, learn unexpected things and see the little things no one ever dares to look for.

Good luck on your journey. May your path be filled with great new discoveries.

Special thanks to Michael DeMarco. Read more about him here and be sure to subscribe to his very awesome art/lit video log here.