Italy’s best kept secret: music and margarita in Mantua

The perks of going on holiday to Italy are vast – not too far away, hotter than in Britain, rich in history and has some of the world’s best ice cream. But at the same time cities like Florence and Siena are very busy and expensive – being crammed into those tiny streets with hundreds of sweaty tourists doesn’t sound like a great holiday plan. I now introduce to you, Mantua. Bypassed by most travellers in favour of places like Lake Garda and Verona, Mantua is a small city that most people have never heard of – it is quiet, quaint and very pretty.

After flying in to Verona on the 30 March 2014, my mum and I got a cab to take us to our hotel in Mantua. After about a half hour drive, we had arrived, and were pleased to see how sunny and warm it was there, considering the greyness back at home. We immediately explored the cobbled roads and narrow streets, very quickly ending up right in the centre. The lack of chain shops and newsagents filled with tourist tat was a delight to see, although the fact that absolutely no one spoke English was not so ideal, but did make it feel more authentic.

In terms of things to see, the Palazzo Ducale is definitely a must; it’s the largest residence in Italy after the Vatican. Inhabited by the Gonzaga family for over 400 years, the Palazzo Ducale has room after room of richly decorated ceilings and walls – it includes a castle, courtyards, hanging gardens and over 500 rooms, though quite a bit of it is closed off. For those of us who think of a palace and groan with boredom at the idea of traipsing round looking at old things, it’s also the kind of palace you can easily skip through admiring the ceilings and be back out in time for a delicious panini on the Piazza Sordello. Alternatively, if your appetite is merely whetted by looking around Palazzo Ducale, head straight down to Palazzo Te, the second of the great palaces. Although it is smaller, the frescoes are incredible, and in most cases quite disgusting. Seeing an image of a half mermaid man about to rape a woman will forever haunt me. There are hideous grotesques, too, and most decoration in the palace is something hideous. Spotting a woman holding a swan and pointing it out to my mother, only to realise that actually the swan was supposed to be having sex with her, is a moment I will always remember.

After lunch, you can hire bikes and cycle around the edges of Mantua. Since for defence purposes citizens of Mantua dug a lake around the borders of the city in about 1200, it has been unable to grow since then, and is the perfect size for cycling round. You’ll see the beautiful Lake Garda and get a sense of the tiny size of the city.

After your exercise, head straight to Master Crema, Mantua’s top ice cream joint, where you can sit outside in a park eating your well-priced treat. By the afternoon, Mantua has got so hot that you can be relaxing in just a t-shirt and jeans, so an ice cream is a great refreshment!

The Opera Theatre is a highly underrated tourist attraction. Located in a building that we found very difficult to find (especially with the confusing one way system all around the city), it was the jewel of the town. The opera theatre is a tiny, chocolate box version of one you would get in any other city. Jam packed full of seats, it was completely empty, and yet still atmospheric. Finding yourself suddenly in a tiny but ornate opera house makes you feel as though you have uncovered a gem of the city that no one else knows about.

But now its time to talk about what Mantua is really famous for; the food. The most noticeable thing about it is how Mantuans appear to have not just one sweet tooth, but a whole mouth full of them. Literally everything contains sweets – breakfast at the hotel consisted of jam filled cupcakes with swirling chocolate icing, or, alternatively, apple danish. Lunch was usually a panini, but followed by a delicious frappe, and the tortelloni filled with sweet pumpkin that looked innocent enough tasted strangely like almonds. For dessert it was almost always chocolate salami. The pizza, however, was my favourite thing about Mantuan food. At a small pizzeria on a side street by the corn exchange, where the waiters all had impressive beards and spoke no English, my mum and I had a fantastic pizza. We shared a margarita which was really big, and came with lots of different toppings that were in small pots that filled the table. With these different kinds of cheeses, hams and olives, you could pile onto your pizza whatever it was you wanted. The simplicity of the dish was why it was so brilliant – it was relaxed but surprising; and only around 7 euros a pizza, who could resist?

For food to take home for your family and friends, head to the bakery just outside the Piazza Sordello. With tour guides taking their groups there to tell them about the fantastic cakes, it is just the place to pop into and buy a couple of fruits of the forests pastries, or cream filled madeline cakes for just a euro each. Eating these whilst sitting in the sun on the piazza is the perfect way to end your city break to Italy’s best kept secret; Mantua.