For the last ten days, we’ve been travelling around a patch of northern Italy, from Mantua to the Euganean Hills, Padua, Lake Garda and Verona.
Travelling to northern Italy at the end of October is a risk, weather-wise. Our friends who live near Florence and joined us for the middle weekend, said that they left home in balmy autumn weather. As they crossed the Appenines in our direction, all they could see beyond was low-lying cloud. And when I say low, I mean, low. So no, the weather wasn’t all it might have been until the sun came out for our last three days in Verona. But it was always warm, at least – even when it was pouring with rain at Lake Garda.
In our wanderings, we saw countless beautiful, less beautiful, startling and interesting things. We ate and we drank, and we walked and walked and walked.
Most beautiful was unquestionably the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (perhaps you’ve seen it) its walls alive with Giotto’s expressive fresco cycle. No photos allowed. Perhaps most extraordinary was d’Annunzio’s house on Lake Garda – a monolithic house of a megalomanic filled with tiny opulent but dark (he was photophobic, we were told) rooms crammed with books, memorabilia, relics and objets d’art. Evidence if there ever was that one man’s clutter is another man’s treasure.
Most disappointing was not being able to see the Mantegna ceiling in Mantua because of earthquake damage to the building. Nearby however was Sabbioneta, a small renaissance town with its own palazzo, synagogue, garden palace and the first free-standing theatre in modern Europe: small and perfectly formed.
An unexpected pleasure was in discovering the Giardino Giusti where we sat alone in the sun overlooking the roofs of Verona. As was finding the lower church in San Fermo.
Most surprising were the Euganean Hills where we stayed in a picturesque village where Petrarch spent his final years – a part of the world dotted with villas, gardens and small historic towns, its green volcanic hills a welcome contrast to the industrial Lombardian plain.
Best house wine – the local Lugana. The best food. Mmmm. I discovered pasta and polenta are not my thing but it was the wild mushroom season and I don’t remember a dud meal apart from a sandwich in Mantua of warm sliced white bread and melting processed cheese. Well, we were starving!
One or two things I’d forgotten or never knew:
*Italians don their winter wardrobe according to the time of year, not the weather. While we tourists were still in our summer kit, the Italians were wrapped up in scarves and the ubiquitous puffa jacket.
*Travelling out of season means running the risk of finding what you came to see shrouded under netting: ‘in restauro’. This is what we found in Mantua as they gear up to be a contender for European City of Culture 2019.
*Crossing the road at an unlit pedestrian crossing demands nerves of steel. The traffic doesn’t stop unless you hurl yourself in front of it. Terrifying at first, you soon get the hang of it.
*The virulent orange drink that appears on many a lunchtime drinker’s table is a ‘Spritz’. Aperol, white wine, slice (orange) ‘n’ ice. Bitter enough to stop you drinking too fast. But better, I discovered, if made with CInzano and wine. Prettier too.
*The bag and shoe shops are stuffed with objects of desire. As I’d left my credit card on the kitchen table by mistake, the frustration I experienced when browsing inside was acute.
*Best ice-cream in the world. But everyone knows that.
*Sirmione, on Lake Garda, was home to three great writers, Catullus, Dante and one Naomi Jacobs from Ripon. She has her own plaque there.
*Red trousers definitely look better on Italian men!
Finally, I’d like to be able to tell you about what I read, but as I’m on the judging panel for the Costa Short Story Award this year, I can only say that I had my iPad and a constant supply of stories. Just off to read a few more now.