Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A hidden gem in Italy: You say Mantua, I say Mantova

I ended up in Mantua (or, as the Italians call it, Mantova) quite by accident. It was added on as an afterthought to the end of a business trip I was accompanying my husband on. It was close enough to our previous location (Zurich) and the airport we were flying home from (Milan). I gave it the Google Image test and it passed.

And so it became the sixteenth Italian city I've visited.

Mantua was a delightful surprise: Very Italian (nearly no English), very quirky (just look at that church!), and very lively.

I won't bore you with the city's history, but it's suffice to say it's brimming with enough palazzos and medieval looking castles to keep you busy for a weekend, at the very least. But I wasn't there for that. I was in Mantua to just be: in my opinion, the best way to spend any time in an Italian city.

We stayed at the Ca Delle Erbe - perhaps the most beautiful hotel I've ever seen in Italy - and splurged on a superior suite with a balcony and view over one of the city's main piazzas. Next door is a bakery (owned by the hotel) and the smell of bread and sweets wafted up into our room in the morning. Swoon.

We ate at the Osteria Delle Erbe, owned by the same family as our hotel and its bakery. It was here I was introduced to three Mantuan culinary specialities: Sparkling red Lambrusco wine (yummier than it sounds), Mantuan cake, and Mantuan mustard (mostardo).

The cake is like a giant buttery, oatmeal and almond cookie: It tastes just like memories of grandma's house. The mustards look like jams, jellies, and preserved fruit. They taste sweet but finish with a slightly spicy mustard taste. They're weird and wonderful and accompany a grainy parmagiano cheese perfectly.

Before we left we had to run to the bakery and buy some for ourselves. I still have a cake sitting in my freezer, and two jars of mustard - one orange, one blackberry - waiting for a rainy day. 

The rest of the food at the osteria was so good we overstuffed ourselves at dinner and then went back for lunch the next day and did it all over again. 

Mantua: A culinary wonderland. Who would have thought? 

I arrived in Mantua with no expectations and 24 hours later it had charmed my socks off. At the end of my brief stay I was quite pleased with myself for having found one of Italy's mythical hidden gems: Those cities where the architecture is good, the food is great, and the people watching is even better.

The kind of cities you hear people talking about wistfully decades after their visit. 

The kind of cities that confront you with the most beautiful imagery that is nearly impossible to capture in photographs: The moss covered medieval castles set against rolling fields set against the distant, snow-capped Alps; The optical illusion that makes it appear as though the city floats in the middle of the twelflth-century artificial lakes that surround it. 

The kind of city that is curiously, but wondrously, not part of the the Italian tourist trail. Yet.


ate at: Osteria Delle Erbe, open until 11 pm
parked: public street parking, free overnight and on Sundays
best souvenirs: Mantuan 'cakes' and 'mustards', pictured above.
good for: romantics, honeymooners, history buffs, foodies


  1. Gosh, the medieval architecture is so impressive! Looks like a special place.

  2. Wow, this looks like a magical historical city! Made better by the fact that it is not on the tourist trail!

  3. What a great discovery! I'm putting it on my 'Weekends away' list. Thanks.

    1. It's well worth seeing! Thanks for reading Jenny :)

  4. oh italy. mantua is a place i have yet to see. but you don't need to convince me.. it looks beautiful.

  5. Unexpected stays and exceeded expectations are one of my favourite things in the world when traveling.

    (And that church - how many architects worked on it? I bet it has a very interesting story!)


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