Superb Sounds in DC
January 26, 2008Washington DC
Tonight we decided to do something very cosmopolitan – a downtown dinner followed by a string quartet concert at the Renwick Gallery, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. We were particularly vulnerable to the advertisement in the Weekend Entertainment Section of the Washington Post since it mentioned the Axelrod String Quartet would be playing on four stringed instruments from the Smithsonian’s collection of ancient violins. Having just returned from Cremona, the small Italian town where the world’s first and finest violins were made in the early 1600’s, and having just learned about the Amati family who refined the primitive fiddle into the cultured delicate instrument we call the violin, we were game to have another opportunity to be in the same room with greatness hearing these magnificent Amati instruments played right here in our own river city.It’s always fun to dress up a little and go to downtown DC for an evening out. We started off with dinner at 5:30 - early even by American norms – at Nage (which Anne had read about on Daily Candy) on the lobby level of the Marriott at Scott Circle. The innovative combinations of ingredients such as pumpkin, papaya, truffles, sweet potato, shrimp, foie gras, and even halibut cheek (not all in one offering) were intriguing but I just got a nice shoulder loin steak with truffled potatoes. Anne, however, went all out for the Lobster Pot Pie. We got out of there without succumbing to the treats on the dessert menu and started the mile long walk down Connecticut Avenue to Pennsylvania Avenue. Just past the Mayflower Hotel, with sirens blaring, a DC Park Police Harley roared across our path turning left on to L Street. Five more Harleys followed the first one down L Street; then came several black SUVs – the fifth one with little flags on the hood signifying what country the dignitary inside might be a dictator of. We couldn’t determine the country from the flag on the hood, rushing by in the dark, but it looked like they were going to the Washington Hilton from one of the embassies. The extravagant show was soon over: L Street re-opened to traffic and, the noise resumed its normal level.
As we turned on to Pennsylvania, a policeman on a bicycle asked if he could help us find our destination. Pointing to the 150 year old brick building beside us, the Renwick Gallery we said thanks but we just found the place we were looking for. The familiar brick building, designed by architect James Renwick, was built just before our Civil War for William Corcoran. It was built in the French Second Empire style – America’s first building with a mansard roof - and inspired by the Louvre's new Tuileries addition in Paris. It has an impressive central slate dome on the roof with supporting square towers in each corner. In a city dominated by neo-classical light colored sandstone and marble construction, the dark brick of the Renwick Gallery along with the Smithsonian Castle (also designed by Renwick) causes these two buildings to stand out in pleasing contrast.
We’re seated in an elegant gallery filled almost floor to ceiling with paintings of American Indians, with a few large canvases of our national parks.
Before the concert, the Axelrod Quartet’s cellist and viola player conducted a tag-team lecture about the development of string quartets in general. It was interesting to hear that although there had been music composed for string quartets for years, it was usually played by selected members of a symphony who got together temporarily to rehearse and perform a particular piece. The idea of a permanent traveling and performing quartet didn’t really catch on until the beginning of the 20th century.
I was also fascinated by the fact that the performance of a piece takes on an entirely new character after a quartet has played it for about a decade compared to the performance of an ad hoc group of instrumentalists when they first begin playing it. They also talked about life on the road, traveling from Vienna to Tokyo to Amsterdam and beyond, and how important it is not only to have compatible personalities but complimentary life goals to keep a group together for twenty years or more. When asked who is his favorite stringed quartet composer, the viola player listed Beethoven first, explaining that though he (Beethoven) had composed 85 works for stringed quartet, the Axelrod Quartet had only prepared 13 for performance. Every time they play through a new one, they anticipate they’ll find one that is not as great as the ones they know so well; after all he must have slacked off on one or two in his lifetime. But they soon discover that each one is a real masterpiece with the mark of genius.
When the performers and the 400 year old instruments made their appearance, it took a while for me to remember that the concert is about the music, not the performers or the instruments. For a good long while, for me at least, it was all about the instruments. Imagine a Tiger Woods exhibition round using the original set of golf clubs from the glass case at Saint Andrews or watching a modern day sculptor working with the chisels Michelangelo used to create David. Sure the golf and the sculpture would be great, but how could you think of anything other than the instruments being used to perform the art?
These instruments not only defined what it means to be a violin, cello, or viola, but for the quality of sound they produce they are unmatched by an instrument made by any craftsman (or computerized machine) during the last three centuries. Somewhat like a tiny baby they are so valuable, so important, so fragile, so in need of being touched and played and tuned to keep alive. The environment around them is constantly checked for the most amiable temperature and humidity and only those who appreciate them are allowed to touch them. It’s awe inspiring to imagine these four instruments are made from trees growing in northern Italy at the beginning of the 1600s by the hands of predecessors of the great Antonio Stradivari in Cremona’s tiny musical instrument making workshop district. These instruments, though made for someone else, found their way into the hands of the Smithsonian and are tonight being played by the Axelrod String Quartet for whoever wants to come to the Renwick to hear and see them. How much more integrated into musical history can you get?
The instruments’ un-amplified tones - deep and dark; crisp and light, soothing and disturbing, of course, are a tremendous presence in the room but eventually the power of the performers and the music begins to break through.
Each performer, though focused on their own role is completely engaged with what the other is trying to accomplish. Unlike some performers, classical quartet performers are not known for their physical expressiveness. But their heads are constantly moving sometimes melodically but at times with a military snap for emphasis. Their peripheral vision is ever active, reading the composed notes and marks for their own instrument while watching the bows and movements of the others. An occasional eyebrow is lifted so an eye can contact another eye to gauge the degree of tenderness, volume, or length with which a note crucial to the effect is to be finished. Even when one’s part is to rest a while, each performer fits his role into the success of the whole to produce beauty.
The program included quartets composed by Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, and a more contemporary Benjamin Britten. The difference between the wispy loveliness of the Haydn piece and the robust, substantial Beethoven was akin to the difference between the contemplative beauty of Perugino’s frescoes and the emphatic in-your-face frescoes of Signorelli. Britten’s first movement, the allegro calmo senza rigore, is eerily fascinating and I’ve seen a cello bowed and plucked before but never strummed like a ukulele!
At the end of the performance we made our way discretely to the green room hoping for an up close look at the Amatis. Last October in Madrid after the Fine Arts Quartet’s performance on the Spanish royal family’s four Stradivaris, the instruments were locked in their cases and quickly whisked away to an undisclosed location before anyone other than the performers could see or touch them. Tonight the instruments are as accessible as the open, friendly performers. The viola, named, “The Professor Wirth,” made in 1663 by Nicolo Amati is slightly wider and longer than today’s regular sized viola. And the violin named “The Louis XIV,” built in 1656 by the same son of Andrea Amati, is finished with fleur-de-lys and a vine and leaf motif accented with tiny green and red stones.
Everyone we spoke with backstage was delightful and the first violinist even let me hold The Louis XIV for a brief moment (Anne apologizes for the less-than-perfect photo). I’m sure I looked like a bachelor with a newborn, but that’s OK, I’ll remember that feeling for a long time.
A Day in Milan
Sunday, January 13 2008
At our final hotel breakfast our tall Tuscan host, who’d loaned us the umbrella last night gave us a special plate of biscotti for dipping into our cappuccini, then he told us how to get to the Dominican convent of Santa Maria della Grazie.
We hurry off down still unfamiliar streets to our appointment with Leonardo. After scores of last suppers had been painted on the short end of European monastic dining halls, Lodovico il Moro commissioned Leonardo in 1494 to paint the last word in last suppers (called a cenacolo) for the nuns at Santa Maria. The finished product, four years later, was considered a more faithful capture of the disciples’ expressions following Christ’s announcement that one of them would betray him than any cenacolo that had been painted before. This, it was said, is what it really looked like. Unfortunately, Leonardo considered it somewhat like an ice sculpture to be appreciated immediately for its beauty and interesting reactions and interactions among the four groups of three disciples – but not to last 500 years. Even before the fresco was finished, flakes of color were fluttering to the floor of the convent dining room. By 1517 Vasari described the characters as vague and the details hard to make out. The last attempt at cleaning and restoration, stretching from 1977 to 1999 eliminated the thick coatings added by previous restorers, electronically addressed the humidity issues that caused the problems in the first place, and touched up some of the missing details. Critics said it didn’t look like it did before, but wasn’t that the point?
Anne last saw the fresco in 1989 with our daughter, Sunshine. At the time the figures were so faint as to be indistinguishable from each other; and some of the fresco was covered with scaffolding. Now, there are still gaps in some of the figure’s robes, but the colors are dreamy and peaceful and because the faces express surprise, pride, superiority, or even certainty, or guilt and defiance, it’s not difficult to imagine being there at the moment Leonardo depicted. I didn’t realize that John was leaning away from Jesus because Peter, with a knife in his right hand, was pulling John by the shoulder toward him with his left hand to whisper something in his ear (don't worry, we didn't sneak a photo of this treasure - just bought the postcard!).
On the opposite wall of the refectory (dining room), getting little comparative attention, is a crucifixion scene by Giovanni Donato de Mantorfano. It was painted at the same time as the Last Supper but since Donato followed the established method for the fresco craft, his work is much more vividly hued with intricate details visible, including letters, horses bits and manes, and angels surrounding the dying Christ.
We visited the church connected to the convent. It’s Sunday morning and the place is packed for
mass. In a side chapel under the jewel-toned frescoed arches Anne noticed a lovely bas relief of angels. I looked around for the highly touted tribune (pulpit) but because there was a mass going on, I couldn’t get close enough to see it. Both frescos and the church interior can be found at http://milan.arounder.com/
The sun, which we haven’t seen for a week, surprises us when we come out of the church and walk up Corso Magenta and Via Meravigli to the center of Milan. We spy a Santa Maria Novella perfumery, a branch of the body lotions store in Florence, across the street from the Archeological Museum. We were surprised to find any stores open on Sunday because we’d read in a guidebook that there’s a city restriction from opening on Sunday. We found a men’s shop named Adler that had an overcoat just my size…we’ve been wanting to take advantage of these great sales that only occur in January and July – this is our chance!
Our preferences for lunch – following the snail logo of the Hosteria de Italia (Slow Food) guide to restaurants – were closed for the holidays so we had to grab some sustenance at a downtown tourist only bar, sparkling with chandeliers. The menu had some of the same words as other northern Italian restaurants but when they brought the food to the table, it didn’t taste the same. The difference is in quality ingredients, and the chef’s love of food and flavor. This place couldn’t survive on repeat business; and it doesn’t have to, there will always be enough foot traffic to keep it in business whether the food tastes great – or not.
By the time we got ready to go up on the roof of the Duomo, the sun had gone and it was raining. Well, there’s always next visit, besides, by now we’ve discovered that because of the winter sales, nearly all the shops are open after all, so we go gallery hopping and window shopping.
The elegant Galleria is a don’t miss stop in Milan, with its glass dome high above the intricate mosaic
loor, and just to make sure we all behave, a couple of extravagantly uniformed handsome policemen who look like they could have just come from a dress rehearsal at La Scala, next door.
We admire the statue of Leonardo da Vinci in the Piazza della Scala then cross the street to the renowned opera house. All the doors are closed, as we thought, but we went next door to the Museo Teatrale alla Scala to check out the tour times.
The artifacts related to Giuseppe Verdi and other old set designs, costumes, and sheet music will make this museum an interesting part of our tour’s day trip to Milan in September.
After a stop for coffee at Gelateria Pasticceria Passerieri on Via Spadari, we took the tram (we end up on a vintage clackety-clack wooden tram – there aren’t many of those left!) from downtown back to our hotel next to Piazza Giovanni XXIII.
We needed to make sure we knew where to pick up the Malpensa Express train to the airport in the morning so we went to the North Station to check it out and buy tickets.
The Castello Sforzesco was only a few blocks away so we wandered through the huge enclosed courtyard, and through the towering gates.
On the first floor is a Museum of Musical Instruments that may also be of interest to music lovers – especially the spinet that was once played by Mozart.
We had read that, like Torino, the bars in Milan put out a spread of finger food for their customers to snack on while
they’re standing at the bar having an early evening drink. We like to experience that so after enjoying the view of the Duomo at night – almost glittering in the frosty air - we looked around the center of town for a bar with lots of food on the counter. The only one we found after walking around the blocks near the Duomo was one with a very long line. So we caught the #27 tram back toward our hotel and got off the tram at the beginning of Corso Sempione hoping we’d do better a little outside the crowded center of town. Heading west we spotted a bar (the tres hip Desea) and through the front window we could see they had ton of food on the counter. When we went in we were surprised that they showed us to a table. We could see that patrons were going up to the bar and filling their plates like at a pot luck dinner. So after we ordered drinks we went to check out the bar food. There were crudites, sliced meats, salads, grilled vegetables, focaccia, and cheese. Enough for a meal if one wanted to go back for seconds. Our son, Josh would have loved this place. Most of the patrons were his age. But he’d probably be banned for life for making all the free food disappear.
Tomorrow’s our flight home after almost 3 weeks away; and we’re both ready to get back in the saddle doing the things that need to be done. So goodbye to Italy, hope to see you again soon.
Verona - Too Lovely to Leave!
Verona - Milan, Italy
Saturday, January 12 2008
We are enjoying our stay at the Hotel Trieste - a marble bathroom with a huge rain-shower head, a sleekly contemporary, though small (happens alot in Europe) room,
with a flat screen TV and a balcony with great views to the historic center and the countryside beyond; a lovely lobby that reminds me of Amsterdam's dramatic, tall-windowed drawing rooms, and wifi, always a necessity.
We've checked out several hotels for the fall tour, and think we're happiest of all with the one we're in!
After a plentiful buffet breakfast at the hotel, we are determined to see three previously unexplored biggies of Verona: the Castello Vecchio (the gigantic castle that was part of the medieval fortifications), the Ponte Pietra (a Roman bridge over the River Adige), and over the bridge, the outdoor Roman theater.
We've determined that Verona will make a wonderful beginning for the fall tour, so are going to spend the day here and leave for Milan in the early evening, instead of earlier as we originally
The big brick castle dominates much of the western part of town. It was built into the medieval wall to control access to Verona over the Ponte Scaligero. A thirty foot lowered drawbridge welcomes us inside the thick walls. Beside it is a narrow one-man drawbridge with a five foot opening to allow one person in at a time without his horse.
From the main portal, we walked straight through the castle to the middle of the brick bridge over the River Adige. The river isn’t deep but it makes a distinct loop first up then over then down around the Roman part of town.
We turned around at the middle of the bridge and stepped back into the castle’s parade grounds, then walked to another big arched brick portal and back into modern Verona.
The entire street, Corso Cavour, is lined by palazzi from the 16 through 19th centuries. Some appear at first to be a city block lined with shops, but when we look closely we can usually see a large central door and five or six windows on either side of it. Each palazzo, though adjacent to the next has a slightly different colored plaster, possibly a decorative fresco, and we can see where one roofline stops and the next one starts. They’re in use now for professional offices, other country’s consulates, or for apartments. Peeking in the occasional door left ajar, we’re often pleased to find beautiful courtyards with second story loggias, a central fountain, or maybe a palm tree with some nicely arranged giant potted boxwoods around it.
Anne took photos of some balconies that could well have been Juliet’s and peeked into several high schools - pretty as a picture with their inviting green inner courtyards. Hard to imagine going to high school in such an attractive place.
There were also some remarkable windows with the pointed look of Byzantine-influence that came with Venetian control of the city.
We made it to the old Roman bridge with its stone and brick protecting tower and crossed it to see the Roman theatre, outdoor semicircular rows of seating. It’s a relic not now in regular use for performances as is the pink amphitheatre in the center, rather is the Archeological Museum displaying lots of other Roman columns and capitals.
Crossing back to new(er) Verona, we wandered through the Renaissance Center once again - Dante in the courtyard of the Palazzo Ragione keeping a stern eye on us as we passed.
We strolled by a lavish palazzo that’s now the home of an Aerosoles shoe store – think of that next time you shop at the mall!
And we finally found the Pozzo del Amore (the well of love) in the area adjacent to the Roman forum. Guess it's a must-see in romantic Verona.
Lunch is at the Twelve Apostles – beautiful inside and out! It was named for twelve local business people who met here regularly for lunch about 30 years ago. They sponsor an annual journalism and literary prize for Italian writers. The ceremony is here every December. In a beautifully frescoed room, we started with two different kinds of gnocchi, then lamb chops on a bed of crisply fried thinner-than-paper potatoes.
The service by Giuliano was warmly professional –
he added to the ambience and made the entire meal even more delightful as he switched from Italian to German to English to find a language we wouldn’t struggle in. For dessert, he rolled three carts of temptations to our table. He described several different fresh and candied fruits and berries, local tortas, pies, cakes, a rolled chocolate log. I opted for a taste of each of the fruits with whipped cream on top. Then he went from cart to cart picking out the fresh fruits including mango and papaya. He said when he served it that I’d have to wait a minute for the whipped cream.
He came out of the kitchen with a bowl bigger than a cereal bowl full of freshly whipped cream. I could only use a dollop, but what a feast. Anne went for a taste of everything else: dried fruits and nuts in a honey and grappa sauce, a mocha cake roll, and the local specialty, Verona Pan d’Oro cake. A fabulous meal – we’ve found our first night’s restaurant for the tour!
When we were settling up, Giuliano asked if we’d like to see the wine cellar. Of course, ever eager to learn, we followed him downstairs. First was a room with spirits that was temperature controlled, then we stepped in to a room that was naturally about 60 degrees Fahrenheit; that’s where the wine is kept. Roomy and with tons of wine but pretty unimpressive, then he said he’d take us down another level to see the Roman ruins he hadn’t told us about.
Through a glass door he led us while telling us that 28 years ago while renovating the cellar, they discovered some Roman foundations. Of course, the work came to a halt and the archeological experts were brought in. They dug all around the cellar, uncovering the long side and corner of a Roman temple and a perfectly preserved pink marble Roman road as it turned the corner around the temple. On easels, there were displays of the ancient town and he pointed out the corner on top of which the restaurant was built. Beside the temple is the forum, still open but used now as a market square named Piazza delle Erbe. The Roman foundation was as big a surprise to them as to us who thought we were just going to visit the wine cellar.
After lunch we visited the above ground marble tombs of the Scaligera family. The family’s nicknames were all dog related, including one named Cangrande I (the Big Dog), the tombs are guarded by marble dogs.
We’d heard the wine by the glass (bichiere) was reasonably priced at Enoteca Dal Zovo
and that it was a treat to chat with Beverly, the owner’s wife. Fortunately, Beverly was there. She told us she was from Chicago and lots of other interesting stories about the shop’s conversion from church to wine bar.
When we came out of the enoteca, the promised rain had started in earnest, so we got a taxi to take us to the hotel to pick up our luggage and then to the train station where we caught a train for Milan. We have a six person compartment all to ourselves. Good thing, with our ever- expanding luggage, I don’t think we could fit another person in there. After a taxi to the Hotel Lancaster and a quick unpacking, we got a recommendation from the hotel to go to Taverna dei Golosi
on Corso Sempione. The desk clerk drew the arrows on the map, loaned us an umbrella and we braved a pretty hard rain, map in hand, about three blocks to the restaurant. As we began drying off, the host is saying they don’t have room for us. With our wet map and clothes and a sad look we ask if he could recommend a nearby restaurant. He did and as we were getting oriented with the map, the owner came out, had pity on us (I guess we looked like wet rats) and said he could find a table for us. We soon had a bountiful basket of bread – 5 different kinds – , an amuse bouch of olives breaded and fried on a bed of arugula, and a delightful waiter from the Dominican Republic.
We shared three courses - a tower of eggplant, tomato, and warm mozzarella and a papardelle with zucchini cream and julienne of giant calamari, then on of the best fritto mistos we’ve ever had - chunks of sweet shrimp, crayfish, and even some lightly breaded artichokes.
We loved the local fizzy Pino Grigio called Vino Vivace with its natural fermentation. We finished dinner with a local specialty, pear and chocolate torta.
The evening’s entertainment was watching the waiters work the slicing contraption as they prepared the very popular salumi antipasti platter. We’ve seen the super-slicers in kitchenware shop windows as we’ve strolled the shopping streets.
In the U.S. they’re only used by butchers but here they’re out in the restaurants, and well used! They’re usually maroon enamel; there’s a big manual crank on the front that spins the foot wide blade and passes it back and forth, a dial for thickness on the right, and a spring switch on the left to slide the meat or cheese toward the blade with each pass. There’s also a gripper to hold the food in place.
We’ve seen offers to brides in store windows to list these as wedding gifts but I can’t imagine that they’d often be seen in home kitchens – sure would take up a lot of counter space!
Anne had to untangle our umbrella from the mountain by the front door. The rain hadn’t stopped when we walked back to the hotel, returned the borrowed umbrella and, hoping for a clear day, dreamed of tomorrow’s visit to Leonardo’s Last Supper.
Mantua - Verona, Italy
Friday, January 11 2008
We checked out of Mantua before breakfast and pointed our rental car toward lovely Verona. We we were last here about one year ago when we were doing day trips from Padua, where we had arranged a house-trade for a week. A little familiarity goes such a long way when trying to get our bearings and find things. Rather than inching into a big traffic circle praying for a sign pointing us in the right direction, we zoom confidently through with disdain for those ignorant tourists who don’t have a clue (usually us!!). Destination is Hotel Trieste, a lovely hotel on Corso Porto Nuovo – only two problems: the parking spaces in front are taped off by the city of Verona because they’re trimming the trees from a cherry picker out front – and it’s raining. One of the city workers (perhaps a Montague?) tells us if we park there, we could have big plane tree branches fall on our car. Finally he conceded and pointed to the sidewalk so our car would be out of his way. This is Italy after all and we’ve learned that in this country, anybody can park wherever they want to. So we pulled up over the curb to the sidewalk. Everybody just walked around us like people park on the sidewalk all the time. After we unloaded the luggage, I moved the car out of harm’s way.
We left the hotel and walked by a favorite golden palazzo with arresting heads looking down on us, and through the Portoni della Bra and into the Piazza Bra, saying hello to the bust of Shakespeare on the big gate (he’s a big deal here because the notoriously feuding families of Verona are the basis of the plot of his play, Romeo and Juliet.)
The pink marble arena is so impressive. Much like the ones in Arles and Orange, France, it’s just there like it has been for 2,057 years and it’s used by the people of Verona for operas and concerts regularly. Only these two directives are given to the people who attend events here: No glass containers, and bring a pillow. The marble is beautiful with the nautilus fossils in the marble surface shined to a bright pink hue by thousands of rear ends in togas and now blue jeans; but after about a half hour it gets real hard and, I suppose, they’ve had difficulty sweeping up the broken glass from wine bottles after a concert.
We stopped at many trattorias and hotels (checking menus, rooms and common areas)
to evaluate them for the upcoming tour, ambled down several shopping streets, passed through the former Roman forum, now Piazza della Erbe, and found a lunch stop by the Ponte Garibaldi named La Pergola. On the wall, there’s an antique photo of restaurant guests eating at tables out front under a large grape pergola. Now the pergola with twisting grapevines is painted on the walls and ceiling to give the effect that diners are eating outside under the vines. Except for an adorned gothic window, there’s not a trace that the restaurant is in a decommissioned medieval church.
One after another of the hotel desk clerks tell us that during the September dates, there’s a premier international marble vendors’ convention in the city and their rooms are already booked for those days. We are weighing the possibility of starting the tour here and finishing it in Cremona for that reason.
We also take a long walk down Corso Porta Borsari, another shopping street named after the first century archway over the street where it begins – what a pleasure to turn a corner and unexpectedly find a millennia-old arch!
We noted interesting pastry shops for recommendation including Patisserie Barin on the right side of Corso Porta Borsari after going under the arch.
Our first choices for dinner were either closed or had no tables, but we had to sample a place for a nice first dinner in Verona if we start the tour here. We settled on Il Desco, recommended as “the king of Verona restaurants,” in a 15th century palace.
The entire wait staff is out front in the street and when we go in, they go in to action, a different one holding each of our chairs, pouring Prosecco, lighting our candles, delivering the basket of bread, giving us the menus, and serving an amuse bouche. Soon our suspicions are confirmed, this is no place for a medium priced tour to eat, even for the first night. One look at the menu convinced us that this is just too high-end and too low ratio of value to price. We didn’t order dessert but they brought us a little sample of each one –a nice touch!
It was a beautiful night to walk the long way back to the hotel,
taking note of the many architectural beauties (“Juliet balconies” abound!) in this gem of a city.
We walked along the Adige River bank up to Sant’ Anastasia church then back down the Corso Porta Borsari the opposite direction from this afternoon. Spending more time this trip in the Roman part of the town was really enjoyable. Second trips to places like this are really rewarding. We’re already looking forward to returning for a third.
More Mantua and Gorgeous Lake Garda
Mantua - Sirmione, Italy
Thursday, January 10 2008
Long before the sun shines through the windows, the vendors begin the clanging and banging of setting up their mobile stalls for the weekly open air market. By the time we get up, open the curtains, and step out on to our corner balcony, we’re above a sea of stalls. Bright merchandise of every type fills the piazzi to the left and right of us and the streets beside and in front of our hotel.
After breakfast, we have to scour them all as we did on market day in Cremona to find a seller of travel bags and luggage. About to concede that the usually present “Bag Guy” just didn’t show up in the winter, we spot him and he had exactly what we needed to pack the books and brochures we’ve accumulated over the last 2 ½ weeks.
From our balcony we could take a better picture of a rather bizarre form of punishment. Last night we’d read a historical marker at the street level of a 200 foot 15th century tower. At about the 10th floor level a medieval iron cage was attached to the exterior.
The marker said it was used at one time as a jail cell for criminals.
Now there’s a motivator to stay on the straight and narrow!
The hotel owner showed us on the map, the best way to get to Sirmione and told us not to go in summer or on the weekend. It’s just too crowded with tourists. She also told us about the beautiful views of Lake Garda from the mountains on the eastern shore of the lake and recommended a drive around at least the southeastern shoreline.
Sirmione’s around an hour from Mantua, and at this time of year, we’re able to park pretty close to the fortress-gated entrance to the town at the end of a 2 mile long, 100 yard wide sliver of land sticking up from the south shore of Lago di Garda. It’s much like Key West or Provincetown, Massachusetts, or Portovenere, Italy – an interesting little village surrounded by water at the end of a long drive. Only homewners’ or hotel resident’s cars are allowed past the pneumatic tree trunks in the street that don’t recede for tourists’ cars. Some of the passageways are only wide enough for one car so those spots are controlled by traffic lights. Drivers are instructed to turn off their engines while they wait for a green light. Some of the tiny courtyards must have been filling up with fumes.
After marveling at the tiny moated fortress and the palm fringed piazza (the mountains protect Lake Garda from the cold, providing a microclimate that allows palms, bougainvillea and other species to flourish year round), we headed out on foot to the northernmost point past stone houses and shops and a large undeveloped part with olive trees to the rocky beach. From there we could see even through the mist, the snowy peaks across the lake.
Then we took the panoramic promenade back to the center of the village where we visited a small chapel on via Santa Maria Maggiore with a nativity scene and some marvelous frescoes. They had red banners by the front door with the names, parents’ names, and birthdays of the four babies born to church families in 2007.
We had a quick lunch of rectangular pizza slices and found our way (by car) around to the eastern side of the lake. By the time we got close enough to the lake to see it again, we were several hundred feet high. At scenic overlooks, we could see the rooftops of Torri di Benaco while we descended to the lake’s level. These gorgeous views of the lake and the ferries crossing it to the towns between the far shore and the western mountains would be even more dramatic on a clear day. When we made it down to Torri di Benaco, we turned south toward the town of Garda, then drove back through the Lombardian flatland, through the pumpkin farms and huge solid stone farm houses back to Mantua.
We found the Church of San Lorenzo, Mantua’s oldest church from 1090 opened and went in.
It is a small – about 50 feet across - two story brick cylinder with a circle of ten columns and arches on the upper level on top of ten columns and arches on the ground level.
The upper level is known as the women’s gallery. I for one am glad that over the last 1,000 years, Christian architecture allows for men and women to worship together.
We strolled down the main shopping street, checking out the rooms and common areas of a possible hotel for the tour and bought a pound of coffee beans from a torrefazione (roaster). We spotted a Santa Maria Novella beauty goods shop and a Grom ice cream counter. Two extra points for Mantua.
For dinner, we took the hotel’s recommendation of Hosteria dei Cannossa and it’s just perfect with dark wood, a huge fireplace, brick walls, terra cotta tile floor, ancient beamed ceiling, nice linens and heavy silver candlesticks – we’ve found our special Mantua restaurant for the fall tour!
The current owners have been here about ten years. The building is part of the Cannossa Palace complex from the 1600-1700s. The palace is now owned by the family that runs Piaggio, the firm that makes Vespas and Apes. It’s just us, one waiter and at least two people in the kitchen tonight in a restaurant that seats at least 75.
The waiter is from Brazil and informative about the preparation of the food and the history of the place – we start with a couple of appetizers, one of which, asparagus wrapped in flaky pastry and served on a pool of melted taleggio cheese, is as beautiful as it is delicious.
The finale was a don’t miss chocolate delight – can you tell we enjoyed it??
The restaurant is called Vinoteca con Cucina Hosteria dei Canosse on Vicolo Albergo.
There’s a separate pizza restaurant adjacent to the Hosteria facing Piazza Connossa.
We’ll be leaving Mantua tomorrow for Verona and making a decision about whether to stay in Mantua and visit Verona or vice versa for the September tour. There’s certainly plenty to see and do in and around Mantua and it is beginning to grow on us.