Cities Along the Po River - a journey through northern Italy's history
When considering touring Italy, most visitors probably want to see the major cities of Florence, Rome, Venice. Without a doubt, these are the highlights for a reason. But smaller towns can provide a better understanding of Italian history and offer their own fascination. These places were the backdrop for the struggle for power that comprised much of the drama of Italian history.
In addition to the church and the baptistery, we were treated to a demonstration of violin-making and a visit to the collezione di Palazzo Comunale where the town collection is on display, the oldest by Andrea Amati dates back to 1566. These beloved instruments are played regularly to keep them in good physical condition and we were treated to a short but lovely concert.
It's hard to miss the town's connection with Stradivarius, who is perhaps the most famous of the illustrious line of violin-makers of Cremona. The Stradivarian Museum contains objects from his workshop, there's a statue to him on the Piazza Stradivari, and the Tomb of Stradivari in the Piazza Roma. The International Violinmakers School is also located in Cremona at the Palazzo Raimondi. If you aren't on a tour, your first stop must be the tourist information office in the Piazza del Comune, for a map and information.
Roncole & Busseto
It is said that Verdi never actually set foot in the theater which opened in 1868. Verdi was against building it, saying the theater was too expensive and would be useless in the future. But the town fathers went ahead regardless of his resistance. He was absent at its opening even though one of his most famous operas, Rigoletto, was performed. The elegant theater has been restored and reopened, but in a sense Verdi was right. It holds only 300 people.
Unfortunately, he died shortly after Sabbioneta was completed and his widow was unable to hold on to the city, which passed out of the hands of his family. The Duke's private residence is noted for its heavily frescoed walls and impressively long gallery, surpassed in length only by the Vatican and Uffizi galleries. The Ducal Palace (Palazzo Ducale) includes equestrian figures of Vespasiano and his Gonzaga ancestors. There is also rumored to be a synagogue somewhere in the town, the remnant of the Jewish community from the 16th century.
Tours are available for many of the buildings. Although it's lovely to wander here and there enjoying the sights at your own pace, it's the stories that bring the history of the city to life. The tourist office (Ufficio del turismo) is located by the Garden Palace.
Montova (also known as Mantua)
Even if you don't come during the opera season, there is the lure of romance at 23 Via Cappello, Juliet's House. The story of Romeo and Juliet has some basis in truth. The house (and balcony) form a popular attraction.
The Piazza Dei Signori is another part of the tumultuous history of Verona. It contains the Scaligieri Graves. The Scaligeri ruled Verona for over 120 years starting about 1260. Their ruthless tactics earned them the nicknames of Mastino (mastiff) and Can Grande (big dog), but they are also credited with bringing some measure of peace to a city which had been the battlegrounds for rival families. Towards the end of their rule the Scaligeri built Castelvecchio. Today the attraction is its impressive size with a unique bridge stretching over the Adige River. It also contains a permanent collection of Veronese art from the 14th to 18th century.
Verona also has intimate street markets lined with buildings still showing their early frescoes (Piazza delle Erbe) and elegant shopping streets paved with marble (Via Mazzini).
The cruise ships pull in and disgorge thousands of visitors who line up to visit St. Mark's Basilica, buy gelato in the Piazza San Marco, and stroll along the Grand Canal. And for some reason we haven't been able to understand, they like to feed the pigeons and have their picture taken covered in birds. (The River Cloud II being a small vessel can only disgorge about 90 visitors at most.) Venice is also a big city with the hustle and bustle of commerce. Part of that commerce is the lucrative tourist trade. There's no shortage of shops catering to visitors selling Venetian masks, Murano glass, and more.
Venice is divided into sestieres or boroughs. The most famous is San Marco which contains the major sights. Visit the Galleria dell'Academia with its collection of Venetian masters, the Peggy Guggenheim Gallery with its more modern works. Stand near the Bridge of Sighs that links the Doges' Palace to the old prisons. Stroll along the streets and discover tiny museums and churches.
The Venetian lagoon also contains the Lido with its beaches and waterfront hotels, Murano, home of the deservedly famous (but not necessarily inexpensive) Murano glass, and the charming island of Burano known for its lace (which is usually imported rather than produced locally).
The pity of Venice is that it is sinking into the lagoon. During rains the water can rise up and cover the piazzas, seep into hotel lobbies and threaten the viability of a beautiful marvel of engineering. And in the summer it is overrun with tourists. But see it anyway. It is worth it.
Note: When this article was originally written, several companies offered luxury cruises along the Po River. We traveled on the River Cloud II which is a beautiful boat. However, as of 2005/2006 the company is no longer running Po River cruises and does not expect to offer them in the future. But these cities are well-worth a visit. Car trips can be fun!