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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.

Cremona
Cremona, founded by the Romans in 218 BC, is quite simply the violin capital of the world. The streets are lined with the shops of makers of all manner of stringed instruments.

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.

Parma
Our next stop was the town of Parma. Parma is indeed the home of famed Parma ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Although famous for its food, Parma was once the capital of a grand duchy ruled over by the Farnese family. It was, for a time, a possession of Austria. It is also known for a scent produced locally, Violetta di Parma.

Roncole & Busseto
These are the towns associated with the famous composer Giuseppe Verdi. He was actually born in Roncole, which has changed its name to Roncole-Verdi in his honor. His home is the main attraction of the tiny village. His professional career began when Antonio Barezzi, a wealthy merchant, asked him to move to Busseto and become a music teacher for his daughter, Margherita. Barezzi became not only Verdi's patron, but also his father-in-law when Verdi married Margherita in 1836. A monument to Verdi overlooks the town square, which is also the site of the annual Verdi Festival. There is, of course, a museum to the famous son, and a tiny gem of a theatre built in his honor.

It is said that Verdi never actually set foot in the theater which opened in po-verdi.jpg - 22746 Bytes1868. 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.

Sabbioneta
In the politics of the independent cities that made up much of Italy, Sabbioneta may be a footnote, but it is the footnote of a visionary. By some accounts Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna (1531-1591) was not a nice man, but as the founder of Sabbioneta he had a dream, to turn an old castle and a tiny village into a planned utopian city. In a few years (variously estimated somewhere between 10 and 30) he planned and built an elegant star-shaped town with a grid system of streets, magnificent palaces (and churches) and a roofed theater.

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. po-sab.jpg - 49107 BytesThe 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)
As we journeyed from one city to another, it soon became clear that the history of Italy is intertwined with the story of the Gonzagas, one of the richest and most powerful families. Mantova was the seat of that dynasty. The 500-room Ducal Palace (Palazzo Ducale) took centuries to build. The Palazzo Te, built by Federigo Gonzaga for his mistress, stands outside of the walled part of the city. It is another highlight of a visit. The city itself has ancient stone churches, small shops, lovely squares and sidewalk cafes. We spent the morning in the city and it wasn't nearly enough time.

Verona
This is, quite simply, our favorite city. It has everything, tumultuous history, ruins stretching back to Roman era, sophistication and great beauty. The po-verona.jpg - 92297 Bytesancient heart of the city contains a huge amphitheatre built by the Romans in the 1st century AD. This arena, one of the largest outside of the Roman coliseum, is now restored and used as an opera house during the summer season. It makes up one side of the Piazza Bra, the gracious town square. The tourist information office is also located there.

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).

Ferrara
Called the capital of the Este family, who flourished around the 13th to 15th centuries, Ferrara is famous for its wide streets and Renaissance palaces. Originally a medieval town, by the end of the 1400s the city was sufficiently prosperous that Duke Ercole I commissioned an architect to create a new Renaissance city and join it to the older medieval section. The project included constructing new palaces, villas and parks with a clearly more modern and airy feel. Here again, try to arrange for a tour of the castles. It is the history, the stories of the people who lived, loved and fought that brings meaning to these stone buildings.

Padua
The city is best known for its University founded in 1222, among the oldest in Europe, and the Scrovegni Chapel with its frescoes produced by the artist Giotto. There are 36 frescoes depicting the lives of Mary and Jesus. Plant lovers will probably want to visit the Botanical Garden founded in 1545 containing rare plants and the old library and botany collection of the University.

Venice
Without a doubt, Venice deserves its reputation. It is a heart-breakingly beautiful city. Built on 117 separate islands, Venice has an extensive water bus system (as well as water taxis) rather than ground transportation. It has po-ven.jpg - 91179 Bytesnarrow paths, houses whose front doors literally open onto the water and no cars, and around every corner is a canal and a bridge and one magnificent building after another. But it is also a tourist magnet with all the problems that go with that popularity.

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.

po-bur.jpg - 108290 Bytes 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!