The day before our bike trip was scheduled to start, we took a train from Milan to Mantova. Our home away from home for the upcoming week -the barge named Vita Pugna- was docked there.
When I booked the hotel, I knew it was near the train station, but thought it was a bit down the road to the left and easily found based on the map I’d seen. I was so sure of this that I never double-checked myself. We went a few blocks off to the left before I realized something (or someone?) was wrong. We retraced our steps to the front of the station to get reoriented. I was kicking myself when we happened to look directly across the street and that’s where the hotel was! (This picture was taken while standing on the front steps of the train station!)
The Albergo Bianchi hotel was so old-fashioned that it is circling around to being hip!
Mantua was founded along the Mincio River as early as 2,000 BC. As you can imagine, Mantua has a lot of history “under the bridge”. The most famous ancient citizen is the poet Virgil, who was born in 70 BC in a nearby village.
Fast forward to around the year 1198, when it was decided to divert the river in a way that created 4 lakes around the city, effectively making it almost an island. This was done to create a natural defense for the city. There is a lovely park park stretching along the city’s waterfront.
This map gives an idea of how the city is surrounded by water. The 4th lake dried up a couple of hundred years ago and I believe the land was put to other uses.
Pretty much from the beginning, there was a bit of a revolving door when it came to who was in control of Mantova and the surrounding area until 1328 when the Gonzaga family took control. They ushered in a time of art and intellect for about 300 years.
Of course, that name is familiar to anyone who follows the NCAA Basketball Tournament every year! Gonzaga University was named after St. Aloysius Gonzaga who died in 1589. Before he decided to become a Jesuit, he was in line to be the Duke of Mantova.
In the 1600s parts of their art collection were sold. Many of the biggest museums in Europe and the USA display art that was previously owned by the Gonzagas. But other works of art were lost when, in 1630, the Landsknechts (German mercenaries) plundered the city fighting in the War of Mantuan Succession after the last Duke of Mantova died without an heir. This was a proxy war between France and Spain for control of the territory. These territorial disputes lasted until 1866, when Mantova was integrated into the newly forming Italian kingdom.
Our first order of business was to find a nearby grocery store to stock up on a few snacks to bring with us to the barge. On the way back, we sat down to have dinner next to a quiet little park we found along the way. We both took a leap of faith when we spotted a pulled-pork sandwich on the menu -I mean what could go wrong in the land of pizza and pasta? It was actually very good. I also had a dessert that can only be described as chocolate heaven.
The next morning we took our time checking out of the hotel because we couldn’t check in to the barge until 4:30 PM. We partook of the hotel’s breakfast. It was a pretty basic selection of foods. Me being me, I had the breakfast of champions…a chocolate croissant and a package of 2 cookies.
Even though we couldn’t check into the barge until 4:30 PM, we were allowed to drop our bags off anytime during the day. After checking out of the hotel, we started the trek across town to drop our bags at the barge. It was about a mile away.
On the way, we passed a lively Saturday farmer’s market. Beyond that, it looked like there was a nice pedestrian shopping area dotted with outdoor restaurants. But, that wasn’t the direction we needed to go. We were channeling our inner sherpas -we had baggage to deliver! Surprisingly, as awkward as it was to be strolling down the streets with bulky baggage cabooses, the mile went pretty fast.
As we approached the small marina where the barge was docked, we got our first sighting of the Vita Pugna.
After dropping off our bags, we retraced our steps to the farmer’s market area feeling a bit less bogged down… (This was just one small part of it.)
Next we walked along the pedestrian street I’d noticed earlier That was interesting because it was quite lively – people were out enjoying the day…shopping and having lunch.
That street led us directly to a plaza where we found the Basilica of Sant’Andrea. This basilica’s claim to fame is that they have some soil that legends say contains the blood of Christ. The story goes that one of the soldiers that lanced Christ during the crucifixion repented and gathered some of the soil. The relic was first mentioned as being in Mantova in 804 when Pope Leo III personally went to validate its legitimacy at the request of Charlemagne. After that, someone decided to put the relic somewhere safe and it wasn’t found again until 1048.
The relic is kept buried below the floor in the center of the church, enclosed by the railing you can see to the right in this picture. Every year on the Friday after Ascension Day, there is a procession where they carry the relic through the streets of Mantova.
Across the way, in the same plaza was the Rotunda de San Lorenzo.
This church was built in the late 1,000s. Over time it became used for other purposes, but in the early 1900’s it was restored. It was small, but you could feel the weight of history in there for sure.
We continued on, basically wandering.
We emerged into a large piazza where they were having a car show – Jaguars only!
Across square was the Palazzo Bianchi. Like many buildings here, the palazzo went through many incarnations between the late 1300s and present times.
A bit further past the church you can see in the picture above, we saw a sign for “Casa de Rigoletto”. It was a house that is considered to be the inspiration for Rigoletto’s house in the Verdi opera: Rigoletto. I am not an opera buff, but I decided to take a picture of his statue anyway!
Just past Rigoletto’s house, we came to the “end of the road” so to speak; at the river.
By then we wanted some lunch and Mike happened to notice that across the street there seemed to be a riverside park. Mike spotted a “shack-y” type cafe there. We liked the idea of sitting by the river to eat…and so we did.
Leaving there, we decided to follow the waterfront bike path back in the direction of the barge. From the water’s edge we had a nice view of the Castello di San Georgio and the Ducal Palace.
We had a lovely walk, sharing the path with bicyclists and families out enjoying the day.
A bit further along, (and a stone’s throw from the marina the barge was docked in), we came to a big food truck festival. There were quite a few of them spread out along the narrow green park space between the river and town. People were there enjoying the food and the music. We were sorry we’d already had lunch!
I couldn’t resist taking a couple more pictures of the Vita Pugna at the dock.
We chose the Vita Pugna because she carries only 21 guests. There is a “sister barge” doing the same route that carries 40 guests. We’ve done two previous bike and barge trips: one on a smaller vessel and one on a larger one. We’ve learned that a smaller group is a better choice for us because people interact more with each other.
After a brief wait on the barge’s sundeck, we finally got to check-in and settle into our cabin. Home Sweet Home (for a week):
There was definitely a variety of impressions among the guests about the cabins. We went into ours and were excited about “all the space” we had. That’s because on our last barge, the cabin was hilariously cramped. So much so that if Mike sat on the edge of his bunk with his feet on the floor, we couldn’t open the cabin door or the bathroom door! The “closet” on the last barge was about 6 inches wide at the most. On the Vita Pugna the closet was a luxurious 24 inches or so! We unpacked and got settled in before we went back outside to rub elbows. We were amused to hear some of the other guests commenting about how small the cabins were. They, in turn, got a laugh at how happy we were with the cabins when we explained that these cabins were quite spacious compared to our last experience! (They are still quite small though!)
Later at dinner we would meet the crew and tour guide and have a briefing about the first day of riding the next day. Our initial impression of our fellow guests was very positive because we could tell that everyone was making an effort to “meet and greet” and learn each other’s names. Our guide was Elena. She was upbeat and her attitude was contagious.
I don’t make a big deal of doing food pictures, but decided to photograph our first meal – I wish I could remember what our chef called this. It was different than anything I’ve eaten before, but good!
Next was a risotto with asparagus.
Dessert was a almond cake with buttercream frosting. Of course if Mike had had a chance to suggest anything to the chef, it would have been to add a LOT more frosting!
All of our dinners for the week would be three courses. Breakfasts were a basic buffet with yogurt, cut-up fruit, granola, meats, cheeses, cereal, eggs (cooked differently each day), and bread for toast. They provided a different selection of bread and buns so that we could make a sandwich to take with us for our lunch. There was a little basket of mini candy bars to choose from to add to our lunch bag.
After dinner, some of the guests lingered out on the sundeck and chatted a bit; others went to their cabins to get organized for tomorrow’s ride. We did a bit of both, but went to bed early so we’d be bright-eyed and bushy tailed for the trip’s first day!
Categories: Italy 2022: Planes, Trains, Bicycles & Barges!