Dear Traveller friends,
As I announced in the post about Mantua, today I’ll tell you all about two other wonderful places nearby. I recommend adding a day to your visit to Mantua, so you can include these two jewels.
The first is San Benedetto Po, which is one of the most beautiful hamlets in Italy; the second is Sabbioneta, which is part of the UNESCO heritage sites, just as Mantua.
Unfortunately, these small towns aren’t near each other and you can’t reach them with public transportation, so you must take your car to visit them.
The entire itinerary, there and back to Mantua, is about 100 kilometers and two hours long. However, the wonderful places you’re about visit are worth the time and effort to reach them.
San Benedetto Po
The main attraction in San Benedetto Po is Polirone Monastic Complex, the biggest abbey in Northern Italy.
In the plaza in front of the cathedral, on the opposite side of the street, there is the info point where you can book your tour. You can choose among three options:
– free visit: you can visit the richly decorated cathedral on your own within the opening hours. You won’t be able to access the area of the church behind the altar.
– short guided tour: with a volunteer guide, you’ll be able to visit part of the cathedral and the refectory. This kind of visit lasts an hour, and it’s enriched by the explanations given by your tour guide.
– long guided tour: this kind of visit allows you to see the whole complex (cloisters, refectory, cellars, civic museum), included the parts of the cathedral precluded to the rest of the visitors.
The long guided tour lasts over two hours, but I strongly recommend it. The volunteer tour guides are extremely knowledgeable and will give you information and details otherwise difficult to find, even on-line. The complex is huge and composed by a variety of architectural styles from different times (from the first core built around the year 1000 to the museum that dates back in XIX century). It would be a pity to miss something.
The Refectory is one of the most interesting and noticeable buildings of the complex. Built at the end of XV century, it contains a collection of fine paintings. Those created by Bonsignori and Correggio, who both worked here to decorate the abbey, were lost during the Napoleonic occupation. However, there are still important works that make the visit worth your time.
The Cellars are interesting for their architecture and host an exhibition of archaeological finds and a collection of ancient carriages. In a huge underground room you’ll be able to admire every kind of cart ranging from old wagons used for agriculture to the most decorated wedding carriages.
Giulio Romano, an artist who had a major impact all over the area of Mantua, deeply renovated the Cathedral around the half of XVI century. The original building dates back to the year 1000 together with the abbey. Giulio Romano kept the balance between renovation and the styles already present, such as the Gothic and Romanesque styles, creating a unique combination.
If you decide for the full guided tour, you’ll be able to visit the most ancient core of the cathedral, a small chapel where you can even admire original mosaics from the period. You’ll also visit the sepulchre of Matilda of Canossa, who was deeply connected with the history of the abbey.
From the area behind the altar, the tour guide will take you into the wooden choir that dates back in 1550 and into the sacristy.
Choosing the full tour will also allow you to visit the cloisters. The most fascinating and impressive is the Saint Simeone Cloister, which presents frescoes depicting the life of Saint Simeone.
There are also the Secular Cloister where the monks used to receive the pilgrims, and the Saint Benedict Cloister, the biggest of the abbey, which was deeply renovated during the expansion of the church.
The last thing you’ll visit during the full tour is the Civic Museum. It’s one of the biggest ethnographic museums in Italy. You can decide how much time to devote to the museum, based upon your interest into the exhibitions and the time you have. The museum offers an overview of the evolution of the most common objects, comparing those used in the past with their most recent versions.
Inside the museum, you can also visit the City Council Hall, originally used as a library, and the ancient scriptorium of the abbey, where the amanuenses used to copy and decorate texts.
Once completed your visit, it will be time for lunch, especially if you took the full guided tour. I strongly recommend a lunch with local products at the Trattoria Da Marte. The dishes are delicious, the owner is friendly and prices are moderate.
After spending the morning in San Benedetto Po, it’s time to head towards Sabbioneta. It’s a small town, called “Small Mantua”, part of the UNESCO Heritage Sites. Tthe Italian Touring Club awarded Sabbioneta of the orange flag, and it’s one of the most beautiful hamlets in Italy.
Sabbioneta represents an “ideal town” built following the Renaissance views. Unlike most Italian towns, Sabbioneta is relatively recent, built during the second half of the XVI century. Vespasiano Gonzaga strongly promoted the construction of Sabbioneta, and ordered its careful design. He wanted his small town to be state-of-the-art for what concerned military defense; it also had to be a celebration of Vespasiano himself, who wanted a city second to none of the nearby towns.
Arriving at Sabbioneta, park your car and start your visit is nearby Palazzo Giardino. Here you can find several free parking lots, and you’ll be near the office of tourism, which is inside the palace.
Before starting your tour, gather information and purchase your tickets at the info point.
You can buy a single ticket to visit all the main attractions. The ticket includes an audio guide and an interactive map. Use the light pen incorporated in the audio guide on the interactive map to follow an itinerary around the historical town centre, while listening to explanations about history, buildings and other interesting features. Inside the main attractions, you can also use the light pen on the explanatory panels to have further information.
If you already purchased the Mantua Card, you can use it for most of Sabbioneta’s points of interest. However, I strongly recommend going to the info point first. You may have to pay some extras for some attraction.
The tour around Sabbioneta is a three hours walk and begins at Palazzo Giardino. This palace was built to house Vespasiano Gonzaga’s private residence.
Nowadays the rooms and halls aren’t furbished anymore, but you’d be able to admire magnificent frescoes by Bernardino Campi and other artists of his academy. The paintings decorating ceilings and walls refer to Rome and Greek mythology. Particularly fascinating is the Galleria degli Antichi (Gallery of the Ancients).
After visiting Palazzo Giardino, cross Piazza d’Armi and dive into the city centre.
The next point of interest is the theatre, Teatro all’Antica. This is probably the most beautiful building in Sabbioneta, designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi. He was a student of Andrea Palladio and helped complete the Olympic Theatre in Vicenza after the death of his master.
Teatro all’Antica is considered one of the first modern theatres, accessible to a diverse audience. Until then, in fact, theatres had been inside private residences and open only to the nobility.
After visiting the theatre, proceed to Piazza Ducale, where you can visit the Ducal Palace, the centre of the political power in Sabbioneta. Unfortunately, during the XIX century, it suffered a major fire and was severely damaged.
Even if the fire destroyed some parts of the palace, you can still visit beautiful halls, see wonderful frescoes and some imposing wooden equestrian statues, which used to decorate the facade. Unfortunately, most of the entire collection didn’t survive and there are only four statues left.
Another interesting hall shows bas-reliefs depicting the Gonzaga lineage in chronological order.
Near the Ducal Palace, there’s the Church of the Beata Vergine Incoronata. It was built as a chapel for the family’s celebrations and burial place for the descendants of the family. Now it houses the sepulchre of Vespasiano Gonzaga. Despite the simple exterior, the church inside is imposing and majestic.
The ticket you purchase at the info point doesn’t include access to the church. You can buy the ticket for the church only (3 euros) or the combined ticket for the church and the Museum Vespasiano Gonzaga, that includes the other religious buildings in town. If you plan to spend the entire day in Sabbioneta, I suggest the cumulative ticket. If you spend the afternoon here, instead, you can visit the church and proceed with your tour.
Now it’s time to go back to Piazza Ducale. On the opposite side in front of the Ducal Palace, there’s the Church of the Assunta, strongly wanted by Vespasiano Gonzaga and built over the ancient parish church.
Following the interactive map, you can reach the Synagogue. It was built during the XIX century in a part of town with a high number of Jewish population. The synagogue was closed to the public for over a century and it’s been opened again only twenty years ago.
The temple of the Synagogue is on the top floor of the building, to obey the rule that nothing but sky can be over it. You can visit the temple, rich of decorations, and a small exhibition.
If you still have some energies at this point of your tour, you can take a walk along the ramparts around the city centre and admire Porta Vittoria and Porta Imperiale, the two accesses to the city situated on the opposite side of the ancient core.
Before going back to your car, don’t forget to bring the audio guide and the map back to the info point.
I hope this tour of the area around Mantua was to your liking! Don’t miss our next beautiful destination!