Roger Zubrinich and Judy Peters like to travel. A lot. Prior to the pandemic, the couple would escape the Australian winter and head to Europe for the summer, traipsing through countries via a hire car.
With overseas travel now something of a dream, Roger has decided to revisit some of their destinations in writing. He has no doubt that driving to them is infinitely easier.
The next instalment in the Travel for Two series sees Roger and Judy dipping into the pleasures of Sabbioneta. Read on to travel with us!
It’s mid-afternoon and we’ve just arrived in Sabbioneta. The husband of our host carries our suitcases up four flights of stairs to our room in the family run albergo where we’ll be staying for a few days. We trail behind carrying smaller cabin bags. He puts the key in the door of our room, nods, and puffs down the stairs to finish his interrupted cigarette.
And so, there we are, fumbling with our luggage as we open the door to our room for our fourth visit to this unique town. We aren’t the only occupants of the hotel pleased to be there. Through the flimsy wooden door of the room immediately adjacent to ours comes a rising female descant, offset by male bass notes, that climaxes in a screaming crescendo before ebbing away to a breathlessly repetitive ‘Si Si’. We exchange the guilty looks of accidental eavesdroppers, and hurry into our room just as the neighbour begins to reach again for her high notes. For the duration of our stay her performance comes to be a familiar counterpoint to the sweet cheeping of the swallows that swoop past our window.
Sabbioneta is in Lombardy, not too far from the small city of Mantua that languishes prettily within its surrounding lakes. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, Mantua is home to the superb Ducal Palace, damaged shortly before our first visit by the 2012 earthquake, and the outwardly unpretentious but equally memorable Palazzo Te.
Roughly 60 kilometres to the southwest is the attractive provincial city of Parma in the Emilia-Romagna region. These eminently visitable cities are linked by highway SP420 which threads its way through the Po Valley until, at Casalmaggiore, it crosses the swiftly moving, and according to locals, toxic expanse of the Po River, before continuing in a roughly southerly direction to Parma.
SP420 snakes past rustling cornfields, through small towns, past derelict fuel stations and impromptu fruit and vegetable stalls set up by locals. It’s the habitat of most things fuel driven. In late summer overgrown tractors with towering wheels pull large containers filled to the brim with rich red tomatoes. The roadside is strewn with red blobs and the tarmac is spattered with dark red tomato kill. Countless trucks loaded with anything from big knobbly tubers to building materials share the road with juggernauts that rumble along with whining transmissions and tyres, at times almost nose to tail. The latter head for the A1 that cuts through the guts of Italy to Rome in the south and Milan in the north.
Cars and vans compete for the remaining spaces. Locals with time to spare drive at a languid pace with arms hanging out windows to help funnel air into their cars, the aged drive as though they’re manipulating explosive devices and the inevitable arse jockeys who hang off your rear see speed signs as roadside graffiti and cars slower than them as objects to be harassed.
But there are rewards. Thirty-six kilometres south of Mantua there’s a set of traffic lights where the section of the highway known as Via Anna D’Aragona intersects with Via Borgofreddo. If, in the very likely event that you are stopped by a red light, and can see past thumping diesels and through drifting exhaust smoke, you’ll notice that after crossing the main highway Borgofreddo reduces to a thin strip of tarmac that leads past a barren car park and disappears through a white arched stone portico set into an expanse of fretted brick wall. Rewards indeed. Beyond lies Sabbioneta, one of Lombardy’s true treasures, built in the 1500s and declared a UNESCO World Heritage site along with Mantua.
We first discovered Sabbioneta in 2012, and having visited a couple more times since, we knew precisely where we were heading when we squeezed our car through the narrow Porta Imperiale at the end of Borgofreddo, turned right, then left on to via Vespasiano Gonzaga to a car park casually situated next to the imposing 16th century Galleria that is an arched extension to the Garden Palace built around the same time.
Sabbioneta was originally situated on what was the Via Roman Aemilia Road, completed in 187 BC. Between the 6th century and the year 1000 the Lombards, the Benedictine Abbey of Leno and subsequently the Bishop of Parma ruled the town. Post 1000, according to the literature, two Cremonese families – the Persicos and Dovaras argued over the town until the Bishop of Cremona decided it was his to rule. Then in the 1300s it was snaffled by the Bonacolsi family of Mantua; then by the Gonzagas, followed by the Visconti family of Milan and after them the Cremonese Persicos.
In other words, over the centuries it has been subjected to the usual real estate shuffling driven by equally familiar human attributes: avarice, rent seeking, venality and cravings for power and omnipotence.
Then significantly, in the early 1400s the Gonzaga family took it back; significantly because a hundred and twenty years and three generations of Gonzagas later, Vespasiano Gonzaga assumed control. It was Vespasiano who, applying his knowledge of architecture and planning, made Sabbioneta what it is today. By all accounts, the town has changed little since it was built. Between 1556 and 1591 he was responsible for the transformation of the pre-existing village into a fortified Renaissance ideal city. The UNESCO listing, in a rather anodyne statement, describes it as having a ‘right angle grid layout’.
But Sabbioneta is rather more than that. It is proportionate, it has an ordered tranquillity and almost everywhere there is a sense of space. Most streets are lined with stately, shuttered, pastel buildings, usually of three levels. There are notable churches, one of which houses the remains of Vespasiano, and there is a synagogue.
And there is the Piazza Ducale, the main centre square. It’s modest in size and dominated by the Ducal Palace which too is restrained, and although larger than surrounding buildings, dominates rather through pleasing symmetry and understated elegance than size. It was built between 1560 and 1561.
There appears to have been little understated about Gonzaga though; he was cosy with the Holy Roman Emperor and the king of Spain, he engaged in numerous feuds with other luminaries and was three times married. While these extravagant tendencies aren’t evident in his city building activities, they are most certainly evident in the frescoes and elaborate gilded ceilings inside the palace, part of which was his residence. And any person doubting his sense of his importance need only see the remarkably lifelike wooden statue of him astride his horse in the palace’s room of eagles.
Furthermore, he does appear to have understood the dangers of overwork, so accordingly he arranged for the construction of the Garden Palace a mere five-minute walk from the Ducal Palace. The Garden Palace was specifically for the rest and study of the Duke and his mates. It’s rather more modest than the Ducal Palace with the exception of the Galleria degli Antichi or great corridor. The Galleria is about 97 metres long, six metres wide, is externally imposing, is built of brick and stone, and consists of a series of many arches at ground level with a long, enclosed corridor above. It was originally built to contain the Duke’s archaeological treasures that are now housed in Mantua. Even though the Galleria is now an empty shell the striking frescoes on the walls, and the ceiling panels, make a wander along its length genuinely gratifying.
At the corner of via Vespasiano Gonzaga and via Teatro resides an exceptional building. Teatro all’Antica, one of the first purpose built permanent theatres in Italy, was designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi and built between 1588 and 1590.
The doorway in its rather modest pastel yellow façade leads into a horseshoe of wooden seating benches topped by an ornate gallery. The deep stage in front contains a series of longitudinal buildings props of diminishing size that cleverly creates the illusion of a street. Simply standing in this special place evokes within the imaginative soul the ghosts of performances past.
What is also quickly evident on any walk about town is that it is completely surrounded by intact brick walls. Originally there were two entrances: Porta Imperiale in the eastern wall and Porta Vittoria in the western wall. Sabbioneta was designed as a fortress as well as a model Renaissance town and given the nature of the times and Vespasiano’s apparent penchant for feuds, that was indeed a very sensible thing.
On this visit in the middle of an Italian summer we have to adapt to some very hot and enervating days. A key strategy, apart from driving to surrounding places of interest in an air-conditioned car, is to sit at a table in the late afternoon in front of the bar at the end of the piazza opposite to the palace, and drink lots of cold beer. It doesn’t take too many drinks to picture life in the square in the 1500s. To imagine women in long gowns with broad sleeves going about their business while men in tunics and leggings and wearing silly hats strut about and covertly try to guess whose sword is longest. Even the snarling, mangy yellow dog tethered in front of a shop under the loggia of the building on the southern side of the square would have added to the illusion except this late in the day it is knocked out by the heat. There would have been tradesmen and labourers about too, and probably horses and lots of building noise. After all, it was recorded somewhere that 150 cartloads of timber scaffolding were removed from the town when construction was complete.
Another late afternoon, early evening activity is to eat and that is indeed worthy of anticipation. Sabbioneta doesn’t boast an over-abundance of eateries, but it does have Osteria La Dispensa situated next to and in the evening shade of the arches of the Galleria. This family-owned restaurant serves delicious and always satisfying local cuisine and we never miss an opportunity to eat there when we visit the town.
Except when we can’t. A couple of nights before we are due to leave we head to the restaurant in anticipation of a feed of local pumpkin tortellini with brown butter and sage, and find the place closed. No other eatery seems open either, even the inevitable fast-food joint.
On this and previous visits we have paid scant attention to a building situated in the corner of the car park outside the town walls adjacent to Porta Imperiale and mere metres from the highway, but have vaguely registered it as a café of sorts and given its location, not the sort of place we have been interested in patronising.
But this evening we need to eat. We reluctantly wander across the car park with little expectation that we’ll be fed. And so we discover another of Sabbioneta’s gems – the Snack Bar Stazione. On reflection it’s astonishing we hadn’t checked it out more carefully before, particularly given we had driven past it numerous times. It’s an attractive two-level pink building with verandahs on two sides. The side adjacent to the car park is separated from the tarmac by plush vines.
Inside is a revelation. We expect the desultory drinker or two. Not so. It is packed with both men and women. Manual workers, tradies and well-dressed business types share seating in front of a full bar. Many are already eating. Italians by and large don’t converse quietly and the sum effect of the shouted conversations, the clanking and scraping of cutlery on plates and the cocktail of smells speaks of celebrations in full swing. We love it.
And we love the food. Simple, cheap, freshly cooked dishes eaten on the verandah next to the vines. We return the next night and regret that through ignorance and a lack of curiosity we have deprived ourselves of many previous opportunities to spend our money and time there.
In retrospect I can’t help thinking that walking from the town across the car park to Snack Bar Stazione is akin to driving through Italy in miniature. Within short time you can move from exquisite beauty to extraordinary industrial ugliness to memorable surprises.
Si Si Sabbioneta. See you next time.