Entry No. 52: Northern Italy
Brescia, Verona and Mantua
When someone tells you they vacationed to Italy, it’s usually to one of these five hotspots: Rome, Florence/Tuscany, Venice, Capri or Cinque Terre. While those treasured spots are popular for good reasons, there are so many other smaller gems to discover in Italy. I’ve already shared one semi-hidden Italian jewel with you – Tropea – a small coastal town near the toe of the boot … but today I’m going to focus on a few overlooked towns in northern Italy and I think you’ll fall in love just like I did.My visit to northern Italy was a completely spontaneous last-minute trip. My husband was away on extended business and when my good friends, K, and her husband, Q, invited me to fly down and spend a long weekend with them, I had no reason to say no so I booked my flight to Milan and for the first time (I think ever!), I headed toward a vacation with no itinerary and no research … I just wanted to get away and soak up some Italian goodness with good friends over some good wine … and that’s exactly what followed!
After I flew into Milan, K picked me up and we drove over to Brescia to explore and get a bite to eat. I had no idea what to expect and we were both pleasantly surprised to find an incredibly charming town (although I haven’t come across a town in Italy that wasn’t charming!) complete with Roman ruins:
After a long day taking in Brescia, we drove over to Lake Garda and the town we were staying in – Desenzano del Garda – a stunning resort town which I sadly neglected in picture-taking as we really only spent nights out on the town here – which, btw – had some great bars and restaurants. K&I had some aperitifs at one tiny hole-in-the-wall bar before dinner and ended up making friends (and um, dancing) with the funniest old Italian guy (and learning all the town gossip). 😛
Since we were visiting in December, the streets were filled with Christmas market vendors and K got to school me on the difference between cannolos (left) vs. cannolis (right). For the record, I totally favor cannolis.
We also stumbled across this beautiful theater tucked away on a little alley in Mantua called the Bibiena. Mozart did the opening performance for the theater when he was just 14 and the theater was built for Maria Therese of Austria (Yep, that’s Marie Antoinette’s mama!).
Despite the story being fiction, there’s a courtyard with a balcony (below) and a statue of Juliet that attracts flocks of tourists. While K didn’t find this appealing, I totally did! And there’s even a mailbox where you can drop off a letter to Juliet/Giulietta (I’m not sure if the mailbox inspired the movie Letters to Juliet or if the movie inspired the mailbox but either way, it’s kinda fun!).
Top Tips for Northern Italy:
Fly into Milan. Milan is a great spot to branch out and explore – it’s an easy train ride to Cinque Terre and an even easier drive to the three towns I highlighted in this post.
Brescia. If you want an authentic Italian experience, this town will do it. I don’t think we ran into a single American tourist here and the sites were just as impressive as I’ve come across in the more touristy Italian towns. They have impressive Roman ruins, enchanting churches, lovely cobblestone streets and if you hike up the hill, you’ll get an impressive view of the town.
Mantua. If you’re really into the Romeo & Juliet story, you won’t want to miss this town. I found that this town’s feel and architecture reminded me more of the Shakespearian tragedy than Verona did. If you have the chance to book tickets to a performance at the Bibiena theater, I definitely recommend you do so – we would have loved to have seen a show in this little jewel box (with so much history) but we just didn’t have time.
Verona. Another must if you’re a Romeo & Juliet buff. Clearly, you must see the “balcony.” Also, people have taken to flattening their gum and writing their name and their love’s name and adhering it to the walls surrounding the balcony … when I originally heard about it, I thought it was totally gross but in person, it was actually kind of pretty if you tried not to think about the gum too much. However, I’d recommend skipping this form of graffiti/vandalism and opting to write a love letter/wish to Giulietta – do it beforehand to save time. You could also bring along a love lock and attach it to the gates in Juliet’s courtyard. Aside from all the Shakespeare madness, make sure you get to tour the town because it’s a jewel! The town center houses some amazing religious shrines and if you visit during the Christmas season, you’ll be treated to an amazing Christmas market – honestly, my favorite in Europe.
Polenta. This region of Italy is known for this specialty so make sure you order it at least once. If you like it, try it at a few different places as each restaurant seemed to change it up a bit. K&I shared pumpkin polenta in Mantua and it was sublime!
If you have any tips, insights, suggestions or comments, I’d love to hear them! Did you miss the other entries of CB’s Travel Journal? Click here to catch up!
Images by moi.