Having cancelled three trips since
March I decided that I needed to book something good. (Shropshire had been
too expensive, I realised, Dresden would've been blighted by the city's old
art gallery being closed and Umbria was not sensibly undertaken with a
pulled muscle in my calf.) Poking around I found that a guided art-history
trip I'd been on back in 2015 was happening again. The
reason why this was a very good thing is that I have been smarting for four years
at that trip not including Mantegna's famous Camera degli Sposi in the
Ducal Palace in Mantua, which didn't reopen, following post-earthquake restoration, until three
days after we came home.
An 8.00 flight from Heathrow meant an
overnight stay at the Heathrow Hilton Garden, as ever. But being much
later in the year than I usually take these guided trips my walk from the
tube station to the hotel last night was in daylight. And what do you know
- over the other side of the motorway opposite the hotel is a farm! With
fields and horses and a tractor! Then this morning at 6.15, three widely
spaced solitary chaps with cameras facing into the field. Horse fanciers?
And then a landing plane, low and large, flew in to land, ideally placed
for foreground horse detail, methinks.
Check in involved faffing due to not being found on the self service, but
at least no queuing. Security pretty swift too. So all good. Old favourite lecturer
and bestie Clare Ford-Wille
and newer-favourite tour manager Tessa, along with some familiar
faces from past trips, were met at the gate, but it was new blood mostly -
14 of us.
Arrival in Bologna involved a very real contrast in weather, from dull,
damp and cool London to a steamy 30˚ at
Bologna airport. We were coached to Modena for a brief intro to the Duomo
before lunch, which I spent wandering, visiting two churches (Sant'Agostino
and San Francesco), eating a mozzarella and tomato panzerotto and a very
cinnamony strudel cake, and finding not one gelateria. Another
shopping-related puzzle was spotting cherries being frequently labelled
Ferrovia. Researching later revealed that there's a variety of
cherry discovered around 1930 next to the railway line between Turi and
Sammichele di Bari in Puglia, so this cherry is called Ciliegia della
Ferrovia (Cherry of the Railway).
After lunch the
sculpture panels on the Duomo façade got appreciated, before we went
inside for more sculpture, on pulpits mostly, and some lovely Romanesque
chunkiness. Then to the
Galleria Estense for some surprisingly good art, the highlights being a Bernini bust
of Francesco I d' Este, a Velazquez of the same chap, and Veronese's organ doors from San Geminiano in Venice. A
catalogue of the collection, dominated by paintings, in English, was a surprise
Then the coach took us to our hotel in Mantua to check in, unpack and
have a brief rest, before welcome drinks and nibbles, followed by a Clare talk on the Gonzaga, followed by a buffet dinner, with good veggie provision, and the
yummy mostarda and pecorino well remembered from last time. Then an earlyish
Today was a very full day in Mantua, dominated for me by finally getting
into the Camera degli Sposi, in amongst Mantegna's wonderful frescoes, in
the Palazzo Ducale and then not being able to find my credit card wallet
in the palazzo shop. A dash back to the hotel failed to solve the mysterious
disappearance. Coming back to the group in Sant'Andrea I could not find
them. Coming out of the church I switched on the tour-audio-headphones thingy and
heard Clare say 'Oh there's Jeff' but where from?! Through the dark
doorway into the Baptistery across the piazza.
Borrowing some cash from
Tessa I wandered and got a takeaway lunch of vegan triangles and chips
from a place called Love Chips. And later a fine first gelato combining
apple/cinnamon and coconut flavours.
After lunch we took in the
outsides of Giulio Romano's and Mantegna's houses and the Alberti church
of San Sebastiano. The mad Mannerism and jaw-dropping delights of Palazzo
Te were preceded by the much calmer Palazzo San Sebastiano - recently restored
and reopened, but pretty plain and sedate. Both palazzi were for a Gonzaga
male to take his out-of-town leisure and mistresses. I'd texted Jane to check in
case I'd left my card wallet at home, maybe in a coat pocket, but she
no find. So back at the hotel I rang and cancelled the cards. No
unauthorised use, so the mystery continues.
After an evening talk finishing off the Gonzaga and introducing the Este,
we trekked out for our evening meal. Roasted vegetables, with mostarda of
course, was followed by a risotto with asparagus, but not a lot. Pasta
with peas, for the vegetarians came next, and then a layered lasagne-like thing
with aubergine. The sweet was fruit salad. Edible but not special.
A coach to Ferrara where we began with a visit to the Palazzo dei Diamanti
gallery, which has been partly, or totally, closed on previous
visits. Fully open and benefiting from a recent sprucing-up it was a treat.
Some worth-the-trip highlights by the likes of Vivarini, Carpaccio, and a stupendous altarpiece by Dosso Dossi.
Lunch was again a wander for
your correspondent, around the previously unexplored medieval quarter,
which is a very pretty maze of arches and overhangs. I didn't manage any actually lunch, beyond some
paprika and mango crisps and a bottle of iced tea from a supermarket that
was sadly sandwich-free. A coconut and lemon gelato from Grom helped
though. The Castello Estense was marginally less boring than I remembered,
but it's still a place most interesting for who and what once lived there rather than
for anything that remains. The Cathedral being closed for restoration work we
resorted to the superior Cathedral Museum, with it's standout
Jacopo della Quercia Madonna of the Pomegranate, organ shutters by
and some fine Romanesque carvings of the seasons. The weather had got dark
and biblical so our dash back to the coach involved some lurking in the
Castello and serious
dampening. The coach ride back involved a fair amount of dozing.
A four-person meal with Clare found us at an Italian/Mediterranean
fusion-y place, but Mediterranean menu, including the cous-cous, was meaty, so I had some pumpkin
pasta-parcel in butter and sage, with a yummy strong almond flavour. It
being a busy Saturday night we were given a table outside, but the meal
had barely begun when it started to rain on us. A table inside was then
found. More excitement followed when a couple nearby got the napkin in
their bread basket too near their candle, and when the male half of
another couple came and asked us, to settle an argument between them,
whether we were American or English.
Packing my rainproof jacket into my
suitcase this morning I discovered a lump in the side pocket, which turned
out to be my credit-card wallet. I mean who puts their wallet in a side
pocket, albeit zipped up? And when?
A morning in Bologna beginning with
the Pinacoteca, for a comfortable canter through highlights, taking
in Giotto, fresco technique, Raphael, the Vivarini and the Carracci. Then
a walk by way of the famous towers to Santa Maria della Vita, to admire the
Pieta tableau before lunch.
Wendy and Candy trusted my recommendation of a pasta place near San
Petronio, found on my stay in Bologna last year, and the three of us had
some good pasta on the top floor, despite the motor-racing decor. I
had some very piquant penne al'arrabiata, and a Grom copetta of
pistachio and coconut, the group regrouped for some time in San Petronio.
Walking back to the coach we had one last burst of fresco joy in the oratory
of Santa Cecilia. The coach to the airport didn't take long, but the BA
flight was delayed by about an hour, as usual. I wasn't home much before
midnight, empty of food (BA M&S food in-flight can't be paid for with
cash) but full of culture there was nothing for it but sleep.