Palazzo Castiglioni

Manota Palazzo Te : Room of the Giants

Manota Palazzo Te : Room of the Giants

By  Eileen Ogintz

  • Published January 09, 2015·


After all, I’m staying in a palace — the Palazzo Castiglioni, which dates back to the Renaissance, located right across the piazza from the 500-room Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, Italy.

Where? That was my reaction when Kit Burns, whose company Doorways specializes in booking villa vacations to Italy, suggested we spend a few days in the palazzo that has been owned by the same family since the Renaissance, in a city just 40 minutes from Verona. (If you know your Shakespeare, you’ll know this is where Romeo came to buy the poison.)

Today you won’t find that many tourists here, but you will find the quintessential Italian experience — restaurants spilling out onto cobblestoned piazzas, locals starting their morning with a cafe, the weekly market that takes over the entire Piazza Sordello (we see it from our window) selling everything from socks to cheese and sausage. During the Renaissance, we learn, Mantua was famous for its music, art and the powerful Gonzaga family. I’m so glad we’re here but we nearly missed the opportunity. Burns acknowledges that suggesting visitors stop here can be a hard sell when there are so many more famous sites to see in Italy, but that makes Mantua (Mantova in Italian) all the more special. “It’s hard to find a place that’s off the beaten track in Italy,” Burns said. “Here you can immerse yourself in what was and what is.” Without tripping over other tourists, she adds.

skyline 2

At one time, Mantua rivaled Florence for its art. But sadly, the Austrians and then Napoleon stole much of it. There’s still amazing architecture and frescoes like the Camera Picta painted room in the Ducal Palace with huge wall paintings by Andrea Mantegna. There’s the amazing Biblena Theater where Mozart played as a young teen; In June, there is a music festival where chamber musicians play short pieces in the ancient rooms of the Ducal Palace.

I was nervous suggesting Mantua to the extended family traveling with us, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, I thought. The stop turned out to be a high point of the trip. We met Guido, Luisa and their father, Baldesar Castiglioni, whose family own the Palazzo Castiglioni where we stayed (a portrait of their ancestor by Raphael hangs in the Louvre right near the Mona Lisa). There are also impromptu pasta-making lessons in a tiny restaurant outside of town, the local Sbrisolona traditional tart, amazing frescoes in the Palazzo Te, the pleasure palace Federico II Gonzaga, a young duke, built for himself with the help of Raphael’s top pupil Giulio Romano, to get away from his mother — some things never change!

Most important, unlike other Italian cities packed with tourists and cruise passengers, the locals were genuinely glad to see us and show us their city. That’s why in 2015 I’m going to aim to get off the tourist track more — and I encourage all of you to do so as well. Of course, when you let the kids lead the way you always go in new and unexpected directions.

That doesn’t mean you’ll always find a hidden gem — like Mantua — but when you do, you remember why you’re traveling in the first place — to get out of your comfort zone and share something new with those you love most and, of course, eat great food!

Locanda Le Grazie Mntova

Locanda Le Grazie Mntova

“Come see our pasta maker,” said Daniela Bellintani, who with her husband, Fernando, owns the charming La Locanda delle Grazie in the village of Grazie just a few miles outside of Mantua. The pasta maker turned out to be Chef Fernando and three smiling young men who were happy to show us how they make the local specialties — the pumpkin ravioli, which we happily sample along with pasta with homemade duck ragout, an assortment of local salamis and ham and local Lambrusco wine.

“My father says if you don’t share your recipes, they just die with you,” says Anita Aldighieri, the couple’s daughter, explaining their plan to offer cooking classes, including those for families who will want to visit the Santa Maria del Grazie church. This is a church like none other you’ll visit — and one the kids will remember most. Even before the church was built in the 15th century, pilgrims came to pray for miracles. You’ll see the strangest statues of those whose prayers were heard — a man fished out of a well; another who couldn’t be hanged when a beam broke. Perhaps the strangest and what kids love most is the embalmed crocodile hanging from the ceiling that’s at least 500 years old.


Daniela Bellintani Le Grazie Restaurant

Daniela Bellintani Le Grazie Restaurant


Every August, thousands make a pilgrimage of a different sort here for a unique festival during which artists from around the world are chosen to create chalk paintings on 10-by-10-foot squares of pavement about something that relates to the miracle-making Madonna.


Mantova Palazzo Castiglioni in Piazza Sordello

Mantova Palazzo Castiglioni in Piazza Sordello

The Castiglioni family — Luisa owns a villa rental management company in Italy — has turned a few rooms of their palazzo into the most unique inn I’ve ever seen. (Think sleeping in a palace room — there is even one with an ancient fresco on the wall — but with all the modern conveniences and breakfast, starting at under $200 a night.) While they don’t want their city overrun with tourists, they certainly would like more people to discover its charms — like the Palazzo Te, which is considered one of the great Renaissance palaces.

Kids love the Hall of Horses with life-sized paintings of some of the young duke’s favorites from the 1520 and the astounding Chamber of the Giants with paintings that cover the walls and ceilings, telling the story of the fall of the giants who tried to climb Mount Olympus. When a big fire was going in this room, we’re told, with light playing on the walls, it was like a Renaissance 4-D experience.

It’s pretty great in the 21st century, too.

Eileen Ogintz is a nationally syndicated columnist and creator of Her new  Kids Guide to Boston is available online and from major booksellers, along with the Kids Guides to NYC, Washington, DC, Orlando,  LA and Chicago. Coming  later this year: San Diego, San Francisco and Denver


Where :  Mantua / Mantova  Lombardy Italy – Milano  189km/117ml ; Venice 159 km/85km

Palazzo Castiglioni

Palazzo Te viale Te 13 Mantova  Italy
Palazzo Ducale piazza Sordello 40 Mantova

Locanda delle Grazie

Address: Via San Pio X, 2, Grazie MN
Phone: +39 0376 348038
Mantova skyline night

Mantova skyline at dusk

Eileen Ogintz is considered a leading USA travel expert for family travels and syndicated columnist of the weekly column Taking the Kids. Eileen is often quoted in major publications such as USA TodayThe Wall Street JournalThe New York Times and numerous parenting and women’s magazines on family travel. She has appeared on such television programs as 48 Hours, The Today Show, Good Morning America and Oprah, as well as dozens of local radio and television news programs.


Mantova, Italy (Day Five) — I feel like royalty.
After all, I’m staying in Palazzo Castiglioni that dates back centuries, right across the Piazza Sordello from the Palazzo Ducale in the city of Mantova between Milan and Venice and a short drive to Verona.

During the early middle ages, I learn, this city was enclosed by walls and was a very famous renaissance city. “One of the best cities in Italy,” declares Roberto Tebaldio, a local tourism official. The city is famous for its renaissance buildings, its salamis (Levoni has been in business for more than 100 years), its Sbrisolona (traditional crunchy tart), authentic food like pumpkin ravioli, its palace with over 500 rooms and the fantastic Palazzo Te, a 16th century palace with its amazing frescoes.

Mantova Piazza Sordello Palazzo Ducale

Mantova Piazza Sordello, Palazzo Ducale

“We’re like Venice without all the tourists,” local Claudio Bini told me at a cocktail party given by Luisa Castiglioni, who founded the villa rental company Este Villas and whose family owns Palazzo-Castiglioni-Mantova that dates back to 1280, the oldest palace in the city. Am I really staying here?

“Mantova is off the beaten track, which is hard to find in Italy these days,” says Kit Burns, whose company Doorways Villa Vacations specializes in arranging Italian villa vacations for Americans. “It is a place so charming, so interesting and so not over-run by tourists, that it is a pleasure to explore…Shakespeare wrote about it.”

In fact, Mantova is the city where Romeo went to buy the poison to take back to Verona.

At one time, Mantova—called Mantua in English — rivaled Florence for its beautiful art, Mantova guide Giuliana Varini told us. Sadly, the Austrians and then Napoleon stole much of the art.

“Because of this, it is not known to the world in the way Florence is,” observed Burns, who said she has a hard time convincing Americans to include Mantova in their itinerary. “But what remains? Architecture. Frescoes! Unbelievably wonderful frescoes.”

We are able to visit the fantastic “Camera Picta” painted room currently closed to the public in the Ducal Palace with huge wall paintings by Andrea Mantegna.

Castiglioni tells us her ancestor is in one of the paintings—whispering in the ear of the Marquis Ludovico Il Gonzaga.

The Palazzo Castiglione may date from the 12th century but our room has all of the modern conveniences—WiFi, AC, walk-in shower, but overlooks the ancient plaza and ducal palace. Our cousins have opted for the “Tower Room” with a fresco dating back to 1200. We saunter down to the piazza to enjoy our morning café and croissant that is included with our room, sitting among cyclists and elderly men and women out doing their shopping—not another tourist anywhere.
All I can say is wow! I’m so glad my sister in law speaks Italian.

Mantova Palazzo Castiglioni in Piazza Sordello

Mantova Palazzo Castiglioni in Piazza Sordello

There is a fantastic Bibiena Theater — Mozart played here as a young teen just after the theater opened in January 1770 — that is home to the Mantua Chamber Orchestra (tickets start at under $20!) and a Music Festival the end of June where musicians play short pieces in some of those 500 rooms in the palace – as many as 60 just in one day, the musicians speaking to their audience in between.
Still, this town is “a little sleepy,” another local tells me. It is decidedly off the tourist track, especially for Americans.

Locals hope that will change. “Mantova is a city for cultivated tourists with fantastic food and the chance to sleep in a palace,”says Riccardo Braglia who seems to know everyone in town and is an expert on the Gonzaga family who ruled here during the 15th and 16th centuries when the palace was really a private city of some 10,000 people.

“This is a beautiful Italian city with an ancient historical center that will give you a chance to immerse yourself in what was and what is,” said Burns. “Then there is the unjaded hospitality and arguably some of the best food in Italy.”

We experienced that first-hand, trying tiny restaurants on impossibly small streets like La Porta Accanto, the more casual version of the elegant Aquila Nigra, and others that spilled out onto the open piazzas like Il Grifone Bianco or the oh-so-pretty IL CIGNO – TRATTORIA DEI MARTINI, with plenty of options for gelato and pastry and pizza everywhere we turned. Don’t miss the amazing pasta and pastry shop Panificio PAVESI –a good place to try the region’s typical Sbrisolona cookie-like pastry. Yum!

There is so much history here—dating back to Virgil’s time. He was born near here and Mantua has always been known as Virgil’s town.

But we experienced a decidedly 21st century Mantua at the Thursday morning market sprawled across the ancient cobblestoned square, crowded with sellers hawking everything from socks and underwear to all varieties of cheeses, ham, salami, rotisserie chicken and fish and locals looking for a bargain—and their groceries.

Castiglioni’s father, Baldesar Castiglioni, 88, still has an apartment here and is the descendant of Baldassare Castiglione, the famous author and nobleman of the Renaissance whose book about court etiquette was widely read all over Europe—the bestselling author of his time.

His portrait was painted by Raphael and hangs in the Louvre near the Mona Lisa; a copy of the portrait hangs in her father’s apartment. I’m mesmerized by the very old Murano glass chandeliers—all of the colors! ALL of the shape of the glass!

Baldesar Castiglione portrait by Raphael

Baldesar Castiglione portrait by Raphael

“Here you have the experience and a relationship with the local people,” says Luisa Castiglioni, who is working to create a community of villa owners around Italy who can offer a similar standard of service—from luxury staffed villas to simple country cottages to Renaissance palazzos like this one where we incredibly meet the family who owns it—and has owned it for centuries. She and her brother Guido, who oversees the property, worry what will happen in the future as none of their children, in their 20s and 30s, seem interested. I hope that changes.

This has got to be one of the most unique places I’ve ever stayed, with an arched sleeping alcove and views of the ancient ducal palace and the square from the big windows. Restaurants spill outside; we amble from one square to another, walking everywhere. I really feel like royalty because we are parked inside the gates and need a special clicker to open them.

Palazzo Castiglioni suite Torre

Palazzo Castiglioni suite Torre

She says in recent years, guests have become more demanding—most of her business is Americans “but there is no perfect villa nor is there a perfect guest!”

“We have to find the right villa for the right people–whether you want a cooking class for the kids or someone to come and cook for you. The concept is being able to connect with the customs and the people of the country,” she says.

You might shop at the local market or weekly street market for groceries and take day trips out into the country side like we did today with local Riccardo Braglia, an art historian and consultant, who took us to the small town of Borghetto on the Mincio River for a long outside lunch at Lo Stappo overlooking the water. We feasted on bruschetta and risotto with pumpkin along with other locals.

We go to Parco Sigurta Giardino that won “Italy’s Most Beautiful Park” award last year and it’s easy to see why — miles of stone paths, 30,000 roses, and a million tulips. Let’s not forget the amazing views.

Braglia insists we not leave the area without stopping at the town of Sabbioneta, a World Heritage Site, which was built as a “model town” by Vespasiano Gonzaga in the second half of the 16th century, planned according to the vision of the Renaissance. We visit the Teatro all’Antica, the first theater of the modern age and still used today and the synagogue—the Jewish community thrived here. Sadly, after Gonzaga died, residents moved outside the walls which may be why the town is so well preserved.

It’s really nice to be off the tourist track—or at least one not followed by many Americans.
© 2014, Eileen Ogintz, 5 Viking Green Westport CT 06880. All rights reserved.


Where: Mantova (Mantua) Lombardy, Italy Mantova tourist office
Location: Palazzo Castiglioni Piazza Sordello 12 Mantova
How to get there:
-by train: from Milano 1 hr; Venice 1 hr; Bologna 40 min
-closest airport: Verona (30 min shuttle)
-by car: motorway A22 Brennero Modena
Riccardo Braglia journalist and art critic
Giuliana Varini english speaking guide