I’m Like a Real Life Ben Stiller!

We are spending the night in a museum. Really – I can’t make this stuff up. We are staying in the Casa Palazzo Museo Valenti Gongzaga in central Mantova, and I didn’t have to do anything special to find it – in fact it was a bit of an accident. I was just looking for rooms on one of the regular websites, and it came up as a good deal.


We are in the basement of a tavern where the modern Italian unification was formulated during the 19th century, and it’s ridiculous. We have, for the two of us, four bedrooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom. 


This is the main bedroom.


This is the second bedroom. There are big signs on the bed stating that nobody is to sleep there, and I’m not certain why, as it doesn’t seem historic – or perhaps they don’t want to have to remake it. 


This is the sign outside of the second bedroom. The description on the website states, “Experience the athmosphere of the place where conspirators met and plans were made to change the govenment. In the 19th century the Carbonari – a revolutionary society – used this secret room to organize plots which ultimately contributed to the unification of Italy but at great cost to the Valenti Gonzaga’s.”

Anyway, I fear I have skipped ahead. We started the morning in Milano, checking out of our very fashionable, heavily mirrorred, hotel. That hotel had mirrors everywhere – it was impossible to quickly judge the size of the elevators, because all of the walls were covered in mirrors (for the record, there were three elevators, two of which were tiny).

Leaving the hotel, we went first to the Milano Centrale train station, where we were to pick up our rental car. It took us a great deal of time to finally ascertain that the agency was 0.3 miles away, which rounds to zero, I guess. We walked there and waited a long time in a line of 3 people, and completed the paperwork. At the conclusion of this, the agent stated matter-of-factly, “as you know, the car is in the garage across the street.” No, we didn’t actually know that. 

We collected the car, a sharp Fiat Tipo with 350 km on the odometer, and headed out. The phone estimated that the drive to Mantova would take us about 2 hours.

We were having none of that.

As soon as we were on the Autostrada, D commented that he would want to think about lunch shortly. I suggested that we could eat highway food or fend for ourselves on surface streets. We caromed around the next exit and were immediately in some delightfully sketchy Italian neighborhoods with the GPS shrieking at us to turn around. I adjusted the settings to avoid highways, and we were on our way.

As lunch hour approached, we started looking for food. I found the top rated, 4.5-star, trattoria on Trip Advisor, so we doubled back and headed down one-lane roads past crumbling buildings until we found it. The oppressive aroma of manure was heavy in the air, and flies buzzed about gleefully. D slowed only long enough to say the word, “No!” And we continued on into the unknown countryside of Lombardia.

We continued on this way, down one-lane roads bordered by treacherous ditches and walls, always hoping not to meet somebody driving the opposite direction. On rare occasions we did, and beyond any realistic probabilities, those moments always seemed to coincide with the locations of passing lanes.

The largest town in the area showed no restaurants at all on Trip Advisor. We began to get discouraged. 


Just as we were beginning to think that staying on the autostrada and eating at the AutoGrill maybe wouldn’t have been such a bad idea, I found a place, La Griglia, along our route. It wasn’t in much of a town, really. It was more a cluster of buildings than anything, and it was packed. We each had the complete workman’s lunch, for me consisting of penne with cream, pancetta, and peas, as well as roast pork and mixed vegetables. With water and wine. For €13. Seriously. 

Energized, we were back on our route. We had a goal, and that was to stop for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Although the vast majority of parm is produced in Emilia Romagna, a small number of producers are in actually in Lombardia, near Mantova, close to the border of Emilia Romagna. It was about 2 pm, and Apple Maps suggested we would get to the target producer just before they were scheduled to open in the afternoon at 330.


Just about now I had the bright idea of looking for other cheese producers. I found one just a few miles from our course, so we rerouted excitedly and pulled in next to this giant wheel of Grana Padano, another local cheese. The Parmigiano producers look down on it, but I wanted to have some comparison tasting. Of course, up until this moment it had never occurred to me that the Grana producers would be closed for siesta just like their Parmigiano adversaries. 

But of course they were.

So we gave up on trying to find anything until we reached Parmigiano country. We arrived at our chosen producer (it’s really impossible to choose online) only to find that rather than opening at 3:30 as indicated on the website, they opened at 4:00. Given the presence of other producers nearby, and the unfortunate exterminator’s truck in the parking lot, we pressed on.


This time more luck! We found a producer open. We went in and the saleslady didn’t speak any English at all. That’s OK. We managed to make do. She was selling 36 month parmigiano reggiano for €16 per Kg (that’s $7.70/lb). She had the precious golden cheese conveniently cut into 1 kg blocks, and then pulled out a 5 kg wedge, about 1/8 of a wheel, to show us that there was plenty more. 

I needed gifts so I told her that I would take it. She asked me how I wanted it divided, and when I indicated that I would like the gigantic wedge intact she gave me a strange look and asked why I wanted such a big piece. I had no easy answer other than it being “unique.” Also I like the challenge of hauling something enormous home, but that’s also difficult to explain in another language.

One mission accomplished. We attempted to stop at a few more producers, and every one we chased down was unsuccessful, so I punched in the address of our hotel in Mantova and we started heading in. Of course, once we weren’t searching any more, we did find one additional producer, and D bought yet more for his hoard, and then we were truly done.

When we finally made it to Mantova, six hours after leaving Milan, Apple Maps brought us right to our hotel. D saw it, and said, “nope, that’s a museum,” laying on the gas. A trip around the block, and we parked in the “no parking” courtyard while we checked in.

The proprietors took us on a tour of our apartments, and made sure that we could demonstrate the proper use of the keys, and then left us alone for an evening punctuated by maniacal cackling and delicious food. 

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