After leaving Lake Como we charted a leisurely course south and west, traversing the Po Valley. It’s an unholy mix of agriculture and industry. We drove from small villages dotted across farmed countryside to sprawling commercial development with pockets of apartment blocks. Personally I was more interested in the rural aspects of the Po Valley.
We stopped in a village and visited, one by one, the bakery, cheese shop, butchery, fruiterer and general store. As we’ve found everywhere, people tried hard to help us bridge the language gap, and the prices, choice and quality make New Zealand look distinctly second rate. We made use of our Peugeot’s chilled glovebox as we drove on to Crema to have lunch.
Crema’s weekly market was underway when we arrived. It was huge; all the stalls in the purpose-built market were filled. Throughout Italy there are specialist retailers who visit small towns once a week providing merchandise unavailable in the few local shops. Crema’s market is the largest we’ve seen. And it’s a pretty town, notable for having a large pedestrian precinct and a higher percentage of bicycles than anywhere else we’ve visited.
Mid-afternoon we drove on to Cremona, famous as the home of violin makers Stradivarius, Guanerius and Amati. It’s a beautiful city. We stayed in an apartment near the centre of town as guests of Fabio and Daina, enjoyed a drink in the piazza and some wonderful jam tarts. The highlight of our evening was visiting Fabio and the boys (Julius and Emilis) and just sitting and talking.
The next morning we visited the Cremona Violin Museum, which was fascinating. A highlight was the midday concert, where a young violinist played a programme of well known works on a three hundred year old Stradivarius. The museum’s collection of original instruments is rotated for the daily concerts, ensuring each continues to be maintained and played.
We continued south and east that afternoon, taking back roads and discovering several delightful small villages, before arriving at Guastalla late in the day. A visit to the tourist information centre hooked us up with bed and breakfast, and in the evening we set out to explore the town. We found a wonderful restaurant that offered traditional regional cuisine. The proprietor spoke no English, but we managed to order an outstanding meal. And we must have made ourselves adequately understood: while we were between courses a German couple arrived who had great difficulty understanding the menu. The proprietor called us over and asked us to help translate!
The bed and breakfast experience was interesting. The room was beautifully furnished, but the leg fell off the bedside table when I put my phone down on it. The landlord drew our attention to an outside balcony with patio seating, but when I tried to go out there the screen door from the room was locked. The wonderfully clean shared bathroom contained a bath with a shower over it, but the water was disconnected. We made up for these minor inconveniences the next morning at breakfast by creating some inconveniences of our own; we sat in the wrong seats, asked for tea when only coffee was being provided, then we drank all the coffee. None of these inconveniences was intentional on anybody’s part, I’m sure.
On Saturday morning we set a course for the villa near Treviso where we’re spending the next week. Serendipitously our navigator took us through the small hill town of Cavriana, where we stopped for lunch. Cavriana was having its weekly market, and we benefited from that to the tune of some local cheese, peaches and roast chicken to complement the freshly baked rolls from the bakery. Cavriana had a water machine similar to the ones we’d seen at Lake Como, but at the reduced price of €0.039 a litre. When we went to refill our water bottles, a local lady took them off us and filled them for us at no charge. I later pieced together what she was telling us: although there is a coin slot, this water machine only operates with swipe cards bought from the local store. She had finished filling all her water bottles, but had committed to take water that would only go to waste if we didn’t use it. We appreciated her generosity.
The final step of Saturday’s journey took us out of the Po Valley and up to Lake Garda, where we briefly visited the town of Sirmione. It was a hot day and the town was packed with tourists. It is pretty, but it was crowded, and we had to walk quite a distance. Perhaps it would be a good place to visit when there were fewer (other) tourists around.