For every action there is a reaction; for every thing of beauty there is a contrasting eyesore of ugliness; for every sunny day there is an inclement one. Our return journey from Lake Garda took us through a Po valley drenched in never-ceasing rain, poor visibility, dangerously flooded roads and, entering the province of Mantova, pock-marked by shattered and shut-off historic town centres devastated by last year’s earthquake. It was all rather miserable and I had to admit that Italy not only has extreme highs but extreme lows.
Furthermore, the increasing “cementificazione,” or covering in concrete of ever larger parts of Italy, (the land surface covered by cement has almost doubled in the last thirty years) was evident in the unsightly US-style depositories, factories, “centri commerciali” (shopping centres, often built with mafia-laundered money) and ranch-style houses without any acknowledgement to, or respect of, the vernacular style of the region. The only true tract of real countryside experienced was the approach to that huge and inconstant river the Po, now bloated with the falling rain and, as wide as the Thames at Tilbury but with still miles to go before reaching its estuary south of Chioggia.
We didn’t even get to do any serious sightseeing. The reason for visiting Mantua’s Ducal palace was to admire the “Camera Picta”, or newly-wed chamber, painted by Mantegna at the end of the fifteenth century with the first sotto-sopra (below-above) illusionist fresco ever completed. But, after the quake, it was still “chiuso per restauri”, (an ominous phrase in Italy, meaning that one could wait for years before seeing it again). We attempted to get to the centre of Carpi to see one of most expansive mediaeval Piazze in Italy, and its castle, but were defeated by a one way system through suburbs of the utmost dreariness. Mirandola, the birthplace of the great Neo-Platonist philosopher Pico, which I had wanted to visit, we missed believing that, after having passed by empty cordoned-off historic town centres, former aristocratic villas reduced to rubble and roofless traditional farmhouses, all now being sodden by the relentless rain, we could not face one of the worst earthquake-affected areas and, perhaps, be numbered among that sick category of sensation-seeking tourists.
On the plus side we did get back safely before darkness fell and our little Cinquina performed valiantly and never let us down once. One of the best things about holidays, and even short breaks, is the sense of relief in being at home again where everything is familiar – to say nothing of the welcome our little family of pets gave us.