That’s what I like about traveling — you can sit down, maybe talk to someone interesting, see something beautiful, read a good book, and that’s enough to qualify as a good day. You do that at home and everyone thinks you’re a bum. — Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan
I want to take you to a place. A place that is almost no place. At least that’s what most tourists would say. So when I recently found out that this favorite place of mine is considered a “C” location by the travel industry (that is, one that nobody ever asks to go to), I smiled. I (almost) hope that it stays that way, because I don’t want it to change.
The place is Sermide, an appealing little Italian village of about 6,000 people tucked away along the Po River in the province of Mantova (Mantua). And while it is technically in the region of Lombardia, it is really located where Lombardia meets up with Emilia-Romagna and the Veneto. And therein lies its enormous charm. Not that its central architectural delight — the Villa Castellani — is too shabby, either.
We first rented Villa Castellani in 2003. Seven of us, taking over four bedrooms and being taken in by its considerable charms. We went again last year, eight of us, a different group. It’s like introducing new friends to family. Villa Castellani is a two-acre piece of paradise right in the village, with walking paths amongst old trees, spotted with stone benches . . . and now, in the intervening years, the owner has put in a welcome pool and a small cabana off to the side, where it is thankfully not the focal point of the grounds. The caretakers live next door; the couple has changed since the first time we went, but they are still wonderful, caring people. First, Donata and Bruno. Now, Liliana and Valter. No one speaks a word of English. That is okay.
The mercato comes once a week and we can buy good cheese and salami and fresh vegetables, along with hats and scarves and tablecloths and our favorite Italian toothpaste. There are two food markets in town, so we are never at a loss for milk and eggs and bread and such. We cook frequently at home, and eat either al fresco during the day or in the dining room in the evening. The kitchen is perfectly adequate and everything tastes better there, especially the local white truffles and the melons. Sermide hosts a National Melon Festival every year during the first week in June to celebrate its bounty.
Stroll into town (a few short blocks away and you’re there) and find shoe stores, electronics stores, places to buy clothing and appliances and jewelry . . . almost everything you need is here. There is a caffé and there is Dalla Fiore, the award-winning pasticceria, where you can pack on calories and who cares? Everything is molto bene. There is a butcher and a shoe maker. A sign in the shoemaker’s window says, Cinture fatte a mano, and sure enough, Tim goes in and has a black leather belt hand made for him for $20 while he waits. Not bad.
There are several restaurants, and we frequent the one down the street, Trattoria Cavallucci, three times in one week. Again, no English. When I do not know what something on the menu is, the frustrated but amused owner thinks, and finally says, “Bambi!” Now I know what cervo means . . . We laugh a lot here.
Of course, there is a church in the main piazza. Lovely and still in use, it remains damaged from the bombings of World War II. Because of Sermide’s strategic location along the Po, it was occupied by the Germans beginning in September 1943. Nearly 3,000 bombs fell on the town between June 1944 and April 1945, when the Germans were finally driven out by the American forces. This little town lost 152 of its citizens and many of its buildings suffered serious casualties. The memorial to those who died is especially moving.
The villa is beautiful and comfortable and we will go back again. But its proximity is what blows me away.
Draw a circle around Sermide with a 90-minute radius, and you’ll be able to see Padova (Padua), Verona, Vicenza, Parma, Modena, Mantova, Montagnana, Ferrara, Bologna, Ravenna . . . All the great food cities. All the Shakespearean cities. The great university cities. You’re near the lakes. You can go to Maranello and see the Ferraris. Or you can stay at home in an authentic Italian village, ride one of the bikes along the ridge by the Po and visit a delightful neighboring town like Ostigilia, Revere or Castelmassa.
This is what travel is. To see something that’s beyond the pages of the guidebook. To meet the pharmacist, the shoemaker, the altar guild ladies in the church and to live amongst them for a while. To say good morning to them early and then see the same faces again in the evening in the piazza or at the next table in the trattoria. Of course, Rome and Florence and Venice are must-sees (Venice is only two hours away, in fact), but the spirit is different in a small place. You might find yourself here. Go, and have a look.