Mantua, Duomo of San Pietro ©Solange Hando
In the southern reaches of Lombardy, Mantua holds a special place on Italy's heritage trail, especially since the Old Town was designated a UNESCO site in 2007.
Piazza Sordello, the vast cobbled square, greets you with a dizzying wealth of Renaissance and medieval buildings from the marble façade of the Cathedral (pictured above) to the dome of the Basilica and towers and crenulations which keep you spellbound wherever you turn.
The Ducal Palace in Mantua ©Solange Hando
Among the many palaces and Renaissance mansions, the Ducal Palace, once home of the wealthy Gonzaga family, claims 15 gardens and courtyards and over 500 rooms.
Just a short stroll from the old castle, it is as stunning inside as it is out and rooms open to the public include galleries with original paintings, superb frescoes and wooden ceilings decorated in green and gold.
The Rotunda ©Solange Hando
Around the corner, the Rotunda of San Lorenzo, the oldest church in town, dates back roughly to 1100 and is still used today. With its colourful tiles and bricks, it's a striking Romanesque building where steps leading down to the entrance reveal the lower level of the medieval town.
The Teatro Scientifico in Mantua ©Solange Hando
But churches aside, like most Italian cities, Mantua also loves music as witnessed in this unusual little theatre. The Teatro is a brilliant example of 18th century Baroque architecture with a bell-shaped auditorium and soothing colours, almost monochrome rather than the usual red and gold. Mozart played here at the age of 14.
Yet this isn't the only enviable musical connection in Mantua. Verdi's opera Rigoletto was based here -you can see the jester's house at the entrance to the square-, L'Orfeo by Monteverdi had its première in town and there's literary fame as well since in Shakespeare's play 'Romeo and Juliet', Romeo is exiled in Mantua.
Mantua, Mountain and Lake ©Solange Hando
However, this fascinating town owes more to its past than fabulous buildings and for nature lovers, much of its charm comes from the three artificial lakes created in the 12th century for defence purposes.
There are lovely walks along the banks, boat trips too, and between Lake Garda and the river Po, the woods and wetlands of the Mincio Park are home to myriad butterflies and 265 species of birds, including white storks successfully reintroduced in the area.