The Mantuan Oltrepò, along with the Oltrepò Pavese, represents the only part of the Lombardy region to the south of the Great Po River. Contained between Emilia and Veneto, extending across about 700 km2, along about 60 kilometres (from Suzzara to Felonica), the Mantuan Oltrepò embraces 20 towns, including 3 (Ostiglia, Serravalle and Sustinente) that are actually located to the north of the river.
Apart from its geographical position, the Mantuan Oltrepò represents a precise landscape and cultural context whose highlights can be traced back to the long-standing relationship between humans and the water (which can be seen from the powerful banks of the Po and the Secchia and the important monumental drainage systems), the figure of Matilde di Canossa – to whom the building of the abbeys and churches can be attributed which, still today, after nearly a millennium, punctuate the area – the agriculture, which has deeply shaped the landscape, and the marginality of the bordering lands, the crossroads of people and knowledge.
The Po and the Oltrepò
The floods of the Po River have created extremely fertile lands which, through the centuries, have made the Mantuan Oltrepò the granary of Italy and the bountiful land of dairy cow and pig farming, of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and poplar cultivation.
But the Po has also brought mourning and destruction, and for over a thousand years the peoples of the Oltrepò have tried to tame the river and enclose it within embankments that have gone from being weak defences, reconstructed after every “burst”, to the imposing ramparts that are the distinctive feature of today’s landscape.
The Po is the main ecological belt of the Po Plain and one the most important ones in Europe. It preserves most of the biodiversity of the Mantuan Oltrepò in precious habitats such as oxbow lakes, floodwater pools known as “bugni”, sandy areas, riparian woodlands and marshes.
Today, the culture and nature that has grown around the great river coexist in a precarious balance with Italy’s most important centre in terms of production, population and infrastructure. In the last century, the Po has suffered progressive environmental degradation due to water pollution, artificial intervention in the riverbed and ecological exploitation of the flood plains through the uncontrolled development of poplar cultivation.
In 2007, in an effort to protect the great river, the local communities spontaneously set up the Mantuan Oltrepò Parks System boasting over 9,000 hectares of land featuring the typical habitats of the final section of the Po.
Walking along the main embankment, meeting up on a floating boat or a boat lying on the dry riverbed, under a simple roof covering or on a bench to watch the water endlessly flowing by, is a custom that is still very much alive among the inhabitants of the Oltrepò. In this land of scenic views, flavours, stories and vivid experiences, one can still feel “the natural breath of the great river and the endeavours of its peoples”.
The Municipalities of the Mantuan Oltrepò:
Borgocarbonara, Borgo Mantovano, Magnacavallo, Moglia, Motteggiana, Ostiglia, Pegognaga, Poggio Rusco, Quingentole, Quistello, San Benedetto Po, San Giacomo delle Segnate, San Giovanni del Dosso, Schivenoglia, Sermide e Felonica, Serravalle a Po, Sustinente, Suzzara, Villimpenta.
The best experiences you can have when visiting the Mantuan Oltrepò Parks System, discovering the Great Po River.
- Walk through the woods to discover the forests which once covered the Mantuan Oltrepò area and the whole of the Po Plain.
- See how the willow groves colonised the new terrain created by the river and mankind, giving rise to the long process which led to the formation of the Mantuan Oltrepò woods.
- Walk along the sandy beaches which form when the river is low, looking at the different kinds of plants which take root there – they will only survive for a season, until the Po swells once again.
- Move around the marshlands, along the canals, in the abandoned quarries, look out from a hut to watch and listen to ducks, herons, hawks and the myriad of small birds which live there.
- Walk along the canals and ditches in the marshland and listen to the croaking of the frogs; if you are lucky you might even come across the Italian agile frog – a red frog which lives only on the Po Plain – European pond turtle, or the viviparous lizard.
- Take a walk through the woods to discover the extraordinarily rich range of wildlife in the Mantuan Oltrepò – you will hear the song of the great tit and the nightingale, the hammering of the red woodpecker and the laughing call of the green woodpecker.
- Enter a reed thicket and feel the soft ground under your feet, like a trampoline. Touch the rough, sharp leaves of the reeds and the sedge, plants which the inhabitants of this area have used for centuries to make many products
- Discover the signs of life left by great and small animals – fox, hedgehog and heron tracks imprinted in the dried out silt, gastropod trails, insect holes in decaying tree stumps, raptor regurgitations, fallen feathers, birdsong among the branches…
- Walk around a “bugno” or an oxbow lake and discover the biodiversity contained in these small areas of still water.
- Linger in front of the monumental trees which punctuate the landscape and wonder at their magnificence, trying to guess their age and their history.
As well as these experiences, you can also:
- Walk through the poplar woods and notice their regular layout – they are not true woods, but rather plantations destined to be felled after a decade or so. In spring you can witness the snowfall as their cotton-wool-like seeds fall.
- Look out on the river shallows from an observation point ( ), with dozens of terns and gulls on the foreshore, rows of old willows on the banks with cormorants perched on top drying their feathers, the sandy banks where bee-eaters, sand martins and kingfishers have dug out their nests.
- Stop and chat with the local fishermen and hear stories of the legendary sturgeons which used to live in the Po and the new “monster”, the wels catfish.
- Cross the Po in a boat to feel its strength, to grasp its majesty.
- Enjoy traditional local dishes, such as squash tortelli (i turtei ad suca in the local language), agnoli (i caplet) – like Bolognese tortellini, the exquisite white truffle (la trifula), tirotto (al tiròt) – an onion foccacia, tortelli guazzarotti (turtei sguasaròt) – pasta stuffed with chestnuts and beans and served in a wine sauce, and the innumerable pig (al guget) products, all washed down by a good Mantuan lambrusco (al lambrusch). Buy local products at the numerous stores and delicatessens or at food festivals and farmers’ markets.
- Visit a drainage plant and see the syphons, drainage systems, the network of canals, the banks, groynes, waterways, locks and docks, to take in the extraordinary complexity of drainage, water management and navigation of the rivers and canals.
- Get to know the history of the Mantuan Oltrepò by visiting the pievi matildiche (Matildic churches), the Polirone Abbey, the Santuario della Comuna sanctuary, the museums, mansions, courts and castles.
- Learn about the centuries-old relationship between man and the land by discovering the agricultural lifestyle and ancient crafts, visiting the agricultural courts, material culture museums and ship mills on the Po.
- Relax by the river – sunbathe on the beaches, go for a river cruise, fish, stroll through the flood plains, ride along the embankments bathed in sun or fog.
- Stop at the visitors’ centre of a nature reserve, in a town square, at a rest point on the Parks Cycle Route, a farm holiday centre or a restaurant; take refreshments, get information packs, talk with the locals and learn about their lifestyles and language.
As well as these experiences, you can also:
- Ride along the Mantuan Oltrepò Parks Cycle Route, enjoying the silence, the smells and the colours in order to fully appreciate the countryside of the Po plain and meet the hospitable locals.
- Look around from up on the river embankments, gazing over the river, the flood plains, the fields, the courts and villages, taking in the scale of this network of dykes which the inhabitants of the Mantuan Oltrepò trust to keep them safe.