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Cremona, Italy, Is the World Capital of Violin Making — How to Plan a Music-focused Trip

When I was my son’s age — 13 — it wouldn’t have occurred to me to connect music and travel. I was a reluctant violinist, and would have quit in an instant if my mother had let me. When I brought it up, she would quote master violin teacher Shinichi Suzuki: “Music exists for the purpose of growing an admirable heart.” And that would be the end of the conversation. The farthest we traveled for music’s sake was to a neighboring town for a workshop or to a larger city for a concert.

My kids inherited the music gene from my mother, who died before they were born. At four my son asked for piano lessons, and when he was five I agreed. He’s been an ardent pianist since, in love with Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, and whoever else he happens to be playing. His sister, who used to nap in my arms as he practiced, started playing as soon as she could reach the keys. Now they compete for practice time on our living-room piano.

From left: Cremona Cathedral; a guest room at Corte Airone, an agriturismo outside Cremona.

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At a lesson last spring, my son’s teacher invited him to study at an international music academy in Cremona, Italy, where she is a faculty member. “Families often come along,” she said.

My son looked at me with incredulous excitement. Italy! Could we go?

My husband and I had gotten engaged in Florence 24 years earlier; we’d been talking about a family trip to Italy for years. Here was our excuse. Our kids were the perfect ages for travel: 13 and 9, old enough to appreciate the music, the architecture, and the cuisine, but still young enough not to spend the entire time on their phones. And I knew how much the immersion in Cremona’s musical culture would mean to them both.

From left: A Cremona resident heads out for the evening; outside the Arena di Verona opera festival.

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I heard my mother quoting Shinichi Suzuki. I found myself saying yes.

Cremona, located in Italy’s Lombardy region, has been the world capital of violin making for six centuries. A hundred and fifty liutai still ply their trade there, working in the tradition of the Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari families. Anyone who can pass an Italian-language exam can apply to the city’s publicly funded stringed-instrument-making school, the Cremona Scuola Internazionale di Liuteria. The surrounding region is known for its charcuterie and cheeses, its balsamic vinegar, and, slightly farther afield, its deliciously varied wines, from Valtellina’s rich, dark Nebbiolos to Franciacorta’s bright, dry, sparkling whites.

Matteo Della Grazia, an expert travel planner at Fuoritinerario–Discover Your Italy, created a music-themed tour program to fit around our son’s classes. He also provided expert guides and booked our hotels. All we had to do was pack — and, in my son’s case, practice, practice, practice.

Backstage at the Arena di Verona’s annual opera festival.

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In mid-July we boarded a plane from New York, our luggage full of sheet music and concert clothing. A sleepless eight hours later, we picked up our car at Milan’s Malpensa airport and drove through bright morning sunlight onto the autostrada, where we got a quick lesson in the prestissimo tempo of Italian road travel. Miles of green farmland rolled along beside us, the terra-cotta-roofed medieval towns reminding us that this was Italy, not the American Midwest. Our children, alight with excitement, talked nonstop until they collapsed into open-mouthed sleep. 

My husband and I toasted the trip with Pedrotti’s Trentodoc sparkling rosé. Dessert was a pair of sorbets, raspberry and lemon, that tasted like July itself.

Two hours later, as we neared the agriturismo where we’d be staying while we shook off our jet lag, we got off the highway and drove into a lush landscape of fruit orchards and organic farms. The road narrowed until we found ourselves on a rutted dirt track between high cornfields. Corte Airone, a medieval country estate, is now an inn where centuries-old agricultural methods are preserved. A handmade sign advertised the weekly farmers’ market; kitchen workers carried boxes of vibrant greens into the restaurant. While my husband and I unpacked, the children knelt on the lawn to play with the inn’s black-and-white bunny. Then it was time for a swim in the expansive pool, situated in a garden shaded by weeping spruce, palm, and ficus trees and where, on a branch over the water, a mockingbird gave an impromptu performance.

Extras in La Traviata kick up their heels.

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That night, master chef Alessandro Delvalle prepared a brightly flavored chickpea salad with summer vegetables, a beet risotto garnished with basil, and buffalo mozzarella from the nearby Oasi del Mincio farm, served with fat slices of tomato. My husband and I toasted the trip with Pedrotti’s Trentodoc sparkling rosé. Dessert was a pair of sorbets, raspberry and lemon, that tasted like July itself.

The next morning our musical adventure in Cremona began. Our son met his teacher at the Claudio Monteverdi Institute while the rest of us strolled to the Piazza del Comune, where a Romanesque cathedral built between the 12th and 14th centuries soared over an expanse of cobblestones. For $10 we climbed the cathedral’s Torrazzo, a skyscraping bell tower 369 feet high, and it was worth it: the structure contains a fascinating museum of clock making, with artifacts dating back six centuries, and the top offers sweeping views of the Po Valley. The Torrazzo’s astronomical clock is the largest in the world; as we climbed, it ticked like a giant metronome.

Gelato at Gioelia Cremeria.

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We descended back the piazza where, because it was a Wednesday, market stalls filled every corner; local shoppers browsed for everything from honeycomb to honeydew, sandals to sandalwood incense. Amid the noise, another sound caught our attention: the resonant, amber-toned voice of a Cremonese violin. We followed it to an open window on the square, where we discovered the workshop of husband-and-wife luthiers Gaspar Borchardt and Sibylle Fehr-Borchardt.

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Gaspar, sandy-haired, tanned, and barefoot, wearing a white linen shirt, met us at the door as if he’d been expecting us. I explained that our son was a student at the academy, and that I was a longtime violinist. Gaspar welcomed us into the shop and, with the passion of a master craftsman, began to tell us about the art of violin making. The shop where he and Sibylle made their instruments, he said, was once an inn known as the Albergo alla Columbina. When Mozart visited the city, that was where he stayed. “He wrote home to say that the theater was cold and the piano not tuned,” Gaspar said, laughing.

A dancer warms up backstage at the Arena di Verona.

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The violin as we know it today — the instrument with four strings and f-shaped holes — was developed in Cremona in the 16th century by Andrea Amati, a luthier believed to have had Jewish ancestry. (Scholars think that the instrument may have been brought to Italy by Sephardic Jews fleeing the Inquisition.) Violins are made primarily from two kinds of wood, Gaspar told us: the front from spruce, whose vertical fibers transmit sound quickly; the back from maple, thick and compact, to give the instrument power and stability. A diagram in a timeworn technical manual demonstrated that the violin’s curves are based on the Fibonacci sequences found everywhere in nature. “And you can see the same geometry right there,” Gaspar said, pointing through the window of his shop: the twin scrolled embellishments that crowned the façade of the cathedral were exactly the shape of a violin’s f-holes.

We descended into the family’s ancient cave, where, in a vaulted room amid hundreds of oak casks, we found a white-clad table spread with a feast: charcuterie, cheeses, dried fruits, olives, chocolates, and crumbling almond sbrisolona, to accompany a tasting of six spectacular Zeni wines.

On identical workbenches on either side of the shop, violins lay in various stages of completion. Gaspar favored the longer, lighter-toned instruments made in the Stradivari model; Sibylle, the rounder, richer-toned instruments of Guarneri. Many of the Borchardts’ tools — chisels, calipers, clamps, scrapers — had been handmade to fit their style of craft. The couple make their chin rests from wood harvested on their land in the Cinque Terre and their glue from fish skin or the connective tissue of cows. Their varnish comes from the sap of their own pine trees, mixed with linseed oil and aged for six months in glass bottles. Their shop seems suspended in time; I could almost see Mozart running down the stairs, shirttails flying, late for his own show.

The Arena di Verona before a performance of La Traviata.

Federico Ciamei

Before we left, Gaspar asked if I’d like to try a violin. I could scarcely bring myself to touch one of those beautiful instruments, worth tens of thousands of dollars. But he insisted, and my curiosity overcame my reluctance. I fitted a violin with a chin rest, brought the bow to the strings, and tried the first measures of a Veracini gigue. Though my fingers were clumsy with disuse, the tone of that instrument was powerful enough to fill a concert hall. Gaspar took up a half-finished violin and went to his bench, working as I played.

The violin’s curves are based on the Fibonacci sequences found everywhere in nature.

While my son practiced with his piano duo partner the following morning, my daughter and I drove to Bardolino, a vineyard-laced town on the eastern shore of Lake Garda. Della Grazia had arranged a tasting for us at Winery Zeni, a family-owned cellar that traces its history back to 1870. Our guide, Silvia Giordano, delivered professorial knowledge of the Zeni family and of the wine-making process: how the mineral-rich soils of the region produce four important varieties of grape — Molinara, Rondinella, Corvina, and Corvinone; how training the vines into a pergola-like structure protects the grapes from the sun; how the French oak barrels used for aging impart toasty, chocolaty flavors to the wine. 

From left: Tortelloni at Corte Airone; grapes at Winery Zeni.

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We descended into the family’s ancient cave, where, in a vaulted room amid hundreds of oak casks, we found a white-clad table spread with a feast: charcuterie, cheeses, dried fruits, olives, chocolates, and crumbling almond sbrisolona, to accompany a tasting of six spectacular Zeni wines. My daughter, drinking grape juice, kept falling back into her chair in rapture, declaring this to be the best lunch she’d had in her life. Afterward, we strolled along Bardolino’s boardwalk toward a high white Ferris wheel overlooking the lake. As my daughter skipped along the boards, her turquoise dress flowing around her legs, I knew she’d already fallen in love with Italy, and with travel.

That evening in Cremona, my son and I went to a concert at the Museo del Violino. The museum houses Stradivari, Amati, and Guarneri violins and cellos dating back to the 16th century, as well as recent masterworks by the world’s best luthiers. The concert hall, constructed of curving amber-colored wood, resembles nothing so much as the interior of a giant cello. That night, musicians from the Casalmaggiore Festival performed on instruments from the museum’s collection.

My son spent the first half of the concert sitting at the edge of his seat, tapping the rhythm on his knee. When I asked at the intermission if he was tired and wanted to go home, he laughed and said, “I think we both know we want to stay!” Afterward, we followed a troupe of academy students to a gelato shop, Gioelia Cremeria, where perfect peaches and melons lay in wooden crates on the counter. I ordered a peach cornetto, my son a hazelnut one. Did we want a wafer cookie on that? the server asked. Did we want whipped cream?

Yes, yes, yes.

Castello Scagliero, a 13th-century castle in Sirmione.

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My son’s chamber music group met for the first time the next morning in a sweltering fourth-floor room at Cremona’s Chamber of Commerce. Under the guidance of a patient master teacher, he joined his partners — a 14-year-old violinist and an 11-year-old cellist — in practicing a Beethoven trio. They felt their way into the music, stopping and starting, falling into dissonance, hesitating, laughing, and playing into blind alleys, while their teacher counted the beats.

Afterward, as my husband took our son to a practice room to work on his part, my daughter and I drove an hour east to the Sirmione Peninsula, the narrow remnant of a mountain that, many thousands of years ago, divided the southern end of Lake Garda into eastern and western lobes. Now the peninsula is home to a medieval castle, as well as countless gelaterie, two Michelin-starred restaurants, and the yellow stucco villa where Maria Callas lived during her marriage to the industrialist Giovanni Meneghini.

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In the company of our knowledgeable and multilingual guide, Claudio Passarini, we explored the 14th-century Scaligero castle, browsed a stationer’s shop for handmade paper, and visited the Caffè Grande Italia, where Callas used to take her morning coffee. But the thing we loved most about Sirmione was its gray-pebbled public beach, Spiaggia delle Muse, where, in the shadow of the castle, we splashed into the clear blue water while swans cruised in the background, trumpeting.

By the time we returned to Cremona that evening, the nightlife was in full swing. Diners and drinkers sat at tables under the stars, and music was everywhere: bands at the cafés played American blues, a DJ spun techno in the city park, and, at the end of our street, a Latin American students’ association held a dance in a middle-school courtyard. Salsa music spilled across the cobblestones as a hundred couples danced beneath a disco ball. Cremona loves a good tune, and not only a classical one; its musical tastes are broad and ever-changing, vibrantly alive.

Violin maker Gaspar Borchardt, left, at his Cremona studio, with musician Fabio Imbergamo.

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Later that week we piled into our car again for an overnight stay in Verona, where, in a 22,000-seat Roman arena, we would see Verdi’s Rigoletto — one of 12 offerings in Verona’s annual opera festival, now 111 years old. We checked in to the Hotel Indigo Verona–Grand Hotel Des Arts, housed in a recently renovated Art Deco building on the Corso Porta Nuova. At the reception desk, screens printed with dark green trees seemed to usher us into a fantastical forest. Biscotti, berries, cakes, and tea awaited us upstairs, setting a tone of lavish relaxation as we prepared for the night.

Passarini had suggested dinner at the famed Antica Bottega del Vino, tucked into an alley in the city’s medieval center. Inside, in a cavelike, amber-lit space, sommelier Davide Lucido offered us a leather-bound wine list as big as an atlas, containing some 18,000 choices. We gratefully took his recommendation: a 2016 Gini Soave Classico, straw-colored, mineral-tinged, with an aroma of peaches and apricots. While the children dove into bowls of calamarata pasta with stracciatella cheese, my husband and I ate a giant branzino cooked on a bed of salt. It would have been impossible to pry us from that table had there not been an even deeper pleasure ahead: a backstage tour, followed by the opera itself.

We followed her into a stone-walled labyrinth where the air vibrated with anticipatory energy. The orchestra warmed up nearby; extras quickstepped through the curving halls in 1950s-era costumes and stage makeup.

It was a short walk to the Piazza Bra, where the arena — two tiers of perfectly preserved Roman arches — rose high against the evening sky like a giant’s coronet. At the performers’ entrance we met Cecilia Bosaro, from the festival’s press office. Sleek-haired and elegant in a navy silk dress and flowerlike red pendant earrings, Bosaro told us that she’d been a child performer in the Verona Festival in 1995, when Franco Zeffirelli staged his legendary production of Carmen.

We followed her into a stone-walled labyrinth where the air vibrated with anticipatory energy. The orchestra warmed up nearby; extras quickstepped through the curving halls in 1950s-era costumes and stage makeup. Our path led us past a towering corridor where flats of scenery leaned against the wall; farther along was the costume shop, where hooped petticoats swung from the ceiling like giant chandeliers. Across the hall was the shoemakers’ shop, lined floor to ceiling with cardboard shoeboxes. Andrea Rizzi, a master shoemaker sporting a turquoise beard, showed us a pair of turquoise suede pumps that had been worn by the famed opera singer Alida Ferrarini, her name penned into the lining.

As Bosaro guided us toward the arena entrance, we met a trim dark-haired gentleman in black, a conductor’s baton in his hand. “The maestro!” Bosaro said. She introduced my son, explaining that he was a pianist at the Cremona academy. “Ah, how fantastic!” the maestro said. He asked if my son was excited to see the opera, and my son smiled and nodded mutely, having landed at the center of musical heaven: renowned conductor Marco Armiliato was speaking to him, to him, greeting him as a fellow musician.

The audience prepares for La Traviata at the Arena di Verona.

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Then it was showtime. Bosaro took us through an archway and out into the natural light of the arena. Our seats, on the lowest stone tier at stage left, offered a perfect view of the set and of the vast open-air theater stretching all around us, its highest levels lit in gold. Moments later, the audience erupted into cheers and shouts: Armiliato had entered. He strode to the podium and raised his arms, and the foreboding strains of Verdi’s prelude swelled through the orchestra. Onstage was a fictional version of Mantua, its hyperrealistic buildings painted in the sun-washed colors of 1950s Italy. Waves of performers surged onto the set. Our children leaned forward, rapt. 

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English supertitles offered a guide, but we wouldn’t have needed one. Juan Diego Flórez’s Duke of Mantua was intelligibly evil, Nina Minasyan’s Gilda youthful, clear, and expressive, and Luca Salsi’s Rigoletto torn and tragic. During scene changes, we watched the opera’s settings evolve in a miraculous origami of wood, canvas, and paper. Clouds gathered overhead. A breeze picked up and blew the light, colorful clothes of the audience members and performers alike. As the assassin Sparafucile sang “the storm comes nearer, the night grows darker,” the breeze became a wind, and, as if on cue, rain began to fall. The singers went silent. The musicians took up their instruments and ran for cover. An announcer begged our patience: the show would resume when the rain had stopped. “I thought it was a special effect!” my daughter said. “How did they time it so perfectly?”

The rain crescendoed, crested, ended; the musicians returned. The final scenes unfolded before us, and Rigoletto’s last anguished words — “Ah, it is the curse!” — flew out into the night. As we stood and cheered, hundreds of performers assembled onstage and bowed. No one wanted to stop clapping; the cheering seemed a final operatic act. When the spell broke at last, our family drifted out of the arena as if in a dream.

A Bertoldi Boats cruise on Lake Garda.

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It would have been hard to surpass an experience like that. It was hard to imagine anything ever coming close. But less than a week later, after long days of lessons and practice, we found ourselves sitting in the red velvet seats of the Teatro Filo, at our son’s final concert. And though we knew the young performers had been working hard for weeks, none of us could believe what we were hearing. 

The careful listening, timing, and artistry that had eluded our son’s group earlier now manifested powerfully as they played their Beethoven trio. Afterward, he and his duo partner executed their complicated Ibert suite with humor, subtlety, and a skillful grasp of Ibert’s playful dynamics. My son had come to Italy as a music-loving kid; now, a few weeks later, he was a performer, projecting his passion to us all.

As if on cue, rain began to fall. The singers went silent. The musicians took up their instruments and ran for cover. An announcer begged our patience: the show would resume when the rain had stopped. “I thought it was a special effect!” my daughter said. “How did they time it so perfectly?”

On our last afternoon, we returned to Sirmione for a sunset cruise. The boat’s captain, Fabian Senfter, navigated around the peninsula as the sun spilled pink light over the water. He pointed out the famous thermal spa where bathers took health cures, then the flat smooth rocks of Jamaica Beach and the ruin of the Roman grotto of Catullus, whose stones had been stolen by the Scaligero family to build their castle. As we rounded the eastern side of the island, my husband and I marveled quietly at what had happened in the 24 years since our engagement. We ourselves had changed beyond measure; at the rail of the boat stood our children, the wind in their hair. 

A moment later my son came to sit beside me, lost in thought.

“What’s on your mind?” I asked.

A beat passed. “Just — how incredible it is to do this,” he said, waving a hand toward the water, the hills, the sky. “To be here on a boat on a lake in Italy, at sunset. Because of music.”

I sat silent, listening to the boat passing over the waves, wishing my mother could hear him now — and could have heard him play.

Music exists for the purpose of growing an admirable heart, I told him. And so does travel. 

From left: The gardens at Corte Airone; lemons for sale in Sirmione.

Federico Ciamei

Where to Stay

Corte Airone Hotel & Restaurant: In the village of Castelfranco d’Oglio, a 35-minute drive from Cremona, you’ll find this sun-washed agriturismo, housed in a recently renovated villa. The hotel pool is an oasis of quiet luxury; the restaurant offers local produce, artfully prepared.

Hotel Indigo Verona, Grand Hotel Des Arts: A short walk from the Roman amphitheater where the Verona Opera Festival is held, this thoughtfully appointed hotel is a peaceful retreat on a lively street. Maximalist touches on a minimalist background set a tone of tasteful indulgence.

Where to Eat or Drink

Antica Bottega del Vino: If you’ve fallen off your exercise routine while traveling, redeem yourself by hefting the encyclopedic wine list at this restaurant just off Cremona’s glossy, mall-like Via Giuseppe Mazzini. Choose on your own, or consult the expert sommeliers for a recommendation.

Caffè Grande Italia: This café-bar in Sirmione’s Piazza Giosué Carducci boasts a hundred-year-old tradition of hospitality, and is just as popular now as it was in the roaring twenties. 

Gioelia Cremeria: A vanilla-scented gelateria near Cremona’s Public Garden, where perfect specimens of fresh produce are transformed into flawless gelato. Long lines at times, but worth it.

Osteria La Sosta: This unpretentious Cremona restaurant serves traditional pasta dishes, delicately flavored seafood, smoky slow-cooked meats, and exquisite cheeses and charcuterie.

Pasticceria Duomo dal 1883: Cremona’s historic purveyor of traditional Italian pastry. Indulge in a seemingly infinite variety of miniature layered cakes, cream-filled buns, and the large crumbly almond confections called sbrisolona. Culinary time travel at its best.

Stand Big Limone: At the gates of Sirmione you’ll find this famous lemonade stand, which serves not only perfectly tart fizzy lemonade made from Garda lemons but also cups of fresh fruit in season.

Where to Shop

Buon Palato: A Cremona jewel box of artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, pickles, olives, dried fruits, wine, sweets, and other delights — everything you need for a picnic or quick dinner. 

Cartoleria Benzoni: You could stop at the gorgeous window display of fountain pens, handmade Italian papers, stationery, and leather-bound notebooks at this Sirmione shop, but you’d be crazy not to go inside and browse. 

Gaspar Borchardt and Sibylle Fehr-Borchardt Violins: If you’re in the market for a concert-level instrument, or just want to see one being made, visit Gaspar Borchardt and Sibylle Fehr-Borchardt, master luthiers in Cremona. The couple constructs world-class violins, violas, and cellos by hand, in the traditions of Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù.

Il Consorzio Liuteria “A. Stradivari” CremonaTo try violins and bows from a variety of makers, visit the showroom of this cooperative of 60 craftspeople.

Oficina Lovers: An airy, well-curated trove of cool clothes in Cremona. Sleeveless 1970s wrap dresses hang alongside vintage denim and new pieces by local designers. 

What to Do

Arena di Verona Festival: World-class open-air opera performances in an ancient Roman amphitheater in the heart of Verona. A variety of productions alternate all summer long; fans will derive an extra thrill from visiting the piazza surrounding the amphitheater in daytime, where giant set pieces stand waiting to be lifted by crane over the amphitheater’s walls and lowered onto the stage. Private backstage tours can be arranged.

Bertoldi Boats: Treat yourself to a private sunset cruise on Lake Garda in a boat piloted by one of the fleet’s knowledgeable guides. 

Museo del Violino: Hundreds of beautiful examples trace the lineage of stringed-instrument making in Cremona, from 16th-century Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari violins to the winners of recent international competitions. 

Vertical Museum of the Torrazzo: Inside Cremona’s soaring tower is a museum of clock-making that features many wonders: ancient solar and mechanical timepieces, a model of a medieval water-wheel clock, and a view of the inner workings of the tower’s own giant clock. 

Winery Zeni: This family-owned cellar in the town of Bardolino traces its history back to 1870. Sample a variety of vintages at the tasting counter, then learn about Lombardy wine-making culture in its museum. 

How to Book

Contact T+L A-List advisor Matteo Della Grazia ( at Fuoritinerario–Discover Your Italy, an agency that offers itineraries precisely customized to your interest. They’ll arrange transportation, accommodations, dining, and amusements, including VIP access. Expert tour guides can give you insight into the local landmarks, and staff are readily available to assist throughout your trip.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 2024 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline “Note Perfect.

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