A Look at Lombardy

Submitted by admin on 10 Jul 2013

Our Italian Lakes tour starts in the region of Lombardy in northern Italy. Whilst the Lakes and Italy's economic powerhouse Milan are perhaps best known to a global audience, the region is also home to some historic towns which are well worth a visit with free days before or after your walking tour. 

Located about 30 km south of Milan Pavia sits on the River Ticino and is home to one of Europe's oldest universities, the institution being officially founded in 1361.  The university's courtyards and stately grounds make up much of the western side of historic centre, but also unmissable are the vast red brick cathedral which Leonardo da Vinci helped to design and the Chiesa San Michele Maggiore, the site where the coronation of Italian Kings took place in centuries gone by.  About 10 km outside the city is the famed Certosa di Pavia, a Carthusian monastery which is a stunning example of Renaissance architecture.  Highly recommended is a city walking company called Original History Walks who incidentally also run tours in Milan and Turin. The local speciality is a dense sweet sponge cake known as the "torta paradiso".

Heading due east from Milan the town of Brescia is, at first, disguised by its industrial suburbs but once inside the historic centre are revealed Roman ruins, Romanesque churches and an enormous Medieval Castle. Remains of a Roman Temple built by Emperor Vespasian in AD73, a Roman theatre and parts of the Forum can all be seen in the heart of the town.  The local speciality here may not be to everyone's taste but should be tried: "lumache alla bresciana" which are snails cooked with parmesan and fresh spinach!

Slightly north east of Milan lies Bergamo, a city which is more or less split into two towns, with the Citta Alta (upper town) being by far the most interesting to visit.  The true heart of this Citta Alta is the glorious Piazza Vecchia which is surrounded on all sides by elegant architecture: porticoes, arches, columns and the lion of St Mark which bears witness to Venice's 350 year rule over the city. Bergamo's cathedral, citadel, botanical garden and art gallery known as the Accademia Carrara are all worthy of a visit.  The composer Gaetano Donizetti was born here and there is a small museum housing his piano and manuscripts.  "Polenta e osei" are small round cakes filled with jam and cream and covered with icing and chocolate birds.  Although named after the ground maize (polenta) eaten all over Lombardy, they are not actually made from it, but are a classic sweet dish of the town.

In spite of its medieval heart and wonderful cathedral and baptistry, Cremona is famous the world over for its tradition of violin-making. Antonio Stradivari first starting working on his legendary instruments in this town back in 1667 when it is thought he served as a pupil at the Amati workshop before setting up on his own in 1680.  You can see a collection of his instruments in the Museo del Violino along with displays of tools and drawings.  Many workshops still operating in the town allow visits and the Tourist Office can help with those where English is spoken.  An antiques market runs on the second Sunday of every month in the Piazza del Comune.

This attractive Unesco World Heritage site sits on the shores of three lakes which are formed from the widening of the River Mincio, giving Mantua a watery serenity and beauty which is amost Venetian in atmosphere.  Birthplace of the Roman poet Virgil, Mantua fell under the rule of the Gonzaga family in 1382 who were great patrons of the arts. Two of the most interesting things to visit are the vast Palazzo Ducale which houses much of the Gonzaga's incredible art collection as well as Mangtegna's fine fresco series in the Camera degli Sposi, and the Palazzo Te, a Renaissance masterpiece by Giulio Romano housing the Chamber of Giants with its dramatic and terrifying depictions of the giants battling Greek gods.  There are wonderful cycle paths in and around Mantua too and you can take boat cruises or kayaks on the lakes. For the culinary explorers out there, Mantua retains some of the Gonzaga's favourite dishes; deep-fried frogs legs, marinated raw eel and even a donkey stew, but more mainstream recipes include wonderful pumpkin ravioli and "risotto alla pilota" (served with minced pork). "Torta sbrisolona" is a delicious crumbly local almond cake.

If the hustle and bustle of Milan is too much, then why not head for one of these smaller gems? All can be reached easily by train from Milan - see our Milan City Page for transport details.