Lombardy, Italy’s richest region, often seems to have more in common with its northern European neighbours than with the rest of Italy. Given its history, this is hardly surprising: it was ruled for almost two centuries by the French and Austrians and takes its name from the northern Lombards, who ousted the Romans. As a border region, Lombardy has always been vulnerable to invasion, just as it has always profited by being a commercial crossroads. Emperors from Charlemagne to Napoleon came to Lombardy to be crowned king – and big business continues to take Lombardy’s capital, Milan, more seriously than Rome.
The region’s people, ranging from Milanese workaholics to cosseted provincial urbanites, hardly fit the popular image of Italians – and, in truth, they have little time for most of their compatriots. This led to the rise of the Lega Nord over the last fifteen years, a political party nominally demanding independence from Rome, although working in the government there in coalition with Berlusconi, and successfully exploiting the popular sentiment that northern taxes sustain the inefficient, workshy south.
Sadly all this economic success has taken its toll on the landscape: industry chokes the peripheries of towns, sprawls across the Po plain and even spreads its polluting tentacles into the Alpine valleys. Traffic, too, is bad, with many roads – autostradas and lakeside lanes alike – gridlocked at peak times. Nonetheless, Lombardy’s towns and cities retain medieval cores boasting world-class art and architecture, and the stunning scenery of the so-called Italian Lakes – notably lakes Maggiore, Como and Garda – never fails to seduce.
Milan’s lowland neighbours – Cremona and Mantua – flourished during the Middle Ages and Renaissance and retain much character. To the north, Lombardy is quite different, the lakes and valleys sheltering fewer historic towns, the cities of Bergamo and Brescia excepted. Reaching into the high Alps, lakes Maggiore, Como, Garda and their lesser-celebrated siblings have long been popular tourist territory with both Italians and foreigners.
Although the western shore of Lake Maggiore and the northern and eastern shores of Lake Garda fall outside Lombardy (in Piemonte, Trentino and Veneto respectively), the Lakes region and its resorts are all covered in this chapter.Read More
The Lakes and their features
The Lakes and their features
Although they share many things – dreamy vistas, quality local cooking and sheer romance, to name but a few – the Italian Lakes each have a very different character and it’s worth thinking about the type of holiday you’re looking for before you book.
The mountainous regions behind all the Lakes provide great hiking and mountain-biking opportunities but the combined winds to its north and the presence of Monte Baldo make Lake Garda the destination for on- and off-water thrill seekers.
Watch the sun set behind Isola San Guilio on Lake Orta or from the Lake Como waterfront at Varenna or, alternatively, hole up in Gargnano on Lake Garda for a winter like D.H. Lawrence and his mistress did in 1912.
Visiting lakeside villas
Lake Como offers the best selection of romantic waterfront residences with dreamy gardens to visit, although belle époque villas and sumptuous palazzi are dotted around the shore lines of all the lakes.
With Franciacorta and the various DOC regions to the south and southeast of Lake Garda – including Bardolino, Valpolicella and Lugana – you’re never far from somewhere to try a local vintage or two.
The microclimate of this corner of Lake Maggiore make the Isole Borromee and gardens in Verbania some of the most glorious gardens on the lakes, although competition is steep.
Travelling by public transport
A quick train ride from Milan, Varenna is at the heart of the most spectacular part of Lake Como from where an excellent boat service will ferry you around to explore further.
Holidaying with kids
With older children you can’t beat the activities available on and around Lake Garda – from windsurfing or castle climbing to the theme and water parks in the southeast of the lake. Younger children might enjoy the shorter distances around the centre of Lake Como more, the family-friendly resort of Cannobio on Lake Maggiore, or the dragon stories linked with Lake Orta.
Regional food and drink
Regional food and drink
Lombardy is distinctive in its variations in culinary habits. For example, the sophisticated recipes of the Milanese contrast sharply with the more rustic dishes of the Alpine foothills and lakes. The latter are sometimes known as piatti poveri (poor food): devised over centuries, these employ imagination and often time-consuming techniques to make up for the lack of expensive ingredients. Risotto alla Milanese, on the other hand, golden yellow with saffron, is Milan’s most renowned culinary invention – and, it is said, only truly Milanese if cooked with the juices of roast veal flavoured with sage and rosemary. Ossobuco (shin of veal) is another Milanese favourite, as is panettone, the soft, eggy cake with sultanas eaten at Christmas time.
The short-grain rice used for risotto is grown in the paddy fields of the Ticino and Po valleys; other staples include green pasta and polenta. The latter – made from maize meal which is boiled and patiently stirred for around forty minutes, all the time watched with an eagle eye so it doesn’t go lumpy – is found all over northern Italy. It can be eaten straightaway, or else left to cool and then sliced and grilled and served as an accompaniment to meat.
From Cremona comes mostarda di frutta (pickled fruit with mustard), the traditional condiment to serve with bollito misto (boiled meats). Stuffed pastas come in various guises – for example, around the Po Valley tortelli alla zucca (ravioli filled with pumpkin) or around Bergamo and Brescia casoncei (ravioli stuffed with sausage meat). Veal is eaten hot or cold in dishes like vitello tonnato (thin slices of cold veal covered with tuna mayonnaise) and wild funghi (mushrooms) are everywhere in autumn.
Lombardy is also one of the largest cheese-making regions in the country. As well as Gorgonzola there are numerous other local cheeses: among the best known are parmesan-like Grana Padano, smooth, creamy Mascarpone (used in sweet dishes) and the tangy, soft Taleggio.
Although Lombardy is not renowned internationally for its wines, supermarket shelves bulge with decent reds from the Oltrepò Pavese, and “Inferno” from the northern areas of Valtellina; while around Brescia, the Franciacorta area has earned plaudits for its excellent sparkling whites.