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.