Lombardy and the Lakes Travel Guide
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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.
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), here, we cover the Lakes region and its resorts.
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 has 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, 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 Italian Lakes – Orta, Maggiore, Como, Iseo 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 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.
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.
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 better the shorter distances around the centre of Lake Como, the family-friendly resort of Cannobio on Lake Maggiore, or the dragon stories linked with Lake Orta.
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 Bresciacasoncei (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.
Strung across the broad plain of the River Po in southern Lombardy, a belt of well-preserved ancient towns offers a handful of spectacular masterpieces of art and architecture against the backdrop of comfortable provincial life.
Just outside the ancient town of Pavia, the fabulous Certosa monastery complex makes an attractive introduction to this part of Lombardy. To the east, Cremona, birthplace of the violin, has a neat, well-preserved centre that’s worth popping in to visit. Mantua, on the eastern edge of the region, is Lombardy’s most visually appealing city: the powerful Gonzaga family ruled for three hundred years from an extravagant ducal palace and later the Palazzo Te, on the outskirts of the city, which contains some of the finest (and most steamily erotic) fresco-painting of the entire Renaissance.
Among the rice fields around 40km south of Milan, one of the most extravagant monasteries in Europe, the Certosa di Pavia (Charterhouse of Pavia), was commissioned by the Duke of Milan, Galeazzo II Visconti in 1396 as the family mausoleum. Visconti intended the church here to resemble Milan’s late-Gothic cathedral and the same architects and craftsmen worked on the construction. It took a century to build; by the time it was finished tastes had changed (and the Viscontis had been replaced by the Sforzas). As a work of art the monastery is one of the most important testimonies to the transformation from late-Gothic to Renaissance and Mannerist styles, but it also affords a wonderful insight into the lives and beliefs of the Carthusian monks.
You can see the church unaccompanied, but to visit the rest of the monastery you need to join a guided tour of just under an hour (free but contributions welcomed), led by one of the monks released from the strict vow of silence. Tours run regularly – basically when enough people have gathered. They’re in Italian, but well worth doing – even if you don’t understand a word – as they allow you to visit the best parts of the monastery complex.
The monastery lies at the end of a tree-lined avenue, part of a former Visconti hunting range that stretched all the way from Pavia’s castello. Encircled by a high wall, the complex is entered through a central gateway bearing a motif that recurs throughout the monastery – “GRA-CAR” or “Gratiarum Carthusiae”, a reference to the fact that the Carthusian monastery is dedicated to Santa Maria delle Grazie, who appears in numerous works of art in the church. Beyond the gateway is a gracious courtyard, with the seventeenth-century Ducal Palace on the right-hand side and outbuildings along the left. Rising up before you is the fantastical facade of the church, festooned with inlaid marble, twisted columns, statues and friezes. Despite more than a century’s work by leading architects, the facade remains unfinished: the tympanum was never added, giving the church its stocky, truncated look.
Inside, the Gothic design of the church was a deliberate reference to Milan’s Duomo, but it has a lighter, more joyous feel, with its painted ceiling, and light streaming in through the one hundred windows high up in the walls. The elaborate seventeenth-century gates to the transept and highly decorated altar, at the far end, are opened when a tour is about to start.
The sculptural highlights of the church lie in the two wings of the transept. In the centre of the north transept lies the stone funerary monument of the greatest of the dukes of Milan, Ludovico il Moro, and his wife Beatrice d’Este, neither of whom is actually buried here. The exquisite detail of the statue is an important document of sixteenth-century fashions with its tasselled latticework dress and glam-rock platform shoes. The south transept contains the magnificent mausoleum of the founder of the monastery, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, by Cristoforo Romano, including a carving of Gian Galeazzo presenting a model of the Certosa to the Virgin. Both he and his wife, Isabella di Valois, are buried here.
Opposite the mausoleum is the door to the delightful small cloister, with fine terracotta decoration and a geometric garden around a fountain where monks shared the communal part of their lives, meeting here to pace the courtyard during their weekly ration of talking time. In the adjacent refectory, the monks would eat together in silence on Sundays and holy days; the Bible was read throughout the meal from the pulpit (with a hidden entrance in the panelling). The dining room is divided by a blind wall, which allowed the monastery to feed lay workers and guest pilgrims without compromising the rules of their closed order. Further on, the great cloister is stunning for its size and tranquillity. It is surrounded on three sides by the monks’ houses, each consisting of two rooms, a chapel, a garden and a loggia, with a bedroom above. The hatches to the side of the entrances were designed to enable food to be passed through without any communication. The final call is the Certosa shop, stocked with honey, chocolate, souvenirs and the famous Chartreuse liqueur.
A cosy provincial town in the middle of the Po plain, Cremona is renowned for its violins. Ever since Andrea Amati established the first violin workshop here in 1566, followed by his son, grandson (Nicolò) and pupils Guarneri and – most famously – Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737), Cremona has been a focus for the instrument. Today the city is home to an internationally famous school of violin making, as well as the excellent Museo del Violino.
Cremona has some fine Renaissance and medieval buildings, and its cobbled streets make for some pleasant wandering, but it’s a modest sort of place: target it as a half-day trip from Bergamo or Milan, en route towards the rich pickings of Mantua.
Aldous Huxley called it the most romantic city in the world. With a skyline of domes and towers rising above its three encircling lakes, Mantua (Mantova) is undeniably evocative. This was where Romeo heard of Juliet’s supposed death, and where Verdi set Rigoletto. Its history is one of equally operatic plots, most of them acted out by the Gonzaga, one of Renaissance Italy’s richest and most powerful families, who ruled the town for three centuries. Its cobbled squares retain a medieval aspect, and there are two splendid palaces: the Palazzo Ducale, containing Mantegna’s stunning fresco of the Gonzaga family and court, and Palazzo Te, whose frescoes by the flashy Mannerist Giulio Romano encompass steamy erotica and illusionistic fantasy. Mantua’s lakes, and the flat surrounding plain, offer numerous boat cruises and cycling routes.
The centre of Mantua is made up of four attractive squares, each connected to the next. Lively Piazza Mantegna is overlooked by the massive Basilica di Sant’Andrea. Beside it is the lovely Piazza delle Erbe, with fine arcades facing the medieval Rotonda church. To the north, through medieval passageways and across Piazza Broletto, the long, cobbled slope of Piazza Sordello is dominated by the Palazzo Ducale, the fortress and residence of the Gonzaga, packed with Renaissance art. Mantua’s other great palace stands in its own gardens 1.5km south of the historic centre – Palazzo Te, adorned with sensational frescoes.
In May 2012 earthquakes reaching 5.9 on the Richter scale shook this part of Italy. No one was killed in Mantua, unlike nearby Parma but ancient buildings and frescoes around town, including the Palazzo Ducale and the Palazzo Te, were badly damaged. When you visit there is a possibility that some rooms or even entire buildings will be closed for restoration; check ahead with the tourist office.
Several companies offer cruises on Mantua’s lakes – bulges in the course of the River Mincio – and on the river itself down to its confluence with the Po, ranging from one-hour jaunts up to full-day voyages as far as Ferrara and Venice. All run daily but must be booked in advance: usually a day ahead, but sometimes an hour or so will do.
Many of the boats accept bikes, so you can make a great day-trip – a morning on the boat, a picnic lunch at, say, Rivalta, then a gentle cycle-ride back in the afternoon. The tourist office has a good map detailing cycle routes, plus information on bus, boat and train combinations.
“One can’t describe the beauty of the Italian lakes, nor would one try if one could.” Henry James’s sentiment hasn’t stopped generations of writers producing reams of purple prose in the attempt. Yet, in truth, the Lakes just about deserve it: their beauty is extravagant, and it’s not surprising that the most romantic and melodramatic of Italy’s opera composers – Verdi, Rossini and Bellini – rented villas here in which to work. British and German Romantic poets also enthused about the Lakes, and in doing so planted them firmly in northern-European imaginations. The result is an influx every summer of tourists from cooler climes, come to savour the Italian dream and to take gulps at what Keats called “the beaker of the warm south”.
Garda is the largest lake, and one of the best centres in Europe for windsurfing and sailing. It is also visually stunning, especially in its mountainous northern stretches – yet Como matches (or, some say, betters) it, with forested slopes rising directly from the water’s edge. On both lakes, the luxuriance of the waterfront vegetation is equalled by the opulence of the local villas and palazzi; both also offer good hiking in the mountainous hinterland.
Further west, Maggiore is less popular yet just as beautiful, with several sedate fin-de-siècle resorts. There are, however, some good walks, and superb formal gardens adorning Isola Bella and other grand villas. Nearby, the picture-postcard charms of Orta San Giulio, the main village on Lake Orta – with its steepled offshore islet – ensure that it is a popular spot, yet this too can be a wonderfully romantic place to hole up.
The hilly terrain between the lakes is sliced up by mountain valleys – largely residential and industrial in their lower reaches though mostly untouched further up, hosting lots of modest ski resorts in winter (none worth making a special trip for). The nearby city of Brescia is a treat as a day-trip, while its neighbour Bergamo is a lovely place to stay, with an old walled hilltop quarter that ranks as one of the most alluring in Italy.
Between Iseo and Brescia, the hilly wine-producing district of Franciacorta got its name from the religious communities that lived here from the eleventh century onwards: they were exempt from tax and known as the Corti Franche, or free courts. This small area of Lombardy is best known for the Franciacorta DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), Italy’s most refined sparkling wine: first made in the 1960s, it is produced according to Champagne methods. The area has more than a hundred vineyards, many of which are open for tours and tasting sessions, as well as some excellent Michelin-starred restaurants, plus more laidback trattorias where you can sample both the local wine and traditional regional dishes.
The secret of Franciacorta's sparkling wine lies in a second fermentation in the bottle which can last from eighteen to sixty months. Usually a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir or Blanc grapes, the sparkling wine comes in various types: Not Dosed/Pas Dosé (extremely dry), Extra Brut, Brut Satèn (a light silky-smooth mixture), Sec, Demisec and Rosé.
Some of the best known Franciacorta sparkling wine producers are Bellavista, Belucchi, Ca’del Bosco and Majolini but all of the vineyards – and there are over one hundred of them – have their own story and often lovely headquarters in ancient farmhouses or villas. Most guided tours end with a tasting and very competitive prices are offered in the cantina shops, where they can usually arrange shipping back home for you too. The Consortium Franciacorta has a list and can give advice on vineyards to visit or be guided by local suggestions from B&B owners. In mid-September on even years, the Festival Franciacorta sees wineries open for special tasting sessions and local restaurants offering themed seasonal menus.
Tourist offices and hotels stock a map of the Strada del Vino Franciacorta, a route which winds for 80km through the area, passing visitable vineyards, hotels and restaurants. There are well-thought-out routes for cars, cyclists or walkers lasting for a couple of hours to a day or two. Contact details are given for wineries along the route, most of which offer tours and tastings; advance booking is preferred.