If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the Lombardy region of northern Italy. Depending on your interests, this beautiful area might be an ideal vacation spot. You can get classic Italian food, and wash it down with fine local wine. There are event some parts of Lombardy that are relatively undiscovered by tourists. This article presents Lombardy outside of its capital Milan or the beautiful Lake districts, which are described in companion articles in this series.
Over the millennia Lombardy has been in the hands of numerous invaders including the Etruscans and the Gauls, then the Romans, Franks, and Goths, and finally the French, Spaniards, and Austrians. Did we forget the Lombards? All of these invaders left their mark, some more and some less. Keep local history in mind as you tour this impressive region.
We start our tour at Pavia about twenty-five miles (forty kilometers) south of Milan. Then we proceed southeast to Cremona. We continue east to finish this short tour at Mantua near the Veneto border.
It may be hard to believe today, but once upon a time little Pavia (population about 70 thousand) was a major rival of nearby Milan (city population about 1.3 million and metropolitan population over 5 million.) Its defeat by the Barbarians in 476 commonly marks the end of the Western Roman Empire. Almost nine hundred years later the internationally known University of Pavia was founded, based on a law and divinity school established by the year 825. Count Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta was the most famous individual associated with this university. In case you forgot your high school science, Volta discovered methane gas and invented the electric battery. When you think about volts and voltage, think about Pavia.
Arguably the most famous native of Pavia was Benedetto Cairoli, the 13th and 15th Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Italy. He was somewhat of a hero during Risorgimento (the fight for Italian independence) but had a relatively undistinguished career as Prime Minister with a single exception. Cairoli risked his life and was severely wounded when he successfully protected the unpopular King Umberto I from assassination early in his reign. The King was assassinated more than twenty years later. Some more trivia: This Prime Minister was left wing, the King who he saved was extreme right wing, and he lost his job as Prime Minister by saving the King. Now let’s consider Pavia’s sights.
The Fourteenth Century Castello Visconteo was more of a residence than a military structure. Today it is home to the Museo Civico (Municipal Museum) and displays an archeological collection, frescoes, and paintings by Bellini, Correggio, and others. The Duomo di Pavia (Pavia Cathedral) was started in 1488 and completed in 1898, slightly more than 400 years later. Perhaps construction took so long because the Cathedral dome is the third largest in all Italy. Talk about construction problems, the nearby Civic Tower leaned and finally fell on St. Patrick’s Day in 1989.
Pavia is home to several other churches worth seeing. The Lombard-Romanesque San Michele Maggiore Church was built on the site of a preexisting Lombard church. First destroyed shortly after the turn of the first millennium it was rebuilt during the Twelfth Century. The Basilica of San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro (St. Peter in Golden Sky) actually originated in the beginning of the Seventh Century. Its name refers to gold leaf mosaics that formerly decorated parts of the ceiling. This basilica was featured in Bocaccio’s Decameron. You may also want to see the Thirteenth Century brick Santa Maria del Carmine Church and the Renaissance Santa Maria di Canepanova Church.
Head about five miles (eight kilometers) north of town to see Pavia’s number one attraction, the Fifteenth Century Certosa di Pavia (Charterhouse of Pavia) monastery. This complex, which took over one hundred years to build, is considered an excellent expression of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. It includes a great collection of paintings and stained glass windows. The church was meant to house the tombs of its owners, the noble Visconti family but only one family member is actually buried there. His tomb took over sixty years to build. Nearby is the tomb of another Duke and his wife Beatrice d’Este, a real Renaissance woman and a beauty as well, who died in childbirth at age 22. You may have heard of her sister-in-law, Lucrezia Borgia.
The city of Cremona, population about seventy thousand, was first settled well over two thousand years ago. The famous Roman poet Virgil went to school there and owned a family farm in the vicinity. Another name is indelibly linked to this city, that of Antonio Stradivari, the world’s greatest violinmaker. During his working life of somewhat under 70 years (born 1644?-died 1737) he fashioned more than 1200 musical instruments, violins, cellos, guitars (two are known to survive), harps (one is known to survive), mandolins, and violas. Do the calculation; he fashioned a musical instrument about every twenty days. His masterpieces are simply the world’s best-known and most expensive stringed instruments. As they say about yachts, if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it. It’s not sour grapes, but what would I do with a Stradivari violin, or mandolin? Perhaps trade it for vintage wine and Champagne.
The violin as we know it was invented in Cremona around 1564 by Andrea Amati who died more than sixty years before Stradivari was born. The Guarneri family created world famous violins here and elsewhere in Italy. Even today there are more than 50 violinmakers in Cremona. The Piazza Roma square near Stradivari’s house and workshop contains his tombstone and grave. The city includes the Scuola Internazionale di Liuteria (International School of Violin Making) and the Museo Stradivariano (Stradivarius Museum)
The Piazza del Comune contains the Torrazzo (Big Tower), which at over 112 meters (about 350 feet) is one of the tallest towers of its kind anywhere. This building contains the world’s tallest astronomical clock. It took a long time to build the Duomo (Cathedral) with the Big Tower. They broke ground in 1107 but partly because of an earthquake ten years later construction continued up into the 1160s. The main altar was consecrated in 1196. As often the case, there have been numerous subsequent changes to its façade over the centuries. No matter, the cathedral façade and the Baptistery are considered among the most important monuments of Romanesque art in Europe. Go inside to see beautiful artwork, in particular frescoes.
Our next and final stop is the city of Mantua whose population is slightly under fifty thousand. Some say that Mantua was founded about four thousand years ago. The great Roman poet Virgil was born in a nearby village. In the Twelfth Century Mantua adopted a novel means of protection against invasion, namely four artificial lakes that ringed the city. Three of them exist to this day; the fourth dried up in the Eighteenth Century. As Shakespeare tells it so well, Romeo fled to Mantua after killing Juliet’s cousin in a swordfight. Talk about a family feud.
Mantua’s Palazzo Ducale was built between the Fourteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, perhaps not so surprising when you realize that it contains 500 rooms. Its centerpiece is the Camera degli Sposi (The Wedding Chamber) room that took Andrea Mantegna about seven years to paint. When you see it, you’ll know why. Since you’re only allowed ten minutes to admire this marvelous, unique room you should familiarize yourself with the painting before your allotted time slot. One more thing, don’t forget to look at the ceiling.
If you liked the Palace and its main attraction you should visit the Casa di Andrea Mantegna (Andrea Mantegna House) which the artist designed himself. Unfortunately an appointment is usually required to see the interior. The Basilica di Sant'Andrea di Mantova begun in 1472 and finished over three hundred years later was not named for Andrea Mantegna but does include his tomb. Some will want to see a crypt with two vessels that are said to contain earth soaked with the blood of Christ.
Finish your tour at the suburban Palazzo Te built in the Sixteenth Century. Unlike many other historic Italian buildings this one was completed in only ten years. In fact its shell went up in eighteen months. In spite of its speedy construction it is considered one of the greatest Renaissance palaces. Make sure to see the Camera di Amore e Psiche (Cupid and Psyche’s Room) showing a wedding with interesting and unusual guests and the Camera dei Giganti (Room of the Titans) in which Jupiter expels the Titans from Mount Olympus. The walls contain graffiti dating back to the Seventeenth Century. Please don’t add your own.
What about food? Of Italy’s twenty regions Lombardy trails only Emilia-Romagna in food production. A lot of the food is of foreign origin, not surprising given the frequency with which Lombardy fell under outside domination. But there are also local specialties. For example, Cremona is known for Mostarda, mustard flavored candied fruits that accompany Bollito Misto, mixed boiled meats. A local version of this treat calls for calf’s head, veal tongue, and pig’s foot among others. Cremona also claims to have invented ravioli.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Zuppa alla Pavese (Soup with Bread, Butter, Eggs, and grated Parmesan Cheese). Then try Bollito Misto (Mixed Boiled Meats). For dessert indulge yourself with Colombe Pasquale (dove shaped Easter Bread with Candied Fruit). Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We conclude with a quick look at Lombardy wine. Lombardy ranks 11th among the 20 Italian regions for both acreage devoted to wine grapes and for total annual wine production. The region produces about 62% red and rosé and 38% white wine, but there is little rosé. There are 15 DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. The G in DOCG stands for Garantita, but there is in fact no guarantee that such wines are truly superior. Over 47% of Lombardy wine carries the DOC or DOCG designation. There are three DOCG wines: the sparkling Franciacorta said to compete with French Champagne and priced accordingly, the red Sforzato di Valtellina, and the red Valtellina Superiore.
Lambrusco Mantovano DOC is a red or rosé dry or sweet fizzy wine produced southeast of Mantua from local grapes. The San Colombano al Lambro DOC is red or white still or fizzy wine made from a variety of local grapes about halfway between Milan and Cremona. By far the area’s best-known wine is the Oltrepò Pavese DOC grown south of Pavia, across the Po River, hence its name. This wine is made in multiple styles from multiple grape varieties and is said to be the most popular wine in Milan.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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