I Love Touring Italy - Small Town Lombardy

By: Levi Reiss

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 even 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? These invaders all left their mark, some more and some less. Keep local history in mind as you tour this impressive region.

We begin 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.

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. It was Volta who discovered methane gas and invented the electric battery. Whenever you think about volts and voltage, you should 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. Now let's consider Pavia's sights.

Pavia is home to many other churches worth seeing. The Lombard-Romanesque San Michele Maggiore Church was constructed on the site of a preexisting Lombard church. Initially destroyed a few years 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 a century 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. 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 frankly 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. Today more than 50 violinmakers hang their hat 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)

Our next and final stop is the city of Mantua whose population is slightly under fifty thousand. Mantua may have been 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, by constructing four artificial lakes surrounding the city. Three of them exist to this day; the fourth dried up during the Eighteenth Century. If you remember your Shakespeare, 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 and boasts some 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. Don't forget to look up, the ceiling is beautiful.

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. Don't forget to tour the Camera di Amore e Psiche (Cupid and Psyche's Room) showing a wedding with quite interesting and unusual guests and the Camera dei Giganti (Room of the Titans) in which Jupiter expels the Titans from Mount Olympus. The walls are peppered with Seventeenth Century graffiti. 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). 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 rose and 38% white wine, but there is little rose. 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 absolutely 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 rose 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 found about halfway between Milan and Cremona. By far the area's best-known wine is the Oltrepo Pavese DOC grown south of Pavia, across the Po River, hence its name. This wine, the favorite of Milan, is made in several styles from multiple grape varieties.

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