With respect to international tourism, Italy’s region of Lombardy in the North West of the country often takes a back seat to the more illustrious regions of Tuscany, Piemonte, Liguria and the Veneto.
However, this overshadows the fact that Lombardy has a host of delights to offer all visitors to the beautiful “Bel paese”.
With Milan at its heart, Lombardy is the wealthiest region in Italy and an industrial and agricultural powerhouse.
It has a rich tradition of art, architecture and amazing feats of engineering (the influence of Leonardo Da Vinci was pivotal in all these areas), but it is Lombardy’s natural beauty that caught my attention the most when I first visited this special place many years ago.
Particularly stunning is the area on the lake known as the Triangolo Lariano (The Larian Triangle). This area contains the three towns of Bellagio, Menaggio and Varenna. Their lakeside positions afford visitors stunning views of the lake and its surrounding mountains to the north, south, east and west.
South of Lake Como is Lombardy’s capital, Milan. On its outskirts it appears like many other larger Italian cities that enjoyed an incredible amount of financial prosperity and growth after World War II.
Dominated by industry and high rise apartments, the cityscape, as seen from the huge ring road that skirts the city, provides unsightly views to say the least. However, this ugly façade hides the host of worthy sights on offer in Milan.
Amongst the wonders of Milan are the magnificent Duomo, the vast shopping gallery called Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II, the spectacular La Scala Theatre, Leonardo’s Last Supper fresco and the Brera Gallery.
From a gastronomic perspective there are also many special places in Milan.
For a taste of the finer side of Italian dining one cannot go past Peck. Established in 1883, it is only a stone’s throw from the Piazza del Duomo. This historic establishment contains a delicatessen, a bar/restaurant and an incredible wine cellar/shop.
The service here is impeccable, and the quality, range and presentation of the produce on offer is also amazing.
For a cheaper but just as satisfying Milanese gastronomic treat, one can also head to the famous “da Luini” bakery/panetteria. On offer here is the local Milanese treat known as Panzerotti.
A delicious savoury pastry, the Panzerotto contains a simple, yet delicious, combination of mozzarella cheese and tomato, inside a heart-warmingly soft pastry exterior.
The main lesson of Italian cuisine – that simple things are often the tastiest – becomes crystal clear after experiencing one of “da Luini’s” Panzerotti!
Pavia, Vigevano and the Certosa di Pavia
For the more intrepid traveller, about 30 minutes’ drive to the west of Milan lie the two gorgeous provincial cities of Vigevano and Pavia.
The highlight of Vigevano is undoubtedly its main square –the Piazza Ducale. It is one of the most beautiful Renaissance piazzas Italy has to offer, and to enjoy a lazy alfresco lunch in this piazza is truly a delight for all of the senses!
Pavia, on the other hand, is a university town that exudes class and youthful exuberance. Places of interest here are the fashionable shops, its historic university, the covered bridge (Ponte Coperto) and its churches.
Pavia is a delightful place for a leisurely afternoon passeggiata, followed by a delicious local meal in one of its many trattorias.
Situated on the outskirts of Pavia is the spectacular Certosa di Pavia. This former Carthusian Monastery (now in the hands of Cistercian monks) is a towering architectural masterpiece that sits amongst the rice fields that the plains of Lombardy are famous for.
Adorned with beautiful sculptures and a myriad of paintings and frescoes, the Certosa is also a must see for any visitor wanting to experience the best of Italian art and architecture.
The Oltrepo Pavese
South of Milan is the area known as the Oltrepo Pavese.
Bordering the regions of Liguria, Piemonte and Emilia Romagna, the Oltrepo is mostly frequented by people from Milan wanting to escape the rat race of the big city. However, this area contains a host of hidden delights that are most worthy destinations for any visitor to Italy.
At the heart of the Oltrepo Pavese is its wine region. The beauty of its natural and human-sculptured landscapes rival those of Tuscany. But the large number of artisan-run wineries in the area make it an ideal destination for visitors wanting to see and experience a part of Italy unadulterated by mass tourism.
There are few fancy cellar doors to be seen here, but the hospitality and attention given to visitors by the winemakers and their family members is second to none.
The wines are delicious too! Grape varieties such as Barbera, Pinot Nero (Noir) and Moscato are plentiful here. However, there are also many delicious wines derived from indigenous grape varieties such as the croatina and uva rara grapes.
One of the more substantial local reds on offer in the Oltrepo is the Buttafuoco (or flame-thrower). It is a perfect accompaniment with a hearty meat-based dish, such as cinghiale (wild boar), that this area is also well known for.
Further south in the Oltrepo Pavese is the charming and sleepy medieval town of Varzi.
Intimately nestled in the foothills of the Apennine mountain range, Varzi is known throughout Italy, mainly for its famous Salame di Varzi, but it is also a lovely relaxing place to settle into as a base for exploring the sights and attractions that Lombardy and the Oltrepo Pavese have to offer.
There are a myriad of lovely walks in the local area, and for those wanting a truly Italian experience, you will find that the townsfolk, despite being very friendly and helpful, are strictly Italian speaking only.
So it also provides a great opportunity to get out your phrasebooks and immerse yourself in a genuinely Italian experience!
~ Words by Jim Romagnesi
Jim and Lynette Romagnesi of Italian Delights Tours operate small group tours to Lombardy and other regions of Italy. Visit their website to find out more.