Give me Lombardy to love
Lynne Coates visits the Lombardy region of Italy and discovers its hidden gems.
F rom its culture to its cuisine, I love all things Italian, so when invited to visit the Lombardy region last year, I could hardly wait, I knew it would be a wonderful journey.
After checking into The Square, a typically Italian chic boutique hotel, in the centre of Milan, we set off for a walking tour. Starting from the magnificent Duomo, our guide took us to the nearby Palazzo Reale, a cultural centre for international art exhibitions, to see a unique video installation – a fascinating animation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Next up, a visit to Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, housing collections by some of Italy’s most celebrated artists. After this brief dose of culture we set off for the area that attracts most people to this city – the fashion district. Walking us through Montenapoleone, the most prestigious precinct in the city, our guide pointed out notable places, such as Versace’s offices and the homes of various celebrities and designers. For the non- fashionista, the area has some wonderful architecture and it is a great place to wander. A short walk took us to Galleria Vittoria Emanuele II is the oldest, most luxurious shopping arcade in Milan, housing high-end designer boutiques. As shopping here is off limits for most, splurge on a drink in one of the smart restaurants, people watch and soak up the ambiance. Of course, in Italy, food is as important as fashion, and we ate in one of Milan’s chic new restaurants, Aimo e Nadia, in the Piassa della Scala, fine-dining Milan style. I was glad I packed a posh frock!
From Milan we drove to nearby Bergamo for a tour of the old part of the city known as Upper Town or La Citta Alta. Taking the funicular from Lower Town we passed through the ancient Venetian stone walls that encircle Upper Town. Our first stop was, of course, for a cappuccino on the terrace veranda of a café with a panoramic view of the city. Our guide then took us on a walking tour of the old town, starting from the picturesque Piazza del Mercat. Walking through the narrow cobbled streets we arrived at Piazza Vecchia, described by Le Corbusier as ‘the most beautiful square in Europe’, and it’s not hard to see why. Like a scene from an Italian painting, elegant buildings are dominated by the Campanone, a 12th century Civic Tower. The square leads into the religious centre of the old city and the magnificent Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. You really need to linger awhile in this area to appreciate the beautiful architecture. After a morning feasting our eyes, it was time for lunch in one of the oldest restaurants in Bergamo, Ristorante II Sole. Experiencing local food and wine is, of course, an essential part of my job! After fully researching a variety of delicious pasta dishes, we set off for Sirmione.
Located on the southern edge of Lake Garda, the largest of Italy’s lakes, Sirmione is a popular resort town, famed for its thermal spas and 13th century Scaligero Castle. Like a scene from a fairy tale, the castle is surrounded by water and a little harbour full of brightly coloured boats. After checking into the lakeside Promessi Sposi hotel, we set off to explore the town. Narrow streets, festooned with vivid bougainvillea, are lined with bijoux shops, selling everything from Italian designer clothes to ceramics. And of course there are gelaterias on every corner – who can resist! Little alleyways lead down to the lake, where you can pick up a boat ride, or simply sit and enjoy your gelato on one of the many decked terraces. Sirmione is made for romance and, as sunset descends, couples gather by the shore to watch the sun cast a spectacular rainbow of reds over the shimmering lake. We dined that night in the elegant Tavernetta Maria Callas, so named after the famous opera singer who had a holiday home in Sirmione. I could easily have stayed longer in this lakeside haven, but time to move on.
The following day we travelled north to the historic city of Mantova, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated Italian Capital of Culture in 2016. Often overlooked by tourists, it is regarded as the hidden gem of Italy by those who know it. Surrounded by three lakes this beautiful Renaissance city, once ruled by the powerful Gonzaga family, is famous for its grand Palaces, museums, art and music – especially opera. The Ducal Palace in the centre of the city is Italy’s largest architectural museum complex. Mantova is also renowned for its gastronomy, and we were privileged to spend the morning attending a cookery school run by Elisabetta Arcari, one of the city’s best known chefs, where we learnt how to make some local speciality dishes. From culinary art, to quite extraordinary frescos, in Palazzo Te, located just outside the city. Regarded as one of most beautiful villas in Italy, it was built by Giulio Romano as a suburban residence for Federico 11 Gonzaga, and used for official receptions and entertaining visiting dignitaries. The rooms were decorated with varying artistic themes designed to reflect both public and political life. The Room of Psyche is famous for its explicit erotic frescos – not for the prudish! We stayed the night in Casa Poli, a contemporary boutique hotel with minimalist interior design, discreetly housed in old city architecture – I loved both the style and location of this hotel.
I confess I never knew much about the city of Cremona before our visit, but it turned out to be one of the most memorable places of the trip. Coffee first, in the beautiful Piazza del Comune, where we could admire the magnificent Cathedral, Town Hall and, the symbol of Cremona, the Torrazzo – the tallest medieval bell tower in Europe, famed for its astronomical clock. Cremona is renowned for violin making, and we visited the workshop of one of the foremost violin makers in the city, Katharina Abbühl. It was fascinating to learn about the intricate and lengthy process involved in creating these exquisite instruments, each one uniquely made to order for professional musicians. Afterwards we visited the violin museum. Housing five centuries of Cremonese violin-making history and a permanent collection of old violins made by the classical great masters such as Stradivari, as well as a contemporary collection – an outstanding museum. We were unexpectedly treated to a recital in the museum’s auditorium by the superbly talented violinist, Lena Yoloyama. Now I can’t claim to being knowledgeable about violin music, but to my ears the recital was just brilliant, definitely one of the highlights of the trip.
There are so many reasons why you should visit Lombardy – its beautiful cities, cultural attractions, and of course the food! Experiencing this region and all its hidden gems was a truly inspiring journey. I can’t wait to go back, there is so much more to discover.
Lynne was a guest of the Lombardy Tourist Board:
We flew Easyjet from Luton www.easyjet.com
Milan – Hotel The Square in Milan: www.thesquaremilano.com
Sirmione – Hotel Sirmione e Promessi Sposi: www.termedisirmione.com
Mantova – Hotel Casa Poli: www.hotelcasapoli.it
Cookery school Mantova: www.incucinaconeli.com
Cremona Violin Museum: www.museodelviolino.org