The north of Italy is a very different place from the supposed laid back south. Nearer to the mountain chain of the alps, the weather here is more akin to the colder northern half of Europe. Like the rest of Italy, this region was not spared the upheavals post the fall of the Roman empire. You will find within a small area (roughly the size of New Hampshire in the US), there are numerous fortress cities and towns.
For nearly 1500 years, Italy was split into numerous entities and states big and small. Many states centered around cities and towns – most famous that you may know – Florence, Venice etc. In Lombardy, this was no different and being so close to France and Austria, the region was subject to continuous incursions and interventions by the larger powers.
And in the middle of the 19th century, an awakening began in this northern part of the geographical region (note – Italy was not a country then, yet). A dukedom had been elevated to a Kingdom and it embarked on a quest to unify and acquire by way of intrigue or aggression across the peninsula. The result of all of that – a unified Italy in 1861.
Because of Mel’s job, we had the privilege of coming to Lombardy a number of times. And on one such occasion we decided that it was time to see one of them,
Located about 30km northeast of Milan it is perched up high, the citadel town being one of the many “free cities” in the middle ages. The original old town is accessible via funicular or a hard uphill drive. In any case parking would probably be hard to find in the actual town, so we took the former option and headed up with the funicular (costs only €3 return for two at that time). Which by the way is a joyful way to ascend up the town. But mostly because there was a local festival (which we don’t even know) and cars were anyway not allowed to drive up.
The town is protected by Venetian walls built in the 16th century. And it is a testament to the vagaries of princely politics that may from time to time lead to conflict.
The weekend brings a lot of locals from Milan, coming to relax in the weekend. It is certainly cheaper to eat out here (true because we experienced it), which would be a draw if we lived here too. The views from the top were fine, but in many cases blocked by homes perched on the cliff sides. Plus the cloudy day did not help. It was winter after all. Fantastic to come on a quiet day if there ever is such and we had a beautiful meal in a local trattoria.
While fortress towns are sexy to visit, it is very military oriented. How about some art? Well, you might know that in the middle ages art was a luxury. And it can only be funded through,
Italy is of course home to the papacy. It is thus not a surprise to see numerous abbeys and monasteries all over the country. One such place is the monastery of Certosa near the city of Pavia. It is off the beaten path and takes a drive in the small country roads to get to. We actually drove past Pavia on the way there, because of poor planning we did not stop at… If one gets to do the same drive trip, then the university town of Pavia is a must see.
Home to a Carthusian monastery it is still inhabited by monks. And from the scale of the monastery, it isclear that it was a wealthy theological center. The facade of the Cathedral is the most famous section, hence the model show… and despite it being a gloomy winter’s day it was still spectacular. Imagine when the skies are clear and blue. Imagine. From the inner courtyard, we could see the grand dome of the main cathedral. The interior of the cathedral is decorated as is in all other cathedrals across Italy, such as the elaborate stained glasses and frescoes painted on the ceilings reflecting the amount of support toward the Church by the populace poor or wealthy.
We walked into a part of the monastery, where individual buildings seem to be built in a square. We think these are either meditation apartments or private quarters of the more influential monks. Not many visitors were here, so it made for a “private” tour for us!
In the middle ages, monasteries carried numerous roles. From religious centers to places of education, being bankers and land owners to politically influential, the monasteries were wealthy. You can see the elaborate facade of the monastery, coming from the donations of pilgrims and the elite. And it was a lucrative “career” to join the ecclesiastical ranks too – rising to run bishoprics and abbacies, a source of power and income.
Doesn’t that intrigue you?
What did intrigue us though, was the fact that Italy fractured into so many tiny states. Some of which we had the opportunity to touch multiple times, such as
Building on what we shared about Certosa, you will find all across Italy ecclesiastical entities where bishops act as princes governing the people, effectively a political leader as well as religious. Further afield would be the town of Cremona, yet another Bishop principality.
You will need to know that the grand cathedral (Duomo in Italian) has the “Torrazo” that is the 3rd tallest brickwork bell tower in Europe. On one of our journeys here, we climbed to the top. The views were magnificent and we could see the Po river (nothing to do with the Panda). Guess what? We ran out of film (yeah it was that long ago). So today we only have one lone picture of our model standing by the stone walls of the tower overlooking a setting sun… a great consolation by the way.
It is also the center of violin making, the famed Stradivari brand for those who are in the know. The local museum holds a large collection and some of them are well over 500 years old! When Suan was here she was constantly identified as a visiting Asian music student by the locals. To be honest that pays dividends too, because she was offered student rates for admissions to museums. Even the local taverns gave her a student price. Hah!
And if you are ever in Cremona, remember to try the “mostarda”, a form of pickled fruit that is strong with mustard. This is also home of the old Sperlari candy factory where nougat, chocolate and candies are made! Just one thing to note. In all the smaller towns and cities, the practice of “siesta” is still prevalent. So the shops are closed from 12-2pm. Only the dining places remain open. Imagine that. What a life!
There are yet so many other little towns of Lombardy we have not touched.
However, the main attraction of the region remains Milan (here) – the center of fashion and the 2nd largest city in Italy. A must visit, Milan has a long history of being fought over by the great powers of Europe over the last 500 years. As a dukedom, the city has been ruled by foreigners since the 1500s before being reunited with the rest of the country in 1861. We wrote about our sojourns to this city so do read it.
Of course it is no all just history or architecture in Lombardy. The food and wine too are a blessing for the privileged to travel here at leisure. Wine from the Lombardy region is particularly known for the sparkling kind, in the north and eastern sections. Make a trip to the Franciacorta and Oltrepò Pavese areas if you are into the bubbly. This should jolt one to consider making a journey to touch Lombardy.
These journeys to Lombardy took place over 1999 till 2005