Northern Italy is one of my favorite regions in the whole of Europe for many reasons, but the most important is that I just feel comfortable there. All of Italy is great, but the north to me is a little less chaotic than its southern cousins and with a little exploration, I’ve discovered some amazing places to visit throughout the area. One of my favorite regions though is known as Lombardy (or Lombardia); its most well known city is I’m sure familiar to you as well – Milan. I’ve spent a lot of time in Milan, staying in an apartment on two different occasions and using the city as a springboard to explore neighboring towns and cities, most of which I had never heard of before. If you’re like me, then this region of Italy may be somewhat unfamiliar to you, so I thought I’d put together this post to share what I think are the best attributes of Lombardy and why visiting is so much fun.
Quick caveat – Milan is great but…
I for one really like Milan, a city that at times gets an unfair reputation as being too businesslike. Rather than make a pitch for how great the city is – it really is a wonderful place – I want to share a few other towns and cities that are easy to reach from Milan, making it a fantastic point from which to launch day trips all around the Lombardia region.
Mantua, or Mantova as locals call it, is one of the most well known cities not only in Lombardy, but in all of Italy. It’s been recognized by UNESCO, but that’s not the only reason why it’s so famous. It’s role in history and in Italian art and culture has ensured its firm place on the list of must-visit cities in Italy, an achievement in a country with so many important places to see in person. I’m a sucker for history, and when I turned a corner in Mantua and saw the city’s most famous square in front of me I couldn’t believe how beautiful the scene was. Mantua is a UNESCO World Heritage designated city, and the buildings surrounding the Piazza Sordello help explain why. Mantua was recognized in part for its architecture and for its prominent role in the dissemination of Renaissance culture, all of which can be seen around this beautiful piazza. Adjacent to the plaza is also another important building in both Mantuan and Italian history, the Ducal Palace; the seat of power of the Gonzaga family for centuries.
Maybe it’s the American in me, but I will never, ever, get enough of classic European street scenes. My non-American friends probably think I’m insane, but we have nothing like this in the U.S. and to walk these streets is always a thrill for me. Mantua is bigger than I had imagined, and even though there is a lot to do along the tourist route, it’s a vibrant modern city too. I visited over a weekend and had the chance to see folks running their weekly errands, enjoying time with friends at the local cafes and restaurants and just taking life easy. While the famous sights were great, it was feeling the real pulse of the city that made the visit so very special.
Not far from the bustling city of Mantua is a very different town, one that when I visited was oddly quiet but captivating thanks to the unique lines and angles of the architecture and public spaces. I was in Sabbioneta, an early example of urban planning from the 15th century. More fortress than town, Sabbioneta was built by the powerful Gonzaga family and the thick city walls and ramparts are all still completely intact. It was more than the defenses that interested me though, the grid pattern of the streets and the impressive squares and monuments are all what drew my attention almost immediately. Meant to impress, the Duke’s palace, the theater, churches and more are all on a scale and designed with a level of beauty that may have been representative of the era, but which are rare to find today. I wouldn’t recommend spending a lot of time there, but if you’re in Mantua definitely spend an afternoon or even a day exploring the strange little town of Sabbioneta.
During my last foray into all things Lombardian, I took the train from Milan to the popular city of Bergamo. A large city, it’s the old town that attracts most visitors and thanks to a series of historical quirks it has remained little changed over the centuries. Centuries ago, Bergamo’s Old Town fell of out fashion, and the well-to-do decided to live down in the valley, leaving the medieval town forgotten and intact. Today it’s a gift to visitors who want to see what large swathes of Europe once looked like, untouched by famine, fire and war. Narrow streets, accordion players on the corners and shops that specialize in everything from pizza to well-butchered meats and even regional specialties – Bergamo fulfills the promise of everything we love about Italy. I spent my day there though not touring museums and old sites, but just wandering around and getting a sense for the place. Thanks to that I think, it was one of my favorite days in Lombardy, feeling more like a local and less like a tourist.
Capo di Ponte
The train ride from Milan through the Italian countryside, past lakes and vacation homes was well worth the trip to Capo di Ponte by itself. But as I left the train station in what is really a sleepy mountain village, I knew that the best was yet to come. People have always lived in this spot along the River Oglio in the valley known as Valcamonica. Hundreds of thousands of petroglyphs dating back more than 10,000 years can be found around the valley, which is why it isn’t just a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it was the first UNESCO designated site in Italy. One of the best places to see these drawings left by our ancient relatives is the small town of Capo di Ponte, as picturesque a mountain village as you could ever hope to find. Walking through town I noticed that everyone seemed to wave hello to everyone else, undoubtedly the residents all know each other by name. Colorful homes and shops line the river as I followed the path through town and up to the rocky outcroppings to see those famous drawings for myself. I love ancient history, to feel connected to people and communities long since gone from the face of the planet is a thrill. I always wonder what their lives were like, what they did every day and what their fears and worries were that occupied their waking thoughts. That’s one reason why these petroglyphs are so very important. They offer clues to not just another era, but a completely different way of living that we have practically no comprehension of. Add to that the fact that the petroglyphs are situated in a beautiful field, encircled by trees and when enjoyed on a sunny summer’s day, there is no better place in the world to be.
These are just a few of the many wonderful little towns and cities found all around Lombardy, making the region a fun and beautiful one to explore on your own.
This post was brought to you as a result of the #inLombardia campaign, created and managed by iambassador in partnership with Lombardy Tourism. LandLopers retains all editorial control of what is published and as you know, I never shy away from honest commentary.