Holidays in Lombardy
Often referred to 'Lombardy and the Lakes' this most populus, most developed and most wealthy of the Italian regions includes some of Europes largest, most beautiful and cleanest inland waterways. And in the shape of Lakes Maggiore, Como, Orta and Garda (plus half a dozen others), Lombardy is blessed with a superb natural resource ... making this area a haven for fans of watersports and lake cruises, and a marvellous spot for your holiday in Italy.
More of the Lakes (and the multitude of pastimes available on and around them) below. For Lombardy is a region with huge amounts to offer. It has the de facto capital of northern Italy in the shape of Milan - and many northern Italians will claim that this centre of fashion, commerce, finance and industry is a worthier capital than Rome. It has superb medieval cities in the shape of Mantua, Pavia, Brescia, Bergamo and Cremona.
Lombardy vacations - historical background
And of course it has Leonardo da Vinci's 'The Last Supper' ... Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code have created a flood of head-craning visitors asking 'Is that really Mary Magdalene?' It has superb countryside, sweeping up to the Alps and the border with Switzerland in the north, over to Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto in the east, Emilia-Romagna in the south, and Piemonte to the west. And it has a marvellous cuisine. Perhaps not as high-scale as that of Emilia-Romagna, but Lombardy's 'poor food' has delights to tempt those on an Italian vacation.
Some history first. Long before the area was dubbed Lombardy, it was a target for invaders. Its position, on the borders between Italy and Switzerland, with passage through the Alps limited to a few narrow passes, made it both valuable and vulnerable. It became strategically and militarily important, but it was an economic goldmine too, with the majority of those passing to or from Italy coming through the region. With medieval pilgrimages to Rome (and that would mean thousands of foot travellers each year) there was a ready supply of money to pay for bed, board, food and drink. People have been taking vacations in Lombardy for millennia.
Milan and the Lombards
So the Romans invaded first, being supplanted around the sixth century by the Langobards from northern Europe. Langobard was corrupted to Lombard and the region had its name. Lombardy and Milan have always had status. When, centuries apart, Charlemagne and Napoleon wanted their coronation to be recognised, they elected to be crowned in Milan, not Rome. Today, the motor at the heart of the Italian economy turns in Milan more than Rome.
Money and overcrowding can spoil a region, but not Lombardy. Though Milan can be choked with traffic (and has spread like every successful modern city) it retains an attractive centro storico, with a web of streets within the Cerchia dei Navigli, which charts the course of the medieval city walls. It has a lovely cathedral (Duomo) and some marvellous galleries.
Pavia and Cremona
The town of Pavia was once known (San Gimignano style) as the city of 100 towers. Unfortunately there are no longer 100, and one of the finest fell down in 1989. But the clutch that remain still powerfully evoke the Middle Ages. This is a town of cobbled streets, little piazzas, and countless Gothic and Romanesque churches tucked away down enticing side streets. Pavia was once the Lombards' capital, so the unkind might say its peak is half a millennium in the past, but it's a lovely town, pretty and with plenty to do. Make a detour to Pavia during your vacation in Lombardy.
Another medieval gem, Cremona is famed as the working place of Stradivarius. The tradition lives on, with an estimated 100 violin makers plying their trade in the city. Mantua (Mantova) meanwhile has a lot to live up to, with writer Aldous Huxley declaring it the world's most romantic city. Happily, live up it does, with its domed roofs rising like minarets above the three lakes that encircle the town.
Holidays in the Italian Lakes
Head north from Milan and we are in the Italian Lakes. Truly beautiful, and if you fly into Italy over the Alps you get a sense of their enormous scale, they have inspired artists for centuries. American novelist Henry James was famously enraptured by Italy, but never more so than by the Lakes. 'One can't describe the beauty of the Italian lakes, nor would one try if one could,' he opined. John Keats was only one of the English and German romantics who came here to take draughts of what he called 'the beaker of the warm south', a welcome inspiration after chilly London or Munich. And Italians are similarly inspired, with Bellini, Rossini and Verdi three composers who took lakeside homes, the better to inspire their writing. Rent a villa or apartment in the Italian Lakes today and you can drink deep of the same inspiration.
Head 50km north of Milan and you hit Bergamo. Bergamo is in fact two towns, the modern Bergamo Bassa, and Bergamo Alta, which sits 1200ft above the plains below. 'Upper Bergamo' is a gem. It was ruled for three and a half centuries by the Venetians, who built fabulously ornate and decorated houses, with elaborate Gothic windows, and encircling the whole with a circle of gated defensive walls. Head east and you hit the medieval city of Brescia, nestling between twin lakes and surrounded by hillsides covered in vines.
Food and drink in Lombardy
And then there is the food. A paradox of this richest of all regions is that it is known for 'piatti poveri', literally poor or peasant food. Pasta is everywhere in Italy, but here you are as likely to be served polenta or rice ... the Ticino Valley as you head up to Switzerland has one of Europe's greatest expanses of rice paddies.
Unsurprisingly then, risotto is much on the menu, with the delicious saffron-flavoured Risotto alla Milanese being a classic dish. Pizzocheri are buckwheat noodles flavoured with lamb or rosemary: again the emphasis is on making the most of simple, cheap ingredients. You may be served polenta either hot like porridge, or cold and cut into slices. Most of all you will find the menu changing dramatically, even from village to village. Travel around during your vacation in Lombardy and you will find a succession of delicious surprises.
Ossobuco is shin of veal, and you will find this in Milan, as you will Panettone cake, and vanilla and lemon flavoured biscotti. Cremona has its pickled fruits, and bollito misto (boiled meat) and La Casoeula (a pork stew of Spanish origin) may also be placed before you. Wild mushrooms abound and you'll find very good cheeses, with Lombardy producing Mascarpone, Grana Padano and Gorgonzola. Lombardy isn't famed for its wine, but look out for the sparkling Ca'Del Bosco and reds from Franciacorta.
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A map of Lombardy:
FEATURED ACCOMMODATION IN LOMBARDY
Lombardy vacations - must sees
Milan - the home of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, which decorates the Refectory wall at Santa Maria delle Grazie. Milan's Duomo is the world's largest Gothic cathedral and it boasts super views of Milan and of the mountains beyond. Any vacation in Lombardy has to take in Milan. Milan accommodation
Mantua - the most romantic skyline in the world, according to Aldous Huxley. With is minaret-like towers floating above the three lakes that encircle Mantua (or Mantova) it makes for a delightful visit during your Italian vacation. With two marvellous palaces, the Palazzo Ducale and the Palazzo Te. Mantua rentals
The Italian Lakes - holidays in Lombardy often mean holidays in the Italian Lakes, a haven for lovers of sailing and other watersports. Garda, Como, Maggiore, Orta and the rest have inspired artists as diverse as Henry James, Verdi and Rossini. Italian Lakes
Bergamo - arrive in Bergamo Basso and head straight for Bergamo Alta, the old town reached by funicular railway. It's a spectacular way to arrive and things get better. A holiday in Bergamo provides a delightful backdrop of Palladian style houses, wrought-iron balconied terraces and excellent cafes and restaurants. Bergamo rentals