The history of Northern Italy passes through Lombardy, as does the history of the development and industrialization of our beautiful country. But Lombardy is also a fascinating region from a scenic point of view, where the imposing peaks of the Alps, bordering Switzerland, and the Pre-Alps which slope down towards the Po Valley, are crossed by rivers that give life to some of the largest and most important lakes of Italy. The richness of this area’s historical traditions, apparently hidden in the big business cities, can be found, genuine and heartfelt, right in the provinces, lakeside and mountain villages. And a great way to discover Lombardy are the numerous food and wine itineraries, real passe-partouts to delve into the different stories of the valleys, lakes, rivers and its many cities of art and lesser known villages.
These routes are perfect for a weekend, driving, cycling or walking slowly between provincial roads that flank rivers, vineyards and farmhouses, to discover unexpected sides of a region which offers so much more than the beautiful and world-famous Lake Como and the buzzing vibes of its largest city, Milan.
The itineraries also touch two cities which have been hit hard by the virus (Brescia and Bergamo). Last May, the two historically rival cities announced their intention to run together to compete for joint the title of Italian Capital of Culture for 2023, as a sign of rebirth after the suffering caused by the pandemic. The extraordinary appointment comes as a sign of hope for the Italian towns most affected by the health emergency.
The itinerary kicks off in Brescia, baptized “the Lioness” by Italian poet Giosuè Carducci in 1877, to commemorate the ten days of revolt against the Austrian army (from March 23rd to April 1st 1849). The city is experiencing a moment of great revival thanks to the balance reached between the industrial vocation and the desire to establish itself as a city of art, history, entertainment and sport. It’s the second city of Lombardy, with almost 200 thousand inhabitants, capital of a province inhabited by more than one million people.
Unmissable stops in the historic center are the Tosio Martinengo Art Gallery which has been reopened after 9 years of major renovations with installations inspired by the great artist Anish Kapoor and which collects treasures of the Lombard renaissance and beyond. The historic center of Brescia also holds a strong ancient Roman heart, with the temple of the Capitolium erected by the Romans to pay homage to Brixia Fidelis who first converted to Roman law. Inside the temple, which can be visited today after years of closures, the copy of the winged victory, symbol of the city, recently moved inside the archaeological complex which is the most important in northern Italy. Must see are the Clock Tower with the astronomical dial, the medieval district of Carmine, the basilica of San Salvatore, the Romanesque oratory of Santa Maria in Solario with its particular dome of stars and the Museum of Santa Giulia, a monastic complex which holds the Cross known as King Desiderius, which shines with two hundred and twelve precious stones, vitreous gems and cameos, a superb artefact datable between the 8th and 9th century AD.
For lunch, head to Il Fontanone, a timeless and intimate place that tastes like home and offers great classicals such as Casoncelli, a dish of ancient tradition, variant of ravioli, that is prepared throughout northern Italy. In dialect they are called “casonsèi”, the first documents that speak of casoncelli dates back to the fifteenth century and they are still prepared today as a traditional dish for Sunday lunch. The restaurant is very close to the square of the ancient Roman forum: in summer you can dine outside, and the atmosphere, thanks to the view of past centuries, is exceptional.
Before heading out of Brescia and for a touch of contemporaneity, Palazzo Monti in Piazza Tebaldo is a must see, brainchild of a young collector who has transformed his family palace into a research space for exhibitions and residency for young artists from all over the world.
Leaving Brescia behind and on the way to the vineyard-clad area of Franciacorta, take a small deviation for a pit stop at the unmissable Zani Foundation, a private art collection of unimaginable value which has only just recently opened to the public. A lush garden of over 2000 square meters surrounds an elegant modern building. Sculptures from various eras, basins and fountains alternate with the typical vegetation of the Lombard plain, in dialogue with species from distant countries such as the cedars of Lebanon, the sophora of Japan, the Chinese juniper, the selection of agaves and the spectacular series of macros bonsai. A house museum that hosts a collection of about 800 works, including paintings by Canaletto, Tiepolo, Guardi, Longhi, Boucher, sculptures by the Genoese Filippo Parodi and Della Porta.
Continuing on towards Gussago, stop to see the church of Santa Maria Assunta, which hosts three slabs of a Lombard sarcophagus in perfect condition. Then climb up on to the Barbisoni hill, to reach the monastery of the Santissima on foot. Located on a hill dominating the town of Gussago, the former Dominican complex of the Santissima has characterized the landscape of this strip of Franciacorta since the Middle Ages. The Olivetana abbey also deserves a stop, to stock up on honey and herbal liqueurs made by the monks, who also run a restoration workshop for ancient books.
You’re now in the heart of Franciacorta, land of Italian sparkling wines par excellence. Anyone who knows Franciacorta, a small area on the outskirts of Brescia, knows that things are taken seriously here. The vineyards, which draw the landscape, are above all a cultural heritage. A value, a quality expressed in a thousand shades not only in its DOCG sparkling wine, but also in the richness and care of the entire territory. Here, a house immersed in a chestnut wood is a dream born almost by chance. The story of Ca ‘del Bosco (literally meaning a house in the wood), a prestigious Erbusco winery renowned for its Franciacorta with its very fine perlage, dates back to the 70s, when a very young Maurizio Zanella, now president of the company, decides to transform the estate purchased by his parents – called ‘ca’ del bosc ‘in the Brescia dialect – into a cellar. Thanks to the passion and enthusiasm of Maurizio Zanella, Ca ‘del Bosco occupies a place of absolute prestige in the Italian wine scene and continues to receive important awards abroad as well, as demonstrated by the’ Best Italian Sparkling Wine 2019 ‘award won by Franciacorta Annamaria Clementi at the sixth edition of the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships. In addition to being famous for its prestigious wines, Ca ‘del Bosco is renowned for its link with the world of art. The cellar houses extraordinary contemporary works commissioned over the years by Maurizio Zanella from internationally renowned artists.
The route continues along from Franciacorta to Lake d’Iseo. On the way, stop for coffee with a side of confetti at Bohem. The old and miniature train station of Paratico, a village in the province of Brescia, was made available to citizens through a tender. It had been out of use since 1966, first owned by the Ferrovie Nord and then by the Municipality, which, having no longer the economic possibility to manage the space, decided to sell it. It’s now home to an innovative and unique format: under the same roof of the former station a flower boutique, a confectionery and a cafeteria have breathed new life in what was an abandoned space. From there, you’re minutes away from the shores of Lake Iseo. On its banks, stop for the sunset and stroll among the gardens and flowers in the park of the Dancing Herbs. The gaze is lost on the expanse of plants with floating spikes, which dance to the same rhythm of the lake breeze. The lake is truly a small jewel between the mountains of Valle Camonica and the vineyards of Franciacorta, preserved from mass tourism until two years ago, when it was made known all over the world thanks to The Floating Piers, the temporary installation of the artist Christo. Thanks to this monumental land art work, the rebirth of the 16 villages overlooking these quiet banks began, which have been the background, since the 1950s, of a Dolce Vita in the sign of understatement. The protagonists are Riva motorboats, still produced in the Sarnico shipyards. The tour aboard one of the vintage models is a memorable experience, departing from the small village of Clusane, where the Bellini Nautica is based. In nearby Iseo, you can stroll between the elegant medieval historic center and the panoramic lakefront. The Antica Strada Valeriana winds up the hills, a mule track of Roman origin and once the only access road to Valcamonica; today it reaches Pisogne, a village with a large square open on to the lake, where you can take a walk along the water and stop to see the church of Santa Maria della Neve with frescoes by Romanino, which also enjoy surprising views of the surroundings. From Sulzano in a few minutes you can reach, by ferry, Monte Isola, the largest lake island in Italy and southern Europe. In its poignant villages you still travel on a naecc, old tapered boats, where the ancient tradition of fishing and sun-dried fish has been kept alive.
From Lake Iseo it’s only a 30-minute drive to the medieval wonder that is the city of Bergamo. Located at the southern limit of the first hills of the Bergamo Prealps, at the mouth of the Seriana and Brembana valleys, Bergamo is situated in the territory between the Adda and Oglio rivers. Divided into lower Bergamo (de hota) and upper Bergamo(de hura), the latter is surrounded by a sixteenth-century Venetian wall (it is one of the few historic centers of Italy to be surrounded by walls, which have recently been nominated to become a UNESCO heritage site) that embrace the oldest part of the city. The Upper Town has an austere beauty: reachable on foot or by funicular, it welcomes a tangle of arcades, hidden courtyards and artisan shops on which stands the ancient Civic Tower which for 360 years has marked 10 pm with a hundred strokes, to remember when the city gates were closed. You’ll be most likely crossed by a sense of vertigo as you walk through the Piazza Vecchia, a Renaissance space with the fountain donated in 1780 by the Podestà Contarini in the center. Pass under the Palazzo della Ragione and find yourself in a metaphysical place where the Duomo, the Colleoni Chapel, the Baptistery and the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore all rise a few meters one from the other. “I was enchanted there: it was a strip of the most beautiful Italy, one of the many small surprises of enjoyment for which it is worth traveling” writes Herman Hesse about Bergamo.
The main artery that crosses the city is via Gombito, where the Antica Pasticceria Cavour deserves a stop, and which, after the Piazza Vecchia, continues and becomes Via Colleoni. If traveled to the end, you will reach the city walls, where the panoramic road that runs along via Torni and via Borgo Canale kicks off, which offers glimpses of the hills, the city walls and the lower town.
The latter has many souls: 1920s architecture by Marcello Piacentini, the eighteenth-century Donizetti Theater named after the illustrious composer from Bergamo, but also by the works of Botticelli, Raphael and Titian preserved inside the Carrara Academy, in a neoclassical style building. Don’t miss the Gamec Contemporary Art Museum and don’t leave Bergamo without a meal at Da Vittorio a Brusaporto, a 3 Michelin star stronghold of Italian cuisine. A lunch or dinner at this table, before being a gastronomic experience, is an experience for all the senses. Set among the gentle hills you’ll be welcomed into an elegant villa surrounded by a large park, an oasis of well-being and relaxation. The Cerea brothers, both Chefs, concoct a treasure trove of flavours celebrated since the sixties as an essential destination for every food-love.