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Chan Cham Perou

Northern Italy   —   Italy most often evokes thoughts of Rome, Venice, or Sicily (for those who have seen “The Godfather”) and sometimes Florence, mostly for art enthusiasts.

Northern Italy, except for the famous city of Venice, is often ignored by American tourists, yet it is one of the richest regions, not only in Italy but also in all of the European Union, and one of the most spectacular.

Follow me through the Piedmont, Liguria, Lombardy and Veneto regions down to Tuscany in a surprising and very beautiful journey where landscapes that are provided by nature and sculpted by man are often unique.

Lombardy

We will first discover this region through its capital, Milan, the city of elegance and fashion. A stroll in the heart of the city, weaving one’s way through the swarm of both old tramways and very modern ones, autos and vespas, takes us to the Duomo, a gothic masterpiece with its black, red and white marble floors and its immense and magnificent stained glass windows illustrating the Old and the New Testaments. It is also remarkable for the hundreds of statues perched like sentinels on its roof, accompanied by the Virgin Mary to whom the church is dedicated and who appears to be very small from below.

After crossing the gardens surrounding the famous Sforzesco Castle, a massive building close to which stands a huge triumphal arch built for Napoleon the First – who never even passed under it – and has since been transformed into a peace arch, we discover the famous La Scala, whose exterior is rather modest compared to its reputation. Remarkable for its interior, its stage curtain and backstage equipment that allows for quick and numerous changes in the set decor, its exceptional acoustics allow 2,000 spectators at once to appreciate operas, concerts and shows.

An interesting nod to current events was outside, facing La Scala: the Bank of Milan had a large banner unfolded over its historic façade, “Bring Back Our Girls,” a response to the kidnapping of young women by the Boko Haram group.

A little further, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is an extraordinary witness to this fashion capital. It stuns us with its remarkable glass arcades, old mural frescoes and very modern Armani, Mercedez Benz, Alfa Romeo and Gucci luxury boutiques coexisting in perfect harmony. Just like everywhere else in the city, new and old don't seem to be antagonists.

The lakes region 

Lombardy is a region of contrasts, occupied by the Alps that mark the border with Switzerland, where the superb Como, Garda and Maggiore Lakes have hollowed out their place.

Stresa is our first contact with Lake Maggiore, which stretches over 65 km. This small tourist resort with lovely villas and luxurious gardens that line small, winding streets stands before the Borromeo Islands.

We board a boat for a visit to the most known of the three islands: Isola Bella. A gigantic baroque residence, owned by a rich industrial Milanese family, the Borromeo, entirely occupies the island. The family still uses the first floor of the residence, while the ground floor and basement, where many grottoes can be seen, have been transformed into a museum.

Sumptuous terraced gardens, where lush vegetation grows abundantly thanks to the humidity on the island and the frequent rainfalls in the region, encircle this palace where many marble sculptures and white peacocks add a few pale notes in all of the greenery.

Towards Lake Garda

We traverse the Lombardy plain “The Serenissima” heading towards Lake Garda, the largest lake in the country, stretching over 370 sq km, and a tourist destination with luxury villas, spa towns and baths, and thermal sulphur springs with telling odors.

Sirmione

We stop in the small town of Sirmione, a city of flowers, where pink laurel and bougainvilleas unfold over houses, terraces and gelaterias. Here, we taste some of the best gelato of the entire trip: be careful when choosing a geleteria, always look for artisanal ones where real fruit, rather than powder, are used.

Known for its thermal installations, it is with no surprise that we see so many luxury cars attempting to share the rather narrow streets with pedestrians who come here to visit La Rocca Staligieri, an impressive medieval castle, with an original wooden drawbridge that stretches over a moat. They come to see the burned ruins of a Roman castle and fortress on the tip of the peninsula and to immortalize with their camera the yellow house where La Callas once lived.

Maderno

We set foot in this small city, arriving by boat while admiring the incredible number of pointed cypresses that form walls and are famous in the region. A short stroll along the lake takes us to the heart of this village, in a square where a lovely Romanesque church from the 12th century shines. Dedicated to Saint Andrew, with polychrome blocks of stone, it is remarkable for the many decorative elements carved on capitals of the pillars in the nave: beasts with intertwined tails or tongues, a two-tailed siren with a lion… A few small side altars, dedicated to other saints such as Saint Herculanus, display beautiful frescoes that date back to the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

We then leave Maderno to follow the coast in the direction of Limon sul Garda, traversing many small picturesque villages, such as:

Toscolano

This is in the “Valley of paper,” known for its fine quality papers. A few old factories have been transformed into a museum of paper, but a few others are still in operation. Lovely small churches next to Romanesque vestiges stand along this sinuous road, where the scenery changes with every bend with magnolia, cypress, olive trees, laurels and bougainvilleas growing between wineries, where the famous Bardolino is concocted.

Gargnano

Gargnano was the headquarters of the fascist government between 1943-45. Still testifying to this is the magnificent residence of the Mussolini family, which has since been transformed into a luxury hotel. Alongside the road are many terraces on which stone pillars are erected, which are called “ limonaies,” lemon trees are attached here during the winter. The citrus fruits are used to produce Limoncino, a liqueur that is less famous than Limoncello, but still interesting.

Tignale

We stop at a very high part of the road on a hill that offers an extraordinary panorama of the lake where sailboats and para sailors slide along the dark blue surface under a perfect blue sky. Surreal! A toast to beauty and calm is a must here, with a glass of Prosecco in hand. The road ahead of us consists of a series of tunnels dug by hand and lined with olive trees, ensuring a remarkable olive oil production in the region.

Limon sul Garda

Here, “limonaies” have been used as a base for the construction of the beautiful houses bordering the hilly and narrow streets leading to the lake. Of course, to be faithful to its name, lemon is king here – cream of lemon, soap, candies and the Limoncino, that we appreciate while relaxing with an espresso and sitting on a picturesque small plaza by the water. We are told that residents of Limon sul Garda do not suffer from high cholesterol: a special protein protects them… could lemon have to do anything with it? This we need to research…

Torri del Benaco

We find ourselves on the east side of Lake Garda, known as the “Olive Oil Riviera.” A stop is in order!

We taste Paolo Bonomelli’s olive oils. On a farm that has been owned by his family since the 1950s, he, along with his 4,000 olive trees, produces a biological olive oil with exceptional quality sold under the name Ca’Rainene. We tasted a few different oils, from the Classico to La Garda. The last one, slightly spicy with a basil, rosemary and almond taste, seduced us. 

Venetia

After all of this greenery and calm, we go back to town to a beautiful medieval city surrounded by 15 km of walls opening with many gates: Verona.

After Venice, it is the most touristic city in the region, thanks to Romeo and Juliet’s tragic love story.

Founded by the Roman military, it harbors many monuments, such as the remarkable Roman amphitheatre: the Arena; a Roman theater not far from the gates of the old city that is accessible through the Ponte Pietra; the Castelvecchi Fortress, also near Ponte Pietra and recognizable by its Roman arches on the Adige river; the Romanesque Basilica of San Zeno, Verona’s patron saint, built in the 12th century where layers of white stone and bricks alternate in a real symphony; its Basilica and beautiful tall bell-tower; the Piazza Erbe, and close by, Juliet’s famous house and balcony, where hundreds of young girls post love messages on the walls.

On the other bank of the Adige stands the new city, rebuilt after World War II, with Art Deco buildings from the 50s.
Verona is also mostly famous for its wine – it is in the Valpolicella region – and its stones, pink, white and yellow, which color the buildings of the city.

On the Prosecco Route

Trevise

On a hilly road planted with wineries where a white grape mostly grows, Italian cepage, the Prosecco, we discover the gem of Trevise. With its narrow canals and small bridges that cross over it, it is almost an avant-goût of Venice. Clearly a city friend of the arts, we are in the middle of an annual Festival of the arts. Remarkable sculptures sit imposingly on their bases and bouquets of balloons and colored ribbons unfold everywhere, on Piazza dei Signori, under the arcades of Calmaggiore Street, the main street of the city where one can’t miss the Benetton headquarters.

A little further, we stop for lunch in a family vineyard that produces a Prosecco that no Pope or emperor could have turned down, as well as a few other quite interesting organic wines, before hitting the road to reach the Serenissime, which is half an hour away.

Venice, at last!

The best way to arrive in Venice is the train, which stops a few steps away from a voporetti station on the Grand Canal. After a long walk through a maze of narrow streets, the famous Piazza San Marco is in front of us, dominated by the Campanile and the Tower Clock. Visits are made to the Basilica, with its marble walls and frescoes made with gold leaf, and the Doge’s Palace, with its Bridge of Sighs.

The place is bordered by long commercial galleries with boutiques and cafes where styled waiters, wearing white jackets and black bow ties, offer you a coffee for 6 or 12 Euros, depending whether you want it with live music or not. One of the most famous Venetian cafés, Caffé Florian, offers a decadent hot chocolate that can be enjoyed with the rhythm of a quartet that is led by a tuxedoed pianist on a grand piano. Classy!

Venice is also the ballet of gondolas and vaporetti (waterbuses), which meet in the maze of canals under 400 bridges, among which is the very busy and popular Ponte de Rialto.

One has to board one of those vaporetti to appreciate the Grand Canal, in day as well as at night. Beautiful private palaces, named after families that were once famous and powerful, are testament to five centuries of history. Many of them are now museums or hotels, but some are still occupied by Venetians who can afford the maintenance costs, which are no doubt very impressive!

What should you bring back from Venice? At least one mask, as a reminder of its prestigious Carnival when everyone is wearing one of those traditional disguises; even if you didn’t participate in Carnival, it is one of the hallmarks of the city. They can be found in specialized boutiques or in souvenir shops, depending on the price and type you wish to have.

A visit to a glass workshop, another local specialty, provides us an interesting choice of very colorful and quality products: jewelry, bibelots, plates, drinking glasses, etc.

Murano

A 10-minute ride away on a vaporetto from Ponte Fondamenti, we find ourselves on the small Island of Murano, where artisans and large glass factories display their creations and where impressive, huge glass sculptures are exhibited on small piazzas. It is almost an oasis of calm and silence compared to Venice!

On our ride back to the city, another vaporetto takes us to Plazza San Marco, which is visible under a wonderful sunset on the laguna and cityscape.

Ravenna

On the Adriatic coast, with Paleochristian buildings and early Christian Byzantine monuments, Ravenna has 8 sites that are on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Dante, the author of the Divine Comedy, born in Florence, is buried in Ravenna, where his tomb is one of the most-visited sites.

Around the Piazza del Popolo, houses reflect all nuances of the colors of the flag of the city in a harmony that goes from pink to red, while pedestrians compete with cyclists for a part of the road. One quickly understands that bikes are sacred in Ravenna and have well-marked and well-signaled reserved paths and ways everywhere.

The very impressive Basilica of San Vitale, with extraordinary mosaics, is an unavoidable stop. Made of shiny glass and from Eastern influences, they literally cover the walls and ceiling with unique, shimmering decoration.

Just beside the Basilica stands the remarkable mausoleum of Theoderic, the Great King of the Ostrogoths, which was built around 520.

Towards Tuscany

After crossing the Apennine Mountains from Emilia-Romagna towards Tuscany, the panorama changes considerably and the Terra di Sienna brown color, which is typical of Tuscany, colors the scenery.

We arrive in Florence, where we will spend the night in an ancient monastery that has been transformed into a hotel. It is perched high on the hills surrounding Florence. The view is awesome!

The next morning, we are headed for Cinque Terre. Sorry, Florence will have to wait one more day!

Cinque Terre

Back in Liguria, between the sea and sky, five villages stretch over a mountain flanked with colored houses where 5,000 people live: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore.

In this rugged landscape sculpted by men, wineries grow on dry stone walled terraces built on steep cliffs that drop abruptly into the sea. Cinque Terre provides a truly magical moment.

Paths, boats and trains connect the villages. Our plans included a boat trip from La Spezia to the small island of Palmeria to reach Portovenere, a popular balneal station. Unfortunately, strong winds kept the boats in the harbor.

Instead, we spent time in the most popular village: Monterosso. Nestled in the heart of the hills, which are planted with olive trees and wineries, the village was protected by 13 towers in the XVth century. Only five of these are still standing today. Its beach is one of the largest in the Cinque Terre.

The train took us back to La Spezia, where our bus was waiting to take us back to Florence…

And the famous Italian cuisine…

Yes, we said a few words about the wines we tasted throughout the trip, but what about the cuisine? We ate a lot and enjoyed the delicious different regional cuisines.

Veal, chicken, fish, stews, soups, risotto, polenta, pizza and pasta were served in a hundred different ways, depending on the region and city, accompanied by fresh olives, olive oil… Not to mention the cheese and dolce (desert) that ended the delicious and often gargantuan menus that nobody could resist. Needless to say, the free time and walks that were planned in the program were most welcome!

Our trip continued with Florence, Pisa, Corciano, Perugia, Assisi, Pompei, Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast, Capri, and Napoli and ended gloriously in Rome. But this part of the trip will have to wait for another piece in the coming month. To be continued…
 

Christiane Théberge

This extraordinary trip is offered by Voyages Traditours, whom I travelled with. I would like to thank them for this very rich experience.

 


 

Sforzesco Castle, Milan

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, Milan

Isola Bella

Borromeo Palace's gardens, Isola Bella 

Sirmione

Rocca Staligieri castle, Sirmione

La Callas' house, Sirmione

Pointed cypresses in Maderno

Saint Andrew Church, Maderno

Lake Garda at Tignale

Limon sul Garda

Olive tree at Torri del Benaco

Castelvecchi Fortress, Verona

Roman theatre, Verona

Young women at Juliet's house 

Trevise 

On the Grand Canal, Venice

Piazza San Marco, Venice

Carnival masks, Venice 

Sunset on the laguna, Venice

Huge blue glass sculpture, Murano

Banner photo: Ponte Pietra, Verona

 


  

 

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