Italy: Lombardy, Piedmont & Aosta Valley
These three affluent provinces in Northwest Italy touch the Alps and share the border with France and Switzerland.
Aosta & the Aosta Valley
In the southern shadows of Mont Blanc many towns and villages still have French names and the inhabitants still speak French and other dialects. This region has a special political autonomy and the local economy is focused primarily on pastoral activities and the tourists coming through the tunnels of the Grand Saint Bernard and Mont Blanc. Aosta is the capital and is located at the junction of major transalpine roads leading to France and Switzerland. This small region, northwest of Turin, is a magnet for ski lovers and alpinists. It is surrounded with the breathtaking scenery of Mont Blanc, Matterhorn (Cervino), and the Gran Paradiso, which is part of the splendid Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso.
The focal point of the local tourist attractions is the capital, Aost, complete with its Roman theatre. The nearby ski slopes of Cervinia, Courmayeur and Pila are very popular with skiers, as is trekking on or climbing the famous Matterhorn. Or you can take the popular ride at Monte Bianco. Taking waters and mud baths is oh so relaxing for those who choose to stay and be pampered at the local spas of Terme di San Vincent or Pre Saint Didier. The Valley offers such gastronomic delights as the “minestra di castagne e riso”, a porridge made with rice and chestnuts simmered in milk until it becomes thick, or the creamy “risotto alla valdostana”, made with Fontina cheese melt with butter, toma and Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses and rice. The local wine from the Valley is an excellent choice to accompany your meals.
Piemonte is another Alpine region in the North Central part of Italy. At the foot of the mountains, as the name says, this region is a watershed for the main River Po, which flows with its many tributaries across the Po Valley for over 400 miles to the Adriatic. Asti wines are produced in Piemonte, as well as the famous gorgonzola cheese. Torino, located on the banks of the Po and the capital and culture center of the region, is also a major commercial and industrial city which is the headquarters for Fiat Motors. The historical center is compact and can easily be traversed by foot, even under the rain, since elegant covered arcades line the main streets. Do not miss the Piazza San Carlo, the Museo Egizio, the Galleria Sabauda, and the Palazzo Carignano. Of course for those who love cars you should also visit the Museo dell’Automobile Carlo Biscaretti di Ruffia to see an extraordinary collection of cars exhibited in a vast modern building.
Other areas of Piemonte definitely worth visiting include the magnificent Lago Maggiore and the Borromean Islands. The colors of the lake change from a jade green in the North to a deep blue in the South. The mild climate protected by the Alps to the north results in an exotic and luxuriant vegetation which blooms magnificently in the Spring. Various peaceful holiday resorts stand along the shores such as Angera, Baveno, Cannero Riviera, Cannobio, Cerro, and Palianza, among many others. Stresa is one of the most pleasant and attracts many artists and writers. This beautiful little town looks across at the Borromean Islands, a small archipelago which was given in the 15th century to the princely Borromeo Family. In the 17th century, Charles III built a palace in Lombard Baroque style for his wife Isabella and he named the island Isola Bella. Boat trips can take you to the other two islands, Isola Madre with its magnificent gardens, and the charming small Isola dei Pescatori.
The gastronomy of Piemonte is famous for its fondue and bagna cauda: both are delicious dips that celebrate the Alba white truffle and raw vegetables. You will find excellent dishes, such as mixed fry, braised beef in Barolo wine, civet of hare, a great variety of cheeses, toma, robiola, bruss from the Langhe, gorgonzola from Novara , sweets of all kinds, Chocolates of Turin made with hazelnuts, Novara biscuits, krumiri of Casale, chocolate sweets with rum and candied chestnuts made in Cuneo, nougat from Alba, baci di dama cookies of Alessandria and Asti, and amaretti almond cookies from Novi. Local products such as breadsticks and vermouth from Turin are also world famous. Piedmont produces some of the finest red wines in Italy such as Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara, Ghemme, Nebbiolo, Freisa, Grignolino, Barbera, and Dolcetto.
Flowing eastward the River Po crosses from Piedmont to Lombardia, and into the large plain between the Ticino and the Mincio rivers. With the Adda, these three rivers supply the major lakes in Northern Italy: Lake Maggiore, Lake Como and Lake di Garda. The mulberry bushes, mostly grown in the district of Brianza, are the source of the extensive local silk industry. Rice growing was developed successfully in the district of Lomellina. Banking, which started in the Middle Ages and grew dramatically during the Renaissance, made the Lombards famous all over Europe. Many towns have grown and thrived because of their specialized industries and expertise. Silk in Como , steel and chemicals in Brescia , textiles in Bergamo, and petrochemicals and engineering in Mantua . But these names evoque more than industrial wealth, they all offer to the tourist centuries of history, architecture and culture.
Pavia is a beautiful fortified city that was once the capital of the Lombard kings in the MIddle Ages. It is the site for one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded in the 11th century. Considered the intellectual capital of the region, its most famous alumni were Petrarch and Leonardo de Vinci.
Milan is the financial and commercial center of Italy. It is home to most major Italian newspapers and magazines, and is also the center for publishing, fashion, and show business. It is a very dynamic city that is to Italy what New York City is to the U.S.A. Allow a couple of days for your visit to Milan. A circle of boulevards surround the old medieval city and have replaced the remparts from which two gates are still standing: Porta Ticinese and Porto Nuovo. Visiting the Duomo will take several hours divided between the dramatic Gothic exterior of white marble and the severe and bare contrasting interior. Take time to go to the terrazzi and to visit the Museo del Duomo. Many other museums are also worth a visit, notably the Pinacoteca di Brera and Castello Sforzesco. Even if you do not have the opportunity to spend an evening at the opera, a visit to the Teatro alla Scala will show why it has become the most famous opera house in the world. Nearby you can relax in the Vittorio Emanuele II Galleria, which is full of cafes and restaurants.
It is not easy to see one of the most important Milanese treasures without advance reservation. The ”Last Supper”, painted between 1494 and 1498 by Leonardo da Vinci, is well protected in its original place, on the wall of the dining room of the former convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Groups of up to 25 persons maximum can enter one group at a time to see it, every 15 minutes. Do not count on your luck to get in at the last minute!
The Lake district
At the foot of the Alps these lakes of glacial origin are typically long and narrow in shape. Temperatures are especially mild and pleasant most of the year allowing the cultivation of sumptuous gardens in and around the splendid residential villas. Lago di Como was widely celebrated by the Romantic poets of the 19th century. In Bellagio you can visit the beautiful gardens of Villa Serbelloni and Melzi. In Tremezzo you can find the Villa Carlotta and its gardens with marvelous statues. Como, Cernobbio, Cadenabbia, Menaggio are resorts which all compete for their charm and elegance.
Lago di Garda is the largest of the Italian lakes. Among the most picturesque villages along the shores is Sirmione, where quaint little houses circle around an ancient fortress. The poet d’Annunzio stayed in Gardone Riviera. Lemon trees grow in Limone sul Garda. The best panoramic view over the lake is from the top of “Monte Baldo”. The cuisine of Lombardy is famous worldwide and you have probably heard many times of dishes prepared “alla Milanese”. It could be risotto, ravioli, or more likely the veal cutlets, which are thin slices of breaded meat fried in butter. Osso Bucco is also a local specialty. Cassoeula is a pork and cabbage stew. Panettone is the classic Christmas Cake Lombardy is known particularly for its sparkling wines but also produces still red, white and rosé wines which will nicely accompany your meals as you travel.