The Sites of Lombardy

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Unusual for Italy, Lombardy is a landlocked region. Its northernmost point embraces the magnificent sub-Alpine vistas of Lake Maggiore and Lake Como, on the Swiss border, but most of Lombardy's 9,000 square miles are taken up by the vast Po River Valley, a broad, flat expanse of farmlands punctuated by windbreaks of poplar trees - Lombardy's equivalent to Tuscany's cypress. Shelley called this valley "the waveless plain of Lombardy," and most people do find it drab and unappealing. Still, anywhere you drive - and this is certainly one of the easiest and most suitable places in Italy for driving - just around the bend may lurk the most astonishing surprise, such as tiny Sabbioneta, whose massive city ramparts conceal a miniature Renaissance jewel of a town, created in the 16th century by Duke Vespasiano Gonzaga.
Mantova the Magnificent is surrounded by dreary marshlands, yet it is one of northern Italy's most renowned Renaissance centers. Try to get there during the week, to avoid the hordes of tourists who flock to see Andrea Mantegna's masterpiece, the frescoed walls of the Camera degli Sposi in the Palazzo Ducale.

A few miles away on the left bank of the Po, Cremona's Piazza del Comune, presided over by a Romanesque cathedral and belltower, presents a harmonious blend of many different architectural epochs. Pavia's medieval towers can be seen from afar hovering over the rice fields that surround the town; it is one of Italy's crumbling treasures, home to the church of San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro, a celebrated 12th-century Romanesque church that hosts the ornate 14th-century tomb of St. Augustine. The real reason to go to Pavia, however, is the Certosa. Located about six miles out of town, this extravagantly decorated Carthusian monastery is the Lombard Renaissance's most spectacular achievement.

Milan is Lombardy's capital: Milan the Maligned, we might call it. Yes, it is a bustling center of world commerce and yes, it does have avenue after avenue of what we consider boring 19th-century apartment buildings. But tucked away on the south side of town are three great Romanesque churches: Sant'Ambrogio, Sant'Eustorgio and San Lorenzo Maggiore. The Sforza Castle, apart from being as authentic a 15th-century fortress as anyone's 8 year old could ask for, contains one of Italy's most thoughtfully-arranged museums. The Brera is Milan's official museum; among its offerings are Tintoretto's haunting "Finding of the Body of St. Mark," Mantegna's awesomely foreshortened "Dead Christ," Bellini's touching "Piet," and Piero della Francesca's somber "Madonna with Saints and Angels." Smaller, quieter and far more intimate is the Poldi Pezzoli Museum, just down the street from the Galleria and La Scala. And of course there is Santa Maria delle Grazie, the church whose refectory holds Leonardo's fresco of the most famous supper of all. All visitors to Milan visit the extravagant gothic cathedral, but not all of them know that a walk on the roof is one of life's most unforgettable moments. Click here for details about The Last Supper, the Duomo and other Milanese attractions.

Due east of Milan is Brescia, an ancient Roman town with a ruined Capitoline temple to prove it; the beautiful Piazza della Loggia, in the town center, instantly bespeaks the former dominance of the Venetian Republic. Nearby is Trescore Balneario, a mountain resort worth visiting for its thermal baths and for Villa Suardi, whose chapel boasts frescoes by Lorenzo Lotto. Bergamo, another ancient Roman bastion, belonged to Venice for three and a half centuries. At the heart of the old part of town, reached by funicular or by climbing steep streets to the top of the hill, is Piazza Vecchia, one of the most picturesque squares in all of Italy.
Overlooking the lake of Oggiono, Civate is a small medieval town; its church of San Pietro al Monte has a renowned cycle of late 11th-century frescoes. The Po Valley is behind us now, as we climb the foothills into one of Italy's loveliest regions, where vast, silver-blue lakes are lined with bustling little towns whose ochre, beige and terra cotta buildings meander up the flowering hillsides, which form a backdrop for the snow-capped Alps beyond. This is a traveler's paradise and Como, a bustling textile-manufacturing center, has something for everyone. Its cathedral is one of the best examples of the Renaissance in northern Italy. In Bellagio, the spectacular gardens of Villa Melzi and Villa Serbelloni offer an alternative to the art history-oriented pace of Italian travel. Click here for details about Lake Como.

Nearby is Lake Maggiore; its three islands are Isola Bella, site of the wildly extravagant Borromeo villa and gardens; Isola dei Pescatori, home of a working fishing village; and Isola Madre, with semi-tropical gardens and a simple villa. A steamer excursion on either of these lakes is spectacular, as the Italians have known since ancient Roman days. In Galliano, the church of San Vincenzo has a singular cycle of Romanesque frescoes. Travel a few miles more and you come to Castiglione Olona, a quiet medieval town with its own Renaissance masterpiece: the 15th-century Collegiata and Baptistery, featuring frescoes by the Tuscan genius Masolino.

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