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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.
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.
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.
There are two terminals at Malpensa. If you are departing from Malpensa, we highly recommend you ask your airline or travel agent which terminal you'll be leaving from. The highway that goes to the airport is very well marked, but there are no indications about which flights leave from where, and the exit for Malpensa 2 (which comes first) is actually a few miles from the exit for Malpensa 1. The only way to tell which terminal you want is to park and go inside: this might cause you to arrive half an hour later than you anticipated.
A wonderful way to combine recreation with culture is to hike to some of the many Alpine pilgrimage chapels. Clustered together in beautiful rural settings, these shrines are decorated with highly realistic tableaux vivants whose purpose was to narrate biblical stories to the often illiterate faithful as they proceeded from one shelter to the next. Today many of these shrines can be reached by car, but the fun is in leaving the modern world behind and going on foot through fields, past waterfalls, up steep mountain trails or along the shores of a lake, just as pilgrims have done for centuries. On Sundays you may find crowds; if possible, go during the week.
Almost all of them offer a collection of items that ranges from near-worthless knickknacks to priceless works of art, from the ancient to the post-post modern. Some markets are specialized but all welcome visitors, who are encouraged to have fun bargaining in English, Italian, sign language or any combination of the above. A word to the wise: keep your money and valuables stashed under at least one layer of clothes. Who wants to spend the whole time worrying why all those people are jostling you? Here is a partial calendar of outdoor markets in Lombardy.
The Wines of Lombardy: Franciacorta
Italy's most celebrated chef, Gualtiero Marchesi, recently closed his eponymous restaurant in Milan and moved to the village of Erbusco in the Lombard countryside. Marchesi set up shop in a Victorian-era hunting lodge newly transformed into a grand country hotel with elegant dining rooms offering stunning views of Lake Iseo. L'Albereta, as the new establishment is called, sits in the heart of Franciacorta, Lombardy's premier wine-growing region. The sunny hillsides of the valley surrounding the lake provide not only beautiful vistas but also wonderful soil and weather for growing the Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Nero and Chardonnay grapes used to make the local sparkling wines.
No more than 25 years ago, Franciacorta was undistinguished as a wine region. Beginning in the mid-1950s, a young winemaker named Franco Ziliani began making sparkling wines using the methode champenoise of France. The results were spectacular and other winemakers soon followed suit. By 1975 the champenoise of Franciacorta was a best seller in Italy and was gaining recognition internationally. Soon the sleepy valley on the shores of Lake Iseo was transformed into a miniature version of France's Champagne region.
Today, over 30 wineries in Franciacorta produce champenoise-style sparkling wines. Of those, the most notable is Ca' del Bosco. Its owner, Maurizio Zanella, sets the standard for the region, if not the entire country, with wines noted for their fragrance and finesse. Pale yellow-greenish in color, they are remarkable for their freshness. Other outstanding winemakers of the region include Bellavista and Cavalleri. All these wines are best consumed in their region but are also available in the United States.
Making the trip to Erbusco is a worthwhile undertaking. The drive from the eastern outskirts of Milan takes about 40 minutes (getting to the outskirts of Milan may double or triple the length of the trip, depending upon your starting point). Once in Erbusco, it's easy to find L'Albereta. The ultimate goal is a seat in Signor Marchesi's dining room, where the view of the lake and vineyards will set the mood for gastronomic adventures. A glass of Ca' del Bosco's champenoise is the perfect companion as you read the menu and choose among the updated classic dishes for which Marchesi is famous.
If a trip to Erbusco is not in your current plans, visit your local wine store and select a fine sparkling wine from Franciacorta. It will make an excellent aperitif or complement any food that requires a light, fresh wine.
Update on the Wines of Lombardy
Beginning with the vintage produced from the just-completed 1995 harvest, the wines of Franciacorta will have a new legal appellation. Until now, all the region's wines went by the name of Franciacorta; now, that appellation will apply only to sparkling wines, whereas still reds and whites will be called Terra di Franciacorta. In addition, the new Franciacorta sparkling wines have been elevated to the status of DOCG (denominazione di origine controllata e garantita), a special label accessible to only fourteen other types of Italian wine.
Italy's wine labelling legislation goes back to 1963. Modeled after the French appelation controllée system, it was designed to give legal recognition and protection to the most famous and best Italian wines. The law created two categories: DOC (denominazione di origine controllata) designates wines from particular regions; DOCG designates the country's most elite wines. Today, there are over 250 DOC wines; the addition of Franciacorta brings the number of DOCG wines to fifteen.
The venerable champagne method of making sparkling wine was created at the beginning of the eighteenth century by a French monk named Dom Perignon. The Italians didn't pick it up until around 1955, and although their wines are made using the same methods and similar grapes, they have long felt that they could not compete effectively on the world market without a distinctive name of their own. Now, thanks to the new designation Franciacorta, consumers will easily be able to tell if a sparkling wine has been hand-made according to classic champagne methods, or if it has been mass-produced, as are Italy's spumantes.
It will be a few years before you can walk into your neighborhood store or bar and order wine using the new names: the 1995 harvest will not be released until 1997 or 1998. It also remains to be seen whether the Italians can compete with the French in the prestigious sparkling wine market. With a 250-year head start, the descendants of Dom Perignon will be hard to catch.