Discovering Brescia

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Lake Como in Lombardy

Lake Como in Lombardy

Discovering the different regions of Italy is always a voyage of discovery with no two areas the same. The jewel in the crown of the Lombardy Region has to be Lake Como, which is surrounded by the pre-Alps, and considered the most romantic of the Italian lakes.

At its southern tip, the prosperous city of Como dates back to the Roman period with walls surrounding the old town except for where it faces onto the lake. The green dome of its cathedral is the first thing you see from the lake. Elegant villas surround the lake with gardens stretching down to the water where, we are told the owners moor their boats. Before taking a trip, it’s worth asking the tourist board for a book they produce on the history of the individual villas. There is one too for the numerous scenes from films that have been shot here including James Bond’s Casino Royale. We took one of the many hire boats that offer guided tours. The left bank a short distance from the Swiss border, because of the sun’s position, is considered the best location. This is where the Villa d’Este, the ultra-luxurious five star hotel favoured by the rich and famous, is sited as is the villa owned by George Clooney. A palatial building owned by Richard Branson, we are told, is available to rent although no price is mentioned! Around the lake, which stretches over sixty kilometres, are small villages. Fishing is allowed and perch risotto, and laverello, a freshwater white fish are dishes to look out for. The lake has three branches and those who enjoy water sports are advised to head to the windy north. Lovers of Italian silk will be delighted to learn that ninety percent of the fabric is produced locally with an outlet at Mantero. For wonderful views, providing the weather is clear, a ride in the vehicular will take you to the top of the mountain.

the george Clooney villa which guides happily point out

George Clooney’s villa which guides happily point out

Roman villas may be common place in Italy but what is so special in Brescia is that Santa Giulia, the city’s museum, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List, is built on ruins from several different periods. The complex includes Roman town houses, the medieval church of San Salvatore and its crypt, the Romanesque Santa Maria in Solario, the Nuns’ choir, the sixteenth century church of Santa Giulia and the monastery cloisters. As Brescia is built on a hill, discoveries over the centuries include the remains of buildings that have been built on top of each other, some with mosaic floors that have retained their colours. What I found the most fascinating was that archaeologists have been able to reconstruct some of the houses so that we were able to see, in a film, how they would probably have originally looked.

During the Roman period the Piazza del Foro was the centre of political, religious and commercial life. Around the piazza stood the Capitoline Temple, the ancient courthouse with two colonnades lined with shops. Although much of the temple has been destroyed, in 1939 it was renovated and can be seen by walking along the same road as the museum. The temple was originally covered in marble, from nearby Botticino, which had been removed over time.

some of the Roman ruins in Santa Giula Museum

some of the Roman ruins in Santa Giula Museum

On top of the Cidneo hill, the Castle of Brescia is one of the largest and most well preserved fortresses in Northern Italy. Its monumental gateway is topped by the Lion of St. Mark, a symbol of the Venetian Republic that dominated the city for four centuries.

Wine lovers might also like to investigate the Lombard Hills wine route that starts in Brescia. The route takes in the Brescian pre-Alps and the plains to the South East of the city.

Within the province of Brescia Lake Garda, Italy’s biggest lake is known in the south for its natural thermal springs at Sirmione. Built on a narrow peninsula, visitors enter the tiny village through a gate that is part of the twelfth century Scaliger Castle. Little winding, cobbled streets take you uphill past the villa once lived in during the nineteen-fifties by the world famous opera singer, Maria Callas. At the far end of the peninsula at the entrance to the ‘Grotto of Catullus’, which isn’t a grotto but the remains of a Roman villa from around 150AD is a small museum. Our hotel, the Sirmione e Promessi Sposi has spa facilities, and although it was freezing outside, we were there in the winter, we were able to swim in the open-air swimming pool filled with water from the mineral rich hot-water springs. Sirmione is worth visiting if just for its glorious sunsets with the added bonus that the thermal springs help respiratory and rheumatic problems.

Scaliger Castle

Scaliger Castle

This area, because of its mild microclimate, is ideal for olive trees and vineyards. Lugana wines are produced here mainly from the Trebbiano grape, with the main production being white. Grappa, the traditional Italian after dinner grape-based brandy is also produced here. We enjoyed a wine tasting at the nearby Provenza winery, which produces CàMaiol wines and extra virgin olive oil.  Visitors are welcome at their showroom for a tasting if booked in advance.

Pasta is always on an Italian menu, usually served as a small second course. In this region you are likely to be served polenta, a golden-yellow cornmeal made from dried corn, with the main course.

Milan is the capital of Lombardy and while it makes a good starting point, it is worth bearing in mind that millions of people are expected to attend Expo 2015 between May 1 and October 31, 2015. If you are planning a visit it is definitely worth considering getting away from the crowds and exploring other parts of the region.

The Gatwick Express is a fast direct service from Victoria to Gatwick Airport. Southern Railways takes longer as it makes several stops on the way, but is considerably cheaper.

 

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