Highlights of Northern Italy

by Barbara Broadbent

This past summer, Ian and I embarked on a wonderful exploration of Northern Italy – an area seldom included on the average coach tour.

Our starting point was Milan, Italy’s centre of fashion, business and finance, and the heartland of Italian economy. We toured the magnificent cathedral which dominates the main square, Piazza del Duomo. Constructed from 1386 – 1810, and holding 40,000 worshippers, the cathedral is a classic example of the flamboyant overdone final stage of the Gothic. On the left side of the piazza is a grand glass-domed shopping arcade: the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, constructed around 1865 – 1877 with a floor plan in the shape of a Latin cross. Continuing on, is La Scala: one of the world’s most prestigious opera houses with one of the largest stages in Europe. (For those traveling on their own, Milan has an extensive Hop-on Hop-off signtseeing service, with 3 different lines and over 30 stops.)

The next day we moved on, stopping first in Como at the southern end of Lake Como. At Como’s heart is the elegant Plaza Cavour where you can marvel at the many varied boats docked nearby. We saw the beautiful 14th Century Duomo; the unique 13th Century Broletto (town hall) striped in white, pink and gray; and the Pinacotteca Civica, a wonderful collection of medieval and renaissance frescoes, sculptures, paintings and manuscripts.

On to Bergamo, a delightful hilltop town divided into two distinct parts. The lower town is the more modern part, but the upper town is made up of a cluster of medieval and renaissance buildings. The jewel of the upper town in the Piazza Vecchia containing one of the most appealing, architectural ensembles in the region…. all those buildings a town requires, plus a clock tower with a curfew bell that still rings daily at 10pm.

Our final destination that day was Desenzano del Garda, for a 3-night stay. This are  is thought to have been settled since the Bronze Age and over the years has suffered invasions by the Romans, Lombards and the Venetians. Our 2nd floor rooms opened out to a common “patio” area – a perfect spot for our evening “happy hours.” Our first day there was a “free one” and perfect time to enjoy their lovely outdoor pool.

The next day, we took a day trip up to the foothills of the Dolomites. As we drove north, I was amazed at the miles and miles of wonderful vineyards, interspersed with never-ending cornfields, olive groves and fruit trees! Trento, a prosperous, cosmopolitan, university town, was our first stop. It was here, from 1515 – 1563, that the structure of the Catholic Church was redefined at the Council of Trent. This wasthe starting point of the Counter-Reformation which brought half of Europe back to Catholicism. Once again, the splendid PIazza del Duomo and its enormous medieval palazzo dominates the city.

Bolzabo, “gateway to the Dolomites,” is a charming city with cobblestone streets and characteristic wooden houses, surrounded by mountains and built in a natural basin, just 77 km from the Brenner Pass and Austria. Their architectural museum has gained international fame for OTZI, its 5300-year-old-iceman. “Frozen Fritz” as he is affectionately known, was discovered up in the mountains in 1991, and is the world’s oldest naturally preserved body. His leathery remains are displayed in a freezer vault, preserved along with his longbow, axe and clothing.

Leaving the Lake Garda area, we travelled to Bassano del Grappa, a small medieval town at the foot of the Pre-Alps. Our tour started on the Viale Des Martiri – a tree-lined street on the edge of town with a beautiful panorama of the Monte Grappa and the valley below. The street is named for the 31 partisans who were killed by the Nazis in 1944 and whose bodies were hung from these trees during WW II. Each tree is a shrine with a picture of each man still displayed. The symbol of Bassano del Grappa is the Ponte degli Alipini: a covered wooden bridge designed in 1569 to span the river. Although built of timber to allow it to flex when hit by the waters of the spring thaw, it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. The other highlight is its wonderful ceramics displayed in the Museo della Ceramica.

The picturesque medieval town of Marostica is surrounded by the ancient walls of its castles. It is best known for the town square, where the paving marks out a gigantic chessboard. The story of the chess game dates back to 1454 and now, on the second weekend of September in even-numbered years, the game is re-enacted.. The game, with living characters, is a faithful reconstruction of the lifestyle of the time, and employs over 300 persons dressed in traditional medieval costumes.

Our last night, in Villorba, was merely a convenient stop enabling us to reach our final destination of Venice the following morning, to board Uniworld’s RIVER COUNTESS for the second half of our trip.