About Northern Italy: the Lombardy Plain
This section explores the ‘waveless plain’ which in Ancient times was Cisalpine Gaul, cockpit of wars which shaped the modern world. On this plain Caesar founded the Roman Empire, the Goths and Huns overthrew it and the Emperor Charlemagne re-established it. Here, 2,000 years after the Romans, Italy achieved unification.
The land rises to the Alps in the north, the more abrupt Apennines to the south. To right and left are great cultural complexes – you could spend a week in any one of half a dozen cities and not see everything. These same places are the nation’s industrial and commercial strength.
The best places to visit mostly lie along the autostrada, La Serenissima (named for the title of Venice), an ironic name for a motorway with an alarming accident rate. It runs straight, level and featureless. The remaining sights include the grand old cities which stand aloof from modern tourism.
Don’t let suburban ugliness deter you from entering the cities. They are the epitome of old Italy: at their hearts you will find the Roman plan and medieval nucleus of broad piazza, cathedral and other dignified buildings adjoining, all gathered in a terracotta basket woven with the tracery of arcades. The last are always 7 Lombard feet (2.67 m) high, to allow horsemen to pass through.
The easterly cities, in the Veneto, produced great art and architecture which Lombardy, having few great artists of her own, collected for her churches and galleries. To the west the genius was for music and literature: Virgil, Catullus and Pliny in Roman times, the Stradivari, Amati and Guarneri in the 1600s and 1700s, the composers Ponchielli and Monteverdi, and the most admired 19thC Italian novelists. Verdi and Donizetti built up the reputation of La Scala in Milan and, especially in towns such as Parma and Bergamo, inspired an attitude to opera and opera singers which is both passionate and fiercely critical.
Our coverage of this region is completed by The Lakelands of Lombardy; Lake Iseo and Franciacorta; Garda; Between Treviso and Trieste; and The Po Plain.
Milan, second only to Rome as an international hub, is the obvious gateway. But beware: the city has two airports: Linate, small, grubby and busy, but only 5 miles from the city centre; and Malpensa, light, clean and refurbished – but 35 miles from the centre. The taxi fare is around £35.
Rail services are fast and frequent. Milan’s motorail terminal serves many northern European stations; both Milan and Turin have car transporters to Bari, Brindisi, Naples and Villa San Giovanni (Reggio Calabria). Italy’s fastest, all-first-class trains, the pendolini, connect Turin, Milan and Venice with Rome.
All cities of the route are excellent centres for bus services and tours, local or long-distance. Autostradale (www.autostradale.it) is the major bus operator on routes Turin-Milan-Bergamo-Brescia. Sadem (www.sadem.it) runs services in Piedmont and Lombardy.
Of the once-widespread canal-boat passenger network only the quaint Burchiello boat on the Brenta Canal (Padua-Venice) survives: information and bookings, see www.ilburchiello.it/en/.