My first international trip in over 18 months!! So I thought I’d make it a memorable one… a mini road trip around Lombardy in Northern Italy… starting in Milan, roaming the region, and ending at Lake Maggiore.
It’s an early start with a 6.50am flight and as I’m waiting for the taxi to take me to the airport, although I’m really excited, I’m also feeling slightly anxious. I’m not sure if it’s due to it being my first trip abroad in so long, the rather ambiguous government advice about what paperwork I need, or the anticipation of driving on Italian roads again!
The flight is breath taking… not due to the Ryanair hospitality (although I did have the full row to myself so could stretch out), but we fly over the Alps, and Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn were almost close enough to touch.
Everything also goes smoothly (despite Manchester airport being as busy and chaotic as ever), and before I know it, I’m wondering which passport lane I need in Milan airport following Brexit…
With customs, Covid checks and border control all easily negotiated, the first challenge comes at the car rental desk when I can’t remember by credit card PIN… I only ever use it when I’m travelling, and it’s been so long I can’t remember what it is!
After 2 incorrect attempts I’m starting to sweat with only 1 try left before the card is blocked and I’m facing a road trip without a car! In a moment of inspiration the numbers come to me, and as the charge is accepted, I’m not sure who’s more relived… me or the lady behind the desk!
I decided to treat myself with the car… ever since visiting Italy a few years ago and seeing this as an option, I’ve wanted to hire an Abarth 595 to race around the twisty mountain roads. And as I settle into the driving seat and fire it up, it instantly brings a smile to my face with the roar of the exhaust in the underground carpark.
The drive to Milan doesn’t quite give me the thrilling drive I was looking forward to though, it’s a pretty mundane cruise along the autostrada, but at least it gets me back in the groove of driving on the wrong side of the road and dealing with Italian drivers.
Read my full Milan blog here… Magnifico Milano
I only have a short time in Milan, so after checking into the hotel and dumping my bags, I head straight out and catch the tram to the centre, getting off at the Lanza stop for the Castello Sforzesco.
After spending a while exploring the castle and Parco Sempione, it’s time to head to the main attraction of Milan… Duomo Di Milano… the 14th century Gothic masterpiece, which is the third largest church in the world.
I’ve seen it in hundreds of photos before, but they really don’t do it justice… it’s absolutely stunning!! And the interior is just as amazing as the outside is! I spend an age exploring inside and out, heading up to the roof terrace where you can see all of the intricate stonework up close.
After leaving the Duomo I do some window shopping in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the world’s oldest shopping arcade. It’s home to stylish brands such as Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton and Dior, but it’s the arcade itself which is the main draw for me!
When I’m done with my window shopping the time is getting on and I’m feeling quite tired after my early start, so I head to the Brera district for a coffee and beer before going to Isola for food.
Both areas are a lot more laid back and have more of a local’s feel than the touristy centre, and the food I get is delicious! With an early morning start to begin my road trip proper tomorrow, it’s back to the hotel and the end of my short stay in Milan.
Read my full Bergamo blog here… Beguiling Bergamo
My drive to Bergamo takes twice as long as it should as the autostrada is closed due to an accident, but it does give me the opportunity to drive through some of the small towns and villages on the way and see what semi-rural Lombardy is like. Highlight having to be the Ponte San Michele bridge in Calusco d’Adda, although as it’s a one lane road, I couldn’t stop and take a photo of it!
Bergamo is split into 2… città bassa, the new part of town, and città alta, the old town, high on a hill overlooking the new town and the surrounding Po Valley. I park in the new town and catch the funicular up the hill, starting my visit in Piazza Vecchia, the main town square.
At one end of the piazza stands the brilliant white Biblioteca Civica Angelo Mai (the library), with the 12th century Palazzo della Ragione (the town hall) at the other. And walking through the arches of the Palazzo della Ragione takes you to the Cappella Colleoni and Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, with the Duomo di Bergamo hiding just around the corner. It’s a spectacular walk and is well worth the visit alone!
All are free to visit and are absolutely amazing… the Basilica full of opulence covered in gold, the Duomo having a more elegant feel but no less beautiful, and the Cappella Colleoni featuring some stunning stonework. Photos aren’t allowed inside the Cappella Colleoni, but don’t miss the 3 gold testicles on the gates outside! (yes, you read that right)
I explore the rest of the old town following the narrow-cobbled streets trying to escape the crowds of the main sights, and stumble across a gem of a place. Walking through a huge wooden door in an unassuming looking building, I’m met with the sight of a Romanesque villa balcony looking out over the town and valleys below.
After grabbing some lunch from a bakery close to the car park, it’s back on the road and heading towards the mountains and lakes…
Sacro Monte di Varese
I had planned to stop at Lake Como on the way to Lake Maggiore, but with the delays this morning I’m struggling for time a little. So instead, I decide to skip it and head straight to my next destination… Sacro Monte di Varese, a World UNESCO Heritage site nestled in the Parco Naturale Regionale Campo dei Fiori (which literally translates to “Field of Flowers”).
Saint Mary Sanctuary of Monte Varese as it translates into English, is a sanctuary and village built into the side of the mountain.
Dating back to the 16th century it’s a beautiful and serene place… there is a 2km walking route following the old holy road up the hill and passing 14 chapels en-route, but I’m in a driving mood so I tackle the narrow and twisting roads to the top instead. And what a drive it is!
I reach the carpark at the top after an enthralling drive, and after admiring the view, I try to figure out what the parking situation is. There are 2 traffic wardens walking around looking into car windows, so I guess I need a ticket, but a few people are roaming around looking a bit confused. I follow the traffic wardens over to the corner of the car park and spot the payment machine, but just as I reach there, it seems like an argument breaks out between 2 guys and the attendants! I have no idea what’s going on but there’s lots of shouting and angry gesturing, and then one of the guys turns to me and says something and it seems he’s looking for my support! I look around for a second and then attempt to answer him… and he doesn’t look too impressed at my expansive Italian language skills of “scusa Inglese, no Italiano” accompanied by what I thought was a very Italian shrug! I think my expert skills do the trick though as it seems to calm down after that (or they all unite against the stupid English guy) and we manage to get our tickets and head over to the village.
The village is beautiful and it’s easy to see why it’s on the UNESCO Heritage List, so impressive having been built here in the 16th century! And the views are to die for… mountains, towns and the nearby lakes glistening in the late afternoon sun, and although it’s a bit hazy today, on a clear day you can supposedly see as far as Milan over 60km away!
There’s a service going on inside the chapel with the readings being played outside on speakers, and along with the bells it only adds to the atmosphere as I wander around the village. I’m not religious myself but it’s a great experience all the same.
The drive back down the hill is even more fun than the drive up… the only threat being 2 slow drivers who I manage to pass at the same time, as I race down the mountain testing out the turbo and breaks on the Abarth 595 (maybe my mother shouldn’t watch the video if she’s reading this! )
The rest of the drive through Campo dei Fiori is just as much fun as the decent from Sacro Monte di Varese, and by the time I reach the edge of the lake at Laveno-Mombello both me and the Abarth could do with a rest!
Read my full Lake Maggiore blog here… Magia Lake Maggiore
I’m staying in Cannobio, a small town on the opposite side of the lake just a few miles south of the Swiss border, and it seems the fastest way there is to take a car ferry across the lake. Which provides the perfect opportunity to stretch my legs and enjoy the fresh air after the adrenaline-inducing drive I’ve just had.
The next day starts with a wander through the market which is held every Sunday morning on the promenade in Cannobio… there’s all sorts of stalls, selling pretty much everything you can imagine from clothes, bags and shoes to arts and crafts. It’s a popular spot for Swiss locals to cross the border and get some shopping at reduced prices, something I experienced last night in the restaurant as well when everyone and everything was in German!
As well as the market, the other reason I chose to stay in Cannobio was due to some places I’d read about and a hike I created to explore them.
Cannobio sits in the shadow of Monte Giove, and part way up the mountain is a village called Sant’Agata, perched on the cliff edge overlooking the town and lake below. And back down in the valley is Orrido Sant’Anna, a gorge carved out of the rock by the flowing river with a church standing at the top. Both looked stunning, so I followed a 10km hiking route to take in both sights, watch the highlights below…
For my last night I’m staying at the other end of the lake in a town called Baveno. I was supposed to be staying in Stresa but was moved by the hotel due to occupancy rates not making it worthwhile opening the one in Stresa. And while this move meant I lucked out hotel-wise and I end up with a much nicer one, Baveno itself is a ghost town! All I can really say about the place is… don’t bother visiting!
After seeing everything the town has to offer in about 5 minutes, I decide to drive into the hills to have one last blast in the Abarth! Before finding a bar on the lake side and enjoying a beer, while trying to find a restaurant open…
Despite the last night in Baveno, it’s been an amazing trip for my first one back abroad… 1 day sight-seeing, 1 day driving and 1 day hiking, with some amazing food and drink in the evenings… a perfect combination! Oh, and the Abarth 595 was the cherry on top… what a car… one of the most fun cars I’ve ever driven!
Here’s hoping it isn’t another 18 months before my next trip abroad!