We recently returned from a short trip to see friends in Milan, or more precisely, Lake Maggiore, which is just a short drive from Milan. The best part of the trip was seeing our friends and being welcomed into their home, but there were many other highlights on this wonderful trip to Northern Italy. The visit was made all the more memorable by the fact that our friends showed us around the wonderful places which we visited near their home. Thank you Rossana and Sergio, Gaia and Giorgio.
Highlights from our trip to Northern Italy
Continuing our alcoholic theme (see On the Whisky Trail) we drove a couple of hours south from Milan to Barolo, wine country! Our friends know us well: Barolo wine is a favourite.
Barolo is a delightful village with narrow, twisty roads and beautiful buildings. The views over the vineyards, which cover the undulating countryside, are wonderful. On the top of each hill is a village, completing the picture-postcard landscape. It is exactly how I imagined Barolo to be.
Barolo Wine Museum
We visited the Wine Museum whilst in Barolo. Housed in a former castle, the museum was not what I was expecting. It was more of an experiential, multi-media art gallery than a museum in the way it told the story of wine. A giant kaleidoscope demonstrated the changing of the seasons across the vineyards; the room under the earth showed the roots of the vines dangling from the roof; the cinema room illustrated the importance of wine in the history of film.
The castle in which the museum was housed had, in a past life, been used as a place of education for underprivileged children in the area and in the school room, complete with desks, a lesson on wine was in progress. On the ground floor was a tasting room, but it was rather different from any tasting room I have visited before.
The process involved acquiring a charge card and then using this to help oneself to the wines, which were all lined up in optics. You paid for what you had drunk at the end by presenting the card. It was very easy, but I think I prefer the ritual of pouring wine from a bottle into a glass rather than pressing an optic as you would for a glass of coke! It rather destroyed the mystique.
After a lovely lunch in a delightful restaurant in a Novello, a village just a few kilometres away, we visited the Fontanafredda winery, which won the European Winery of the Year award in 2017. This was an absolute highlight of our trip to Northern Italy. We signed up for a tour and spent the hour waiting for the English speaking tour to begin wandering through the Wood of Thoughts. This is an area of the land which has not been cultivated for vines, but preserved for people to enjoy the peace and tranquillity of the natural world. It is very beautiful.
The tour itself was interesting and informative, with lots of anecdotes about the founders and their foibles. We toured the various cellars, where casks of all sizes and constructed from different timbers lined the walls. The winery boasts the longest cellar in Italy and this is truly impressive.
We saw the different stages of the winemaking process and at the end, of course, came the tasting! Our guide told us about each wine we tasted and helped us to appreciate the different flavours. All in all this was an excellent tour.
On another day during our visit to Northern Italy we ventured into the city of Milan. I suppose fashionistas would have had a rather different agenda to ours, but fashion is not really our thing.
San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore
First of all, we visited San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, regarded as the Sistine Chapel of Milan because of its beautiful frescoes. It really does have the wow factor when you first step inside. The frescoes depicting Noah and his ark were particularly interesting. One of them showed an inebriated Noah, not a story with which we were familiar, but a quick check with Professor Google showed this to be a part of the bible story. Also, among the animals entering the ark were two unicorns. Who knew!
One of the best things to see in Milan, however, is the magnificent Gothic cathedral. It is an intricate and very beautiful building from the outside, and no less beautiful on the inside.
The queues for tickets were enormous, but the line for tickets to climb the steps on to the roof terraces was much shorter. What we also discovered was that when you descended from the roof, you entered directly into the cathedral, so this was a win win. The climb up to the terraces demands a little energy (there is a lift for an additional fee and a longer wait) but the view over the city from the top is worth it. Stunning.
Castello Sforzesco in Milan
After an enormous gelato, we then visited the Castello Sforzesco, an impressive building within walking distance of the cathedral. Fatigued by this time, we did not go in to see the exhibitions, but enjoyed wandering through the grounds and appreciated the buildings from the outside. It is lovely that there are such places to walk within this bustling city.
Lake Maggiore is one of the absolute best places to visit in Northern Italy. Lake Maggiore is a large lake (about 66 km in length) stretching up through northern Italy and into Switzerland. We visited the southern part of the lake nearest to Milan. It is very beautiful.
Santa Caterina del Sasso
We went initially to the hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso, a monastery built into the rock on the shores of the lake. It is very picturesque and an absolute must for anyone visiting this area.
There is a ferry stop for some of the islands on the lake at Santa Caterina and it was from here that we took the ferry, initially to Isola Bella and then to Isola Superior dei Pescatori. Seeing the lake and the towns on its shore from the ferry is wonderful. It is so beautiful.
When we arrived at the island, Isola Bella, which took about half an hour from Santa Caterina, we were ready for lunch in one of the pretty lake-side restaurants. A large portion of the island is taken up by the palace and beautiful Italian gardens created by Charles 3rd of the wealthy Borromeo family in the seventeenth century.
We saw the gardens from the ferry, but the day was far too lovely to spend wandering through rooms and marvelling at paintings so we did not go in. Another time. Instead we wandered around the island looking at the lovely views of the lake, meandering through the narrow, winding streets and looking at some of the market stalls which lined the path.
Isola Superior dei Pescatori
We took the ferry across to Isola Superior dei Pescatori, a tiny island with a little village, formerly a fishing village, on it. It is very characterful with narrow streets and charming, medieval houses packed in close together. Again there are lots of little restaurants and cafes along the shore where you can sit and soak up the atmosphere and admire the views whilst drinking an Aperol spritz. It was a delightful and relaxing afternoon.
This trip to Northern Italy was our first introduction to the area and we absolutely loved it. Visiting friends made it extra special, but the area is full of beauty and character. We shall definitely return.