Milan might be Lombardy’s best-known destination, but scattered across the diverse landscapes of this northern Italian region are many small towns and villages that hold the key to its rural charm.
Shadowed by the Alpine foothills, Lombardy’s famous lakes region, long famed for its natural beauty, brings a touch of the Mediterranean to the area. Further south, the Po River and its tributaries nourish sprawling alluvial plains. These environments act as a natural backdrop to the small towns and villages within, where traditional farming, ancient crafts and historical sights are commonplace. From Renaissance gems to traditional cascine (farmsteads) which serve-up local hearty food, there is much to discover about the region’s rural culture in these charming towns and villages. Here are 13 of the best.
The red bricks of Soncino’s city walls might have once served as a robust defence, but now they merely act as a charming feature on the Padan Plain. The round tower of the castle looks out onto patches of open farmland and isolated farmsteads. Frescoes in Santa Maria delle Grazie church are an impressive find within the old town. The Press Museum is housed in the historic residence of prominent early printers, and other landmarks bear testimony to the bond between local history and the surrounding countryside. A scenic cycling route links Soncino to the neighbouring walled towns of Crema and Pizzighettone.
Once a mining community by the Serio River, Gromo became known as ‘the small Toledo’ thanks to the production of white weapons (i.e. those that don’t use gunpowder). This thriving industry was swiped away by the river in flood in 1666, but the medieval character of this little town is still perfectly preserved. Stone walls and slate rooftops serve as unassuming shrines containing a wealth of relics, works of art and other echoes of the times gone by. From the swan atop the fountain in Piazza Dante to the rich interiors of San Giacomo church, many surprising details can be discovered in the old town.
Ancient towers rising above the centre hint at the rich history of Lovere. A strategic spot on the north-western shore of Lake Iseo, the town flourished particularly under Venetian rule between the 15th and 18th centuries, developing the iron and steel industry which continues to be the staple of the local economy. Historic palaces and colourful houses line the lakefront, also graced by Piazza 13 Martiri. Other landmarks include Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, San Giorgio church and the Tadini Art Gallery.
Rising 600 metres above sea level, this car-free lake island offers both mountain and waterside vistas. Ancient fishing hamlets continue to cultivate the traditional craft of net-making, while rows of recently-caught freshwater fish hang up to dry according to the local customs. Homemade salame is a culinary highlight in the hillside hamlets, which are linked by panoramic treks reaching all the way up to the sanctuary. In September 2020, a multitude of handmade paper flowers will decorate the hamlets of Carzano and Novale, according to a local celebration taking place every five years.
San Benedetto Po
The history of San Benedetto Po is intertwined with that of Polirone Abbey, founded in 1007 on the south bank of the Po River. Walking around the complex, visitors come face to face with the monastery’s changing fortunes over the centuries. Great artists and thinkers sojourned here during its flourishing years, while in other times, conflicts and river floods brought a poverty so deep that even the remains of a famous countess had to be sold to the Vatican to get by; the empty tomb of Matilde di Canossa remains unaltered in the 16th-century basilica, while other highlights include the front square, three cloisters and the medieval Santa Maria church.
Bienno boasts one of the best-preserved medieval centres in Lombardy. This charming old town lies in a valley best-known for its medieval iron industry forges. A working example can be seen in la Fucina Museo (the Forge Museum), which utilised water from the Vaso Re canal that flows through the centre. But the history of Bienno dates back even further, as seen in the layout of its cobbled streets and alleyways that trace the town’s original Roman foundations. Attractions include historic palaces and buildings like Casa Bettoni, Torre Avanzini and Palazzo Simoni Fè. Some date back to the Renaissance, while others display rich frescoes reflecting local artistic flair. Ancient vaults and portals adorn Bienno’s narrow streets.
Zavattarello was known in its early days as a shoe-making hub – savattarellum being the Latin word for such a place. Dating back to the 10th century, its imposing fortress suggests it was also a strategic outpost. This marvel of military architecture has been fully restored and is now open to visitors, also containing a contemporary art gallery within its walls. Its terrace offers unmatched views over the Oltrepò Pavese region, while the medieval town stretches along the hillside from the foot of the castle.
Cornello dei Tasso
If saying that time has stood still in a certain place is a cliché in the majority of cases, then Cornello dei Tasso must be an exception. The fortunes of this barely-inhabited hamlet took a severe downturn at the start of the 17th century, as a new road cut it off from the area’s trading routes. The decline that followed makes Cornello look today exactly as it did 400 years ago. One wouldn’t expect to learn about postal history in such an isolated place, yet the local Tasso family pioneered the service and even rose as high in society as to work for the Habsburg Court.
Morimondo started as an abbey, originally built in the 12th-century by Cistercian monks coming from France. They cleared woodland and managed to reclaim the local marshes in order to plant subsistence crops. With its simple yet majestic complex of exposed brickwork, the abbey continues to be the focus of the local life, and a visit to Morimondo is an occasion to learn about the day-to-day of medieval monks and peasants. A number of historical events are held here throughout the year, the main of which is the Trecentesca Festival taking place every May.
Sabbioneta celebrates architectural harmony and ideal proportions according to the spirit of the Renaissance, in dramatic contrast with the surrounding rural land. Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna envisaged his own ‘Utopia’ upon inheriting the city in 1544, having in mind a small Athens which would give splendour to a settlement originally built on reclaimed marshes. After his death, his vision has remained unaltered and encapsulated in the 16th century. Disengaged from the spirit of that time, the city’s palaces, porticoes and arches are haunted today by a surreal aura.
Comprising both hillside and waterfront hamlets, Tremezzo is a top destination on the western shore of Lake Como. Visitors from across Europe discovered this area as early as the 17th century, primarily attracted to the region by the year-round favourable climate. Such popularity is represented by grand palaces including Villa Carlotta, Villa Meier and Villa Sola Busca, where elegant architecture is coupled with eclectic parks overlooking the lake. Other landmarks are San Bartolomeo church and the sanctuary of Madonna degli Eremiti.
The Museum of Rope Making celebrates the traditional craft that, until recently, defined the economy of Castelponzone. The hemp fields that provided the raw material have now disappeared, as well as other traces of the town’s past. The medieval fortress has been dismantled long ago, its moat filled in, and the city walls demolished. Yet what can’t be seen is made up for by wide porticoes and characterful cobbled alleyways filled with the distinctive atmosphere of an ancient rural village. Not to be missed is the 11th-century Chiesa Vecchia in neighbouring Scandolara Ravara.
Gradella is reached by quiet tree-lined country roads in the middle of the Po Valley. Yellow-washed walls with red finishings provide the town with a uniform and characterful look, evoking local farming traditions which date back centuries. Rather than impressive sights, a visit here is about discovering the rural pleasures of an ancient village widely exposed to the alluvial plains stretching all around. Gradella is part of the town of Pandino, home to a famous 14th-century fortress.