Pavia & the Certosa
At one time, the quiet and remarkably well-preserved little city of Pavia, 35km (22 miles) south of Milan, was more powerful than Milan. It was the capital of Lombardy in the 7th and 8th centuries, and by the early Renaissance, the Viscontis and later the Sforzas, the two families who so influenced the history of Milan and all of Lombardy, were wielding their power here. It was the Viscontis who built the city's imposing Castello, made Pavia one of Europe's great centers of learning (when they founded the university) in 1361, began construction on the Duomo (with the third-largest dome in Italy) in 1488, and founded the city's most important monument and the one that brings most visitors to Pavia, the Certosa.
The Certosa is 8km (5 miles) north of Pavia. One of the most unusual buildings in Lombardy, if not in all of Italy, this religious compound was commissioned by Gian Galeazzo Visconti in 1396 as a Carthusian monastery and a burial chapel for his family -- officially as thanks for curing his second sickly wife (the first died) and granting him children and heirs. It was completed by the Sforzas. The facade of colored marbles, the frescoed interior, and the riot of funerary sculpture is evidence that this brood of often-tyrannical despots were also dedicated builders with grand schemes and large coffers. The finest and most acclaimed statuary monument here, that of Ludivico il Moro (buried in France, where he died a prisoner of war) and Beatrice d'Este (buried in Milan's Santa Maria delle Grazie), sits in the left transept of the massive church, beneath lapis lazuli-rich frescoes by Bergognone. Its presence here is a twist of fate -- the monks at Milan's Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie (which houses The Last Supper) sold the tomb to the Certosa to raise funds. In the right transept is the 15th-century tomb of Gian Galeazzo Visconti.
Across from the tomb is the entrance to the enormous cloister, lined with the monks' cells, each of which is actually a two-story cottage with its own garden plot. Most are now inhabited by a small community of Cistercian monks. It is possible to visit their refectory and an adjoining shop, where they sell their Chartreuse liqueur and herbal soaps and scents.
Admission to the Certosa (tel. 0382-925-613) is free; it's open Tuesday to Sunday 9 to 11:30am and 2:30 to 5:30pm (until 4:30pm Nov-Feb, 5pm Mar and Oct, and 6pm May-Aug).
Getting There & Tourist Info -- Half-hourly trains from Milan usually stop at the station near the Certosa, just before the main Pavia station (30 min.). To reach the Certosa from Pavia, take one of the half-hourly buses from the Autocorriere station (next to the train station); the trip takes about 15 minutes. By car, the Certosa is about half an hour south of Milan via Autostrada A7 (follow exit signs).
The tourist office is near the train station at Via Fabio Filzi 2 (tel. 0382-22-156); it's open Monday to Saturday from 8:30am to 12:30pm and 2 to 6pm.
Violins have been drawing visitors to this little city on the river Po, 92km (57 miles) southeast of Milan, since the 17th century, when fine string instruments began emerging from the workshops of Nicolo Amati and his more famous protégé, Antonio Stradivari. The tradition continues: Cremona's Scuola di Luteria (Violin School) is world renowned.
Cremona's charms extend far beyond the musical. Its central Piazza del Commune is one of the largest and most beautiful town squares in Italy, fronted by remarkable structures. Among these is the 12th-century Duomo (tel. 0372-26-707), clad in pink marble and overshadowed by Italy's tallest campanile; inside, it is covered with 16th-century frescoes (admission is free and hours are daily 7:30am-noon and 3:30-7pm).
The Palazzo del Comune rises gracefully above a Gothic arcade and is embellished with terra-cotta panels. Its Raccolta dei Violini displays a small collection of 17th- and 18th-century violins by Amati, the Guarneri, and one Stradvari (tel. 0372-22-138). The Museo Stradivariano, in the Museo Civico alongside an unimportant pinacoteca collection of paintings at Via Palestro 17 (tel. 0372-461-886), displays the finest violins ever made, including those by Amatis, Stradivari, and Guarneri.
Admission to the Museo Civico is 7€, including the Stradivarius museum, and it's open Tuesday to Saturday 8:30am to 6:30pm, Sunday 10am to 6pm. Admission to the Raccolta dei Violini is 6€; it's open Monday to Saturday 8:30am to 5:15pm. The instruments are regularly bowed most mornings by local musicians to keep their coveted tones intact. These "concerts" are open to the public, though for this honor, you must call the Comune at tel. 0372-22-138 a few weeks ahead of time to book a seat for an extra 1.50€.
Getting There & Tourist Info -- Trains arrive almost hourly from Milan (65 min.). Hourly trains to Brescia (50 min.) also make it possible to combine an excursion from Milan to Cremona and Brescia . If you are traveling by car, you can make the trip to Cremona by following A1 from Milan to Piacenza and A21 from Piacenza to Cremona.
The tourist office is near the Duomo at Piazza del Commune 5 (tel. 0372-23-233; www.cremonaturismo.it); hours are Monday to Saturday 9:30am to 12:30pm and 3 to 6pm, Sunday 10am to 1pm.
Ringed by industrialized suburbs, Brescia (97km/60 miles from Milan) doesn't readily beckon travelers to stop. Those who do, however, have the pleasure of wandering through a centuries-old town center where Roman ruins, not one but two duomos, and medieval palazzi line winding streets and gracious piazzas.
The center of Brescia is Piazza Paolo VI, better known as Piazza del Duomo after its two duomos -- the 17th- to 19th-century Duomo Nuovo (New Duomo), which is pretty bland, and the much more charming (on the outside, though it's nearly bare inside) 11th- to 12th-century Duomo Vecchio (Old Duomo), also called Rotonda, for its shape. Year round, the New Duomo is open Monday to Saturday 7:30am to noon and 4 to 7:30pm, and Sunday 8am to 1pm and 4 to 7:30pm. April to September, the Old Duomo is open Wednesday to Monday 9am to noon and 3 to 7pm; October to March, hours are Saturday and Sunday 9am to noon and 3 to 6pm. Next to the New Duomo rises the Broletto, Brescia's medieval town hall.
Brescia's Roman past emerges if you leave the piazza on Via dei Musei and follow it to the Capitolino, a temple erected in A.D. 73. Jog up Vicolo del Fontanone to its right to see the remains of the Teatro Romano (Roman Theater). A few blocks farther down the street is the Monasterio di Santa Giulia, at Via dei Musei 1B (tel. 030-297-7834; www.bresciamusei.com), where Charlemagne's ex-wife, Ermengarde, spent her last days. Admission is 8€ for adults, 4€ for those 14 to 18 or over 65. The monastery incorporates several churches and museums, together housing a rich collection of prehistoric, Roman, and medieval objects (lots of them high-quality pieces). It is divided into two itineraries, a history of the monastery and a history of the city, called the Museo della Citta'. Everything is well documented and explained in Italian and English. It's open Tuesday to Sunday June to September 10am to 6pm and October to May 9:30am to 5:30pm. Special exhibits raise the prices a tad and lengthen the hours.
If you leave Piazza del Duomo from the other direction, through the archways into Piazza Loggia, you come upon Brescia's most enchanting building, the Renaissance Loggia, a two-story colonnade festooned with reliefs and statues, and dating to the turn of the 16th century (the bottom half) and the mid-1550s through 1570s (the top half). As beautiful and renowned as the Loggia is, oddly enough, we don't know who designed it, though great names such as Jacopo Sansovino and Andrea Palladio have been suggested. The Torre dell'Orologio, on the opposite side of the square, resembles the campanile on Piazza San Marco in Venice, bespeaking the days when Brescia was a Venetian stronghold.
Brescia's excellent painting collection, the Pinacoteca Tosio-Matinengo, is at Piazza Moretto 4 (tel. 030-377-4999; www.bresciamusei.com). From Piazza Loggia, walk south into the Fascist-era Piazza Vittorio and follow that south into Piazza dei Mercati; from there, Corso Zanardelli and Corso Magenta lead west to Via Crispi, which leads south to the museum. Works by Moretto, Foppa, and other painters of the school of Brescia hang alongside Raphaels and Tintorettos in an old palazzo. Admission is 5€ for adults, 4€ for students, and free for children under 17 and seniors over 65. It's open Tuesday to Sunday June to September 10:30am to 6pm and October to May 9:30am to 5pm. Note: The museum was closed for remodeling in 2009 and wasn't scheduled to reopen until at least mid-2010. If you visit while the museum is closed, you can still see at least some of the museum's works; many of the most important paintings have been temporarily moved to the museum at the Monasterio di Santa Giulia , which is itself worth a visit.
Getting There & Tourist Info -- Trains arrive from Milan about every half-hour (45-65 min.). Brescia is linked to Milan by the A4, which continues east to Verona and Venice; the trip from Milan to Brescia takes a little under an hour. There's a tourist info office at Piazza Loggia 6 (tel. 030-240-0357), open in summer Monday to Saturday 9am to 6:30pm, and in winter Monday to Saturday 9:30am to 12:30pm and Monday to Friday 2 to 5pm.
There is another tourist office on Via dei Musei in front of the entrance to the Santa Giulia Monastery (tel. 030-374-9916), open Monday to Saturday 9am to 12:30pm and Monday to Friday 3 to 6pm. You can get more details on the Web at www.bresciaholiday.com and www.comune.brescia.it.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.