All the charms of Italy in Pavia – World Meanderings (n°70)
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
The name “Pavia” refers to both a town and its surrounding area. Located in Lombardy in northern Italy Pavia is easily reached from Milan Malpensa international airport. A 30-minute drive will take you from the hustle and bustle of Milan to this quiet agricultural region yet full of charm and attractions. Beautiful landscapes, historical heritage, tasty food and wines will make your stay in Pavia a great discovery.
When in Pavia and its surroundings don’t expect to eat the traditional Italian pasta and pizza. Most of the area is devoted to rice growing and you will see paddy fields everywhere. This rice “supremacy” will of course be reflected in your plate and risotto is the true king of Pavia’s gastronomy. Each and every restaurant has risotto in its menus often made following a secret family recipe. Amazingly eating risotto at every meal doesn’t get boring since there are so many different recipes using local vegetables, mushrooms, cheese or meat… that it will be a new experience every time. If you like rice Pavia was made for you and if you don’t there are many other local produce to tempt your taste buds. Pavia is the kingdom of slow food where many small-scale farmers make quality products. A wide range of cheese, fruits and vegetables, goose meat (an ancient traditional local breeding), white and black truffle, presents the stars of Pavia cuisine. Not to forget the wines! A multitude of small restaurants, mostly family businesses, propose a delicious homemade cuisine.
Pavia is only 22 miles away from Milan and if you don’t want to rent a car you can nevertheless easily get there by train using the frequent trains linking the two cities. Pavia region is divided into three different parts. The Pavese part directly surrounds Pavia while the Lomellina part sits on its west side, this is where most of the paddy fields are. To the south on the southern bank of the Po River landscapes change completely and vineyards stretch all over the sunny hillsides, this is the Oltrepo Pavese.
Pavia is an attractive town built on the banks of the Ticino River. The city centre was built following a circular pattern and is today almost totally a pedestrianized area. Through a maze of small streets you will discover lovely little squares or larger impressive ones. When night comes, along with a little fresh air, the streets come alive, filled with tourists and students from the local colleges. The Piazza della Vittoria e Broletto is the perfect place to immerse yourself into this lively nightlife. Don’t miss Pavia covered bridge, the longest one in Europe, the huge Renaissance cathedral or duomo, the magnificent roman church San Michele, the Castello Visconteo that now is a vast museum and all the countless other churches and palazzi that proudly stand at almost every street corner. It will take you a whole day to get a good overview of Pavia’s historical centre.
Must sees around Pavia
Five miles north of Pavia you can first go the Certosa di Pavia, an immense monastery founded in 1396. Duke Gian Galazzeo Visconti had it built for the Carthusian Order’s monks who, through the centuries, added new buildings to the original construction. Its white marble façade is adorned with exhuberant statues typical of the Lombard style. The impressive size of its cloister definitely shows how powerful and wealthy the Order was at its height.
There ask for ristorante Cascina Vittoria where young chef Giovanni Ricciardella makes a delightful cuisine mixing his mother and grandmother’s recipes with his own inspirations. Using vegetables from the restaurant’s garden, cheese, eggs and meat from local breeders as well as pasta made with craft flour, Giovanni makes a delicious cuisine that you will enjoy in the outside courtyard or in the country-style dining room. He undoubtedly is own of the most talented young chef of the region. www.cascinavittoria.it
Vigevano, Leonardo dream city
In the late 15th century Ludovivo il Moro, Duke of Milan hired Leonardo de Vinci and another great architect of the time called Bramante, to build a huge castle in Vigevano. And indeed they created a huge place! You will first get to the Piazza Ducale, the ducal square, 134 meters long and 48 meters wide, surrounded with elegant arches and columns. The cathedral stands on one of its side and has the particularity to have two façades built one behind the other.
To get a good look at the Piazza Ducale as well as all over the city, you can climb up the Torre del Bramante, the Bramante Tower. Next go to the Duke’s castle, large enough to hold no less than seven cathedrals as large as the Milan Duomo! Today the palace is home to several museum including a “shoe museum” to celebrate Vigevano’s most surprising creation, the stiletto heel! Next you can walk along an impressive 167 meters long underground tunnel linking the castle to an ancient fortress. In my opinion the highlight of the tour are the castle’s stables inspired by Leonardo’s plans. A hundred horses could live here under the high arches supported by dozens of columns.
As in Pavia you will find plenty of pleasant small restaurants in the narrow streets of Vigevano centre. After lunch you can wander around in the historical centre or get back on the road and go to Mora Bassa Mills. These watermills were built as a wedding present from Ludovico il Moro to his new wife in 1494. If the mill still has his big wheels, it’s not working anymore. In its great interior you will be able to discover and operate models of Leonardo de Vinci’s inventions. Dozens of wooden machines are on display and give us an idea of Leonardo’s genius.
Wines from Oltrepo Pavese vineyards
Beautiful landscapes welcome you on the southern bank of the Po. Several wine estates make quality wines famous throughout Italy. The Tanuta le Fracce is a vast wine estate where quality means respect for nature and wines of character. Wine tourists are more than welcome in this beautiful house nestled in a pleasant garden in the middle of the vineyards. The Tanuta le Fracce also proposes art exhibitions, mostly naive art.
But of course wines are the main interest! Without any weed-killers or insecticides the vines grow in a high-quality environment under the hot Italian sun. Limiting the number of grapes per plant allows the aromas to concentrate in the remaining ones, producing wines with a rich body. The estate produces 6 red and 3 white wines as well as three different sparkling wines. After your visit and a wine tasting you will have the opportunity to buy one or several bottles and take a concentrate of Italy back home. www.lefracce.it/english/index.html
Go to Rivanazzano village and stop at the Selvatico hotel and restaurant. Here the lady-chef, Piera, makes an inventive locally sourced cuisine. We tasted her “chicken in potato and herbs crust” and her ” strawberries with red wine zabaglione” and this was a real treat! www.albergoselvatico.com
Where to stay in Pavia?
Pavia is the perfect starting point to discover the area and even Milan. There are no 5-star hotels in Pavia but you can stay at the “Hotel Moderno”, a 4-star hotel ideally located a 100-meter away from the historical pedestrian centre and only 30 meters away from the railway station without being annoyed by the train traffic. The rooms are comfortable but most of all, the hotel’s restaurant has a very good reputation and attracts a loyal local clientele, and that’s always a good sign! www.hotelmoderno.it
more info about Pavia at ww.visitpavia.com/en
and general info about Italy at www.enit.it
Text ©Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny