ilan is perfectly situated for day trips. My husband and I have made day trips to Florence, Venice, Turin and Cinque Terre. They’re beautiful but, to discover the true heart of Italy, you’ve got to see more than the tourist spots.
When Dan and I moved to Milan from Connecticut, we decided that owning a car was more trouble and expense than it was worth. But a day trip is something you can do by train. Since our destinations are mostly small towns, we wear comfortable walking shoes.
The things we look for in a day trip are art exhibits, local events, historical significance, wine production, or at the very least a good street market.
Fundamental to an enjoyable day trip is a good restaurant. These can be located using Gambero Rosso or Slow Food (see below). Dan and I have adopted Italian-style meals: A big lunch and a light dinner, taking about two hours over lunch.
Train tickets with reserved seats run about €10-12 per person, each way. A big meal at a nice restaurant will come to anywhere from €25-90 per person. Museum tickets are around €6-9 each. A detailed map is about €5, but in many places you can just wing it. Larger towns like Brescia and Verona require a taxi from the station, plan on €10 each way.
Recently, I read about the Villaglori al Sanmichele restaurant in Pavia. I was curious about this town right at Milan’s doorstep. When Milan was decimated first by Attila’s Huns and then the Goths in the third and fourth centuries, Pavia took over as a powe center.
We took the train to Pavia on a Saturday. On the Eurostar it’s a 25-minute non-stop ride. The train’s final destination was Nice, so naturally it was packed. As usually happens on a crowded train, we had to throw people out of our seats.
Dan is a nice person, more than that, he’s bravo. He felt bad about ejecting an elderly lady and her middle-aged son from our seats. I was the one who insisted that they move. I’m nice, too, but we paid extra for reserved seats. Dan’s never been elbowed out of the way by an old lady in a crowded shop.
The first thing you notice in Pavia is a huge statue of a muscular woman holding a spear in one hand and a shield in the other. “Minerva,” said Dan. I was stunned, “You recognize her?”
“No,” he pointed to the street sign, “this is Piazza Minerva.”
The fourth century bishop, Ennodius of Pavia, denounced the man who put Minerva’s statue in a place of “ill-repute.” Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom, medicine and war. Why, I wondered, would a Catholic bishop care about a pagan statue? Then again, in “Angels & Demons,” Dan Brown (no relation to me) pointed out all sorts of pagan symbols in Catholic churches all over Rome.
We bought a city map, found the restaurant’s location, then we put the map away. Pavia is the right size for wandering. In Piazza Duomo, there was a market in full-swing. Women were trying on shoes and handling scarves. Old ladies haggled over the price of oranges. Vendors shouted, “Forza! Carciofi!” The smell from the chicken roasting wagon filled the piazza, my stomach grumbled. We strolled out of the piazza and continued on.
Soon we were overlooking the Ticino River, where we could see the covered bridge. We had only seen the quaint wooden kind that are fast disappearing from New England. The bridge had been bombed to riverside stumps (still visible) in World War II and rebuilt after the war to resemble the 14th century original.
On the way to the restaurant we came across Piazza San Michele. The 12th century church located in the piazza was built from sandstone, not choice primary material if you want a structure to last several centuries. The carvings had been washed smooth. It looked sad.
The restaurant was in an old building beside the church. It had a modern interior, sparsely and thoughtfully decorated with pale coral walls and tables set far enough apart to give a feeling of intimacy. I told Dan, “This looks like our kind of place.”
Gambero Rosso rightly hailed chef Claudia Della Vecchia and sommelier Maurizio Zanardi. The duck ravioli with caramelized onions was amazing, as was the stuffed chicken with potatoes and olives. A wine recommendation from the Le Marche was splendid — superb with both dishes. Miles Davis played softly through our lunch. Dan, a jazz lover and Miles devotee, took my hand, “You’re right, this is our kind of place.”
Villaglori al Sanmichele is a restaurant and wine bar with a relaxed and intimate atmosphere. Chef Claudia Della Vecchia creatively takes familiar dishes in new directions. A good example is the marriage of polenta and baked pear, as well as rabbit lasagna. Sommelier Maurizio Zanardi can recommend little-known (and surprisingly inexpensive) wines to serve as the perfect compliment to the meal. €45. Major credit cards. Open nightly until midnight. Weekend lunch popular. Closed Monday. Vicolo S. Michele, 4, Pavia. Tel. 03.822.0716.
Day trips can originate from anywhere. Ristoranti d’italia del Gambero Rosso (€20, Gambero Rosso) is a reliable resource for restaurants, trattorie and wine bars. Another good book is Osterie d’Italia,” (€20.14, Slow Food). There is surprisingly little overlap between Gambero Rosso and Slow Food. Finally, check out Michelin’s Italia 2006, also known as the “Red Guide” (€22, Michelin Italiana). For up-to-date information on restaurants, see Gambero Rosso, www.gamberorosso.it, Slow Food, www.slowfood.it, and Michelin, www.viamichelin.it. There is an abundance of other sources about restaurants online, including the restaurants themselves.
Events and special exhibits information can be found in local newspapers — most of which have event websites. Another helpful resource for events in Lombardy is Feste Sagre & Mercatini in Lombardia, (€9.50, Lozzi & Rossi s.r.l.). Since events are usually celebrated annually, one copy can last for years. Call or check the websites to verify dates and times of specific events.
The Lombardy Region has a website with a news and events page at: www.regione.lombardia.it. Often towns will have a website with an events page. For interesting information on little-known places of interest in Lombardy, check Lombardia sconosciuta. Itinerari insoliti e curiosi, (Giuseppe Zanini, €18.08, Rizzoli).