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An antique opera house, a museum of shoes and eerie pyramids outside Milan

Five places to visit near Milan

Italy’s industrial and business hub lacks the charm of its ancient cities, but you don’t have to go far to find beauty and serenity. Andrea Valentino points the way

Italy’s industrial and business hub lacks the charm of its ancient cities, but you don’t have to go far to find beauty and serenity. Andrea Valentino points the way

Andrea Valentino | October/November 2018

1 PAVIA
30 MINUTES  
BY TRAIN

Geographically, Pavia could almost be a suburb of Milan: it is barely 40km away and part of the regional subway system. Do not let that fool you. Pavia is older than Milan, with a venerable university (founded in 1361) and a sweep of ancient buildings.
     Pavia cathedral dominates the skyline, but head first to the Basilica of San Michele Maggiore. The bewildering labyrinth mosaic on the floor – a metaphor for how hard it is to get close to God – would have been familiar to Frederick Barbarossa, who was crowned king of Italy here in 1155. From there, amble through the old town to the Castello Visconteo, site of several excellent museums. For visitors tired of medieval art, the Scuderie puts on temporary exhibitions, including modern art and photography.
     Milan’s La Scala is probably the most famous concert hall on Earth, but Pavia’s Teatro Fraschini was inaugurated five years earlier (1773) and offers a similar experience more cheaply. Operas are put on through autumn and winter, and are performed under a gorgeous early-20th-century ceiling. Pre-performance, grab a drink at Loft 10, a few minutes away. A local favourite, the bar does a mean spritz and is attached to a well-stocked bookshop.

2 THE TICINO
1 HOUR  
BY CAR

Without a river of its own, or many open spaces, some travellers dismiss Milan as concrete and soulless. Instead of complaining, locals drive an hour to the Ticino, meeting the river as it tumbles into the Po Valley. A visit offers unruffled beauty: prehistoric woodlands snooze by the water, 320 species of bird flit by. Go early for animal life: foxes, deer, badgers and nutrias (similar to beavers).
     The best way to experience it is by bike. Park at one of five visitor centres along the river – the one at Sforzesca, outside the town of Vigevano, is convenient – then hire a bicycle and head into the woods. There are nearly 800km of trails: one of the prettiest routes follows the “Path of Butterflies” just south of town. It’s a bit rough later on, so wear a helmet. Later, drive the few kilometres into Vigevano. Relying heavily on ossobuco and veal cotoletta, Lombard cuisine can be heavy, so instead try first-rate vegetarian food at Osteria Vegetariana. After lunch, admire the Piazza Ducale, and grab an espresso from a nearby café.
     Vigevano is the shoemaking capital of Italy, and its International Footwear Museum is impressive. The elegant displays showcase everything from Arabian slippers to the shoes worn by Pope John Paul II. If you still have energy, take a moment to climb the Torre del Bramante, the highest point in town.

3 LAKE ISEO
1 HOUR 15 MINUTES  
BY CAR

Lake Como has George Clooney, Lake Garda David Beckham and Bradley Cooper. Lake Iseo? Without celebrity admirers, visitors tend to overlook it, which means you can wallow among its fishing villages and crystal waters relatively unbothered. Begin your day at the town of Iseo, with a chocolate brioche and cappuccio at Fabio Nazzari (no one says “cappuccino” this far north).
     The best way to get around is by water; there’s a good network of ferries zigzagging across the water. From Iseo, puff the 20 minutes to Monte Isola, an island in the centre of the lake. From Sensole, the village where the ferry stops, there are crisp views back to the mainland. Walk east along the shore for 20 minutes to Peschiera Maraglio – apart from the usual ice-cream shops and trattorie, the hamlet is distinguished by an extravagantly frescoed church dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel.
     After catching the ferry back to the shore head to the nearby Pyramids of Zone (pictured), geological marvels that are almost as impressive in their own way as their Egyptian namesakes. While centuries of erosion washed away most of the local clay, some deposits were shielded by boulders. The result is an eerie landscape of clay towers topped by enormous rocks, some looming 30 metres above ground. If you can’t face the drive back to Milan, check into Relais Franciacorta, an elegant hotel in a restored 17th-century farmhouse.

4 ANGERA
1 HOUR 30 MINUTES  
BY TRAIN AND BUS

Northern Italy has an excellent transport system, meaning even obscure spots can be reached quickly. Angera, squashed near the Lombard frontier with Piedmont, is one of the most interesting. For a town of just 5,500 inhabitants, it has a remarkable range of cultural sites and museums, all flanked by the deep blue of Lake Maggiore.
     On arrival, head to the Museum of Archaeology (check the opening times before you go). Much of the collection comes from the Wolf’s Den, a nearby cave first occupied in prehistoric times. Later discoveries, notably an engraved terracotta deathbed, are just as impressive.
     Then head to the Rocca Di Angera, one of the best-preserved fortresses in Italy. It is impressive outside and in: squatting on a limestone perch jutting into the water, its thick stone outer walls glow pink in the setting sun; inside the art has lost none of its power. Frescoes lining the Hall of Justice (pictured) are still as vivid as they were when they were painted in the Middle Ages. Look out for the monsters and devils decorating the edges of the display (Angera has long been linked to supernatural mysteries). Between the castle and the lake is Pizzeria Damino, which serves crisp and tasty pizzas in a perfect location overlooking the water.

5 VALTELLINA
2 HOURS 30 MINUTES  
BY TRAIN

Trapped in the Po Valley, Milan is drenched in smog for much of the year. Look north on a clear day, though, and you can see the grey peaks of the Alps. Exploring them isn’t hard. Pack your hiking boots and head to Valtellina, a beautiful region near the Swiss border. From the Stazione Centrale in Milan take the train to Tirano, a handsome town surrounded by mountains.
     On arrival, lace up your boots and pick a hiking trail. One of the best leads to Baruffini, a hamlet clasped to the rocks above town. It takes about three hours there and back, so leave enough time in the village to visit the church (pictured). In the first chapel to the left are eight pictures portraying the life of St Anthony of Padova.
     Valtellina is famous for its wine, and there are excellent vineyards around Tirano. If you can fit in only one, make it the Triacca winery; the vines skirt a 16th-century monastery. Drop by between April and October and you can have lunch after your hike, soaking up the wine with bresaola and pizzoccheri, a hearty type of buckwheat pasta. Wobble back the mile or so to Tirano and sleep off the nebbiolo (a bold red grape varietal named after the Piedmontese fog) at Tirano Rooms, an unfussy B&B near the station.