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Posts Tagged ‘Day trips from Milan’

Spring Sunrise
Bergamo

Medieval towers pierce mauve infused sunrise fog. Visions of another time are easy here, so close to Milan yet centuries away.

This city of a thousand, so named for the citizens role in Italy’s unification, is a unique surprise about an hour by train northeast of Milano. Though the city has become increasingly industrial in focus, the upper town (La Citta Alta) offers visitors unique insights into Italy’s political and architectural history.

With commanding views over the Val Brembana and Val Seriana, coupled with its position on alpine foothills between Milan and Venice, made Bergamo ripe for conquest. Beginning with the 6th Century, and continuing through the mid-1800’s, the city has experienced the political control of governments from Bohemia to France. Above the fray, the upper city’s residents retains a spirit of independence and fierce pride.

The highest point in the upper city is Castello di San Vigilio, a fortress with a tiny group of buildings. The small chapel of Santa Maria Madallena  was used by defenders of the city as early as the 11th Century. The views from this highest point in the city are unforgettable. It is very easy to understand why this fromidable structure has been so coveted over the centuries.

After visiting the Castle, you can easily walk down to the Piazza Duomo, the main square of the Upper City, stopping for visits to the Museums of Archaeology, Donizetti – Bergamo’s most famous composer and Science. All of these are well worth the visit. If you time is limited, I recommend, at a minimum, the Archaeology museum. The Accademia, the Carrara Museum, is absolutely worth a few hours time as well.

For those whose interests tend to the influence of religion on the life of Italian cities, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is a must.

Construction on the church started in the mid 12th Century, with additional works continuing through the latter part of the 16th Century. Classically styled in a Roman, nearly Byzantine style which is referred to locally as Roman-Lombard style, the facade is spectacular.

The narrow lanes and byways of this part of the city invite time to linger, to allow all five senses to absorb the city’s profound history.

IF YOU GO:

I have a preference to visit Bergamo during the winter, when fog often wraps the streets and the absence of other visitors lends a more romantic and historic feel to time in the upper city.

Bergamo is reached by train in about an hour from Milan’s Centrale Station.

Upon arrival, I recommend buying a bus ticket at the information booth just outside the station. The A1 Bus will bring you up to the level of the second Funicular railway, which takes you all the way up to the Castello di San Vigilio. From there, you can easily walk down into the city. Return buses to the train station depart from all of the bus stops in the upper city.

Timetables for the bus and funicular systems are found here: ATB Bergamo.

If you wish to check the timetable for trains from Milano to Bergamo, check www.trenitalia.it.  Click on the British Flag at the top of the screen for English and search “Milano” to “Bergamo” and the time of day you wish to travel.

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Isola S. Giulio
Lago Orta

It is a dream, this island illuminated by ocher lights amidst a golden hazed sunset. Alpine born breezes carry the scent of jasmine and lemon blossoms. As if the lakes of northern Italy could hold no more surprises, you discover Lago Orta.

Lago Maggiore, east of Orta, is by far the larger lake. With over 150 miles of shoreline, Maggiore dwarfs the twenty-one miles of this lake’s lovely shores.

In the midst of Orta’s crystal clear waters is the island of San Giulio. It was in the 5th Century that the local patron saint, Julius of Novara, was buried on the island. Subsequent improvements to the island were made between the 6th and 19th centuries, most notably the seminary built at the end of the 12th Century. A castle was also constructed on the island at the beginning of the 13th Century.

In 1844, a convent was built on the ruins of the medieval fortress. It is in that same building where the Sisters of the Monastero Mater Ecclesiae, Convent of the Mother Church, now reside and work. In cooperation with the association of the arts in Florence, these sisters repair priceless tapestries. Well after sunset, a number of them carry their completed work down to the water’s edge where the  tapestry is lovingly transferred to a small boat and, from thence, to a truck on the mainland. The Sisters usually pick up yet another aged tapestry for repair.

To watch their small boat surreptitiously float across the midnight blue lake, a small lantern hung from the bow of their boat, is nothing short of breathtaking. It is, as well, an unusual gift to catch a glimpse of a white robed Sister during the day as she makes her way among the corridors and small bridges that cross the encircling paths of the island. They are phantoms from our imagination in a place of indescribable peace.

The Sisters also tend to the task of maintaining the reverence of the island. In the latter part of the 19th Century, they created two pathways –  the Way of Silence and the Way of Meditation. Depending on the direction you circle the convent buildings, you are greeted with signs which encourage you to stop and meditate on place and silence.

An examples “If you can be yourself, you are everything.”

Another reads as a poem.

Ascolta il silenzio
Ascolta l`acqua, il vento, i tuoi passi
Il silenzio è il linguaggio dell`amore
Il silenzio è musica e armonia

Listen to the silence
Listen to the water, the wind, your steps
Silence is the language of the love
Silence is music and harmony

Some of the frescoes on the main pillars of the Basilica’s nave are etched with notes made by members of ancient religious communities. Inscriptions as mundane as the weather, jealousies between Brothers and thoughts about their faith cover many of these treasures of Renaissance art. As visitors take time to study the labor of generations, all are reminded of those whose humanness reflects our own.

When your visit to the island is completed, you can retreat to the small village of Orta San Giulio. The medieval lanes of the town are little changed over the centuries. The Renaissance Town Hall dominates the main square, small though it may be, and the quiet of the tiny piazza is only interrupted by the occasional arrival of the parking area’s shuttle. (See “If You Go” below for information about parking and access to the village square).

I admit a strong preference for staying along the shores of Lago Orta. This is a treasure still not well known by visitors, a retreat for those seeking anonymity and escape from the tourist crowds. Far from cities, away from the madness of trains and buses, cars and ferries, this is a place to treasure for its uniqueness, a place special and apart even in the midst of Italy’s northern lake region.

IF YOU GO:

Lago Orta is easily reached by car from Lago Maggiore in about forty-five minutes. Best train connections from Milano Centrale Station are to the city of Gozzano, locate at the southern end of the lake. You can take a bus or taxi from the Gozzano train station to the ferry landing where you can purchase a ticket for travel on the lake.

Ferries on Lago Orta operate on a regular schedule throughout the day.  A wonderful way to pass time here is to take the ferry around the entire lake-only an hour’s trip. Gorgeous lake side villas and small towns dot the shores and hillsides.

For schedules of the ferries on the lake, go to www.navigazionelagodorta.it

Visits to the Basilica and pathways of the island of San Giulio (visitors are not allowed in the convent at any time) are possible from 9:30AM – 12:15PM and from 4:00PM – 5:45PM. These hours are strictly enforced as the Basilica is used by the Sisters who live on the island for their services. Photographs without flash are frowned upon, but permitted.

NOTE: If you are driving, you must park above the village. There are shuttle trains that will carry you into the village center of Orta San Giulio. Once you ride through the perilously narrow lanes to get to the main square in the city, you will understand why you have to park way from the village center!

Places to Stay:

Hotel San Rocco

Residence La Casa Sul Lago

Also, check out the many apartments for rent around the lake. If you are staying for longer than a few days, these are exceptional options especially if you rent in a town where there is direct ferry service on the lake.

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Across Lago Maggiore from the western shore of the lake, you can discern the stucco and terracotta tile roofed  buildings of Santa Caterina del Sasso. In the photo to the left, taken from a walkway just north of Stresa, you can see the monastery in the distance.

It was during an 11th Century storm on Lago Maggiore that a merchant by the name of Alberto Besozzo was cast from his boat into the violent waters of the lake. Not a man known for his kindness or generosity, he prayed that he would be saved. Once safely on shore, he vowed to create a place of remembrance for the miracle of his survival.

Alberto ensured that a chapel, dedicated to Saint Catherine of Egypt, was built on the rocks. The chapel was built directly above where he swam ashore during the storm.  That chapel is now contained within the larger church of San Nicola. Between the 14th and 17th Centuries, brothers of Sant’Ambrogio from Milan cared for the hermitage. In latter centuries came the Carmelites, Dominicans and Benedictines.

Within the chapel are the remains of the venerated Alberto Besozzo. The intimate interior of the space gives you a sense of the centuries; frescoed walls, floor tiles polished by the shoes of thousands and a revered silence in keeping with the history of the place. An event described as a miracle occurred in the latter part of the 18th Century.

Several huge boulders fell through the roof of the church, but stopped suspended, above one of the side chapels. After this event, the hermitage became known as “Santa Caterina del Sasso Ballaro (Saint Catherine of the Dancing Rock).

This is a site known more, by visitors, for its incredible position along one of the steepest rock faces on Lago Maggiore. The buildings literally cling to the rocks. Approaching the structures for the first time is breathtaking. Due to its rather remote position on the lake, there are far fewer ferries that provide transport to this magical place.

For a virtual tour of the site, visit: Santa Caterina Virtual Tour

IF YOU GO:

Best time to visit is in the afternoons. There is a ferry at 2:15PM from Stresa directly over to the monastery. Visits take only about an hour. If you wish to have some refreshment, you can walk to the new elevator, recently opened, that connects the lake level to a hotel and cafe. Check times before ascending the elevator. Hours are unpredictable.

Hours: From March through October open every day, 8.30 to 12.00 and 14.00 to 17.00.

For further information about the monastery and its history:

Santa Caterina del Sasso

For ferry schedule information for Lago Maggiore:

Lake Maggiore Ferry Schedule and Info

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Isola Superiore dei Pescatori
Lago Maggiore

In my previous post, I discussed the most famous of the Borromean Islands, Isola Bella.

Now to the other two islands, one of the fishermen (Pescatori) and one of the earth (Madre).

Isola Pescatori

Isola Superiore dei Pescatori, called ‘superiore’ due to its position as the northern most of the three islands, is no longer owned by the Borromeo family. (For purposes of this post, I will refer to this island as Isola Pescatori). Only Isola Bella and Isola Madre remain in the hands of that family.

A little over 1200 feet in length and 335 feet wide, the small island offers narrow lanes, geranium laced balconies, and plenty of places to enjoy a lunch or dinner. The Church of San Vittore was probably built on the foundations of a 9th Century church. Evidence of island occupation to that century exist on both this island and Isola Madre.

Vendors in stalls and small shops cover this island, as do many restaurants and small hotels. If you visit Isola Bella in the morning, Isola Pescatori is the perfect place for lunch and a break during your day visit to this area of Italy.

Isola Madre:

Isola Madre – Villa
Lago Maggiore

The island of Madre is located about ten minutes, by ferry, from Isola Pescatori. There is, as on Pescatori, evidence of a 9th Century church and cemetery. During the 16th Century, two important activities started on the island; the first was the start of construction on the family villa and the second was the introduction of citrus trees brought from the province of Liguria along the Mediterranean coast.

In the latter part of that century, the family completed the villa in Renaissance style. The garden, which now covers over ninety percent of the island, was substantially diversified. It now includes a wide variety of botanical specimens from around the globe. The scala dei morti (stairs of the dead), dedicated to the memory of the 9th Century cemetery, are now covered in different varieties of Wisteria.

This is the least developed of the Borromean Islands, so do not expect vendors and lots of commercial activity. Today, visitors find peaceful and beautifully maintained gardens and villa. Of all the Borromean Islands, this is the most tranquil.

IF YOU GO:

Both Isole Pescatori and Madre are reached by ferry from many of the lakeside towns around the lake. Tickets are  available at all ticket offices. Double check last trip departures from these islands to ensure that you are not left behind. If you do, indeed, miss the last ferry from either of these islands, you will have to pay for a private launch to return you to your home base.

For ferry system information and schedules:

Lake Region Water Transportation

For further information about the specifics-opening times/closing times by season , entrance ticket costs and further history:

Borromeo Island Visitor Information

Where to eat and stay?

See my next post “Lago Maggiore-Where to Stay and Where to Eat”.

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