It seems with every turning of the wheel, travel media remembers a fundamental fact about travel: There’s plenty to do close to home.
You can absolutely “travel” in your own town, state or region and discover just as much as you would after a transatlantic flight. Your senses are turned on, your wonder just as available. Plus, not exploring what you have around you is simply a failure on the part of a curious traveler. So in 2017, a bit from necessity and a lot from curiosity, I plan on deep-diving into the treasures of Lombardia, my own “close to home”.
We started with a very impromptu trip to Pavia.
Located just about 27 miles from Milan, Pavia is a super easy day-trip for anyone in the Milan area. For those short on time, I don’t know if I’d recommend Pavia – the town is real and the tourist gems are much harder to find – but for those who have extensively explored the area or are dying to escape the crowds and find something authentic, Pavia is a perfect start.
We traveled by car into the Oltrepò Pavese, the name of the zone south of Milan (the name literally means “the other side of the Po [River]”) that is most known for its acres and acres of rice paddies, delicious sparkling wine and simple country beauty. As flat as the rest of the Pianura Padana, the area supposedly boasts about 80 thousand acres entirely dedicated to rice paddies, making it the effective rice capital of Italy.
Those who don’t have access to a car can easily arrive by train from Milan. In fact I came by train for my first visit to the city for a Edgar Degas art exhibit and found it easy and accessible. There are also bus stations linked to the city center from Corso Cavour in Milan.
Pavia is home to one of the oldest universities in all of Italy, the Instituto Universitario di Studi Superior (IUSS). Started in the 9th century, it officially became a university in 1361 and boasts Christopher Columbus, Italian physicist Alessandro Volta and poet Ugo Foscolo as alumni.
With more than 300 international exchange programs, the students create a vibrant energy that permeates the city. You get the sense that the students appreciate the university’s long history as well as a study break in one of the many beautiful piazzas in the city in equal measure.
Inside the university visitors can find the university museums. There are a number of collections and museums you can visit, but the most relevant seem to be the Museum of Natural History; the old botanical gardens (though they’re definitely not as grand as the Padova Botanical Gardens); the Museo per la Storia dell’Università di Pavia, a museum about the university’s own personal history; and the hidden, and morbid, gem of the Anatomical Theater, where professors diced open cadavers in front of hordes of medical students during their lectures.
Unfortunately, the museums were closed for the Christmas holidays when we went there so we weren’t able to visit the supposedly beautiful theater, but we did escape from the cold in the university library, dating back to the 18th century. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking to push your way through a university that’s not yours, but at the smiling welcome of the receptionist we went into the tiny library and found old chandeliers lighting up floor-to-ceiling shelves of dusty, ancient-looking books. Even with the addition of modern-day chairs and a projector, it’s clear that this library hasn’t changed much since its foundation.
As a book lover, there was something satisfying in seeing so many manuscripts, textbooks and encyclopedias placed proudly on display.
Pavia itself has a rich and long history. The city served as a strategic military point for the Romans and served as the capital of the Italian Kingdom more than 1,300 years ago, from the 9th to the 12th centuries. It was ruled by the Spanish, Austrian and French before Italy’s unification, but perhaps the most noteworthy ruler was Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the first Duke of Milan who in a certain sense brought the medieval city into the Renaissance.
Most known for his role in the construction of Milan’s Duomo, in Pavia he completed the Visconti Castle and the famous Carthusian Monastery: the Certosa di Pavia just to the north of the city.
The grounds of the Castello Visconti once extended roughly 5 miles to the Certosa di Pavia (the Duke wanted to use the park to hunt). Today you can see the remaining two of its four massive towers that once contributed to Pavia’s nickname, “The City of One Hundred Towers.” It also houses the Civic Museum and an art gallery inside. The same one I visited to see an exhibition of Degas two years ago.
Most come to Pavia to see the Certosa, described by some as an “extravagant” religious complex. The cathedral stands, isolated among the flatlands of the Oltrepò Pavese, as a testament to Lombardia’s transformation to Renaissance style and, more importantly, Pavia’s strength at the time. Finished by Visconti, the façade was modeled off of Milan’s Duomo, and some of the same architects from the Duomo worked on the Certosa as well. And yet, I found it anti-climatic.
Don’t get me wrong, the heavily-detailed façade and the floor to ceiling frescoes were impressive, but the ban on photos of any kind (even outside….) and the thick iron gates blocking visitors from the best parts of the interior didn’t create a sense of belonging. Actually, it was clear we didn’t belong here. This monastery was built for sisters and monks, for dukes of another era showing off to the world. We marveled at the deep blue and golden stars of the cathedral’s ceiling then moved on under the perfectly clear blue sky to the cloisters, where the nuns lived in seclusion from the outside world. The large courtyard was accented by perfectly spaced brick houses, each with a tiny fireplace and a tiny door, each shut tight. We didn’t belong there, but the sense of peace was palpable.
The Certosa isn’t the only religious monument worth visiting in Pavia, however. In fact, I’d say Pavia’s true tourist claim is in its many churches. There are at least seven worth visiting, but I completely understand Italy church fatigue: we only visited three. The Duomo (worked on, in part, by Leonardo da Vinci); San Michele Maggiore, considered more important than the Duomo, this was where where medieval Lombard kings came to receive their iron crown and where Barbarossa was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1155; and small, eery San Teodoro with magnificent Medieval frescoes covering its walls.
Today the Certosa and historic city center of Pavia is on the “tentative list” of possible UNESCO World Heritage Sites for its important example of monastic architecture and the “outstanding value of its monuments (St. Michael’s church, Cathedral, Visconti Castle) which bear a significant testimony to the periods when they were built”, respectively.
Regardless of its status, of its history, Pavia is a lovely town to visit. Small enough to wander without stress, go to stroll the markets that seem to constantly fill the piazzas, eat some famous Lombard risotto and observe the everyday life in an authentic northern Italian town.