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Brescia in Lombardy is a small province tucked in between Venice and Milan that hugs the shores of Lake Garda. It’s a quiet place where, with the exception of a few hotspots, locals are a little bit surprised to see visitors. Earlier this year, the province hit global headlines for being one of the areas in Italy hardest hit by covid19. But it deserves to be on your radar for many other wonderful reasons.
If you’re planning a trip to northern Italy, take a look at the province and city of Brescia. Its borders include the Alps and Lake Garda and it has a rich history dating back to Roman times. I was lucky enough to spend some time there a few years ago and would love to return. I just did not have enough time to explore the beautiful lakes, castles, and vine-covered hills of the region. Not to mention its lovely towns renowned for art and culture.
Brescia’s history dates back two thousand years. Here you will find impressive Roman ruins, Renaissance castles, and fascinating modern architecture side by side. Wine making in this region is also rooted in history but a tradition of innovation has meant the creation of interesting local varieties. Franciacorta is Italy’s answer to champagne and you’ll find it only in Brescia. Of course, where there is great wine, you’ll also find great food. There is so much to love about beautiful Brescia. Let us tell you all about it.
Places mentioned in the show
- Brescia – capital of the province with wonderful architectural history including ancient Roman and Lombard sites on the UNESCO world heritage list, Venetian Renaissance buildings, and the first skyscraper built in Italy
- Sirmione – a pretty town on Lake Garda with castle and Roman villa ruins
- Selva Capuzza – winery and restaurant close to Lake Garda
- Lake Iseo – quiet lake to the north west of Lake Garda in the foothills of the Alps
- Castello di Padernello – castle with moat, drawbridge and resident ghost
- Montichiari – pretty town with an impressive church, castle and lovely hotel – Palazzo Novello
- Verolanuova – visit the Basilica Romana Minore San Lorenzo Martire in this small town to see amazing works by Tiepolo
- Mille Miglia museum – dedicated to the famous vintage car race that starts in Brescia
Food and wine mentioned in the show
- Franciacorta – sparkling white wine famous to the Brescia region – wine route details
- Lugana – white wine from a small district close to Lake Garda
- Grana Padano – the most famous local cheese
- Bagòss – cheese made with the milk of Bruna Alpina cows
- Provolone Valpada – pear-shaped cheese made from spun cows milk curds
- Fatulì – cheese produced from goats milk
- Casoncelli – pasta stuffed with meat, cheese and bread crumbs
- Discover more in our original guide to Brescia and information on its food and wine
- Listen: to more on other gems of Northern Italy in Episode #064 Stunning South Tyrol and the Dolomites and Episode #041 Beautiful Bergamo
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step by step through trip planning so you can avoid our mistakes
- Italy Travel Planning – our FREE online community where you can ask questions and get inspiration for planning your trip
- Travel shop where you’ll find items mentioned in the show
Prefer to read along as you listen? Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Ciao and benvenuti to Untold Italy. I’m Josie and I’m Katy and we’re here to help you plan your trip to Italy. Between us, we have many years of travel experience and we want to help you uncover your own as yet untold stories and adventures in Italy. Each episode you’ll hear practical advice, tips and ideas to help you plan your own trips to the magical land of history, stunning landscapes and a whole lot of pasta. We’ll have interviews from experts and focus on local destinations and frequently asked questions about travel in Italy. Thanks for listening and make sure to subscribe to our show now. Let’s get started on your regular dose of Bella Italia.
Ciao and welcome dear friends to another episode of your Italian travel podcast – Untold Italy. We hope you are keeping well and staying positive at this time. In many places around the world, uplifting news isn’t really forthcoming so I wanted to share with you the treasures of a place in Italy that I fell in love with. This place suffered very much at the hands of this awful virus. And it’s a beautiful place that thankfully is making a quiet recovery now.
I visited the city and region of Brescia in 2017 as a guest of the Italian Tourist Board. I didn’t quite know what to expect but let’s just say, after a few days there I was frantically researching and dreaming of buying a house there. Apart from a few famous towns, this is not a place that is visited often by people from outside Europe but it is very special so I thought I would share it with you today.
Before we get onto that though, I wanted to give a big shout-out to you our dear listeners. We so love hearing your comments and feedback and I wanted to share a couple of them with you today
This one is by maltipp in the United States
Very enjoyable voices! I’m a big time podcast listener (I listen to many all day long while working) and I enjoy listening to this one. I appreciate the episodes being shorter and to the point instead of dragging on. I actually take notes as I play an episode pertinent to my planning, so this is saving me some work. I don’t like feeling underprepared or embarrassed, and I think this podcast has done a great job in preparing me for successes. The bloopers & mistakes episode made me feel better. I’m going to Italy much sooner than planned because I feel more prepared due to this podcast & the FB group. Keep it up, ladies!
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Charles Divita wrote:
We loved the segment with Karen La Rosa and are looking forward to her session with you regarding Palermo. In the meantime, we’ll enjoy some of your earlier PODS. Thank you for making these available. Your hosting skills are fantastic.
Thank you so much Charles. I am so glad you enjoyed my chat with Karen and I am very excited to learn all about Palermo (where I have never been actually) too!
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And now onto Brescia. This wonderful area came to the world’s attention this March when it was, along with neighboring Bergamo, the epicenter of Italy’s coronavirus crisis. I watched in tears as we saw horrific images pour out of Brescia. This beautiful region, full of natural wonders, history and some of the kindest people you will ever meet, surely did not deserve this catastrophe.
Now we’re in July and the situation has very much improved. Slowly, and I am sure with much trepidation, the region of Brescia has started a journey of recovery. As part of the recovery effort, the Italian Senate approved a proposal for Brescia and Bergamo to be jointly named Italian capitals of culture in 2023. This should provide a much needed boost in terms of investment and positive focus to these two cities devastated by covid19.
As I mentioned, I was invited by the Italian Tourist Board to visit Brescia this city and province in the region of Lombardy and I didnt know too much about it except that it wasn’t far from Milan. In fact I had come tantalizingly close to Brescia on my first visit to Italy when we sailed past Sirmione while on a day out on Lake Garda. So this should give you a clue about where Brescia is. It is an area to the west of Lake Garda and it hugs the lake shores. To the north you’ll find the foothills of the Alps, to south there is Mantua and Cremona and Milan is to the west.
The Brescia countryside is characterized by stunning lakes and valleys and hills covered in vines. Renaissance towers keep watch over wheat and corn fields, impossibly pretty small towns and fascinating castles are around every corner. But, it’s a kind of unassuming place where people carry on, just as they have for centuries, almost oblivious to the beauty all around them.
You wander into a church in these tiny towns with less than 10,000 inhabitants and the walls and ceilings are dripping with masterpieces. Market day rules supreme. Among the cheese and cured meat stalls you’ll find all sort of characters. Nonnas picking up supplies while the nonni (grandfathers) prop up a cafe bar.
It was in Brescia that I discovered the fritti van. This wonder of wonders is the some of the best street food I’ve had anywhere – fried fish and other fried things that are so tasty that it puts the fish and chipperies of England and Australia to shame.
And the people are kind, generous and somewhat curious as to why you’ve arrived in their town of all places.
So I’m going to share with you some of the places I visited and hopefully you’ll be inspired to visit there and discover and appreciate this wonderful part of the world just as I did.
We’ll start with probably the most famous place in Brescia – the picturesque town of Sirmione in Lake Garda.
Built near the site and ruins of a former Roman villa (owned by a poet no less!) Sirmione is one of those places that is ridiculously good looking and straight out of the cute villages in your Italy dreams. It’s built on a narrow peninsula that sticks out into Lake Garda and to get to the town you have to walk over a stone bridge that spans a moat where swans are paddling. It’s impossibly pretty. The entrance to the town is through the walls of its castle – complete with turrets! You can visit the castle and wander around the cobbled streets. There are buildings covered in vines and blooms. Have I told you about my obsession with wisteria? Well.. you’ll find that in abundance in Sirmione. There is swimming in the lake in the shadows of the Roman villa ruins – it used to be 3 stories high!, mineral hot springs or thermal baths, boat rides on the lake. It really is picture perfect and also very popular in summer. I think a nice time to visit would be late spring and early fall. But any time is lovely really.
If you love lakes but not crowds in summer, lesser known Lake Iseo is about an hours drive north west of Sirmione and has a much quieter and more local feel. You might know it from The Floating Piers, art installation by Christo and Jeanne-Claude which was quite spectacular.
Now the area south of Iseo is where some of Italy’s best sparkling wines are produced. Champagne lovers, this one is for you! In this region local chardonnay, pinot bianco and pinot nero grapes are blended to produce Franciacorta in the traditional method – that is methode champenoise with two fermentations in the bottle. This wine is much more refined than prosecco (which I love too!) and is best matched with local cheeses, salami and lake fish. If you’re really into your wines then you can follow one of the Franciacorta wine routes by car or bike or even walking.
Closer to Lake Garda you’ll find other local wines like Lugana which is a white wine made from the Turbiana grape variety. A good place to try these is at Selva Capuzza, a winery quite close to Sirmione where you can try the local wines. They also have a lovely restaurant where you can sit out under the vines or go inside to their beautiful 13th century farmhouse.
Which brings us to food and you know how much I love that! Lake fish like pike, perch and trout is often on the menu in this region as you would expect. It’s served and prepared with whatever vegetables are seasonally available. Often eggplant and tomatoes in summer.
And when you’re there you have to try the local pasta specialty – of course! Brescians love their casoncelli – pasta stuffed with meat, cheese and breadcrumbs and other things depending on what village you’re from. I had a go at making some when I was there. It’s kind of like ravioli but instead of stamping two pieces of past together you roll it up to make a little parcel. It’s served with a butter and sage sauce usually. So delicious!
The cheese famous to this region is Grana Padano. It is a hard and crumbly cheese whose origins date back 1000 years made with unpasteurized cows milk. It is a little bit similar to Parmigiano Reggiano. But neither of the two cheese regions really like that comparison. You can eat it at different stages of ripeness and of course it grows in complexity as it ages. There are many other different cheeses to try. From the village of Bagolino, Bagòss cheese is made with the milk of Bruna Alpina cows who graze on mountain pastures. Pear shaped Provolone Valpada is made from spun curds of cows milk and Fatulì is produced from goats milk. So many cheeses, so little time.
I could explore cheeses forever and I could also explore castles. Castles usually hold secrets and stories and it is no different in the province of Brescia where you’ll find castles like the one I mentioned in Sirmione but also hidden ones with fascinating histories.
The Castello di Padernello in the cornfields of the Brescia plain is surrounded by a moat and has a working drawbridge. According to legend a local girl – Biancamaria – in 1480 threw herself from the parapets of the castle, no doubt into the murky moat, trying to chase the pretty fireflies twinkling in the countryside below. Apparently she returns to the castle every 10 years on the anniversary of her death as La Dama Bianca. The castle was abandoned in the middle of the last century. 50 years later, locals work together to restore it to its former glory.
In nearby Montichiari you meet Count Gaetano Bonoris, who in the 19th century built a castle faithful to the Medieval style. Complete with frescoes and ornate interior, the castle has a room built for a king – Umberto I – and a secret vault to hide its treasures.
Montichiari is a charming town with cultural treasures including an art gallery and museum. The local church, actually a minor basilica, is a masterpiece with a dome that can be seen for miles around. Churches in this part of the world are pretty spectacular truth be told. Another town close by – Verolanuova – is famous for its works by Tiepolo.
But, if you happen to be in this area and are looking for an inviting place to stay look no further than Palazzo Novella in Montichiari. This charming hotel in a 400 year old palazzo is run by sisters Kenda and Nicoletta who make every guest feel welcome. Frescoes adorn the ceilings and there’s a sweeping staircase from which to make your grand entrance. You push open the shutters on the windows of your room and gaze out over the rooftops of the town, church bells ringing in the distance. It’s one of those places where luxury is measured in care and attention to detail and it is just lovely.
The city of Brescia
Last, but by no means least, I’ll tell you about the city of Brescia. If you’re a history lover like me you will be fascinated by Brescia as it has some important sites that are on UNESCOs world heritage list.
These days it has over 200,000 inhabitants and is an important industrial city in Italy but Brescia can trace its roots back to Roman times. And there is incredible evidence of that in the city’s historic center. In the 19th century, ancient Roman ruins were uncovered under a mound of dirt and rubble in someone’s garden I believe. Careful excavations uncovered what is now known as one of the most important ancient Roman sites in northern Italy. Brescia’s Roman buildings include an amphitheater, forum and temple dating back as far as the 1st century B.C. These were important buildings in the town known as Brixia at that time. There are some incredible statues and frescoes and mosaics to see as it is one of the largest archaeological sites in Europe.
One of the most amazing things about Brescia is you can take a walk through Italian architecture and history in just a small area around the city. Apart from the Roman architecture you’ll also find, just a few steps away actually at the Museo di Santa Giulia the remains of the former the monastic complex for women – San Salvatore and Santa Giulia. This is one of the best preserved early middle ages sites and includes some impressive relics and stunning frescoes.
The city has its very own castle – a huge medieval fortress that overlooks the city. Inside there are a few museums – one is dedicated to arms and armory. It’s abit of a hike up the hill to get there but the views from the castle over the city are wonderful.
And that’s not even where the history lesson ends! You can wander back into town where you’ll find a lovely piazza – Piazza della Loggia. The main building here, the town hall, is a former palazzo, and the square is lined by other buildings all in early 16th century Venetian style. They are very ornate as you’d expect and there’s even a rather lovely astronomical clock. A wonderful story I heard there was that when this piazza was being built the Brescians recycled Roman bricks in the construction and you can see some of the old graffiti in the brickwork to this day.
And so it goes on..piazzas, churches – medieval and Baroque, palazzi or palaces. All reminders of eras gone past. And don’t think it’s all museums and reading plaques. No. This is living history. Everyone’s just going about their business, hanging out in the piazza with their coffee or spritz. Can you tell I just loved it?!
And even then there is more! Unlike many of the places you’re likely to visit in Italy, Brescia has some fine examples of fascist era or 1930s architecture in Piazza della Vittoria including Italy’s first skyscraper – the Torrione. It’s very stark and almost brutalist but takes inspiration from classical architecture. There has been a lot of discussion about preserving these buildings over the years and I absolutely understand why people feel uncomfortable with their history. But to see them next to the 2000 years of architecture close by is completely amazing actually.
Brescia is also home to one of the world’s most famous classic car races, the Mille Miglia (which means 1000 miles). The race took place between 1927 and 1957 and was banned due to fatalities. These days it is more of a parade of vintage cars and showcases the best in Italian design. It’s usually held in May but this year it has been postponed until October. You can visit a museum dedicated to the race all year round.
So that, dear friends, is a view of what you can do and see in Brescia. Isn’t it fabulous? I was absolutely devastated to hear about the catastrophe that unfolded there earlier this year and can only hope this goes some way to help putting it on the map for happier reasons.
Brescia is a wonderful region to add to your itinerary if you’re headed to northern Italy and maybe traveling by car between Venice and Milan. If you live in Europe I would highly recommend taking a few days to explore there if you’re headed to the Lake Garda region. I would go back in a heartbeat.
There’s not so much written about Brescia in English so I will do my best to rectify that too because as you’ve heard, there is a wealth of treasures to explore in this hidden province of Lombardy.
That’s all for this week friends. I hope you enjoyed hearing about Brescia and its hidden treasures. We look forward to bringing you more and more insight and ideas into some of the lesser known corners of Italy. As we make our way out of this crisis I feel as if I will want to really slow down my travel experiences and soak up the atmosphere of these smaller places. The ones where the layers of history unfurl before your eyes and the most important conversation of the day is where to find the best wine to match to your casoncelli pasta. Ahh Italy, we will be there soon!
As always, all the places we mentioned as well as other tips for planning your travels in Italy will be in the show notes for this episode at untolditaly/32. You can easily find that link on your podcast app too.
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Until next time, ciao for now.