After my third visit to the home of pizza and the pope I began to see a pattern with tourists heading to the country. Fly into Milan, take the train to Venice and then Florence, Rome and head home. Not that this speed tour of Italy doesn't show you some amazing places but I want to give you some more reasons to linger a little longer in the north. Beautiful lakes, mountains and villages distinguish the region of Lombardy from it's southern neighbours and the locals are fiercely proud of their culture and of course their food. The following are some places you should explore.
Rather than base yourself in the busy city if Milan, take a short train to Bergamo and experience the charm of citta alta, the fortified upper town. You can take the funicular to visit the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore before buying gelato on a street that is more than 1000 years old and exploring the traditional style shops. The Castello di San Vigilio requires another short cable car ride but affords fantastic views as well as a beautiful walk on a clear day. From Bergamo there are a plethora of day trips to either Lake Garda, Lake Como or back into Milan.
This small lakeside town on the shores of Lake Como is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. We met several Italians taking the train from Milan for the day to walk some of the many hiking routes in the hills around the town. Go for the views and to feed the ducks or head into the hills for some hiking or climbing yourself. It can be difficult to navigate your way from the town onto these tracks so take a GPS or ask when you get there as we ended up having to make our way up narrow lanes and between houses before we arrived at the bottom of the Via Ferrata del Medale. Via ferrata is fixed cable climbing/hiking where you wear a harness and are clipped onto a cable that runs the length or parts of the route you are on for protection. You must use a via ferrata lanyard or a system with a dynamic rope as falls (although very uncommon) can be for some distance. The following website has some great information on this particular climb.
Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou... yes that's right, the home of the most dramatic teenage relationship before we had twilight. If Shakespeare isn't your thing then there is the Arena di Verona where gladiators were forced to fight to the death as entertainment for the masses during the rein of the ceasars. Verona is a little kitschy to be fair but wandering the streets and coming across some of the most famous names in history watching over piazzas and roads brought out the literary geek in me. Definitely worth the day trip but be prepared for crowds and overpriced gelato - still worth every euro.
I know it's hardly the best kept secret in Europe but there is a lot to be said for this romanticised city even if it's full of more American's than Venetians. Do your best to find accommodation on the island rather than the mainland as the money and time you waste getting there each day will outweigh what you save in hotel costs. Even if you don't normally interest yourself in history, Venice is one place to do a little reading on or at least watch The Italian Job before you visit. Ruled over by the Dodges for 1000 years until Napoleon turned up to ruin the party, Venice has had a tough life. A third of the population was devastated by plague in the 17th century and the inhabitants have had to battle with the problem of flood tides from the Adriatic and tourist tides from everywhere else. The major attractions are all impressive in their own right but take your time to get a little lost in the labyrinth of canals, alleyways and houses and see where you end up. Sunset over the Grand Canal is stunning but try to also catch a sunrise and see Venice in the early morning as a few locals hurry off to work and the streets are largely devoid of life.
This is a fantastic theme park with three serious rollercoasters and a couple of days worth of attractions to make your way around. If you can beat our record of 33 trips on Raptor then I take my hat off to you (for those people who are wondering, yes I am wearing a hat right now, it's purple). May was a great time to go as there were only very short lines but still enough people in the park for a great atmosphere. Take the train for the day from Milan or Bergamo, 44 Euro per person for a 2 day consecutive pass.
Arco and Riva del Garda
Take a train to Rovereto and then catch the bus to Arco at the northern tip of Lake Garda. Those of you who are more organised (read more cashed up) you can drive there and make your way between each of the little villages with far more ease. Quaint has never been a more appropriate word for describing an area. Picture cycle ways winding through vineyards and castle ruins perched atop cliffs like a scene from a Disney movie. Arco is full of climbing stores and not much else which should tell you all you need to know. Mountain biking, rock climbing and via ferrata are the activities of choice and the Italian Dolomites do much to impress even New Zealanders. The girl at the local information centre was fantastic and provided us with maps of the area and bus routes to get about. We did end up hitch hiking back to town one afternoon with a lovely German couple who we met at the end of one climb as we had no idea when the next bus was coming but easy to get around none the less. Via Ferrata dell'amicizia can be accessed from nearby Riva del Garda and boasts the longest, most exposed ladders I've ever climbed in my life - highly recommend.