Sunday 25 September 2016

Brescia: Stunning Italy down the centuries

The Italian Insider

Published 23/11/2015 | 02:30

Magical italy: Off the usual tourist trail, Brescia has lots of cafes and shops and places to see. It is a compact and easily navigated city
Magical italy: Off the usual tourist trail, Brescia has lots of cafes and shops and places to see. It is a compact and easily navigated city
Capitolium in Brescia

We could say Brescia in Northern Italy is a middle child, stuck as it is between the better known cities of Milan and Verona on the map.

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And no doubt it hopes its time of being overshadowed has been relegated to the past following its monastic complex of San Salvatore - Santa Giulia being registered on the Unesco World Heritage List in 2011.

Take that high fashion and Romeo and Juliet….

I flew into Bergamo just outside Milan, and after a 40-minute journey by car I was in the heart of Brescia city, and deposited at the art nouveau style Hotel Vittoria, and into a cool (both style and temperature) bedroom with parquet flooring and chandelier hanging over my bed.

I'm in town primarily to check out the Unesco-blessed Santa Giulia Museum and Roman archaeological area, which turns out to be a short distance from the hotel -as are lots of cafes and shops. Brescia turns out to be a compact and easily navigated city.

The museum is housed in the former Benedictine monastery of San Salvatore and Santa Giulia, which was founded in 753 by Desiderius, who was Duke and later king of the Lombards. It's where his daughter Desiderata, the wife of Charlemagne, King of France, spent her exile after the annulment of her marriage in 771.

There's a huge amount to see here, and the many highlights include The Nun's Choir, which was built in the late 15th century and has a grill through which the enclosed nuns could look into the chapel without being seen themselves.

It has stunning and joyous religious frescoes (why does God always look so happy in Italy?) which are attributed to the artists Floriano Ferramola and Paolo da Caylina.

Other memorable pieces of architecture are the gigantic columns of the Capitolium, which were built by the emperor Vespasian in AD 73 as a religious site and as the centre of ancient Brescia. I learned a Capitolium is a temple which has three parts, dedicated to the gods Jupiter, Minerva, and Juno.

The Winged Victory is a stop-in-your-tracks bronze statue which dates back to the third century BC in Greece, and which was reworked in the first century AD during the Roman Imperial period. It was found in 1826 near the Capitolium in Brescia.

In fact, it's too much history to take in in one afternoon, and I would recommend that you spend a bit more time doing the rounds here. After a while it was hard to remember which preserved bits belonged to which century.

Before heading to the museum area we had a 'light' lunch in Hotel Vittoria, of meat-filled ravioli and grilled chicken with tasty potatoes roasted in garlic and rosemary. The following day our 'light' lunch was at Taverna Mille Miglia, and consisted of polenta, which is boiled cornmeal (I didn't know) and a plate of creamy risotto.

Our guide explained that such traditional 'light' lunches are mostly served by older generations these days. Yet when in Brescia, be prepared to do what the Brescians do and eat lots of tasty carbohydrates, as they were plentiful at dinner too.

We also visited the Museum Mille Miglia -one of the most popular tourist destinations in the area- and which is a museum dedicated to the open-road car race of the same name - the Mille Miglia which ran from Brescia to Rome and back again every year from 1927 to 1957.

Since 1977, the Mille Miglia has been taking place every May and it is now a race for classic and vintage cars.

I have zero interest in cars but thoroughly enjoyed this tour of a museum which is home to many beautiful vintage cars. I couldn't make up my mind which was the nicest. The large collection includes a Bentley Type R 1971, an Amilcar CGSS 1926, a Fiat 508 Balilla 1934, and a Bugatti Type 37A 1927.

Also located a short spin outside Brescia city is the Villa Mazzucchelli, which is an impressive Palladian-style house built back in the 17th century by Federico Mazzucchelli, a businessman and scholar, and completed by his son Giammaria in the 18th century.

Franca Meo is an Italian romantic novelist and poet who had the good fortune to live in the villa for some time, and who created a permanent costume and fashion museum there. There are displays of dresses dating from the 19th century right up to the styles of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, including pieces by Emanuel Ungaro, Gianni Versace and Moschino.

There are lots of parasols and our guide explained that women were forbidden to talk to men in public back in the 19th century, and so used parasols to communicate. Positioning a parasol over one shoulder indicated an interest in a gentleman, while holding it a certain way told a passing man to keep going.

We also visited the stunning Teatro Grande in the heart of Brescia city, which was built in the early 18th century and has been redesigned along the way. It's the theatre where Puccini's masterpiece Madame Butterfly found fame after being slammed in Milan, an experience which forced the composer to totally rewrite the opera. Our evening meals were in two local trattorias, where we ate with the locals - Osteria Al Bianchi and Trattoria Porteri - and the latter also has a deli to lose yourself in and has been run by the same family for 140 years.

Service was leisurely, with lots of time in between courses, and so it seems that eating at an unhurried pace is as much Italian as an antipasto of cured meats, followed by plates of pasta, and then by beef with vegetables, which were served in both restaurants, and were absolutely delicious.

Because Brescia is a little bit off the tourist track, a good command of English is not the norm with locals. And speaking English in a very slow voice doesn't cut the mustard at all. So do yourself a favour and have a few words of Italian.

Getting there

Anna travelled with Brescia Tourism (bresciatourism.it). She stayed at Hotel Vittoria (hotelvittoria.com). She visited Santa Giulia Museum (bresciamusei.com/santagiulia.asp), and Brixia Archaeological Area (bresciamusei.com/capitolium.asp). Her tourist guide was Elisa Bassini (guidaartistica.com). She visited Villa Mazzucchelli (villamazzuchelli.it), Museo della Mille Miglia (museomillemiglia.it), Teatro Grande (teatrogrande.it), and ate at Trattoria Porteri (trattoriaporteri.com). She flew with Ryanair (ryanair.com). Her car transfer was with Stornati (stornati.com).

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