By Stef Smulders

The Oltrepo Pavese: Milan's Secret Tuscany Hinterland

Though frequently called the Tuscany of the North of Italy, the Oltrepo Pavese in Lombardy is fairly unknown abroad. Tourists pass the area closely when travelling to the real Tuscany, to Umbria or further south. This is a pity as the Oltrepo really offers something worthwhile for almost every tourist, especially food and wine lovers.

The area offer several attractions: smooth hills, medieval villages and castles, panoramic views, authentic Italian food and local wines. The Oltrepo also happens to be the largest wine producing area of Lombardy and one of the largest in Italy, especially of the Pinot Nero. The landscape is scattered with vineyards that are freely accessible for hikers or even mountain biking.

The Oltrepo Pavese is part of the province of Pavia, in the southern part of Lombardy. Oltrepo literally means "on the other side of the Po". The Po river runs through the large plain in the North of Italy, the pianura padana, where the risotto rice is produced. In the south of Pavia province the terrain quickly gains height. The Oltrepo is situated at the foothills of the Ligurian Alpes and Apennines at only 65 km from Milan.

The Oltrepo Pavese: Milan's Secret Tuscany Hinterland

The Oltrepo Pavese may easily (and should) be visited on a day trip from Milan, for example on a Sunday, when restaurants in the big city are closed, whereas in the countryside the traditional Sunday lunch, il pranzo di domenica, is served. An experience not to be missed! If you manage to find the place, the lunch at Azienda Agrituristica Bagarellum is the top of the bill.

The best way to discover the area is to tour around and visit some of the sights, such as the:

- Monastery of San Alberto di Butrio
- Medieval city of Varzi
- Zavatarello and it's castle
- Penice pass
- Botanical garden in the beautiful Romagnese area
- Monte Alpe nature reserve.

You'll be surprised by how quiet it is and by the spectacular panoramic views along the way.

[Have a look at this Get away from Milan brochure for further info]

The Oltrepo Pavese offer peace and quiet, tranquility and the silence (while strolling in the vineyards for example) is often overwhelming. Life still has a slow pace here, as the locals are living the life in more or less the same way their ancestors did: growing wine is a labor that follows the seasons, year after year, generation after generation. Most of the wine farmer families have been living here since the Middle Ages.

Hardly any tourist business has developed here, which means, fortunately, that as the one of the few visitors from abroad, you are encountered with amazement and hospitality everywhere. People are enthusiastic to serve you their local traditional food and wine at all of the little family restaurants that populate the area. The food that is served is the food that Italians want to eat out, it has to have "mama" quality! Prices are ridiculously low.

The Oltrepo Pavese: Milan's Secret Tuscany Hinterland

Don't forget to visit a cantina to taste some of the wines that are typical of the region: Bonarda, Barbera, Buttafuoco, Sangue di Giuda, Pinot Nero, Riesling and the Spumante's. Some of the possibilities (there are over 100 wine producers in the area) are: Travaglino, La Versa, or on a small scale: San Michele ai Pianoni.

Particular of the area are the local sparkling wines, the "vivace", "frizzante" and also "spumante" wines. Reds and whites sparkle without being just sweet. The most famous local wine, the Bonarda is fruity but not sweet, in contrast to the Lambrusco e.g. A local, more classical wine is the Buttafuoco, the production of which is restricted to a small area in the North of the Oltrepo. A typical sweet red wine of the area is the Sangue di Giuda. The regional champagne-like spumantes have made it to the Italian DOCG category.

Regional dishes are simple but very effective. Using the seasonal ingredients like mushrooms and tartufi and the local meats of rabbit, wild boar and the likes, delicious dishes are prepared. One thing not to be missed is the typical Sunday "pranzo"or lunch in which all of the servings of the Italian menu (antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni, dolci) pass by, sometimes even twice. The Varzi salame is a protected product, like the Parmesan cheese.

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