Friday, May 05, 2006

Day 2: Pavia

We sleep through the night after our long travel day....which is remarkable since our room at the Hotel Moderno is right across from a busy bus stop at the train station and there are noisy buses coming and going--seemingly continuously. We will ask whether we can get another room.

After breakfast, we take the car out for an orientation drive around the perimeter of Pavia's "centro storico" cars are allowed in the center. We pass the massive 14th century Visconti Castle, the University of Pavia campus and the three of the remaining medieval towers, as well as crossing the Ticino on the Ponte Coperto and visiting the Borgo Ticino neighborhood on the other side. Our first stop is back at the Castle and its museums. We find---with some difficulty--a parking space right across the street from the entrance. The castle was built by the Milanese strongman Galeazzo II Visconti who used it to house his collection of art and literature.

The staff in the bookstore/ticket office appear uninterested in selling us entry tickets but we do manage to convince them that we want to go in. The very large castle courtyard is filled with policemen rehearsing for an upcoming ceremony that involves police representatives from a number of European countries. We watch the proceedings for a while and then try to go into the wing that houses the archaelogical collection; however, we find that the door is looked. As we walk away, one of the guards runs over--key in hand--and lets us in. So we have the rooms to ourselves and we make a fast survey of local Pavia history from prehistoric times through the Romans...there are some interesting crematory tombs, vases and Roman inscriptions in the collection.

When we finish, the guard directs us upstairs to the collection of 19th century paintings. We wander through the dark gallery--there is an Italian school group in the gallery with a teacher explaining the collection in great detail--but we are looking for the collection of Renaissance paintings and the wooden model of the Duomo described in the guidebooks. When we ask about them, we are told that they are only open on weekends or by appointment...but, since another group was expected soon, they would open the room with the model for us. The appropriate guard is summoned, unlocks the door and turns on the lights. The model of the Duomo is quite impressive...very large and detailed. In fact, it looks a lot better than the actual building which never got its intended marble exterior and has a sad unfinished look to its brickwork. But that is as much as they are willing to open for our visit ends more quickly than we expected. We guess that is why the staff seemed reluctant to sell us tickets......

We walk around the corner to a nice Romanesque church, set in a quiet piazza planted with large trees. The Church of San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro is actually mentioned in the Divine Comedy. It has a very pleasing brick and stone exterior. Inside there is an intricate altarpiece carved to house the remains of St. Augustine after they were retrieved from Carthage. The ciel d'or (golden sky) refers to the ceiling--previously painted a bright blue with gold stars; little if anything of that paint job remains today. The gate to the altar is closed but the young woman who is cleaning in the church urges us to go up and take a closer look at the altarpiece and then encourages to go down the other side of the altar to see the shrine to St. Rita. And we are treated to some wonderful organ music as the organist begins to practice during our visit.

We walk over to the university district....the University of Pavia is one of the oldest in Europe and today has 27,000 students attending..many of whom are commuters from Milan and probably were at the bus stop across from our room this morning. The Pavia University has more of a traditional campus feel than other schools we have visited in Italy--there are quadrangles and courtyards where students hang out. We have lunch at a bar in the middle of the campus...supposedly this is a student hangout. In any case, the sandwiches are fine and after lunch, we walk over to a pasticceria to sample the typical Pavia cake--torta del paradiso. It turns out to be a plain yellow cake sprinkled with powdered sugar....okay but nothing spectacular.

We go back to the hotel for a rest and to check e-mail. By the time we are ready to head out in the afternoon, it is beginning to drizzle so we get in the car and go to a nearby town, Vigevano. It is about a 45 minute drive through the very flat Po plain...the road is lined with rice paddies and large stands of tall, slim poplar trees, supposedly planted as windbreaks in the area. Vigevano is well known for shoe manufacture and for its Piazza is considered one of the nicest public squares in all of Italy, dating from the 15th century. We find a parking space in a pay lot just steps from the square and stroll into it.....just as the rain begins to fall a little harder and the temperature drops slowly. It isn't the most appealing weather to hang out in the square but we do stop for a coffee and do a little window shopping. Before leaving town, we take a look at the Visconti castle that is connected to the piazza and we walk through part of the subterranean passageway that links different parts of the castle.

Back in Pavia, we make a reservations for dinner at the Osteria del Naviglio, a wine bar/restaurant just north of town located on the canal (naviglio) that links Pavia with Milan. We find the restaurant very easily and park without difficulty. The staff is very welcoming and the restaurant is very comfortable. The menu veers toward the "creative"---but there is enough that appeals to us. Our meal turns out to be terrific....Diana starts with a tasty tart filled with asparagus and parmesan cheese and I have wonderful grilled shrimp dish garnished with crispy leeks. Then we share a risotto that is perfectly done. The wine--the recommendation of the wine steward--is pinot grigio from the local area--the "Oltrepo Pavese"--which is also perfect. For dessert, I have a delicious panna cotta-like pudding called "latte in piedi" (running milk?) which the waitress explains is made of ricotta cheese and yogurt drizzled with a strawberry sauce and Diana has a kind of Linzer torte. They finish us off with a plate of petit fours which are also delicous. Another wonderful meal for us in Pavia......

The drive home is easy and we have no trouble falling asleep.


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