Brescia, Italy

Rupert Parker visits the historic Italian City of Brescia, sees the Roman remains and explores the food and wine of the region.

Brescia

Brescia

Brescia Roman Remains

Brescia Roman Remains

Capitolium

Capitolium

Brescia Roman Theatre

Brescia Roman Theatre

Santa Guilia Frescoes

Santa Guilia Frescoes

Vineyards

Vineyards

Pusterla VIneyard

Pusterla VIneyard

Grapes

Grapes

San Bernardo Wines

San Bernardo Wines

Fenil Conter Beef

Fenil Conter Beef

Semifreddo Fenil Conter

Semifreddo Fenil Conter

Bresciano Olive Oil

Bresciano Olive Oil

Costaripa cellar

Costaripa cellar

Mattia Vezzola

Mattia Vezzola

Sirmione

Sirmione

Sirmione with Lake

Sirmione with Lake

Sailing on Lake Garda

Sailing on Lake Garda

Lake sardines

Lake sardines

Brescia, half way between Milano and Verona, in the province of Lombardy, is less well known than its neighbours but is ripe for discovery. As you walk through its four main squares, you journey through different periods in its history – roman, medieval, renaissance and fascist. Roman Brixia had at least three temples, an aqueduct, a theatre, and a forum and now you can find some of the best preserved Roman remains in Northern Italy. In 2011, UNESCO gave the city World Heritage Status as part of a group known as “Longobards in Italy, Places of Power (568-774 A.D.)”.

Monuments include the Capitolium, the most important temple of ancient Brixia, built in 73 AD with remains of the portico, composed of Corinthian columns that support a pediment containing a dedication to the Emperor Vespasian. To the East is the Roman theatre, 86 metres in diameter and seating 15,000 spectators.

Perhaps the most impressive is the complex of San Salvatore-Santa Giulia, now the Museo di Santa Giulia, with around 11,000 works of art and archaeological finds. It’s home to the Basilica of San Salvatore, built in 753, the Church of Santa Maria in Solario, from the 12th century, and the Church of Santa Giulia, built between 1593 and 1599. A special feature is the nuns choir between San Salvatore and Santa Giulia, on two levels, from the late 15th and early 16th century. The interior of the choir is entirely decorated with frescoes painted by Ferramola and Caylina, and inside are funerary monuments of the Venetian age, including the Martinengo Mausoleum, a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture in Lombardy.

The Pusterla Vineyard takes its name from the secret passage that was opened on the northern wall of Brescia’s castle and it is probably the largest city vineyard in Europe as well as the oldest. The white grape, Invernenga, is cultivated here on four hectares with vines as old as 80-100 years. These grapes, with their typical almond aftertaste and a thick skin, are harvested late, and the white wine, Dolce Passione, is sweet. They also produce Vino Bianco Pusterla and a grappa called Fuoco D’inverno or Winter Fire.

Next I get on a bike to explore the Strada del Vino Colli dei Longobardi. I start with a wine tasting at Azienda Pratum Coller Winery. This is an organic vineyard, although not yet certified, with about 3.5 hectares of 30 year old vines, 2.5 hectares of 10 years, and 1.5 hectares were planted in 2010. The red varieties are typical of this area: Marzemino, Merlot, Barbera and Sangiovese with also the presence of Pinot noir, Syrah, Petit verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The white is Trebbiano of Lugana. Pratum Coller currently produces four types of wine: the rosé Eōs, the white Nĭtŏr and reds, Rěděo and Arduo.

It’s a pleasant cycle ride through quiet lanes for lunch at Azienda Agricola San Bernardo. Sangiovese, Marzemino, Merlot, Trebbiano di Verona and Pinot Blanc are grown in 18 Hectares on the Monte Netto hill of Brescia on clay soil. Rampollo DOC is 100% obtained from Marzemino grapes and cask-aged for 6 months. It’s has cherry and wild berry aromas and pairs excellently with grilled meats and roasts.

Dinner is at the Fenil Conter Restaurant. I start with Aubergine Parmigiana with a selection of salami, then follow it with risotto with saffron and Courgettes, the rice cooked exactly al dente. Then there are slices of fillet steak, very pink in the middle, with saute potatoes and green salad. Dessert is a lemon semifreddo served with grilled fresh pineapple, an appropriate finish to a brilliant meal.

Next day I travel East and visit Cooperativa Agricola San Felice which is the biggest olive oil coop in Lombardy. Only 20% of their oil is Garda Bresciano DOP as it depends on soil conditions and how the trees are cultivated. They have to be grown in areas facing the Brescia side of Lake Garda and must include at least 55% of olive varieties Gasaliva Frantoio and Leccino. It’s a delicious oil, ranging in colour from green to yellow, smelling fruity with a slighly bitter and spicy taste.

My final stop is at the Costaripa Winery. This is the most northerly spot in Italy where lemons and oranges can grow with a micro climate similar to that of Provence. Unusually, wine maker Mattia Vezzola concentrates on rosé wines and produces some of the best in the country. His RosaMara Valtènesi Chiaretto DOC is made using the pick of the crop using Groppello, Marzemino, Sangiovese and Barbera – all are cultivated in vineyards with the best exposure, overlooking the lake. It’s colour is light pink, characteristic of very soft, delicate vinification, and the aroma has hints of hawthorn, sour cherry and pomegranate.This is a classy wine, silky and harmonious with a slight aftertaste of bitter almonds.

After an excellent lunch at Restaurant Al Braciere in Sirmone there’s just time for a tour of this picturesque town. Remains of a huge Roman villa, jutting out into the lake, built around 150AD, confusingly known as the Grotto of Catullus, are well worth a visit. Scaliger Castle, guarding the entrance of the town and surrounded by water, was built near the end of the 12th century as part of a defensive network surrounding Verona. I finally get a quick spin on the lake, thanks to the Lega Navale di Desenzano, although an approaching storm cuts it short. Later at Restaurant Il Giglio in Gardone Riviera I enjoy an excellent selection of the freshest fish caught in the lake that morning. If you only visit Brescia for its food and drink, then you won’t be disappointed, but do make time to visit its impressive monuments.

Hotel Vittoria makes a comfortable base in Brescia.

Agriturismo L’Unicorno is a tranquil place to stay, in its own vineyards near Lake Garda .

Brescia Tourism has information about the city and region.

Italia has information about the country.

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