8 day trips out of Milan: What to see in Lombardy

CNN  — 

We’ve done the Duomo, maxed out our cards in the fashion district and had our fill of Aperol Spritz cocktails and slices of panettone. No problem.

Milan’s in the heart of Lombardy, one of the largest regions in Italy, and there are plenty of secret spots to enjoy once visitors step out of the city and off the beaten track. They’ll come across bizarre food and statues, funny festivals and weird tales.

Here’s our pick of eight day trips:

1. Cornello dei Tasso

There are only a handful of residents in this fairy-tale medieval village, considered to be one of Italy’s most beautiful hilltop towns. It’s suspended above a deep chasm and the only way to reach it is by a 30-minute walk along a crooked path. There are no roads.

This remote outpost might seem badly connected, but is in fact the birthplace of what was to become the European postal service, back in the 13th century.

The Tasso family were postal pioneers, who looked after papal mail. One of their most distinguished sons is 16th-century poet Torquato Tasso, who wrote the Renaissance epic “Jerusalem Delivered.”

The Tasso museum tells the history of the postal service and the Tasso family and organizes guided tours around the hamlet.

Trattoria Camozzi is the hamlet’s only tavern. Visitors can try polenta, supplemented with game, hare and venison.

The cornmeal mulch was once a peasant’s dish, believed to have aphrodisiac powers.

Cornello dei Tasso, Via Cornello, 24010 Camerata Cornello, Italy

Museo dei Tasso; Via Cornello 22, Camerata Cornello, Italy; +39 034543479

Trattoria Camozzi; Cornello, 11, Italy; +39 0345 41306

2. Sacro Monte di Varese

Before TV, there were biblical tableaux.

Ever thought of a church as a theater? The two-kilometer network of 15 chapels unraveling on this “sacred hill” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Life-sized painted terracotta statues, like actors caught in dramatic pose, enact episodes from Christ’s life.

In the Nativity and Crucifixion scenes, the faces of farmers, shepherds, servants and Biblical figures are contorted with fear, pain and awe. The Baroque pathos – eyes bulging in sockets, red tongues exposed – feels Neapolitan rather than understated Lombard-style. Scenes like these were a way of getting the Biblical message across to illiterate worshipers.

To reach Sacro Monte, visitors can hop on the cableway or walk along the Holy Road from Velate.

Specialist food shop L’Emporio offers tailored trips complete with food tastings. Also worth a stop is nearby convent Santa Caterina del Sasso, dramatically cut into a cliff overhanging Lake Maggiore. For the ultimate view of the area, Angleria Tours offers hot-air balloon trips.

Sacro Monte Unesco di Varese, Santa Maria del Monte, 21100 Varese, Italy

L’Emporio, Via Beata Caterina Moriggi 22, 21030 Santa Maria del Monte, Italy

3. Pizzighettone

Funny name, funny place.

Local legend spins tales of the wandering ghosts of headless noblemen, whose greed saw them get the chop, and a monstrous dragon that breathed plague into the walled town and killed hundreds.

The alleged rib of the beast is displayed in the town’s main church, Chiesa di San Bassiano Vescovo, and his marshy home, the Adda River, can be explored by boat.

The town is a former Roman military camp. The Romans built internal defense chambers called “case matte” (false houses) which have been turned into open-air taverns, where eating marathons now take place.

The annual Fasulin de L’Oc cun le Cudeghe gastronomic festival is held in late October / early November. The event celebrates a local broth made with black-eyed peas and pork rind.

There’s also a tripe festival, honoring Saint Bassiano, who is believed to have saved the village from raids by Frederick Barbarossa in the 12th century.

Other specialties include fried snails, frogs and The Dead’s Cake, an almond pie offered to hungry souls returning from the grave to watch over the living.

Da Giacomo is a rustic-modern restaurant serving gourmet recipes. Torre del Guado is a prison tower where France’s King Francis I was held hostage in the 16th century. The local tourist board organizes tours by foot and by bike.

Chiesa di San Bassiano Vescovo, Via Municipio, 8, 26026 Pizzighettone, Italy

Consorzio Navigare l’Adda, Via Municipio, 10, 26026 Pizzighettone, Italy

Torre del Guado a Pizzighettone, Ponte sull’Adda, Pizzighettone, 26026 Pizzighettone Pizzighettone, Italy

Da Giacomo, Piazza Municipio, 2, Pizzighettone, Italy

4. Gorgonzola

Yes, Gorgonzola is the birthplace of the veined blue cheese with the distinctive smell.

Legend has it that it all began with a love story. One night in 879 AD, a young dairy worker, eager to meet his lover, forgot to finish his work and left the cheese pot outside. The next morning, rather than throwing away the almost rotten curd, he added a fresh layer on top. In between, the two, green parsley-ish veins of mold formed.

To honor his delicious mistake, a Gorgonzola festival is held each September, luring cheese fans from around the world. Huge pots of boiling soft cheese mixed with red beet and blue Curacao liquor dot the central piazza.

Other highlights include elegant Villa Serbelloni and the medieval castle. You can stroll along the Naviglio Martesano canal to other nearby towns.

Canoa Fluviale Martesana offers kayak and canoeing lessons.

The signature dish of local restaurant Vecchia Pesa is wild black rice timbale with gorgonzola sauce and walnuts.

Ristorante Vecchia Pesa, Via Matteotti 41, 20064 Gorgonzola, Italy

5. Pavia

Gian Visconti, first Duke of Milan, laid the Certosa's foundation stone in 1396.

This buzzing town, founded by the Germanic Lombard people who gave their name to the region, is a maze of cobbled streets, winding alleys and lively piazzas.

Ancient arched doors lead to the historical center. A white marble angel, said to have miraculously stopped a flood, greets visitors.

Leonardo da Vinci and Donato Bramante contributed to the magnificent Duomo.

The Collegio Borromeo, built by cardinal-turned-saint Charles Borromeo, is a sumptuous palazzo with frescoed ceilings and inner gardens.

For traditional cuisine, Osteria della Madonna is a cozy old tavern serving delicious raw meat fillets marinated overnight in lemon juice.

Nearby, the lavish Certosa di Pavia, today a monastery, was the mighty Visconti family’s mausoleum.

Few know that bone fragments reputed to belong to Christopher Columbus are kept inside a little glass case in Pavia’s University Library.

Duomo Di Pavia, Piazza Duomo, Pavia, Italy

Osteria della Madonna, Via dei Liguri, 28, 27100 Pavia, Italy

Certosa di Pavia, Certosa di Pavia, Italy

6. Brescia

For centuries Brescia was a Celtic settlement, until Romans conquered it in the first century AD and turned it into a little Rome, naming it Brixia.

It’s now Lombardy’s largest archaeological site protected by UNESCO. A Roman amphitheater – a sort of miniature Coliseum – stands alongside a temple, ancient columns and arches and thermal baths.

Locals are proud of their “barbarian” origins and speak with a strong Teutonic-sounding accent. Their ancestors defeated the foreign rule first of Frederick Barbarossa in the 1100s, then of Austria, during the Second Italian War of Independence in the 19th century. That’s why the city is dubbed the “Lioness of Italy.”

Restaurant picks include Trattoria Porteri on Via Trento.

Worth a stop close by is Sirmione, home to a castle and Roman ruins, and Catullo Caves. These ancient spas overlooking Lake Garda were a favorite holiday spot of the Romans.

Trattoria G.A. Porteri, Via Trento 52, 25128 Brescia, Italy

7. Franciacorta

Wine lovers – this one’s for you.

Franciacorta used to be an estate run by monks who enjoyed various privileges, including that of drinking divine barrels.

Today this winemaking area, one of Italy’s most prestigious, is famous for its sparkling “brut” wines, the Italian version of champagne.

Franciacorta.net organizes tasting, trekking and bike tours in the vineyards.

Wine picnics are held at Al Rocol, a rural resort dating back to the 1600s.

Nearby rises Val Camonica, a huge Alpine park home to UNESCO-protected rock drawings depicting themes connected with agriculture, navigation, war and magic.

Museo Archeologico Nazionale della Valle Camonica, Via Roma 29, 25040 Cividate Camuno, Italy

8. Cremona

Northern Italians call Cremona the city of the three Ts: That’s for turron (nougat), turas (the city’s famous tower) and tetas (breasts – although we’re not sure if there’s any scientific backing to the claim that Cremona women are unusually gifted).

Honey and almond nougat, a typical Christmas treat, can be found all year round at historic pastry boutique Sperlari in vanilla, lemon or chocolate versions, both soft and firm.

For those who prefer savory treats, Iotta, on corso Garibaldi, sells salami with garlic, cotechino with vanilla and ring-shaped marubini pasta stuffed with bone marrow.

As for towers, there are 83 of them but the highest is the 111-meter Torrazzo, the third-tallest brickwork bell tower in the world.

The tower was completed in the 12th century and its seven 18th-century bells are all tuned in the scale of A major.

Negozio Sperlari, Via Solferino 25, Cremona, Italy