I was looking for a place near home to unplug for a few hours, enjoy great sights and sample good food and I found all this in lovely Bobbio, just over an hour drive from Pavia.
My idea of routine-breaker has always been a weekend away somewhere in Europe but as you know, this year I want to spend time traveling in my home country, so I opened up google maps in search for a place to explore near home. The choice fell on Bobbio for its location (I’ve never been in the Trebbia valley and apparently even good old Hemingway once described it in his diaries as “the most beautiful in the world”!), its intriguing history (I read about a rockstar Irish monk and a devil’s bridge…) and yes, also for its funny name! So on Saturday morning I took the car and drove through lush hills covered in vineyards and reached Bobbio, in the Emilia-Romagna region.
Bobbio is a small town (about 3,500 residents) but there’s so much to see and do! First thing first, Saturday is market day and when I arrived I found the town in full swing, with people carrying bags full of vegetables, friends chatting in bars, and the voices of sellers from the tens of stalls that sneaked through its streets… the perfect start!
Walking through Contrada Porta Nova, Bobbio’s main street, I reached Piazza Duomo where I found the Cathedral of S. Maria Assunta hidden behind stalls of cheeses and cured meat. Closing the door behind me, I couldn’t help but stand in awe at the impressive frescos and blue vaults in front of me. The place dates back to the XI century and features beautiful, colorful paintings such as a XIV-century Annunciation and an interesting representation of the Last Supper, where sleepy John is depicted with feminine-looking features, thus seeming to confirm the thesis that the person sitting on Jesus’ right is actually Mary Magdalene. There are also a crypt which contains the remains of all of the bishops of Bobbio since 1600 and a diocesan museum.
The history of Bobbio is strictly tied to that of St. Columban, an Irish monk that arrived in Bobbio in 614 after traveling through Europe to spread the word of God. Here he founded a Monastery which became one of the most important cultural centers in medieval Italy. The heart of the monastery is the Basilica, which dates back to the XV century and has a crypt which preserves a beautiful XII-century floor mosaic and Columban’s marble sarcophagus. Today the monastery houses the abbey museum, the town museum and the public secondary school. It is also said that this abbey inspired the one that Umberto Eco depicted in his famous novel “The Name of the Rose”.
The monastery area was originally enclosed within the castle that was built by the first lord of Bobbio, marquis Corradino Malaspina, in the XIV century. Perched on a hill overlooking the entire village, the castle was then taken over by the Dal Verme family and lost its defensive function to become an elegant residence. It is possible to visit the castle all year around and the entry ticket costs 2 euros (although it’s free he first Sunday of every month).
Other interesting sights include the Church of Saint Lawrence, which dates back to the XII century, and the Virgin Mary’s Help Sanctuary, with an image of the Virgin Mary that is said to have dripped sweat from the forehead back in 1611.
Walking away from the hustle and bustle of the market, I ventured through some side streets until I glimpsed the Ponte Vecchio bridge. This is a 280-mt. Romanic bridge with 11 arches, all different from one another, which makes it really unique. Some historians believe that this is the bridge that we see behind Mona Lisa in Leonardo’s famous painting – regardless of whether or not this is true, this bridge is truly impressive! It is also known as ‘Devil’s Bridge’, as the legend says that the devil in person built it. Here’s the story… Apparently Columban (yes, still him – that guy was really a big deal in Bobbio!) wanted to build a bridge to connect the two banks of the river and the devil said he could build it in one night in exchange for the soul of the first person that would cross it. Columban accepted the proposal and got his bridge, although it looked pretty irregular since a squad of demons of different heights and builds helped the devil with the construction of the arches. The monk held on his word and made a dog cross it, so the soul of a human was salved. Pretty smart, isn’t it?
With all this sightseeing, make sure to save time to sample some of the delicious dishes Bobbio is famous for, such as the maccheroni bobbiesi, long fresh pasta with a beef stew or mushroom sauce (the recipe dates back to the Middle Ages, when the dough was wrapped around a knitting needle) and gnocco fritto, fried bread dough served with cured meats or cheese. Snails are another typical local delicacy and there is even a festival dedicated to them in December – not really my cup of tea, unless I wash them down with some nice local wine. According to tradition, the monks that arrived with Columbanus were the ones who started to grow grapes after cultivation was abandoned during the dark times of the Middle Ages, and nowadays the wines produced in this area are all of excellent quality (try Gutturnio, Bonarda and Ortrugo).
Bobbio turned out to be a great choice, I had an amazing time and I’m already planning to go back there soon to continue the exploration of the area. I’m amazed by the beautiful places I have at my doorsteps and look forward to finding new places to visit… stay tuned!
Useful tips for Bobbio
I spent only a few hours in Bobbio but this place makes for a perfect weekend gateway, with plenty of things to do not only in town but also in its outskirts. An example? You can relax at the thermal springs located only 2 km away from the town centre, or you can reach the Penice Pass for some hiking up to the old sanctuary that stands at the top of mount Penice (1,460 mt.).
If you visit Bobbio in the summer months, don’t forget to bring your swimsuit. The waters of the Trebbia river are still rather pristine and you could take a break from sightseeing and go for a dip.
Take a look at this page on the website of the municipality of Bobbio for the full list of restaurants and hotels available in the area – it’s in Italian but pretty easy to navigate.