Off the Beaten Track: Discover Oltrepo' Pavese

So... you just landed in Milan planning to drive further south to discover the real Italian countryside. Maybe you have dreamt of Tuscany, but there is something else, something still raw and real, still overlooked by American tourists. I am referring to the “Oltrepo’ Pavese”, an hidden gem , located just an hour away from Milan, right past the river Po. Some writers like to call it the Tuscany of Northern Italy, but this hilly area of 11 Kmq (4247.124mi2), set in between Lombardia, Liguria, Emilia-Romagna and Piedmont is more than ready to claim its own identity.

Oltrepo’ Pavese, indeed, has a very strong identity that reminds me of its rugged people: farmers, breeders, shepherds and winemakers whose business flourished despite landslides, heavy snows and summer draughts. Oltrepo’ Pavese is opening up to modernity, yet it remains wild: deer, roe bucks, wild boars and even wolves, can be spotted while strolling inside one the many Pinot Noir vineyards.

This territory is one of Italy’s largest wine producing areas and tourists can happily get lost driving along the “Strada del Vino e dei Sapori” (Wine and Flavours Trial). Red varieties, as well as white varieties, are grown here and you can taste your own Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Riesling, or the unique red sparkling wine named Bonarda. To those who are crazy about Champagne, Oltrepo’ can offer some Spumante, its own Champagne-like wine. The red Buttafuoco (Flamethrower) instead, will surely intrigue the most adventurous.

 Oltrepo’ Pavese can boast 41 DOC (Denomination of Controlled Origins) wine varieties, which they taste even better when accompanied by local foods. You cannot leave this area without trying some Salame di Varzi DOP (Denomination of Protected Origin), some grass fed Piedmontese beef, or some seasonal products such as mushrooms and tartufi. Let’s not forget that locals are avid hunters and stewed wild boar, hare or deer, are regularly on the menu, accompanied by polenta, or topping a plate of pasta. Genuine food is at hand at affordable prices: you can you sit down at family owned traditional restaurant or opt for an agriturismo, that is a farm that serves its own produced food. Small local cafes are interesting places as well, always ready ready to offer you twp slices of Miccone (traditional local bread) separated by a few slices of Salame di Varzi .

Convenient hotels, charming B&Bs and houses for rent at very reasonable prices encourage tourists to stay and further explore the territory. Oltrepo’ spectacular landscape attracts hikers and cyclists: its rolling hills with medieval castles and villages on their tops change dramatically according to the season. In the fall everything is auburn red, ready to become grayish in the winter. In the spring everything turns green and then yellow in the summer, transforming the area in some sort of California.

Tourists interested in history and culture have plenty of monuments and museums to choose from, with castles being the landmarks. You cannot miss the Castle of Zavattarello, a fortess built in the 10th century which is rumored to host a ghost, nor the charming abbey of Sant’Alberto di Butrio, in Val di Nizza. This peaceful 11th century hermitage well symbolizes the local way of life: life flows slowly here.

Oltrepo’ Pavese can be reached either by car or public transportation (bus or train) from Milan, but renting a car it is advisable if you wish to explore this rural area. From Milan you can take the A7 highway, exit in Voghera and then decide which way to go. Oltrepo’ grounds start flat, but the area is famous for its hills: the northern part is characterized by rolling hills covered with vineyards (about 13.000 hectares), while further south the hills give way to mountain landscapes, such as in the Staffora, Trebbia and Tidone valleys, with some peaks reaching 1,600 meters in height.

What to buy: Salame di Varzi; various cheese varieties (including goat and sheep cheese); honey; Miccone bread ; local sweets such as Brasade donuts and Varzi nut cake; local vegetables varieties like onions and peppers from Voghera and, of course... wine!