Brescia in Lombardy in northern Italy might not be at the top of your list of Italian cities to visit but in my experience it won’t disappoint. You might have Rome, Venice and Florence on your wish list but over the years I have realised that less well known cities are always worth spending time in and that everywhere has something to offer and I particularly appreciate visiting cities that are not overwhelmed by other tourists.
From our campsite near Iseo it was easy and inexpensive [€6.60 each] to take the train to Brescia for the day. This proved to be an excellent and relaxing day out in a lovely city that has plenty to offer. We arrived without a map but this was no problem as Brescia handily has signposts to all the major attractions in the city. Our first stop was the monumental Piazza della Vittoria, a 1930s piazza that is striking and I rather liked its brutalist charm. The post office with tall striped columns dominates one end of the piazza and Brescia’s first skyscraper is here, a 40-metre high brick structure with decorative details.
Through a collonade is Piazza della Loggia, an attractive 15th century Renaissance piazza that contrasts sharply with Piazza della Vittoria. Piazza della Loggia has buildings and memorials to many important events in Brescia’s history. Below the clock is an emotional memorial to a bomb attack by fascists against an anti-fascist demo on 28 May 1974. Nearby there is a statue remembering those who died in the 19th century ten-day rebellion against Austrian rule. The piazza is dominated by the ornate palazzo, now the town hall. Opposite this is a 16th century clock tower whose clock is only of limited use for a time check as the dials of the clock show the phases of the moon and the signs of the zodiac. Two charming figures, ‘i macc de le ure’ or ‘Tone and Batista’ strike the hours on a bell. There are cafes around the piazza and it is a lovely place to stroll or sit and people watch.
We continued to Piazza Paulo VI which is packed with important and impressive buildings and symbolises the religious and civic power of Brescia. Most unusual is the old cathedral; this circular structure was built in the 11th century and was disappointingly closed when we were there. Next to this is the new cathedral, a more frothy building from the 17th century. We chose to sit in a lively cafe and have our lunch in this grand piazza.
We followed the signs for the Museo di Santa Giulia a unique and complex museum, housed in an 8th century Benedictine nunnery. The museum site comprises exhibits within buildings that are within buildings; the whole spanning many centuries and this can make it difficult to fathom at first but I found the self-guided tour with information in both Italian and English helped me to understand the context and history. On this vast site there are three churches including Santa Maria in Solario which has extravagant colourful frescoes. Also beautifully decorated is the nun’s choir where the Benedictine nuns of the Santa Giulia convent took part in services while hidden from view. There is a crypt and Renaissance cloisters too that visitors can explore. Dotted around the buildings are modern sculptures that I felt contributed to and enhanced my enjoyment of this museum. Underneath the monastery garden archaeologists found the remains of Roman villas and I followed the walkways over these buildings; the perspective from above gave a good sense of the layout of the villas and great views of the intricate mosaics.
As if all those buildings and art were not enough, the museum also includes displays of artifacts from Roman to Venetian periods of Brescia’s history; something for everyone’s interest but you would need days to look at everything. A big draw is the Roman bronze life-size winged victory statue from the 1st century. This impressive bronze of a woman draped in a cloth glimmers with layers of beautiful colours and appears to move and flow.
The whole of Santa Giulia is harmonious and interesting and exploring this amazing museum took so long we ran out of time for Brescia’s other sites. We will have to return to Brescia one day to see the castle, all the Roman remains, the Museo delle Mille Miglia … .
We finished our day in Brescia back at the elegant Piazza della Loggia. We sat relaxing with a beer in a cafe and listened to the clock strike the hour before catching the train back to Iseo.