Brescia has been an important town for over 3200 years, one that has an exciting commercial and political history.
Yet it is one that somehow does not seem to attract tourists as do other Italian cities, except maybe those visitors courting industrial excellence and Mille Miglia. Brescia is a technology city that has been granted the fortune of having great natural beauty next door, by sitting at the foot of the Alps, a location that has been its godsend throughout history.
For many now it is just a train stop or a motorway bypass on the way to Milan or Venezia, a sprawling city near the vacation lakes of Lago Di Garda and Lago Iseo. The train station, like most, does not provide any illusion of what may be in store for a traveller who seeks to delve behind the façade.
Take a risk and play the game of Brescia Monopoly. Put your token on Go and throw the dice for a ticket to Brescia Station. The best properties in Brescia for the enquiring tourist are in the old city, just 5 minutes by taxi from the unassuming station. Buy a room in one of the fine hotels, maybe the Vittoria that is centred among the fine squares that make up this monopoly board of a city.
We did so and, on one fine summer night we sat on the terrace enjoying a regional white wine awaiting a Euro 2016 semifinal match, and being overpowered by the New Cathedral, looming virtually next door, but in reality across one of those piazzas. This ‘New’ cathedral, was commenced in 1604 to a Palladio design, and was not finished for two centuries.
The following morning after an early breakfast we threw the dice to land on the new cathedral. It was early enough to join morning Mass with the normal ‘messa mattutina crowd’: nuns from the adjoined convent, the local women preparing for their alimentary shopping, this tourist, and the occasional business man, be-suited with satchel, seeking the blessing of God for his business deals or legal travails of the day.
The new cathedral and Brescia are unusual. The cathedral sits next to the Vecchio (Old) cathedral, a rotunda from the 11th century. It is intact, unlike most cathedrals that have been cannibalised to serve the material needs of the new structure – but then this new one was a Palladio design, and it was not his style to prostitute his works with second hand materials.
Yet maybe a century or so could have been saved in its construction if a more modest material specifications had been applied, but then …… Nevertheless, the old cathedral was built on a Roman predecessor. When you land on the cathedral square, make sure that you visit both cathedrals, and while there, before you throw again, you can find another surprise to the left of the new cathedral, awaiting the alert traveller – seek the bell tower.
On the opposite side of the Hotel Vittoria, just a short throw, is another large piazza with the most unexpected and extraordinary architecture. Just two buildings dominate this square. One is what could only be described as an ‘edifice’. It is the ‘Art Deco’ “Poste e Telegrafi” building, standing as an impregnable modern fortress to protect communications.
Diagonally opposite is another unique construction known as Torrione – the first so-called skyscraper in Italy. No description can compete with just standing in front and absorbing while noting the entrance to the latest Brescian exercise in modern communications – the Metro. An unusual triplet even for a monopoly board.
For this initial whetting experience there is just one more dice throw and one more square, Piazza Della Loggia, with the impressive renaissance Palazzo Della Loggia (City Hall) at one end, having been finished by Palladio, maybe this is where the money went. At the other end of the square is the paradoxical visually exciting astronomical clock with its 24 hours measurement ‘on top of which there are two copper anthropomorphic automata which strike the hours on a bell’.
Yes, there is lots more, we have landed on less than a quarter of the squares, only scanning those near the Hotel Vittoria, not yet sampling ancient history of Brescia, or its theatres, basilica, landscape. We must stay and throw the dice a few more times.