When Saint Columbanus arrived in Bobbio in 613 A.D, twenty years after leaving the monastery at Bangor, there was not much more here than the old Roman stone bridge across the river Trebbia, which even today remains the most recognizable feature of the town.
Bobbio is still quite remote so it must have been a desolate place all those centuries ago when the Lombard king granted Columbanus permission to found a monastery in this valley. Once here Columbanus was never to leave Bobbio and on a cloudless September day it’s easy to appreciate why, because even in a drought year in Italy the hills around the town were as green as the Irish monk’s native Leinster.
The Abbey that is dedicated to him and that holds his remains has been updated many times since its first construction and the current building mostly dates back to the end of the 15th century.
Ernest Hemingway was also enamored with this hidden part of the Apennines and after passing through the Trebbia valley with American troops in 1945 he wrote in his diary “today I crossed the most beautiful valley in the world”.
Bobbio is situated in the Appennini Piacentini of western Emilia-Romagna and the quality of the food here is everything that one would expect of an Emilian town given the rich culinary traditions of this region. Bobbio’s identity is more complicated however and reflects its position at the mountainous intersection of four different Italian regions: Emilia Romagna, Lombardia, Piemonte and Liguria.
The easiest way to reach Bobbio is to drive south for 45 minutes from the well connected city of Piacenza, but we chose the scenic cross country route from Novi Ligure in Piemonte after our visit there to the La Mesma winery. We were well rewarded for the extra effort involved as we passed into Lombardia near the town of Varzi and made the long climb up to the summit of the Passo del Penice at almost 4,000 feet.
The scenery here in the southernmost part of Lombardia as you pass through the Monte Alpe reserve is striking and it continues as you descend into Emilia-Romagna on the final approach into Bobbio. We have become equally enthusiastic about Slow Travel as we are about Slow Food and Slow Wine and leaving the main road is the best way to really appreciate Italy and ensure that you will find yourself mostly in the company of Italians rather than other tourists.
Bobbio is a popular weekend destination for Italians because it is easily reachable from all the Po valley cities from Milan to Modena as well as from Genoa to the south. As a result the town is clearly thriving and Sunday morning in Bobbio was a revelation to us with all the shops open for business and all the normal rituals of Italian family life on display. Much more active in fact than Lucca on a typical Sunday morning.
And among all the animated conversations along the streets and in the bars we heard not a single foreign language so Bobbio remains well off the beaten track for international visitors. Exactly the sort of place that we try to seek out whenever we travel ourselves.
As one would expect in an Emilian town they clearly take their food seriously here with various shops specializing in cured meats, freshly made pasta, all sorts of baked items and of course funghi porcini, both fresh and dried, though it’s by no means clear that the dried funghi porcini are even Italian never mind local.
Maccheroni alla Bobbiese is the suitably named local dish. Freshly made egg pasta accompanied by a slow cooked minced beef ragù along classic Emiliano lines.
However the Ponte Vecchio, also known as the Ponte Gobbo, remains the most ancient and fascinating attraction in Bobbio. It’s almost 1,000 feet long with 11 arches, all of them a slightly different shape or size. Dating back to Roman times it has been modified over successive centuries and today it finds itself at the center of one of the most enduring mysteries of Italian art. There’s never been agreement among scholars as to exactly which bridge was the basis for the one drawn by Leonardo da Vinci in the background of the most famous portrait in the world, the Mona Lisa.
For centuries the consensus opinion pointed to the 13th century Ponte Buriano over the Arno river near Arezzo but the Italian researcher Carla Gori who has studied da Vinci for 30 years became convinced that the bridge at Bobbio is actually the one depicted in the painting.
She has accumulated an impressive array of evidence, both factual and circumstantial, including references in the Leicester Codex to the shape of the stones, to support her argument but equally compelling to the casual observer is the fact that the Ponte Buriano is a very uniform bridge and is on the flat plain whereas da Vinci’s bridge, though faintly drawn, seems to lack uniformity and better reflects the topography of the Trebbia Valley, in particular the bend in the river and the hills.
Furthermore da Vinci spent time in the employment of the House of Sforza in Milan, living there for 18 years well before he painted the Mona Lisa and there is evidence of him visiting these valleys, so he would have been very familiar with the Bobbio bridge. Carla Gori also disputes the identity of the Mona Lisa herself but we addressed that in a prior article on Florence here.
Chatting with Paolo, the owner of the Relais Sant’Ambrogio in Bobbio, he strongly recommended that we take a short detour from our itinerary to visit nearby Brugnello. No more than a 20 minute drive south, Brugnello is a restored village perched precariously at 1,500 feet at the end of a rocky spur that juts out over a sweeping bend in the river Trebbia. The approach road climbs up quite a gentle gradient through the woods and does not prepare you at all for the dramatic cliff edge viewing platform only a few paces into this tiny village.
The old stone houses here have been restored beautifully with various artistic touches like the hand carved doors that everyone seems to have and there’s a restaurant in the center with a mouth-watering menu and seating on the outside terrace for almost 100 people with vertiginous views down to the valley floor. Booked solid of course when we arrived on a sunny Sunday morning but a wonderful spot indeed for a 3 hour Italian Sunday lunch, which will have to wait until we pass this way again.