Sunday, April 1, 2012


Milan – Day 1 - Friday

Arriving in Milan by plane is impressive.  You are descending as you pass over the Alps and thus have a close up view of the peaks and valleys stretching out to the horizon.  Unlike the obvious escarpment of the Sierra Nevada, the Alps seem to march off to infinity.  They are steep and rugged and snow covered at this time of year (late March.)

The Malpensa airport is in the countryside 28 miles north of Milan and, once on the ground, the Alps still dominate the horizon.  The countryside is green and orderly.  Much of it is forested, but the trees are planted in neat rows and appear to be plantations.  The Milan airport was a breeze.  Passport control was quick and there were no agents present at customs.  Signage was clear and abundant, so it was easy to find my train.  

The Malpensa Express is a clean, modern train that runs from the airport to either of the two train stations in Milan.  The 40 minute ride was pleasant and interesting.  While the area surrounding Milan is clearly industrial, it is also unmistakably beautiful.  Everything was vividly green and the largest flowering trees I have ever seen grew in abundance.  Industrial buildings, modern apartment blocks, houses and fields were jumbled together in a very un-American fashion.  There was no clear transition from countryside to city, so I was somewhat surprised when we suddenly arrived at the Milano Centrale station.

I have been to Spain and Germany and thought I had seen fascist architecture, but the Milano Centrale station tops them all.  It is massive, with towering arched halls and three levels of shops and services.  You could probably spend an entire day there if you were a shopper, but I am not.  I wandered about a bit until I located the Trenitalia ticket counter. 

I had been warned that the lines were as monumental as the station and I had not been misinformed.  I spent an hour eavesdropping on conversations in Italian and Spanish and was pleased by how much of the Italian I was able to understand.  While I have been studying Spanish for ten years and speak it pretty fluently, I still have a terrible time understanding people when they speak.  Italians speak a lot and passionately, but they do not speak particularly fast and the language lends itself to clear enunciation.  So far, I have been able to understand most of what people have said to me and, when I speak to them in Italian, they do not seem compelled to answer me in English, as so often happens when I try to speak French or German.  It is somewhat exhausting to communicate constantly in a language that is still so new to me, but I am managing.

Eventually, I reached the counter and succeeded in activating my Eurail pass and making a reservation for my train trip to Montepulciano on Sunday.  Interestingly, a Eurail pass covers the cost of train tickets, but not the cost of reservations, which are required for long distance trains.  Reservations can be made online, but it is much more expensive.  The same reservation that would have cost me $27.50 online cost me 3 Euros at the ticket counter.  The helpful clerk explained to me that regional trains do not require reservations and would therefore be free with my pass.  We determined that I would not need a reservation for my trip from Montepulciano to Orvieto on Easter weekend.

While I probably could have seen my hotel from the station if I had used the correct exit, I went out the opposite side of the station, having no idea where I was, and grabbed a taxi.  By the time we navigated the maze of one way streets from one side of the station to the other, it cost me 7 Euros.  I will walk back.  I was too early to check in, but the clerk seemed to anticipate my every need, showed me to the baggage room and provided me with a much needed map of Milan.

Rick Steves calls Milan a “cold plunge,” but my first impression was very positive.  First of all, it was sunny and quite warm.  I shed my coat and sweater and walked around the city in a sleeveless top.  While there was a metro stop within a few blocks of the hotel, I had time to kill and decided to walk the mile or so into the center of town.  While Milan may be the New York of Italy, it is also an old city, dating back to at least the Roman Empire.  Streets are crooked, often cobblestoned and change names frequently, randomly alternating between tiny alleys and broad avenues.  I accidentally overshot the street I had planned to follow to the Plaza Duomo and chanced upon a lovely treed parkway with bicycle and pedestrian walkways that I followed for several blocks before heading back to the main drag.  Everyone seemed to be out walking a dog and it felt something like walking through the Duboce triangle in San Francisco.  I was comfortable.

The Corso Venezia seems to be one of the main shopping streets in Milan.  Milan is the fashion capital of Italy and many major houses are represented there, as well as familiar American stores.  Motorcycles and bicycles whizzed by me as I walked down the avenue.  As I approached the Duomo (cathedral), my path turned to the right into Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II, a wide pedestrian mall with a dizzying combination of modern and 19th century gallerias on either side, featuring every imaginable fashion destination and an annoying profusion of vendors hawking woven bracelets and bubble guns.  I would have liked to stop in a sidewalk café, but I wasn’t hungry and it was just too much of a zoo for me to want to linger there, although I did stop to listen to the violin and accordion trio playing Vivaldi.

The Duomo in Milan
The Plaza Duomo was even more of a zoo.  The entire immense plaza was a sea of people.  Milan isn’t supposed to be a tourist mecca, but it sure looked like one to me.  I had one mission – to find the gathering point for the city tour that I planned to take the following morning.  I located it at the far end of the plaza, close to the metro station.  I was hot, tired, sunburned, my feet hurt and I was starting to get hungry.  I dived into the coolness of the metro station and took the subway back to the neighborhood of my hotel, where I grabbed a pizza margherita at a hole in the wall close to the hotel.  It was 5 Euros worth of heaven – thin, crispy, cheesy, with plenty of garlic and basil, just like the pizza I used to enjoy at Café Armani when I lived in Orange County.  Satiated (OK, stuffed is more like it.), I made my way back to the hotel and checked in.

My Hotel in Milan
There is no such thing as a single hotel room in most American cities, but they abound in Europe.  My room is tiny, but pleasant due to the cheerful maize colored walls, high ceiling and large window overlooking an inviting terrace to which I was disappointed to discover I did not have access.  What appeared to be a door leading outside was actually a window that merely canted in about 6 inches at the top for ventilation.  I have a single bed with a decent mattress, a desk and a luggage stand.  I can almost turn around in the bathroom without banging my elbow on something, but I do have a bidet.  Everything is clean, new and efficient.  I read for a bit and then succumbed to jet lag.  Waking at about 7:30, I briefly considered getting dinner, but was still quite full from my earlier pizza indulgence, so have spent the evening planning the next stage of my journey and writing this blog.  Now it is time to go to sleep so that I can be fresh for my tour of Milan in the morning.

Milan – Day 2 – Saturday
After two nights prior to my trip where I got only a few hours’ sleep and then one night on a plane followed by  a long nap, my body had no idea what time it was.  I awoke at 5:22 AM and could not get back to sleep.  My alarm was set for 7:00 and I made myself lie there until that time, hoping I might get a bit more sleep.  Ha!

The Hotel Cristallo has a pleasant, although very pink, breakfast room in the basement with a nice selection of food and a cappuccino machine.  Not having eaten dinner the night before, I was famished.  I lingered a bit, drinking coffee and studying Italian vocabulary, before setting off for the Duomo and the meeting place for the morning’s tour.
Detail of Duomo Floor

The Plaza Duomo was considerably less crowded at that hour on a Saturday morning.  I sat in the sunshine, waiting for the bus, for a few minutes and then took my place on the Autostradale bus.  As soon as everybody was aboard the bus, we disembarked and headed across the plaza and into the cathedral.  The Duomo is the 3rd largest Catholic cathedral in Europe, outsized only by St. Peter’s in Rome and the cathedral in Seville.  The cathedral took 600 years to build and was not completed until the 1960s.  The exterior is made entirely of pink marble in a delicate gothic style with many spires.  I delight in cathedral architecture, but this one seemed more like an imitation of a cathedral than an original edifice to my eyes.  The interior does, however, contain a gorgeous inlaid marble floor in red, white and black marble.  The white marble is much softer than the other colors and has worn away over the centuries, resulting in an interesting texture.  The ceiling appears to be richly carved, but is actually only cleverly painted.  Someone must have spent more time up there than Michelangelo spent painting the Sistine Chapel.

After exiting the Duomo, we strolled through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II (the first king of a unified Italy) on our way to La Scala Opera House.  The Galleria is as large as any modern shopping mall and covered by a glass and iron ceiling.  It was originally built in the 1880s, but was bombed during WWII and later rebuilt in the original style.  The colorful mosaic floor is a true work of art.  Near the center of the Galleria is a vignette featuring a dancing bull.  There is a legend that if you spin on your heel on the bull’s testacies, it will bring you good luck.  There was a crowd of people making fools of themselves in the attempt as I passed by.  It is rumored that it is necessary to replace that part of the mosaic every ten years because it gets worn so rapidly.
La Scala Opera House

La Scala is something of a disappointment from the outside.  Its neoclassical architecture appears quite restrained in comparison to some of the surrounding buildings, although two recent modern additions lend it some interest.  One of these additions houses an entire second stage that can be rolled in and out, allowing the opera company to stage two different productions on successive nights.  We were only allowed a few moments to view the inside of the theater from one of the boxes, but the attached museum was interesting.  La Scala was originally a private theater where each box was owned by a noble family.  The boxes were decorated to the owners’ individual tastes and people could eat, drink, gamble and even cook if they liked.

After La Scala, we boarded the bus and drove through the city, taking in a few sights on the way to the Sforza Castle.  Milan will host the 2015 World Expo and there is construction going on everywhere.  An entire new residential district and two new metro lines are under construction to the north of the city center.  Cranes loom everywhere.  We got a brief glimpse of the fashion district, the public gardens, Monumental Cemetery, sports arena and Cadorna Station (where I will arrive when I return in two months) on our way to the castle.

Exterior of Sforza Castle and Moat
The Sforza Castle (originally constructed in the 14th century) is the most evocative of any castle I have visited.  Its imposing rectangular walls enclose a vast courtyard and massive round towers dominate the corners.  One can easily imagine knights on chargers jousting there or huge armies massing before marching out under the portcullis.  The drawbridges have been replaced with more permanent causeways, but the moat remains although it is a grassy swale today.  The vivid green of the grass contrasts nicely with the red brick and black stone of the walls and towers.  A modern fountain splashes playfully in front of the gates.  Our visit was brief and I will make a point of returning to see the unfinished final Michelangelo Pieta in the Museum of Ancient Art housed there upon my next visit to Milan.

The highlight of our tour was a visit to Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.  Only 30 visitors are allowed inside at one time and reservations are difficult to obtain if you are not part of a tour group.  A visit requires advance planning.  Our group was divided into two parties.  Visitors are herded into two successive air locks to prevent excessive humidity inside the room housing the fresco. No photography is allowed. When Leonardo painted The Last Supper, he was experimenting with a new method using dry plaster.  Usually, frescos are painted on wet plaster, which requires the artist to work quickly before the plaster dries.  Leonardo was attracted to the dry method because it allowed him to take his time.  This resulted in a wonderful work of art that unfortunately began to deteriorate almost immediately.

The Last Supper was painted in the refectory of a monastery.  After centuries of clumsy restorations, what remains of the original was revealed in 1999 when all subsequent layers were carefully removed.  That The Last Supper exists today appears to be the result of divine intervention because the monastery was bombed during WWII and the ceiling and sidewalls collapsed.  The original structure was completely polychromed, but the reconstruction was done in unadorned white plaster which gives the place an austere look, but accentuates the extent of the damage and the miracle of The Last Supper’s survival.  The fresco is iconic and so familiar that I feared seeing the original might be disappointing, but that was not the case.  To fully appreciate the depth of the painting, one must see it in situ where it appears to be an extension of the actual building, like a private dining room off the main body of a restaurant.

The bus returned us to the Plaza Duomo and it was then time for me to stop gawking at art and attend to business.  I needed to buy a cellphone and had noticed a Vodafone store around the corner from the plaza.  I settled on a basic model for 29 Euros.  Vodafone operates on the prepaid business model, so it seemed like a good choice.  I managed to purchase a cellphone in Italian and felt I was doing admirably until I discovered that they needed my passport before activating my SIM card.  Since I did not have my passport on me, this required a trip back to the hotel.

By the time I returned to the hotel it was 2:00 and I was hungry again.  I purchased some tandoori chicken and basmati rice with curry sauce from an Indian takeaway across the street.  It might seem like a sin to eat Indian food in the presence of all this Italian culinary magnificence, but my addiction to Indian food is powerful and the promise of two meals for 8 Euros proved irresistible.  I ate lunch, retrieved my passport and zipped back to Plaza Duomo to activate my phone.

Business transacted, I was free to purchase some gelato (cioccolata and mango to complete my Indian meal) and wander back past La Scala and through the back streets to the Brera Art Gallery.  The Brera Gallery sits atop an art school and was established in 1809 to house Napoleon’s looted art collection.  It contains Milan’s top collection of Italian paintings and a bewildering collection of art from the ancient to the modern, confusingly curated in side galleries.  After a surfeit of Madonnas, crucifixions and ascending virgins, I was charmed by an impressionist painting of a very old fashioned young girl sitting on a very old fashioned bed, holding what was probably a miniature, but who appeared to be doing nothing so much as checking her text messages.

While I love art and am fascinated by history, I have a low tolerance for museums.  They inevitably make me sleepy.  I had intended to make another stop or two, but instead returned to the hotel to take a nap.  After snoozing for a few hours, I devoured my leftover Indian food and succeeded in setting up my new cellphone, despite the lack of directions in English.  I have not, however, yet deduced how to make an international call.  Hopefully, someone at the school will be able to enlighten me.

Milan is very dry.  Riding on the metro today, I was attacked by a young woman’s long hair due to the static electricity in the air.  I woke parched every two hours last night.  Having left the shutters closed all day, my room is cooler tonight.  If it weren’t so noisy outside, I would sleep with the window open.  Maybe I will put in my ear plugs and give it a go.  I need to get a good night’s sleep to reset my internal clock.  Scott will kill me if I return home having developed the habit of rising at 5:30 AM.

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