A middle aged woman with no particular distinction other than a wanderlust and love of languages travels through Italy, Mexico, Central America and Africa, often by sailboat. This is travel for the not so young, beautiful or wealthy who are still curious, energetic, and adventurous.
Sunday, April 1, 2012
TWO DAYS IN MILAN
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
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
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
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.