Fifth in a series on Lombardy, Italy
The Journey to Milan
Monday morning April 11 we checked out of our hotel and walked to Como S. Giovanni station. It was a pleasant 37-minute journey to Milano Centrale on modern, comfortable SBB (Swiss) rolling stock. Unlike the train on our inbound journey, there was ample overhead racks for luggage.
I always get a little thrill arriving at places like Milano Centrale with its cavernous train shed and rows upon rows of sleek high speed trains. “It’s a train. Big deal,” Rachel would say. No! It is a modern marvel, sleek, safe, and fast. Look at that board, electronic though it may be. (Am I the only one who misses the old Solari boards?) “So what?” Rachel might say. “You’re not taking any of those trains.” Not the point. Look up at that board and you can see destinations all over Italy – all over Europe for that matter. Imagine the possibilities at your fingertips…Rome, Genoa, Venice, Florence, Paris, Zurich, Vienna- an entire continent to explore, if you were so inclined. It would be so simple to forget all about that flight home and give up returning to humdrum daily life. How easy it would be to simply walk up to the ticket booth and buy a seat to anywhere, to everywhere, and just explore until my bank account was empty. But of course responsibility and respectability intervenes. I still tell myself I would do that if I were diagnosed with a terminal disease, although now that I’m settling down the window for that is closing.
A Friendly City
Monday – aka International Museum Closed Day – is not the best time to visit Milan. Ideally I would have reversed the itinerary, but with a morning flight home on Tuesday, it was safer to stay in Milan Monday night in order to have a shorter (and connection-free) train to the airport Tuesday morning.
Although I find the sights of Milan less interesting than other Italian cities like Rome, Florence, and Venice (and I hate to admit it, but also smaller cities like Verona and Genoa), I do have to say the people were wonderful. No fewer than three times in a 24-hour period did locals see us looking around trying to get our bearings and immediately offer us directions. In one case a woman escorted us through a busy subway station to the correct exit.
In Milan I felt halfway safe as a pedestrian, as motorists seemed more inclined to stop for people in crosswalks than many other cities. I still remember with dread the experience of being a pedestrian in Rome. You never quite get used to motorists heading at you full speed and then at the last minute zooming around you. After coming back from Rome, I had a feeling of absolute comfort walking around the streets of New York City. That’s saying a lot considering one of my earliest childhood memories is crossing a street in Manhattan with my mother and almost being mowed down in a crosswalk with a walk signal by some bonehead making a left turn.
€4.50 gets you a 24-hour ATM (Milan transit) pass, which paid for itself many times over on the subway. Some transit systems offer a day pass that expires when the system shuts down for the evening; this one was useable for a full 24-hours, which came in handy the next morning when we took the subway to Milano Cadorna to catch the train to Malpensa Airport. The card is usable on Milan’s bus and trolley lines as well. We were able to check in early at Hotel Panizza near Conciliazione (Milan Metro Line 1). It takes up two floors of a residential building. The room was small but had a private balcony.
Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral)
After dropping off our luggage, we took the subway to Duomo, the stop for Milan’s beautiful marble cathedral. Although started in 1386, it was declared complete only in 1965. Unfortunately, it needed restoration almost immediately after completion. As of April 2015 a lot of the structure is covered in ugly scaffolding. The cathedral’s repair bill cost dignity as well as Euros; two hideous Jumotrons are mounted on the building with a note underneath that the advertising is funding repairs.
The Duomo’s interior is free of charge, but its museum and other attractions have fees. We paid €7/person to climb the stairs to the roof (elevator is extra). The map to the stair entrance wasn’t very clear but we found it near the Jumbotron. The first part was similar to other Italian cathedrals I’d climbed in Florence for instance- narrow staircases with a bit of an effort for traffic going up and down to pass by one another. Upon exiting the stairwell to open air along the lower roofline, the experience is quite different. You get a very close look at the cathedral’s flying buttresses and roof statues. Another set of stairs brings you to the Duomo’s upper roof, which though marred by scaffolding, is still pretty neat. A dome climb elsewhere is one thing, but it’s something else entirely to be walking on the slightly sloped roof of one of the largest cathedrals in the world. There are decent views of the surrounding city and the high rises of the commercial center in the distance.
We returned after sunset to experience the building at night. Despite its appearance in various postcards, the lighting on the Duomo wasn’t particularly spectacular when we visited. Actually, the Jumbotron did a great job illuminating one wall in classless fashion.
We arrived just over two weeks before the opening of the Expo Milano at the beginning of May. The Universal Exposition takes place every five years in a different city worldwide. My understanding is most of the pavililions are outside Milan city limits out towards Malpensa Airport, but there seemed to be a welcome center of some kind being built by the Castello Sforzesco when we visited.
Castello Sforzesco (Sforza Castle) and Parco Sempione
The Sforza Castle, with its stately brick tower, has a history dating to the 14th Century, though it’s been expanded and rebuilt numerous times since then. Although its museums were closed, the castle grounds were open to the public and apparently quite popular. There were many visitors to the adjacent Parco Sempione. Flowers were in full bloom and there were some birds around the ponds in the center of the park. It was curious to observe how different locals were dressed while enjoying the park. A sunny day about 75°F (24°C), I suppose it was cool by Italian summer standards. There were as many people in long sleeves, even wearing sweaters or sweatshirts, as there were sunbathing! We walked to the Arco della Pace (Arch of Peace) on the far side of the park, which is reminiscent of (if underwhelming in comparison to) Paris’s Arc de Triomphe.
Giardini Pubblici Indro Montanelli (Public Gardens) and Environs
We walked to the public gardens named after Italy’s globetrotting journalist Indro Montanelli. Montanelli had a long career in which he at various points ran afoul of (and was sometimes marked for death by) various ideologies including but not limited to:
- The Fascists (he was one, but they didn’t like his reporting)
- The Nazis (who sentenced him to death before friends somehow spirited him to Switzerland)
- The Red Brigades (who came closest to silencing him when they sent two assassins after him)
He was 68 in 1977 when the Reds shot him four times. Even that didn’t slow him down and he kept working right up to his death at age 92 in 2001!
Although there was some overlap, my impression was that Parco Sempione is most popular with young adults while the Giardini Pubblici seem to be frequented by dog owners and families with young children. There are a number of museums at villas throughout the park. Across Via Palestro is the Villa Belgiojoso Bonaparte or Villa Reale, a beautiful 18th Century mansion that hosts an art museum.