No travel now for nine months so taking a look back at good times in Italy…
Have Bag, Will Travel
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Everyone recognises the Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci, it is one of the most loved and most parodied pieces of art ever…
“What a wonder it is! So grand, so solemn, so vast! And yet so delicate, so airy, so graceful! A very world of solid weight, and yet it seems …a delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath!…”, Mark Twain – ‘The Innocents Abroad’
We left Rimini early in the morning. We booked the fast train and were especially careful to make sure that we caught the right one this time. Kim fell asleep. The journey took two hours and we arrived in Milan around about midday and walked to the IBIS Hotel.
We only had an afternoon in Milan so we had to make a choice about what we would go and see. Should it be Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie or alternatively visit the largest Cathedral in Italy.
We decided upon the Cathedral and this was our reasoning.
The Last Supper by Da Vinci isn’t the original.
The work started around 1495 but due to the methods used, a variety of environmental factors and some intentional and accidental damage, nothing of the original remains.
Because the painting was on a thin exterior wall it was affected badly by humidity and the paint failed to properly adhere and after it was completed it quickly began to deteriorate. By 1517 the paint was flaking, by 1532 it had lost most of its colour and detail. In 1652, a doorway was cut through the painting, and later bricked back up. In 1768, a curtain was hung over the painting for the purpose of protection but instead trapped moisture on the surface and whenever the curtain was pulled back it scratched the flaking paint.
A first restoration was attempted in 1726 and a second in 1770 both were criticised for not faithfully reproducing the original. In 1796 French troops threw stones at the painting and climbed ladders to scratch out the Apostles’ eyes. The refectory was then later used as a prison. A repair project was attempted in 1820 but this only succeeding in damaging the work when a whole section fell off the wall.
During World War II the refectory was struck by Allied bombing and the painting was damaged by splinters and vibration. Between 1978 and 1999 the most recent major restoration project undertook to stabilise the painting and reverse the damage caused by dirt and pollution.
So this is my point, this is why I mention this here – it is possible to go to see the painting, a painting, but it isn’t by Leonardo Da Vinci that’s for sure so if it isn’t an original what is the point!
There are lots of other versions of the Last Supper – this is one of my favourites…
We were also influenced in our decision making by the fact that it costs €40 to visit the Basilica to see the painting but only €10 to visit the Cathedral and climb to the top of the roof. We chose the Cathedral.
I have made no secret of the fact that I didn’t especially like Milan but I have to say that the Marble Gothic Cathedral is perhaps one of the finest that I have ever seen in Italy. In design, more French than Italian perhaps. The location is magnificent with a wide open Piazza to the front and it rises dramatically upwards with spires like needles piecing the sky, each one decorated with a Saint or Apostle at the very top.
It is claimed there are more statues on this cathedral than any other building in the world; there are three thousand, four hundred statues, one hundred and thirty-five gargoyles and seven hundred figures. There are two hundred and forty steps to the top but that did not concern us, we had climbed nearly five hundred in Bologna so we ignored the extra charge for the lift and began the ascent.
Now this was really something really worth doing and well worth the admission charge. There was a lot of restoration work at the top but this didn’t interfere with the stunning views and the rooftop panorama of the city. We stayed up on the top for quite some time and after two circuits made our way down the steps and into the Cathedral which was equally impressive.
I will tell you two stories…
Above the apse there is a spot marked with a red light bulb. This marks the spot where one of the nails of Jesus’ crucifixion was allegedly placed. Once a year in September the archbishop of Milan ascends to the apex in a wooden basket decorated with angels to retrieve the nail. The nail is displayed on the altar for three days and then put back again. You do have to wonder why?
Inside the Cathedral is a statue of the Apostle Saint Bartholomew who met an especially grisly end when he was skinned alive. Condemned to death he was flayed and the skin of his body cut into strips,then pulled off leaving his body open and bleeding for a long time, after that he was beheaded and then crucified just to make sure. I am prepared to be challenged on this point but I don’t believe that it would be possible to be skinned alive, I imagine you’d die of shock quite quickly. The pain must have unimaginable, I know I call for a sticking plaster for just the tiniest of little skin-nicks!
We left the Cathedral and took the dreary walk back to the hotel. I still hadn’t warmed to Milan but the Cathedral helped redeem it a little.
“This lake exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty. It is long and narrow, and has the appearance of a mighty river winding among the mountains and the forests” – Percy Bysshe Shelley
After an average breakfast at the Hotel IBIS we checked out and fearing chaotic queues swiftly made our way to the Central Station. Two days earlier we had arrived in the dark and had not fully appreciated just what a magnificent building this is, almost as good, it has to be said, as the Cathedral in the heart of the city. Completed in 1931 it is built in the Italian Fascist style with a combination of brutalism and neo-classicism. It shouldn’t really work but it does.
Buying a train ticket in Italy isn’t especially easy because Italians have the same ill-discipline in a railway station booking hall as they do when they are driving on the roads. They don’t especially like queuing and will constantly switch lines just like suddenly changing lanes on a motorway, they are impatient and have zero tolerance for anyone that struggle with the automatic ticket machines. Lose concentration for a fraction of a second and you will find two or three people suddenly ahead in the queue who weren’t there previously.
It was only a short journey of thirty minutes or so through unremarkable countryside and stopping frequently at a succession of graffiti scarred concrete stations of no special significance until the tired and scruffy train finally approached the foothills of the Alps and the southern tip of the lake and the railway station.
We chose to walk from the station to the accommodation, I always choose to walk rather than take a taxi, I don’t like taxis, it was about a mile away to the edge of the water and the lakeside fringe of the town and after we had found it, checked in and approved it we ventured out onto the streets.
To begin with we explored the town centre and found somewhere for a coffee and then we made our way inevitably towards the lake.
East or west? We chose east and we walked around the lake as far as we could until we came to a hotel car park and lido and a dead-end so we were obliged to turn around and walk back in the same direction running the gauntlet for a second time of a succession of insistent waiters all touting for business in the sprawling ribbon of restaurants and cafés that lined this section of the lake. We declined every invitation because Como turned out to be rather expensive and whilst I like to sit at a pavement table and enjoy a beer or a glass of wine I find it less enjoyable when the cost is higher than my skinflint budget allows.
To be fair these places were in prime position overlooking the lake and probably entitled to charge a premium so we headed towards the periphery of the town in search of a place with prices more to our liking and after thirty minutes or so found exactly what we were looking for.
Later we walked around the attractive town in search of somewhere to eat and came across a traditional trattoria and enjoyed a simple pasta meal. We took our time over the meal and relaxed, we had walked nine miles today.
One of the main tourist attractions in Como is a funicular railway which links lakeside Como to the elevated town of Brunate over one thousand, six hundred feet higher and with commanding views of the town and the lake. It seemed to us to be forever busy and when we walked past there was a queue much longer than my short patience quota so the next day we started early and took a ride before breakfast to the top.
We sauntered along the mountain paths looking for the best views which sadly were few and far between blotted out as they were by the high fences of the expensive houses and villas which decorate the mountain top. Eventually we reached a panoramic viewing point and below us we could enjoy the red-roofed town and the shining blue lake below with a panoramic view across to Switzerland barely five miles to the west.
Lake Como is a curious shape rather like the three-legged crest of the Isle of Man, after Lake Garda and Lake Maggiore it is the third largest lake in Italy and at one thousand three hundred feet deep it is the third deepest lake in Europe after Lakes Hornindalsvatnet and Tinnsjå, both in Norway.
We spent a very pleasant hour or so at Brunate but quickly ran out of things to do so took the funicular back to Como and swaggered smugly past the long queue that was beginning to form. We stopped for breakfast now and as we ate planned our itinerary for the remainder of the day.
Rather sad and neglected. In Milan balcony flowers are not a priority it seems.
Except for the modern business district…
“Cities that are dedicated to making money, and in Milan they appear to think of little else, seldom have much energy left for charm” – Bill Bryson’, Neither here Nor there’
After the overwhelming success of the previous year’s holiday to Portugal where we used the train service to travel from Lisbon to Porto with various stops upon the way, we decided that we would do something similar again this year. When we were making plans we decided to travel to Italy, persuaded most of all it has to be said by the £40 return air flights to Milan.
Our plan was to use the trains to first visit the Italian Lakes and then to travel through the Region of Emilia-Romagna and stop off at the cities of Parma, Modena and Bologna and finish at the seaside at Rimini on the Adriatic Riviera. We would immerse ourselves in culture and then submerge ourselves in the Mediterranean Sea.
We arrived in Milan late one evening with only just enough of the day left to find our hotel, check in and then hastily find somewhere for evening meal and leave the sightseeing until the following day.
The mile long walk into the City was immediately disappointing. In Italy I like chaos with the street life, chatter and noise, dripping washing lines hanging across the streets, peeling paint, geraniums on balconies, pavement cafés with espresso stained cups, people selling things from mobile shops and groups of men hanging around on street corners discussing the big issues of the day but there was none of this in Milan just a long soulless street lined with shops and offices, boutiques selling expensive adornments for the body, shoes, handbags, jewellery, designer clothing and other pointless stuff.
The place for me lacked any sort of appeal but to be fair it was always unlikely that, as Kim was quick to point out, I would get on well with a city that boasts shopping and fashion as major attractions. In fact Milan markets itself as the World’s leading fashion capital and to prove it this week just happened to be one of the most important weeks of their year – Milan Fashion Week. FASHION WEEK! I broke out into an immediate sweat!
Milan is the second largest city in Italy after Rome and also the richest and most prosperous. The Barcelona of Italy. It concentrates on business and banking, commerce and trade; it prides itself on productivity, innovation and efficiency and as a consequence it lacks the vivacity of Naples, the grandeur of Rome, the heritage of Florence or the theatre of Venice.
This is a city of big business and enterprise rather than street vendors and indolence, hardly like being in Italy at all it seemed to me as we made our way to the historical centre. The reason maybe is that geographically Milan is the most northern major city in the country and only a few miles away from the Swiss border and therefore more central-western than southern European. Maybe also being part of the Austrian Empire for one hundred and fifty years (1706-1861) has given Lombardy and Milan a certain stoic Germanic characteristic that it cannot shake off.
I checked later and wasn’t surprised to discover that Milan has never been considered for European Capital of Culture and I got the impression that people here don’t really care.*
Although Milan is a large city much of it, it has to be said is rather uninteresting and the historical centre is a surprisingly small area right in the middle. As we approached we came first to the Opera House, Teatro alla Scala, one of the most famous in the World but just as the streets we had walked along I found the building exterior to be sadly underwhelming…
This by contrast is the Scala cinema in Ilkeston, Derbyshire which is where I used to live (Ilkeston not the Scala) which seems to me to a lot more attractive. Ilkeston may have borrowed the name for its cinema, maybe Milan should copy the design for its opera house and I think that it would be an improvement…
Beyond La Scala was the first really interesting building that we had come across in nearly an hour of walking and it turned out to be a shopping Mall, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. It is a fine building, four storeys high, built in the grand manner of the mid-nineteenth century with extravagant tiled floors, soaring marble columns and a decorative vaulted latticework roof of glass and steel with a central cupola one hundred and sixty feet high.
This was more like it, I liked this place even though the interior avenues were lined with shops that I have heard of but never used, Gucchi, Prada, Tiffaney, Coccinelle and Versace all with merchandise displaying price labels that had been attached by someone with a grotesque sense of humour. I mean, who buys this stuff when you can get perfectly good replicas from TK Maxx back home or from a Looky-Looky man on the streets?
The main entrance to the building opens out onto what is undoubtedly the finest part of the city, the Piazza del Doumo with an imposing equestrian statue of King Victor Emmanuel II (first King of United Italy) at one end and the magnificent marble Doumo at the other. There was a very long queue today to visit the Cathedral so we thought that we might save that for another time.
We satisfied ourselves today by circumnavigating the exterior of the largest Cathedral in all of Italy and the third largest in the World and then resumed our walking tour of the city which took us through a large park where we stopped for refreshment and then to the modern business quarter, all polished concrete, shining glass and gleaming steel where we didn’t linger long but instead after eight miles of walking made our weary way back to the Hotel IBIS.
In a fortnight’s time we would be back in the city with plans to visit the Cathedral but the next day we were starting our journey by taking a train to Como in the Lakes and for the time being I was glad that we weren’t spending longer here. One day in a big city is generally not enough to scratch the scratch on the surface but to be honest it was long enough for me in Milan.
* Florence (1986), Bologna (1999) and Genoa (2003).
After the success of the previous year’s holiday to Portugal where we used the train service to travel from Lisbon to Porto with various stops upon the way we decided that we would do something similar this year and when we were making plans we decided to travel to Italy persuaded most of all by the £40 return air flights to Milan.
Our plan was to use the trains to first visit the Italian Lakes and then to travel through the Region of Emilia-Romagna and stop off at the cities of Parma, Modena and Bologna and finish at the seaside at Rimini on the Adriatic Riviera.
Travels in Italy coming soon…