The train to Milan from Verona is much busier than the one from Venice. They’ve looped signs round some of the seats telling people to leave them empty, though I don’t see the point when someone can sit adjacent to you on the aisle. I’ve taken the seat by the window and the sign is now underneath me.
This is the Lombardy Plain and I can see mountains rising to the north now, in the distance. There are more of the steeple like cypress trees, synonymous with Italy and little churches with tapering red spires.
My modern hotel, the Anderson Echo, is across the road from the station, so I was hoping for a more peaceful night than Verona, especially as I’m on the seventh (top floor). But I can still hear the trains thundering underneath - the whole building reverberates. The literature told me it was within walking distance of the sights. That’s open to liberal interpretation. The closest of them - the cathedral - is a good half hour away. Using that logic, I suppose the whole of mainland Europe is within walking distance. I was booked in at the sister hotel, just across the road, but they’ve decided to keep that one closed - not enough clientele. I wonder if the metro line goes under that one too?
If I type Milan into Google I get pages of links about football. It’s all A.C. Milan too. Inter Milan isn’t getting a mention. When I input Milan City I’m told Milan is ‘a global capital of fashion and design and home to the national stock exchange’. Wikipedia says it’s the capital of Lombardy and the second most populous city in the country, after Rome, the dominant commercial centre of northern Italy.
Milan has dominated for some time. It's been a capital city on several occasions. It dates back to the Celts in about 400 BC. The Romans named it Mediolanum and after an edict by Diocletian became the seat of the western half of the Roman Empire. In 774 AD Milan surrendered to Charlemagne and the Franks. In 1395 Emperor Wenceslas made Milan a duchy, (The Duke of Milan features often in Shakespeare). The mid -15th century brought the Ambrosian Republic, taking its name from the patron saint of the city. The republic was short lived, as Milan was conquered by Francesco Sforza in 1450. Under the Sforzas, Milan became one of the leading cities of the Italian Renaissance.
Later Milan became Spanish and then Austrian. Under Napoleon it was made the capital of the Kingdom of Italy. Then it became Austrian again. With the unification of the country. In 1919 Benito Mussolini rallied the Blackshirts for the first time in Milan. He was also executed there. Phew!
It’s exceptionally quiet here, but then of course it actually is Sunday. About half the shops in the Via Buenos Aires – the local equivalent of Oxford Street - are open. Perhaps unsurprisingly Milan reminds me of London, though on a far smaller scale. The buildings are grand, rather than ornate. There’s a mixture of modern and older architecture and the colonnades creating shady walkways alongside some of the shops are welcome. It’s stylish and practical, rather than beautiful, like Bologna.
The streets are dotted with little booths, sweep in arcs around piazzas and are good for people watching. And I’m going to stick my neck out and say that the folk of Verona are more elegant than those of Milan, whatever Milan’s claim to fame. Although some of the ladies are wearing masks that are the same fabric as their dresses. (Nearly everyone here is wearing a mask, even out on the street - Lombardy had a high number of Covid cases.). You can even buy a trikini – a bikini with a matching mask.
Milan Cathedral took nearly six centuries to complete: construction began in 1386, but it wasn't finished until 1965. This is the largest church in Italy (St. Peter's Basilica is in Vatican City state), possibly the second largest in Europe and the third largest in the world (its size and position remain a matter of debate)The cathedral is a gothic masterpiece of course, but it’s not jaw dropping like Saint Mark’s.
And the other much vaunted site, the renowned opera theatre The Teatro Scala, is frankly disappointing. For some reason I had envisaged sweeping staircases, maybe they’re inside. La Scala's season opens on 7 December, Saint Ambrose's Day, the feast day of Milan's patron saint.
The Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle, which links the La Scala Piazza and its statue of Leonardo, with the duomo is far more interesting. It’s the oldest shopping mall in the world – elegantly housing four floors of shops containing nothing I can afford to buy. The arcaded ceilings are glass and the floors laid to decorative mosaic. One of these depicts a bull. It’s supposed to be lucky to stamp on his testicles – needless to say he now doesn’t have any left.
Plenty more churches (of course), old and newer, piazzas and a variety of sculptures, again ancient and modern..
The Castello Sforzesco is also definitely worth a visit, with its red walls (200 metres in length), three courtyards, emerald grassed moat and four huge round towers. This is where the Sforzas, the Dukes of Milan lived. It now houses numerous museums and much of Leonardo’s work – this is where the artist ‘spent his golden years'. Beyond, the Parco Sempione is more temptingly tranquil, with its shady trees and lakes. Most of Milan has ventured here, this summer afternoon. There’s a Peace Arch crowning the scene, atop the hill.
Just time to take in the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie before my energy gives out and I have to stop for ice cream. The building is supposedly famous for housing Da Vinci’s Last Supper, fittingly, in the refectory, though I don’t see it mentioned outside. And it is closed - though the tower, which is curiously round and tiered, is worth the additional distance.
I’m glad I stopped to take a look, but Milan is not my favourite Italian city. Tomorrow, across (and through) the Alps to Zurich and onto Liechtenstein.
Or read more about Italy here.
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