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.
On our long time ago journey Sue and travelled from Rome to Sorrento. Sorrento is a well known holiday resort in southwestern Italy, a good base for excursions. And Sorrento was scintillating. It's perched atop cliffs that separate the town from its busy marinas. The Old Town is a warren of narrow alleys. Pride of place goes to the Chiesa di San Francesco, a 14th-century church with a pretty cloister. The whole of Italy paraded along the promenade at night. Ostensibly, for the sweeping sea views, but really it's all about people watching- and being seen. Despite all the warnings we didn’t get our bottoms pinched.
We took the hovercraft to Naples. The third largest city in Italy, with a proud history (and synonymous with the Camorra (Mafia ) in my head. No-one was running organised trips there at that time - it was considered to be too risky. You literally could 'see Naples and die'. We took nothing with us, except a cheap camera. There wasn’t much to engage us - maybe we went to the wrong part - we were a little nervous. Some urchins offered to take our pictures and ran off chuckling when we refused to hand over the camera.
Pompeii was more rewarding. The town is well known for having been buried under falling ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79. It happened so quickly that bodies and houses were really well preserved creating a vast museum of life in Ancient Roman times. Robert Harris describes the events of the time beautifully in his book Pompeii. We soaked up the history and went on to pick up pieces of pumice on Vesuvius itself. Buses take you to the lower slopes and great views out to sea and over Pompeii and the other buried town, Herculaneum. But, if you don't mind a scramble, you can get get right up to the crater and peer over.
We took a boat trip to craggy, crowded and bougainvillea filled Capri. Then, a coach trip along the Amalfi Coast. It was suitably gorgeous and the churches stunning. But the bus crawled along the narrow coast road - the Italians weren’t too fussy about where they parked their cars. We wove slowly round these and at one point the bus driver commandeered a gang of locals and they lifted an offending vehicle right out of the way.
Chris and I drove to Tuscany, gorgeous central Italy: Pisa, Lucca, Siena and Florence. Florence, the capital is magical. Famous for its Renaissance art and architecture, including Michelangelo’s "David" statue, Botticelli’ and da Vinci's works in the Uffizi Gallery (long queues to get in) and the Duomo basilica. The cathedral has a terracotta-tiled dome engineered by Brunelleschi and a bell tower by Giotto. The statue filled Boboli Gardens. They're all beautifully described in Forster's Room With a View. Best of all, the iconic views across the River Arno to the red roofs of the city.
Siena is sometimes described as the loveliest medieval town in the country - which is something in Italy. And, of course, it's UNESCO designated. Siena was fascinating and straw strewn - the locals all bedecked in medieval costumes. Preparations for the second Palio horse race of the year were underway. It's held in the fan-shaped central square, Piazza del Campo, the site of the Palazzo Pubblico, the Gothic town hall, and Torre del Mangia, a slender 14th-century tower. You climb up to its distinctive white crown for sweeping views over the town and countryside. The city’s 17 historic “contrade” (districts) extend outward from the piazza. Ten of these are represented in the races. Riders are adorned in the appropriate insignia and ride bareback. The race lasts for 3 circuits of the piazza, and is a scrimmage. Jockeys do well if they stay mounted until the end.
The autostradas were an experience, the city traffic was terrible and it was almost impossible to park. South, cinnamon soil, olive clad slopes, little hills with charming inns or monasteries on top. Chianti’s vineyards.
We parked the caravan with views across the picture book scenery to the castle on Fiesole; I was reading John Mortimer’s Summer’s Lease and we sought out and sampled all the wines he mentioned in his writing. Vernaccia de San Gimignano was superb.
Pisa is to the east of Florence, at the mouth of the Arno and has a coastal marina. It also has 20 historic churches and several palaces, but the only one anyone has ever heard of is the one with the leaning tower. It's the cathedral. The Leaning Tower is its freestanding campanile, or bell tower. The 56 metre tower's nearly four-degree lean is the result of an unstable foundation (the ground is too soft) and has been apparent since it was first constructed in the 12th century. The tilt worsened, until it had reached reached 5.5 degrees in 1990, so it was stabilized and it's now back to 3.97 degrees. There's also an amazing red domed baptistry.
Lucca is yet another gorgeous Tuscan city with a medieval centre, encircled by well-preserved Renaissance walls. This time, the piazza is oval shaped. It’s very quiet, as all the Italians have fled to the coast to escape the blistering heat of August. We dart across the cobblestone streets, leaping from shadow to shadow, to avoid being seared.
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