Milan, and another city I don’t really know what to expect from. While Rome, Florence and Venice instantly bring to mind a mental idea of their cultural riches, Milan is more famous for football, fashion and finance. Which is fine for alliterative purposes, but less helpful for the discerning culture vulture eager to discover its renaissance heritage.
In fact, that renaissance heritage isn’t immediately apparent. A series of wars and changes of ruler have seen to that. The cathedral (the Duomo) began in the 14th century, but was mainly constructed in the 19th century, while the Sforza family castle was transformed by the Spanish into a very utilitarian structure that looks more like a workhouse or a prison than anything else. This is not to say the centre is unattractive. The Galeria Vittorio Emanuele is a beautiful building (one guidebook I read said that it has provided the model for many shopping malls since – I think they could have tried harder with their emulation). The Piazze Mercate is gorgeous, particularly if you don’t look up too much. And the Duomo is certainly a striking building. The exterior is bright white and ornate and basically looks like a fancy wedding cake accessory. I’ve seen it from lots of different angles (it is the focal point for central Milan) and I keep changing my mind as to whether I like it or not. Inside by contrast, it’s awesome. The colossal stained glass is beautiful but provides the only relief in an otherwise sparse, even austere design – austere by Cathedral standards at least, it’d be a bit showy for a spare room.
The grandeur of the Duomo area apart, Milan does struggle to offer much to the European traveller not enthralled by Prada or Dolce & Gabbana. The gelateria are great, but probably best enjoyed in moderation. So, after enjoying the generous hospitality of the ursus family for dinner, I headed off to Como for the day – for which you’ll have to wait for my next post.
After Como, I had one more day in Milan, but as it was a holiday most places were shut. Partly this allowed an increase in the updating of this journal, though I’m a little concerned about Italian law which requires identification to be handed over to use internet cafes. Who am I to argue with Silvio Berlusconi, but I think it might be more of a security risk to have foreigners handing over their passports to fly-by-night side street internet places, rather than allowing them to check their email unsupervised.
Otherwise, I wandered fairly randomly around the city. Much of it is unremarkable, but it does have significant moments of grandeur to keep you interested, including the train station which is apparently a landmark of rationalist architecture. The other thing I couldn’t help noticing was the seemingly universal spectacle of public displays of affection. You can barely move for young people swapping saliva. I was vaguely tempted to find the Italian translation fo “get a room” and emblazon it on a t-shirt, but no-one would read it as they are too busy gazing soulfully into each others eyes. (Yeah, OK, I’m kinda jealous).
With no kitchen facilities in this hostel and most every traditional Italian place closed for the holiday, it was time to take refuge in that most traditional of last resorts for food – the kebab house. And then that lesser known but still well-established tradition of a vegetarian pointing out something at the end of their menu which they’ve clearly never cooked before. Three of the staff immediately went into conference on how to do it, and throughout the cooking process debate continued, with much checking of the oven. I have to say, by the time it arrived my hopes were not high but in fact it was delicious, probably far nicer than if they’d just done a kebab on auto-pilot.
Next up, Florence.