I know I talk a lot about Italian cultural diversity, but let me repeat myself. Northern Italy is very different from southern Italy, and nowhere is that more obvious than on a visit to Milan. Earlier this summer we hopped an evening train headed north, our only premeditated action was booking our hotel, otherwise we were completely disorganized. We had two goals in mind: One, sleep in; Two, see Milan.
Immediately upon exiting the train station it was obvious that Milan is different. We stood in a city that on the surface seemed to have more in common with London than with Rome. Though scattered baroque architecture and the faint aroma of espresso proved the city thoroughly Italian; skyscrappers, cycling lanes, and fashion forward citizens let us know that this city was yet another type of Italy. Milan is home to the Italian stock exchange, a world leader in modern fashion and design, and one of the industrial centers of Europe. But beyond appearances, there was an energy there that I hadn’t found elsewhere in our Italian travels. An abstract sense of ambition and creative energy that I don’t always see in my city, which is more a center of government and tourism. Not that I’m saying one is better than the other – I’m not going there – but again, they are different.
The next day, after checking off our first priority, ‘Sleeping In’, we set out towards the city center. As I said earlier, we didn’t have a plan. We just wanted to get a sense of Milan, so we headed for the main sight, the Milan Cathedral or Duomo di Milano.
If you see anything in Milan, it should be this. And I’m not the only person who feels that way, there were a lot of tourist with full sets of luggage in front of the Cathedral who were there either as a stop-over either between, before, or after their main destinations. As the fifth largest cathedral in the world that took nearly six hundred years to complete, it’s a sight worth seeing.
A short history: The Duomo was commissioned in the late 1300s by the powerful and wealthy of Milan in an attempt to keep up appearances with their Northern European neighbors. The Renaissance hadn’t happened quite yet, so the style of the day called for late gothic. Half the cathedral was built within a few decades but work stopped for a few generations and then started up again in a new era. This time the Renaissance was in full swing, and the original gothic style seemed old and foreign, so they tried to change it mid-way for something more modern and Italian. This flip-flopping of styles went back and forth for a few more centuries which kind of created an odd criss-cross of styles and workmanship and then stopped again in the 1700s. Later in the 1800s, Napoleon chose the Duomo as the place he wanted to be crowned king of Italy and promised to pay for finishing the façade (he never paid). By now the Romantic era had begun and people liked the Gothic style again, so they re-embraced the original designs, made them more elaborate and tried to make them merge with the existing half finished Renaissance façade. Officially the church was not finished until 1965, when the last gate was added.
The reviews for the church have always been mixed. At first glance it is undisputedly impressive, on closer inspection…yeah, I’m not a purist but the mixing of classical elements with gothic details is not exactly successful, and sometimes feels awkward. But it’s still pretty.
It’s free to enter the Duomo, like most Catholic churches, but if you want to take pictures you need to pay the two euro fee and get a wrist band. Don’t be cheap, fees go toward the restoration, which it badly needs, and they do stop people without wristbands from taking pictures.
Picture: Interior 1 “See the light grey column, this is the color the interior should be after restoration is finished.”
The interior is dark, much darker than I expected it to be, and massive.
You can’t have a big church without having some big relics. Suspended high above the altar, marked by a bright red light, is one of the nails that crucified Christ. If I did not know about it beforehand, I probably would have dismissed it as a security feature.
To me though, the most interesting and unusual work of art was the sculpture of Saint Bartholomew Flayed (1562) by Marco d’Agrate, a student of Leonardo Di Vinci’s. It’s gruesome, and so impressive. At first glance, it looks like he is wearing a simple cloth, but on closer inspection you can tell he is actually draping his own skin around him. It’s ironic the church even displayed this statue considering it is the result of then illegal human anatomy lessons, banned by the church itself.
Though the interior is interesting, it is not exactly worth the trip. The real thrills are on the roof. I recommend making your way to the box office which is on the right exterior side of the cathedral and buying tickets to either take the stairs or the elevator to the top. I’m lazy so we paid the extra euros for the elevator. The entrance for both the stairs and the elevator is on the back of the cathedral, basically the furthest possible point from the box office. I think they do this so you’ll buy tickets without seeing how long the line is. But in my case there were only a few people in line.
Even though we were only a few weeks into a fairly mild summer, this particular day was the kind that Italy is famous for. So humid and stagnant you instantly feel gross, with a sun so intense you dream of neck flap safari hats (because appearances are now secondary), and heat so real you swear you can hear your skin crackle. It was a non-issue inside the cathedral, because it takes forever for those big stone buildings to get hot, but on that searing white roof, it was bad. So why did we stay up there? Because it looked like this:
I was expecting a flat-ish roof with good views, maybe a few close ups of gargoyles, and some antennas I would choose not to look at. But what I actually found was a sort of stone garden decorating a labyrinth of hallways and stairways that wound around the cathedral and showcased details that couldn’t possibly be seen from below.
And the view isn’t bad either. I find it interesting that these same statue-tipped spires, though only about two hundred years old in most cases, have looked on during the Coronation of Napoleon, the unification of Italy, World War I, Mussolini’s regime, the city’s massive destruction during World War II, and the re-building of the modern city that is today.
We couldn’t take it anymore so we exited this outdoor tourist hotplate and went in search for food. I felt like being difficult, which meant no pasta, no pizza, nothing cheesy or hot. After losing roughly half my body weight on the roof I needed something that counted as nutrition. We wondered the nearby streets for a little while when I saw a bright orange elevator that basically read, ‘this way to the food court,’ on the side of a building. This sounded air-conditioned, so we stepped inside the mysterious lone elevator and pressed the only button. It swept us up to the top floor of what we realized was actually Rinascente, an Italian luxury department store that is across the street from the Duomo.
If I didn’t live in Italy I would say that is an excellent place to buy your olive oil and biscuit souvenirs, and it is, but it’s also a luxury brand so beware of the prices. The drawl here is the terrace overlooking the piazza, and the half dozen restaurants that offer everything from sushi, to burgers, to pasta, to kobe beef. But I feel the real gem is the modest counter in the center that prepares fresh juices and gorgeous salads. I wanted to eat food that my body would thank me for, and this fit the bill.
Tremendously cooled-off, and much less grumpy we briefly explored Rinascente. It’s not an exotic brand, think of it as Italy’s Nordstrom’s. I know there are at least three in Rome, and I shop there myself for certain items. Therefore, it didn’t bring any surprises for us, but if you’re looking for a one stop shop for mid to high-end Italian brand stuff, you may be able to save yourself some blisters find it here.
We continued our ‘see Milan’ project by walking next door to the Galleria.
It’s hard to miss, just walk through the colossal arch next to the Duomo and into the glass enclosed street. There isn’t much to say about this place except that it’s pretty, smaller than I thought, and one of the most expensive shopping districts in the world. It’s nice to window shop.
We grabbed our afternoon gelato at Savini under the dome and people watched next to one of the Prada stores. We couldn’t figure out why people were enthusiastically spinning under the dome and taking selfies. After a quick google search, it turns out it has something to do with the testicles of a mosaic bull. Back in 1877, during the completion of the Galleria, the leader of the project tragically fell off the scaffolding just weeks before completion. Supposedly the bull marks the general area where he died. Since that time, people have been convinced to place their heels in the bulls groin and spin backwards three times to ward off evil spirits. This is done so much that this area of bull has to be replaced once every four years. We didn’t participate, but we enjoyed watching the people that did.
So where are my last supper pictures? We didn’t go. Infact, if you must see Leonardo di Vinci’s Last Supper book your tickets a minimum of one month in advance. They only sell a limited number of tickets per day, many of which are reserved by large tours. With only a week before our trip we tried to simply join a tour but those were booked up as well. While we were there we heard of last-minute tickets sometimes being available in case the tours have no-shows or someone doesn’t show up for their ticket time. Standby tickets are not a guarantee, and you could be waiting around for nothing. For us, seeing or not seeing the Last Supper didn’t make or break our trip, so we didn’t pursue it further.
That night, which was really our only night since we had gotten in late the night before, we wanted to do something different. So we headed toward one of the few places where a bit of the old Milan still exist, the Canal District, Navigli District.
Up until about a century ago, Milan had a good sized network of canals to move goods around the city. All but this one were filled-in in favor of streets. This area isn’t a secret, is seems most of the younger population spends their evenings here, but it manages to be fun despite the crowd. Re-furbished canal boats host mini soccer tournaments and promote mini-coopers, various bars and hosterias line the streets, and the people watching in the evening is among the best. The major draw-back of enjoying a summer evening on a canal are the MONSTER mosquitos. We didn’t have any repellant with us, but the Milanese are prepared, and our server brought incense to fend them off. This was probably my favorite place in Milan, if you have the time, you should swing by.
Like all of our trips I was a little sad to leave the next morning. When we got to the train station I noticed “Expo 2015” propaganda everywhere, and looked them up to pass time. Afterwards I immediately felt better, because I knew we would be returning to Milan sometime between May and October of next year. If you don’t already know about it let me explain: This is the World Exposition for Arts and Technology, or otherwise known as the World’s Fair, or World’s Exposition. The telephone, Eiffel tower, electric car, and waffle cone, among many other things, were all premiered at the world’s fair. Countries from around the world build elaborate temporary pavilions that showcase achievements and advances in art and technology that are designed to make our lives better. I want to go for the architecture alone, seriously, look it up. I cannot wait!
Like I said before, Milan is different. Whereas so many other cities worth seeing in Italy are centered around history, preservation, and tourism; Milan is a city that is still writing it’s story and creating it’s future. It’s exciting to see.