I thought, how do I manage my time in Milan to be able to see nearly all the important sights and come away feeling that I’d done it justice? The answer? Three days and four nights. It’s just the right amount of time to spend in Milan without feeling that you need to include an excursion to Torino or the Lakes.
We were due to travel to Milan at this time last year. However, we were forced to cancel courtesy of a rather bad abscess in a back tooth and everything except finding an emergency dentist suddenly seemed irrelevant.
So, just twelve months later, we’re on the Ryanair flight from Manchester to Bergamo for a four-day break in the glorious northern Italian city of Milan. It’s the capital city of Lombardy with an overall population of 3.2m and an inner-city population of 1.4m. It has two European Championship winning football teams, a top-class university and is the global capital for industrial design, fashion and architecture.
One evening, three full days, four nights and one morning – let’s see how it panned out.
Milan had been basking in spring sunshine for the previous two weeks of April. Day in and day out the temperatures had been in the balmy late teens. However, things had now changed. A sudden ‘front’ meant that we arrived to face grey skies and driving rain. Milan pays a price for being in northern Italy and being influenced by the Alps. They’re not far away at all and easily visible from vantage points around the city.
‘It’s unusual’ a lady tells me at the Terrevision bus stop outside of the Arrivals terminal. ‘It was like summer here last week’. Some comfort, I think, as I stand, brolly up, waiting for the bus to take me into the city.
There are fleets of buses that leave the terminal on a regular basis. For €4 or €5 euros you can travel the 48km from Bergamo into the city in comfort; a journey that takes a little over an hour. It must be one of the cheapest experiences you’re likely to get in this rather expensive city. I’d recommend booking in advance – there’s a discount to be had. (http://www.terravision.eu/airport_transfer/bus-bergamo-airport-milan/)
We’re dropped at the Milano Centrale railway station in the Piazza Duca d’Aosta. It’s a grand building dating started in 1906 to replace an earlier construction. It was completed by Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, reflecting his usual conservative style to demonstrate the power of his Fascist regime! It’s quite magnificent. Definitely, it makes a statement!
The Hotel Glam Milano (https://www.glamhotelmilano.it/en/) is opposite the station, across the piazza and one of a number of hotels serving tourists arriving by train or bus. The grandest hotel on the piazza must be the Excelsior Gallia, built in 1932 in an even grander style and trying to upstage what is a very grand station indeed.
Our hotel, however, is far more modern, only a couple of years old but serves us nicely. I do my usual trick of emailing ahead and informing reception that ‘this is a very important holiday and a very special occasion. Could we reserve a room with a really good view?’ It rarely fails. The view from the eighth floor takes in the whole square, beautifully lit on a wet Wednesday evening, with the lights reflecting on the pavements as people desert the city for warmer and dryer homes out in the suburbs.
I rarely do ‘half-board’ anywhere. However, Milan is not a cheap place to visit and the offer of ‘a package’ at a good price was tempting. It seems that it’s a popular choice and we’re informed that, as a result, the hotel offers two ‘sittings’ for dinner. We opt for the earlier at 8 p.m. We take the escalator down to Floor R, the restaurant, only to realise that we’re not actually that early! The restaurant is pleasant but already full. It’s a buffet and I must look a little disconsolate as I lift lids on tureens, one after another – empty! A waiter takes me to one side. If I wait a few minutes, all will be well. ‘You need to eat later, sir’, he tells me, ‘it’s the ‘Cinese’, they eat early and they eat everything!’
Perhaps ‘anything and everything’ might be a better choice of words? A biblical plague of locusts could not have eaten more.
Still, after a few minutes, fresh food arrives, hot and more than adequate: ham risotto, pasta with mushroom sauce, chicken and salmon with fresh vegetables. A bit of this and a bit of that, all on the same plate? The Welsh have a word for it: ‘stwnsh‘. My mother always told me that I had ‘eyes bigger than my stomach’. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll simply have a dish of the day…….it might be a better ploy!
Actually, the Chinese tourists turn out to be Australian. There are couples on our floor and we talk in the lift heading down for meals. They are from Sydney and away for six weeks enjoying a cruise that will take them from Italy to Copenhagen and Helsinki, St Petersburg and Ireland. They have early starts and long days sight-seeing which may account for the way that they arrive together at mealtimes. By the time they are sat down and eating, the waiters look shell-shocked.
After dinner, we dash out, dodging the rain, in search of wine. I realise that both the Carrefour supermarket down the nearby side street and the Conad within the shopping mall at the railway station only sell wine in corked bottles. No screw-tops or cartons in sight. I finally source a corkscrew which is almost as expensive as the wine! Airport security can be a handicap at times! It’s too wet to venture far, so I pull up a chair into the window of the eighth-floor room with the best view in town, pour a glass of Vino Frizzante and watch the evening world go by!
Usually, areas around railway stations, especially at night, make travellers wary. In Milan, the station and the concourse, the piazza and the surrounding areas are places of beauty. There is a large covered area in the middle of the square that seems to be the gathering place for a small number of, what appears to be, immigrants or possibly refugees. They appear to be mostly Somalian or from other African countries. They cause no problems. This is probably due to the fact that there is the permanent presence of three dozen armoured cars manned by heavily-armed troops. I suppose it’s a comfort for the tourist, the traveller and the local residents, alike.
Day One: Da Vinci’s Last Supper, The Duomo and the Naviglio Grande
On our first full day, we wake to leaden skies but the rain has a mind to hold off. After breakfast, which is more than satisfactory and with excellent coffee, we walk through the streets heading south-east to the Santa Marie della Grazie, a small church tucked away amongst shops and fine buildings. It takes us about an hour. This is our choice. The Metro entrance is ten yards from the door of the hotel and is so convenient, but I find you see nothing from a seat in a train scuttling along in the bowels of the earth and it’s hard to get bearings unless you walk.
700 years ago, the monks who lived at the church of Holy Mary of Grace needed some decorating done. Literally across the road, lived a chap who had his own vineyard and was said to be a bit of a dab hand with a brush. They commissioned him to paint a scene on the back wall of the dining room….a mural, so so speak. And so, working on drywall rather than the usual way of producing a fresco, on wet plaster, Leonardo da Vinci painted his version of The Last Supper. Strictly speaking therefore, it’s not a fresco. However, painting on a dry wall meant that, in theory, he could keep returning to work on the piece, although the monks became concerned that the colours began to fade quicker than the wet plaster fresco of Montofano’s Crucifixion at the other end of the refectory. The monks couldn’t get him back to do any ‘running repairs’ and over centuries, it suffered from being ‘touched up’ by well-meaning artists. There was an active programme of ‘stripping back’ in the 1970s and what we have today is considered to be as close to the original as we’re likely to ever see. It’s a marvel to behold. It’s still as beautiful in its simplicity as it is in its detail. It’s a wonder and on its own, more than worth the visit to Milan.
Although visits are limited to fifteen minutes, photography is allowed, and encouraged, unlike my experience in the Sistine Chapel when I was almost escorted out for trying to photograph Michelangelo’s work. However, a word to the traveller. Book tickets to see The Last Supper as early as possible and certainly before you come to Italy. I used Get your Guide (https://www.getyourguide.co.uk/milan-l139/last-supper-guided-tour-t62894/) and they are excellent. The combined ticket also includes entrance without queuing to the Duomo and the Cathedral museum.
From there it’s only a short and straight walk to the Duomo.
Milan Cathedral, or the Duomo, is the seat of the Archbishop of Milan and, as a Gothic cathedral, took six centuries to complete. It’s the largest church in Italy and the fifth largest in the World. St. Basilica in Rome is larger, but that is in the Vatican State, of course. Our Get Your Guide tickets meant that we could walk past the endless lines of visitors waiting to buy tickets and were escorted right to the front of the queue.
Again, there is a heavy military presence. Bags are searched and bodies patted down with electronic equipment. Interestingly, the soldiers on duty are all young and sport the latest in fashionable sunglasses. One young girl, barely out of her teens walks up and down chatting to the tourists, her Beretta ARX 160 assault rifle in the crook of her arm and her Beretta 92 FS pistol slung low on her thigh. It’s funny what you notice when you’re queuing!
Inside, the majesty of the cathedral takes your breath away. It’s hard to realise from the outside just how massive the columns are and how far away the ceiling stretches as you crane your neck to take in the highly decorated roof. Opulence is everywhere. Gold, jewels – the eternal contradiction of the Catholic Church and the poor it purports to protect.
This contradiction is never more obvious than when you stand in the nearly Duomo Museum and take in the vast wealth on show in the ecclesiastical garb, ornamentation and iconology. It lays out clearly the influence that the church had over the centuries, inculcating the population into believing their guilt and culpability could in some way be relieved by making an already obscenely rich institution even richer.
From the Duomo and its museum, we head south to the Porta Ticinese and the Naviglio Grande. There are three rivers in Milan: the Addo, the Po and the Ticino. Unfortunately, it’s not a city that makes you aware of its rivers – they don’t cut through the centre in the way that the Danube does in Budapest or the Seine does in Paris. However, the city has developed a number of transport systems to compensate. Railways arrived as did trams, the Metro and the bus services. In addition, in the 12th century, canals were cut to provide for the development of agriculture, commerce and transport.
Nowadays, the canal areas have gone ‘up market’ with apartments and houses that line the waterway in great demand. Bars and restaurants are dotted along the edges and barges have been converted to provide extra social outlets. Tourists can take a boat ride up and down the canal to learn about its history. It’s not a cheap trip, mind!
Day Two: : The Monumental Cemetery, China Town, Sempione Park, Castella Sforza and the Pinacoteca di Brera
It sounds a lot to do in a whole day, but Milan is a city where walking between sights is more than manageable.
The weather changes and the grey drizzle is swapped for blue skies, fluffy white clouds and temperatures in the high teens. Milan returns to its usual late Spring weather and the whole city breaks into a smile.
We start at the Monumental Cemetery, the Cimitero Monumental di Milano. It must rank as one of the great cemeteries of the World. Officially opened in 1886, it’s fascinating for the huge dynastic tombs and dioramas that were created by sculptors whose lives were given to the creation of funereal art. The tomb of Arturo Toscanini must be one of the plainest, yet best-known graves. The whole area is massive and I can’t imagine anyone visiting Milan without spending at least an hour here.
From the cemetery, the route takes you down through China Town and the Via Paolo Sarpi. Most of the shops are ‘Wholesale Only’ and stock vast quantities of earrings, jewellery, beads and bangles. However, the merging of Chinese and Italian influences is most noticeable in the number of Chino-Italian restaurants, offering spaghetti dishes with an Asian twist. Strangely, it’s the only China Town I’ve visited where they haven’t erected a ceremonial Chinese arch.
At the far end of China Town lies Sempione Park. Here there is an arch. A vast Romanesque Arch of Peace, reminiscent of the Brandenberg Gate or the Constantine Triumphal Arch in Rome. It was originally part of the Roman walls of Milan until it was rebuilt and modernised after the 1815 Congress of Vienna. It welcomes visitors into the Parco Sempione, a 95-acre park in the middle of the city which sits between the Arch of Peace and the Sforza Castle. It’s a pleasant place for dog walkers, joggers, cyclists and families. There is a lot of ‘green’ in Milan. Long should it remain.
At the far end of the park stands Sforza Castle. Having ousted the Visconti lords at the end of the 14th century, the present castle was built in the 15th century, as a citadel and a safe haven for the Sforza family of Lombardy, Today, entrance to the castle is free but the various exhibitions and galleries are only entered by paid ticket. Michaelangelo’s final Pieta is on display – sculpted when he was 85 years old and missing from public view for centuries.
The final stop of the day is at the Pinacoteca di Brera. This is the main art gallery in Milan and houses thirty-eight rooms of the finest art from the 14th and 15th centuries I have ever seen. There are modern rooms: portraits and landscapes, but it was the quality of the earlier work that completely takes my attention.
The whole Brera district is rich with jewellery and antique shops and provides a useful diversion while trekking from one experience to another.
Milanese people are very smart. There is a distinct absence of the rather brutal hairstyles one sees in London or other English cities. In the Brera district, couture is certainly ‘haute’. Handbag-dogs abound – more than a few wearing very expensive cashmere sweaters – the dogs I mean, not the owners! Little Scotties in designer macintoshes contrast massively with the considerable numbers of beggars who stand outside the cafes and supermarkets, the bars and the clothes shops begging for a few coins. It’s hard not to stop and give them your loose change. Many are forced to sleep rough, but this is also a city where there is no litter, no waste (canine or otherwise) and a very visible police force.
Day Three: Shopping and the Scala
It would not be a trip to Milan without taking in some of the many shopping districts. Fortunately, they link up very easily which means you can work your way through a day moving from the very wealthy districts where window-shopping is the limit to the more usual run of the mill shops with names recognisable the world over.
I’d start with the Corso Buenos Aires – very much the Regent or Oxford Street of Milan. This runs through the Corso Venezia to the Qualdilatero d’Oro. This is the ‘posh end’ with the designer names and the thousands of Euros pricetags. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II is a covered walkway close to the Duomo and home to some very exclusive shops as well as some very exclusive looking police ladies.
From here, it’s a short hop to the Scala and the Scala Museum before heading down to the Corso Ticinese and the Naviglio Pavese, another canal area that is ‘up and coming’.
Day Four : A morning at the Park
The Giardini Pubblici Indro Montanelli is a lovely family park in the north part of the city and only ten minutes walk away from our hotel. On a Sunday morning, it’s host to families playing games, students revising, joggers taking exercise and people walking dogs. It’s clean, extremely pleasant and a good way to while away a couple of hours before heading back to the airport and home.
There is a rally on when we arrive. FIDAS, the national association for blood donors is meeting here with representatives from all over Italy. Everybody carries a whistle and a banner and it’s marvellous to see such a concerted determination to provide a vital service for fellow Italians.
Would I recommend the Hotel Glam Milano. Certainly. For location it is ideal. There is a metro stop at the hotel, the station is a minute walk away. Trams stop outside and it’s an easy walk to the sights. Breakfast is good and, although the evening meal is not haute cuisine, it’s better than adequate and, for those on a budget, saves a little more for excursions, lunches and drinks. There is certainly enough choice, although the drinks are expensive, as they are across the city. Rooms are spotless, service excellent and wifi incredibly fast for a hotel. All in all, a good choice!
Would I recommend Milan. Certainly. It’s a lovely city for a short break.