Following a successful excursion to Lake Como and Crespi d’Adda, the capital of northern Italy, Milan, was coming up. A modern city with fashion design and big business. Yet a city full of history, colourful pedestrian streets, a beautiful park, a fantastic cathedral and a dramatic football match with AC Milan.
Planning the perfect weekend, part 2
We had almost three days at our disposal, arriving before noon on day 1 and leaving after breakfast on day 4. The first day was spent touring the region north and east of Milan, the lake district and a World Heritage Site. That day is described in another entry.
We came for a football match but used the opportunity to have a look around. The match would take place on the evening of day 3 so we had two days to plan for. I always consult guidebooks when planning for a visit. My old guidebook from 1991, Let’s Go Europe, lists these major sights of Milan:
- The Duomo (cathedral)
- The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade
- The La Scala opera house
- The Pinacoteca di Brera picture gallery
- The Castello Sforzesco palace with its huge park, Parco Sempione
- The convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie with the Last Supper painting
Looking up the 2012 edition of Lonely Planet’s Europe on a Shoestring at the library they list precisely the same major sights. In addition they include San Siro Football Stadium. Both guidebooks as well as other detailed books I consulted, also include the Golden Quad. This is a series of streets housing all the major fashion brands. Milan is of course best known for its fashion boutiques, something which is outside my line of interests.
In any case, we had a rough plan of what to see. I brought along a guidebook in addition to ticket vouchers to the Last Supper and the football match between AC Milan and FC Roma. Friends at home had told me that Milan was boring. Was it? Answer: No. Did we manage to visit all these sights? Answer: Almost all of them, and we added more as well. I’ll start my story with one of the world’s most supreme highlights. We visited it on the morning of Day 2.
Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper”
The fame of it
The universal genius from the little town of Vinci, Leonardo, lived in Milan for 17 years, employed by the local ruler Ludovico Sforza. Although many would associate Leonardo with paintings (as well as his drawings of helicopters and war machines) there are only about 15 paintings left. On the other hand, two of them are the two most famous paintings in the world. The most famous is Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) at the Louvre in Paris. The other is the fresco inside the dining hall at the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the one in Paris is not.
Due to their popularity neither is easy to visit. I was able to have a close look at Mona Lisa years ago, and was rather disappointed. This time I failed to get an ordinary museum ticket which had to be booked three months ahead and we had to settle with a guided group tour. That tour on the morning of our Day 2 was by no means disappointing, it was actually very good. The highlight was however “The Last Supper”.
The Last Supper is large, 460 cm × 880 cm, and painted on the short end of the rectangular dining room (refectory) of the convent. The painting on the opposite side, Giovanni Donato da Montorfano’s Crucifixion (1495) is also worth a closer look. Visitors should also take some time to enjoy the exterior of the church and convent with an intriguing brickwork, the very nice courtyards and not least the lovely church.
Leonardo’s painting is amazing in several ways. First of all it is fascinating to notice how the fresco’s perspective is a continuation of the rectangular room it is painted in, how the lighting is adapted to the windows in the refectory, how well balanced the grouping of the disciples are, how well Judas is incorporated, how the facial expressions of the disciples are portrayed, how Jesus’ traditional halo is replaced by the window. And so on.
Second, it is kind of striking that it has survived for so many years. The artist experimented with the mural painting technique in such a way that it starting to deteriorate after a few years. Later on it survived being used as a shooting range for Napoleon’s soldiers and WW2 bombing. Furthermore, as the picture above shows, the feet of Jesus Christ were even removed from the painting to allow the construction of a door into the next room.
My pictures above are of photos hanging on walls outside the refectory. They may be from before the latest restoration, but they do in any case reveal how fragile this masterpiece is. It was no wonder we had to walk through two airlocks to get into the room, and were only allowed fifteen minutes inside, in a very controlled atmosphere.
Conclusion: I am happy to have seen it. I am happy they are taking precautions to preserve the painting, even limiting us to fifteen minutes inside the room. The mural painting itself is extremely fragile. No photography is allowed inside the room.
“The Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie with “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci” is no. 93 on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Day 2, a walk in the city centre of Milan
Milano (Milan in English) is Italy’s second largest city with about 1.35 million inhabitants. Metropolitan Milan holds a population of 5.2 million making it the fifth largest in Europe. The oldest parts are centred around the cathedral, il Duomo. If you place a compass needle on the Duomo you can draw a series of widening concentric circles. These circles are easily seen on maps in the shape of roads. Much of Milan’s sights are reachable on foot, at least if you are in a reasonably good health.
Our guided tour started at the Castello Sforzesco (Sforza Castle), at the fountain in front of the clock tower, Torre del Filarete. The castle was built as a fortress in the 14th century but was a hundred years later developed under the ruling Sforza family into a palace.
The first in this ruling dynasty, Francesco, did like many others lend his services as mercenary to any one of the country’s city states. The leading mercenaries, the Condottieris, would gain an important position in a period of constant rivalry between the cities. (This era in Italian history created the fortified walls around the city-states like the one in Lucca, military engineers like Leonardo and diplomat/advisers like Macchiavelli). Francesco skillfully maneuvered himself into a very central position culminating with him being recognised as Duke of Milan.
The castle consists today of a series of courtyards and residencial quarters turned into museums. Our guided tour did not include the museums. One of the courtyards, the Corte Ducale, reminded me of the Alhambra in Granada. The tour group continued onto the other side of the castle and faced the large Parco Sempione. We would return on our own the next day, read more below.
The convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie
Now we walked 10-15 minutes to the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
After the convent and the “Last Supper” the guided tour was over and we continued on our own into the very centre of Milan, a 15 minutes easy stroll.
The Gothic Duomo is claimed to be the world’s third largest church with more than 3,500 statues on the outside walls. It took more than 400 years to build, starting late in the 14th century. It is a mighty sight inside with 52 massive columns holding up the roof, lovely stained-glass windows and a fascinating crypt. Don’t miss the full body statue of St. Bartholomew with his own torn-off skin thrown elegantly over his shoulder. In my opinion there is no doubt that the countless spires outside makes the church outstanding, and a must-see in Milan. You may want to take the stairs, or a lift, up onto the roof – that is if you bother to wait indefinitely in line. We didn’t bother.
Situated on the huge Piazza del Duomo, and 90 degrees to the cathedral, is an amazing shopping arcade. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II was build between 1865-1877 and has a very lofty glass roof. Wikipedia asserts it is the world’s oldest shopping mall but the one I visited in Krakow is considerably older, to name but one. This one in Milan is on the other hand very impressive, and large.
Near the Duomo
We walked straight through the arcade and came out on the Piazza della Scala. The La Scala opera house is perhaps the world’s most important and famous. In advance I had checked their website for tickets, with no success. We were not in the mood to check out the museum. The opera house opened late in the 1700s and was partly destroyed in WW2. The lavish interior is not at all reflected in the modest exterior.
We continued on Via Manzoni for a few blocks until we reached the arch of Porta Nuova. We took a right turn into Via della Spiga. This is one end of the fashion district of Milan. All the famous brands are here on this street and the neighbouring streets of the “Quadrilatero d’Oro” (Golden Quad). From here we criss-crossed our way back to the Duomo, having a late lunch on the way.
Day 2, an evening at the canals
Milan is situated inland but as early as the 11th century work began on a 50 km long canal connecting with Lago Maggiore. It is called the Naviglio Grande. Another canal was added in the 14th century; the Naviglio Pavese connects Milan with Pavia. Today much of these canals are covered but there are large open parts in the district of Navigli, in the south of central Milan. The area has a reputation of being the liveliest of Milan’s neighbourhoods. Restaurants are open even in August when everything else closes.
We came here to eat in the evening of our Day 2. The former warehouses have been turned into flats and the streets along the waterways are packed with bars, clubs and restaurants. “Happy hour” offers abound, and tourists and even locals flock to the canals in large numbers. On recommendation we chose to walk along the Naviglio Grande and were not disappointed.
Apart from walking and of course taxi, there are two other methods of transporting yourself from place to place in Milan. The metro connects with the suburbs and the four lines were representative of North Italian efficiency, as far as we could tell. Trams was the other means of transportation we tried, like the one we took this evening back to our hotel. Some of the trams are really old and picturesque, not our. Metro tickets may be bought in the stations, whereas tram and bus tickets are sold in tabacchi shops and bars.
Day 3, relaxing walks and cultural fascination
Yesterday had been a fine day with a shining sun. This was to be an even better day. Not far from our hotel there is a huge piazza in front of the massive Central Station of Art Deco and Liberty style. On the other side of the square is the elegant skyscraper called Grattacielo Pirelli from 1963. I simply loved its gracious curves. It was once the highest concrete skyscraper in the world, 124 metres high.
We had no particular plans for today, but took off from the hotel after a good breakfast. I had this idea of visiting at least one gallery on our visit, and was lucky to get the acceptance of my teenager. Even more lucky: He actually liked what we saw!
After visiting this renowned picture gallery on a quiet Sunday morning, we continued our leisurely walk around the district of Brera. There are a number of pedestrian streets, cafés and restaurants. The warm, lazy day would not let go so we did what thousands of others did, we went to the large park of Parco Sempione.
The park is situated behind the Sforza Castle and is wide and long. People from Milan, of all ages, had come here to relax on the lawns or simply stroll on the gravel walkways like we did. Milan has over the centuries been under the rule of the Spanish, the French and the Austrians. Napoleon left his marks in Milan as well, setting up an arch at the end of the park. It is easy to see what role model he had been using, an indeed it is in line with Paris as well.
Day 3, an evening at San Siro football stadium
This was it, the very reason why we came to Milan in the first place. The Stadio Giuseppe Meazza is shared by two of the world’s most famous and successful football teams: Inter and AC Milan. The latter has won the Champions League/European Cup seven times and has lost the final four times. Inter has a record of three plus two. They both have a number of national titles.
We had tickets for the game between AC Milan and FC Roma. We took the metro to Lotto station a couple of hours before the match and joined the crowds out of the station to board a shuttle bus. It brought us right to the stadium.
There were plenty of kiosks outside the stadium selling burgers and sausages, shirts, flags and all sorts of things a fan might want. We spent some time finding the place to substitute our vouchers with genuine tickets. The stadium is huge, three tiers high and with a seating capacity of 85,700. This evening the home team came nowhere near filling up the seats, but there was a fantastic atmosphere nonetheless.
The fans of the two teams had their positions on the short ends of the stadium, with Milan with the largest and most active crowd of course. The result? 0-0. This was the only disappointment, because it was a high tension game, a lot of Italian temperament, two red cards, several yellow cards, a five minute suspension of the match due to racist chants from the visiting fans – and so on.
Headlines later ran stories like this: “A highly controversial 0-0 draw between Milan and Roma was temporarily suspended due to racist abuse from visiting supporters.”
Days 1-4, eating and sleeping
Booking a room in good time up front we got a good deal (351 euros for three nights) at the Hilton Milan Hotel. This is my Tripadvisor review: “Checking into a Hilton hotel you don’t expect anything local, nor trendy design. It’s a streamlined, slick international hotel. Period. As such we got what we expected. The staff was helpful, the room was quite spacious, the breakfast good. The location near the central station with airport trains and local metro is perfect. I was however set back by the 20 Euro daily fee for WiFi. There’s free access in the lobby area, but it was slow or malfunctioning when I tried it. In what world are these people living?”
In Como we had stone oven baked pizza right on the central piazza, watching people go by. Very good, as they often are in Italy. I can’t remember the name of the place, but there are many of them.
In Milan we dined the first evening at the Ristorante Terraferma. This is my review on Tripadvisor:
“We arrived here past eleven in the evening on the recommendation of our hotel concierge, happy there was a restaurant open that late. The Terraferma looked promising: Modern, kind of trendy design, and full of Italians (always a good sign to see locals around a place). I don’t speak Italian, and the waiter clearly had trouble communicating in English. As a result we were over-looked, it was as if our table was empty. When he did stop for a moment to wait, his assistance was sort of arrogant and unhelpful.
It was as if I could see the “stupid foreigners” phrase in his face. Perhaps the language is a genuine problem for them at this Ristorante? As for the food: It was alright, but kind of wannabe interesting. When my son ordered the promising main course called “cotoletta alla milanese” (schnitzel) that’s what he got. Nothing more. That’s the Italian way of course, unusual to most others. He had ordered some weird looking fries on the side. No salad, no veggies accompanied the dish. I can’t even remember my appetiser and main course. It was too late for dessert. My advice: Go with an Italian.”
Lunch day 2 was somewhere not far from the Duomo, while our lunch day 3 was in Brera on one of the main street side restaurants in a pedestrian street. They were quite alright both of them.
Dinner day 2 was at the canal area at L’Altro Luca e Andrea. It was too crowded and touristy to make an impression. My review on Tripadvisor goes like this: “It has a perfect location, nice interior but better sit outside for people watching. Good food as well, but this is a touristy place remember.”
Dinner day 3 was very late again. A sausage at San Siro was not enough as we were returning to our hotel close to midnight. The area around the central station is unlike other major cities almost devoid of restaurants. We were forced to have a bite at McDonald’s – a total defeat in my opinion. Whoever visits a foreign country to eat at McDonald’s?
In conclusion: Mixed culinary experiences. The next morning we had an early breakfast and left for the airport.
The Last Supper, the World Heritage Site.