A Little Italy

Days: 473-474 (11 October 2015 – 12 October 2015)

Total distance travelled: 127,185.8 kilometres (78,997.37 miles)

When we conjured up this grand escape of ours, countries such as France, Germany, Spain and Italy (basically anything Western, Northern or Central Europe) had never featured as potential destinations.

For one, they’re now far more accessible to us from Australia (that is flights are more reasonably priced, the twenty plus flying hours still remain), but also places we figured would be more enjoyable when not on such a shoestring budget.

After all, it’s far easier to splurge €30.00 or more on a meal, when you’re only stretching your savings over a couple of weeks.

Despite all this, we’d said our goodbyes to North Africa (where our original plans of visiting Tunisia as well had been abandoned due to the unclear safety situation there after the recent beach resort massacre) and found ourselves touching down at Bergamo Airport.

Where’s that you ask?

Well it’s in the north of Italy, basically the budget carrier airport that serves Milan!

Sitting roughly forty kilometres distant, once we’d made our way through immigration, armed with a doctored Ryanair reservation onwards from Prague, just in case any proof of onward travel was necessary (it wasn’t), we grabbed ourselves a bus to take us the final leg onto Milan.

With standard hostels and hotels proving ridiculously overpriced, we found ourselves again relying on AirBnB where we’d found a reasonably priced pad in what appeared to be a pretty good location.

First however, we had to get there.

Our airport transfer saw us deposited at Milano Centrale (railway station), the grandeur of the building far more impressive than the folk who lingered nearby, bottles in hand, suggesting that despite the early hour of the day, it was going to be a long Sunday for some.

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Our gateway to the city, Milano Centrale

Following the directions that we had, we walked the few kilometres to our address, only… it wasn’t there.

We walked up and down the street several times, and it simply wasn’t there!

That would be fucking right. We’d book a room in a place that simply didn’t exist!

Eventually, with no idea where else to look, we had little option but to send our contact a message (thanks to Sarah’s phone), then sit and wait.

Incredibly, only minutes later a disheveled man emerged.

This was Antonio.

His apartment was literally metres away, but unfortunately it wasn’t on the same street as its actual listing, rather a small little cul-de-sac.

Five stories high, it was obviously once a grand building, but its days of glory had likely ended some time back in the seventies.

At some point, it had obviously employed a concierge (no longer), possessed an elevator and to our surprise, we’d be staying in the penthouse, a sprawling joint spread over both the fourth and fifth floors.

It all of a sudden sounded very glamorous.

I mean here we were in the heart of Milan, dumping our bags in a fifth floor penthouse with rooftop city views!

The truth, you can make things sound amazing without lying for one moment with some creative writing.

Reality was a little different.

Our bed was a tiny Ikea fold out couch.

The balcony with those views was covered in pot plants (as in Marijuana, apparently to help ease the pain for Antonio’s ill wife).

There was no division between the fourth floor (where they lived) and the fifth (where we’d be staying), meaning there was smoke wafting upwards all day, and the majority of the night…

Our ‘room’ was basically a thoroughfare through which any other guests would tramp their way to either the bathroom or kitchen.

Still, it was in a great location.

Back in Europe and finding ourselves in Italy, we didn’t want to dwell on our habitation, but rather think of three things.

Pizza…

Pasta…

Wine…

How could we not?

So out we sauntered, relieved to leave our pot filled pad behind as we began this search to sate our palates.

It just so happened that it also saw us walk through one of the largest castles in Europe!

The Castello Sforzesco is a roughly five hundred year old fortification (apparently built atop another) which today houses several museums, but for today, it was simply a thoroughfare.

Our stomachs were grumbling, so it was a late-ish lunch we sought.

Luck was with us, as Milan turned on the weather with a stunning autumn day.

We had a little more difficulty finding a place to dine, but eventually found a nice enough spot where we could dine al fresco.

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It’s not every day you take a short cut through a castle (left) & Three good things… (right)

It wasn’t the best pizza we’d had on the trip, nor the best wine and not even the best pasta.

But all three were delicious enough, and after a couple of weeks of repetitive Moroccan fare, it was one of our favourite meals in a long time indeed!

Besides, it would hardly seem proper to experience our first Italian city (together, Sarah visited Italy back in 2001) without stomachs full of tomato laden goodness and a carafe of wine…

From here, there was only one place we’d inevitably end up, the Piazza del Duomo, where we’d find ourselves standing before two of the city’s grand showpieces, the Duomo di Milano and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuale II.

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The incredible Duomo di Milano (left) & A galleria fit for a king (right)

With the afternoon late, we resolved to explore the famous cathedral the following day, instead soaking up its beauty under a beautiful blue sky before tearing our gaze elsewhere.

In truth it wasn’t so hard, as the nearby galleria, bearing the name of the country’s former monarch, was no slouch in the looks department either.

Life is tough isn’t it?

With the shadows by now long and the temperature getting ever cooler, we took our leave of the downtown streets, and retired for the day.

As we sat putting away (that would be eating) a morning breakfast of oats, an Indian guest decided he’d like to join us on our mornings adventures (we were off to visit a nearby cemetery first) which we had no objection to.

This Monday morning in Milan threw up an immediate surprise, as one of the streets immediately below was closed to vehicles, the only traffic being that on foot.

Across the bitumen were spread a variety of stalls, showcasing some of the regions beautiful produce (it wasn’t just for show, it was all for sale).

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The beautiful fruits of the Lombardy region

After marveling at some of the huge fronds, we got on our way, our Indian friend already puffing and panting (despite the terrain being completely flat) along beside.

We navigated our way along a series of streets, the majority of which were both narrow and one way, before across a main thoroughfare sat our goal.

Opposite us stood the grandest entrance to a graveyard we had ever seen.

This was the Cimitero Monumentale, and boy was it trying to live up to that name!

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Monumental in more than just name…

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, it was also closed (and apparently is every Monday).

We took a moment to admire through the heavy iron gates, before turning away and trying to figure out our next move.

Our sub-continental friend spun us a spiel about how he’d spent the previous day searching for locals only haunts, and had a destination in mind, so we figured we’d follow him, after a brief detour to the nearby Arco Della Pace.

Sure it may bear huge similarities to the many Roman triumphal arches, this one however, was dedicated to peace.

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More grandeur at the Porta Della Pace

Our new friends destination was somewhere across the city, so rather than waste the journey, we instead opted to take anything that appealed to us along the route, a languid stroll through parkland getting us halfway to Santa Maria delle Grazie.

The name might not immediately generate a flicker of recognition, however this UNESCO listed church houses one of the most famous artworks in, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

Entrance into the church was free, however there was an exorbitant price attached if one wanted to see da Vinci’s famous piece of art.

Given our reservations when it comes to many things religious, we ultimately baulked at coughing up the cash, happy not to throw any more money towards the Catholic Church.

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The Santa Maria delle Grazie (left) & Within, not quite the Last Supper… (right)

By this time, despite our gentle pace and the fact we’d only been on the move for about an hour, our young friend from the sub-continent kept dropping the suggestion that perhaps we should stop for a break.

We weren’t down with that, especially seeing as he’d essentially invited himself along with us and given how little we’d actually done to warrant a rest.

As such, we politely declined his suggestion.

Being Milan and being in Italy, it’s little surprise that a huge variety of churches warrant a visit, the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio, one of the oldest in the entire city being our next port of call.

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Back in the groove of ticking off churches

Here, we marveled a little more at the incredible age of these structures (construction on this place started in the year 379), before making the descent beneath to look at the remains of Saint Ambrose who lies below (we didn’t know this until we saw the bones).

Bedecked in pontifical robes, it was a little odd to see the man who built the church on such prominent display, ready to receive visitors, albeit from behind his glass case.

We were now almost about to stumble on our companion’s ‘secret’ spot only known to the locals, although when we entered the area near the Basilica San Lorenzo Maggiore, the throngs of tourists confirmed our suspicions that information we had, was esentially bullshit.

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The ‘Wall of Dolls’ (left) & Seeking this local haunt… (right)

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Basilica San Lorenzo Maggiore… not so empty of tourists

It was another nice church, apparently dating from around the fourth century, but by now we were close to having had enough of them, especially as we still had two more we definitely wished to visit.

Our destination might sound a little grisly to some, but to us was totally intriguing. We were in search of the Saint Bernardino Alle Ossa and its ossuary chock full of human bones!

But first we had to find it…

In truth, it wasn’t all that hard, although it wasn’t at the exact location our research had indicated.

After a couple of missed turns, we eventually found it, notable for the fact it seemed like a popular hang out for university students, one of whom confirmed that we were indeed at the right place.

Inside the main church was like any other, dimly lit, high of ceiling and full of shadows. A little puzzled, a young fellow loitering about figured our purpose, quickly pointing out a narrow passageway which led us directly to the ossuary…

Rather than feel gruesome, the place was instead peaceful, the skull and bone adorned walls apparently constructed as a resting place for bones disturbed in the one adjacent cemetery.

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Some rather surreal decoration…

It was certainly something different, and we felt well worth the effort.

We had one destination left, and that was the grandest cathedral in all of Milan, indeed we’d already seen it the previous afternoon (as have you in our pictures), the Duomo di Milano.

The catch is, you have to pay to enter.

Fortunately there are three or four locations at which one can purchase tickets.

Unfortunately, the first one we got to was hosting a long queue.

About now, our Indian companion who’d been really starting to annoy us, couldn’t face the prospect of standing in line (truth is, neither did we, but we didn’t want to tell him that), so bid us farewell as he went off in search of a cheeseburger…

With him out of sight, we decided we’d try for the tickets later (we got them queue free on the opposite side of the cathedral), instead finding ourselves somewhere to again share a pizza and carafe of wine.

Tough times indeed!

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Not the worst place to queue… (left) & Adopt a Gargoyle (drainage spout) atop the Duomo di Milano? (right)

Back at the cathedral, we kicked things off by checking out the not surprisingly grand interior.

Even with the volume of Catholic sites we’d already visited that day, this place was impressive!

I guess we could expect little else from something that is considered the fifth largest cathedral in the world!

Another cavernous, columned space, beautiful stained glass, and of course, St Batholomew.

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High and mighty?

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The fine physique (flayed skin) of St Bartholomew (left) & Fairytales in glass? (right)

After gazing high, we then went low.

Very low in fact, as beneath the tiled floors lies something a little special.

Rather than just your average catacombs, this is an archaeological site where we had the opportunity to fully appreciate the age of the site, look at an ancient baptismal pool and artwork of similar age.

From there, the only way was up… and up some more.

Eventually emerging on the roof, met with a disappointing, slowly clouding sky.

It made the views a little less impressive, but it took little away from the ornate marble decoration that festoons the Duomo.

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A forest of spires atop the Duomo di Milano (left) & Beauty in art, even if the subject matter doesn’t agree with me (right)

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Everything looks perfect from far away…

Surprisingly, it also serves as something of an art gallery, this rooftop level home to a variety of sculptures, contemporary companions to the ancient gargoyles which double as water spouts.

It may be of some interest to know, you can actually adopt one of these medieval sentinels, all part of an effort to generate more cash for the maintenance and restoration of this monument since the Italian economy fell in a heap (meaning the government funds dried up).

Back on the streets below, we had our first brush with Milan as the fashion capital, crashing a photo-shoot on our way to the Museo del Duomo, the last area our tickets granted us access.

It was interesting enough, and capped off what had been a pretty busy morning and early afternoon.

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City of fashion (left) & Colours of the Museo del Duomo (right)

We’d resolved to revisit the Cimitero Monumentale the following morning, but after two weeks of clear skies (or at the very least no rain), we woke to find the weather had taken a turn for the worse.

With bus tickets booked for Venice later that morning, we had no time to wait it out, so we sucked it up and out into the wet we ventured.

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Such a clever design… (left) & Use your finger to turn it into a drinking fountain! (right)

At least this time we arrived to find the large iron gates very open, so in we strolled to check out what promised to be another grand cemetery.

It wasn’t planned this way, but a visit here would tie in nicely with our visit to Eva Peron’s grave in Buenos Aires, as her remains were interred here from 1955 to 1971.

Interred as Maria Maggi, we unfortunately couldn’t find the location, instead having to settle for a damp stroll around the grounds as the morning got progressively colder.

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Finally within the Cimitero Monumentale… (left) & One of the fallen on this damp morning (right)

Many of the tombs were indeed monumental, a grand, if sodden finale to our time in Milan.

 

Notes:

* Our Ryanair flights from Marrakesh to Bergamo cost us €61.43 (inc. taxes) per person.

* A bus transfer from Bergamo to Milan’s Central Station cost us €5.00 each for roughly an hour long journey.

* Entrance into the Duomo di Milano (which included access to the roof, an archaeological site and the off site museum) cose us €15.00 per person.

 

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