Eric had a trip to Bologna lined up to visit colleagues there, initially planning on a five day trip as he had to teach on December 2nd. Of course, this being Romania, it was announced a few weeks before that classes would be cancelled on that day as the previous day was a holiday for Romanian National Day. We looked for cheap flights to Italy to leave the week prior and found that we could fly one way into Milan for €30 per person. Done.
Milan is not thought of as a big tourist destination, lacking the old world charm of Rome and the tourist draw of the Venetian canals. Even the tour books say bluntly “Milan is not a city that rewards casual strolling. Take the metro.”It’s known as more of a business and fashion capital, but is becoming more popular. We landed in the afternoon into Bergamo airport, one hour away by comfortable shuttle bus. Looking up directions to our Air BnB, I anticipated a bit of a walk from the center of town. This is where paying attention to the scale of a map is important. We ended up needing a subway ride to the end of the line, then a walk through a somewhat desolate area. A somewhat derelict building lay ahead, and I found myself hoping that it wouldn’t be our place. As we walked up a dog began to bark menacingly at us behind the gate, and a small handwritten “bnb” sign on dirty paper taped to the black iron. My heart sank, wondering what we would find inside. Thankfully, the dog was actually quite friendly and the space itself was large and clean and even had a piano, though it was rather far from the city center.
We found our way to a nearby restaurant at 7:15 and walked in, finding the space bright and cheerful. “Do you have reservations?” No, we didn’t, so she gave us a concerned look and said that she had a free table until 8:45. An hour and a half for dinner seemed preposterous to us, but now seeing how the Italians eat super leisurely, I can understand her concern. The boy, excited to see gnocchi on the menu ordered those. In a few minutes a hot basket of fried dough pieces arrived! Delicious, but not the gnocchi we had been thinking of! Turns out, of course, gnocchi here can just mean “little pieces” or dumplings, not the potato gnocchi we think of. We munched away on the happy surprise. The girl had the first of many caprese salads whe would eat on this trip. We noticed all the other Italians finishing their meals with a bright yellow liquid. “What is that?” We asked our waitress. “Limoncello! I bring you some as a gift.” Tasty stuff, and like the liquid version of lemonheads candy as was described to me later. We finished our meals with this whenever possible and I highly recommend you do the same if offered the chance.
I had worried that we would find Italians to be unfriendly based on what I had read, and I can say that this is categorically not the case. Of course, I have a different standard for immediate friendliness based on my time in Romania, but again, if you smile, say a few words in Italian, and aren’t generally rude, I’ve found that Italians are generally kind and playful and most importantly, sweet to my children.
The following day was our big tourist one. We started off by a visit to “The Last Supper.” I wasn’t expecting much to tell you the truth. I mean, we’ve all seen pictures of this work of art so much we can recognize it anywhere. But much like seeing “Starry Night” in person, it is a different experience to be there. The painting occupies an entire wall of the chapel, and was painted over a long period of time so that da Vinci was able to perfect the details. Unfortunately, this meant that it was not done as a fresco and thus has degraded quite a bit. Frescoes are painted onto wet plaster and have great longevity, appearing brilliant centuries afterwards, but paint on a surface fades and wears away. You can still see the expressions on the faces, ranging from anger to sadness to disbelief, at the moment Christ tells his followers that one of them has betrayed him. I did get a giggle out of the fact that the doorway right below Jesus had been enlarged at some point, and the workers failed to notice that they sliced away his feet in the process. I can only imagine the conversation between the priest and the contractors after that happened. “Salvatore, what have you done with the feet of our Lord?!” “Father, you said you wished for a taller door, I have given you a taller door, who needs feet anyway, he is going to ascend to heaven soon.” After which Salvatore quietly disappears.
There’s a well known science museum in Milan, and as it is steps away from there, we stopped in. They had a long display of da Vinci’s machines brought to life from drawings, and we spent a lot of time to see if we could figure out how they worked, just amazed by the ingenuity and brilliance of da Vinci. They also have incredible exhibitions on everything from Electricity to Steel, World’s fairs to Reusable Energy. We simply did not have enough time here!
Afterwards we headed out for a bicycle tour I had arranged before we arrived. I love bicycle tours, as you get to see so much of a city and spend time with a local resident as well. My favorite sight was the “forest apartment” buildings:
Trees on every level chosen by arborists, maintained by the buildings. In the fall they have turned lovely shades of red and orange and are striking against the skyline. Unsurprisingly, this is a plum piece of real estate and inhabited by the Milano elite. Then a roll through the fall-orange central park and the main palace in which some bizarre silent crowd gathering was happening. A woman with a headset guided a large group all wearing headphones to move from one side to the other, raise hands, lower them, put on vests… It remains a mystery to us and to our guide, who was of no help in solving it.
We ended at the Duomo, a striking baroque cathedral which is large, ornate, and made of such delicate pink marble that some part of it is always in disrepair and scaffolding is ever present. Each of the hundreds of statues on the spires must be replaced every fifty years or so, ensuring that generations of sculptors should be employed for years to come. The sun had dropped by this time as had the temperature, and we were all chilled before we got back to the bike depot and off our bikes, into a warm place for dinner and then the train trek home.
Milan is definitely worth a visit of at least a few days! I would have liked more time at the museum and som etime to shop, as the merchandise was enticing. Next time, perhaps?