Italy is a country that I have coveted for a long time in my desired travel itinerary, featuring highly in my travel dreams along with Argentina, Croatia, Japan and Brazil. A summer in Europe without a significant amount of time in Italy was almost unthinkable. Fortunately for me a cheap flight from Cyprus to Italy presented itself to me and I snapped the opportunity up on the spot. My flight landed in Milan (well near Milan, considering Milan Malpensa airport is an hours drive from Milan) and after a slight baggage delay I managed to grab one of the last buses to the centre of the city. I had arranged to stay with Glauco, a Brazilian living and working in Milan and he had very courteously assured me it was okay to arrive in the early hours of a Monday morning. After grabbing a taxi from the bus stop and being slightly ripped off I arrived at Glauco’s place, an apartment in an old Milanese building with one of the oldest, smallest, quaintest and nerve inducing lifts I had ever encountered, after a brief chat I got my head down on his sofa bed for some well-earned rest.
In the morning I woke up as Glauco had breakfast. He showed me some places that he recommended I visit and gave me a city guide to help me out before kindly entrusting me with a set of keys. I took another hour of sleep before I set off to explore. Glauco’s place was just inside the Milan inner ring road so I decided to save some money and walk as much as I could. I would discover, as I or many would be able to predict, that Italy in general is not the cheapest country to be on a long-term backpackers budget. In all honesty this was an approach, I would and have taken, whenever I have traveled. There is no better way to discover a place than walk around and get lost in it! My first impression of Milan as I walked towards the city centre was dominated by the prevalence of graffiti. Prevalence may even be a considerate description. Buildings, almost without acceptance were covered with it. Whilst I am quite a fan of street art, I’m not a fan of mindless tagging and the defacing of buildings that are architecturally beautiful. Which in Milan is most of them. Despite this annoyance it felt great to be back among the grand streets of a truly European city for the first time in eighteen months.
As I munched on some deli delights my wandering brought me straight into the Piazza Del Duomo and into the incredible presence of the Duomo (cathedral) itself. Italy is deeply religious with Catholicism being the main religion. This is aptly reflected in the churches, cathedrals and monasteries that dominate the cities, towns and villages throughout the country. I found it difficult to find a place that I visited that didn’t have a religious building as its main attraction. Despite the variety in styles and wonderment and effort put into their construction it would become a little grating for an atheist like myself. The duomo in Milan was exceptional. A Gothic cathedral that took six centuries to complete, shrouded in a hundred and thirty five spires, over three thousand statues and with a capacity for a congregation of 40,000 (that was the population of Milan when it was first planned) is quite a sight.
After my first ‘duomo’ experience I took some time to walk around a few piazzas and ate some lunch in one of the city parks as lunchtime joggers trundled around me building up a sweat in the sticky overcast heat. Italy has always been synonymous with one specific thing for me. Football. When I think of Italy I think of Schillaci’s bulging eyes in Italia 90, Gazza’s tears, Roberto Baggio’s dodgy ponytail, Gazzetta Football Italia on channel 4 when I was a kid, flares in the stands and the sexiest female presenters (Laura Esposto anyone?), If you were an football-mad English kid and your parents wouldn’t pay for Sky then Italian football was your second love. My first Italian love story, apart from Laura Esposto, was with Juventus but I have always held a soft spot for Inter Milan. A trip to Milan would be incomplete without a trip to the San Siro. Sadly for me I was there in the off-season so I would have to make do with a stadium tour and that was my exact plan when I headed onto the subway. It is a this point that I should commend Milan on the wonderfulness of its subway system. It is dark, old and the cars are uncomfortable yet it is probably the most enjoyable subway experience I have had. You really feel like you are going on a journey and not in some sterile hospital atmosphere. It took me a little while to find the stadium and I’m pretty sure I took the long way round, but it was an interesting walk in a rather dodgy area! At the stadium I payed for a museum ticket and stadium tour. The museum was small but showed off the great history of the two clubs that share the San Siro admirably. The tour was a little disappointing in that the pitch was covered with a huge stage for the summer concert season. It just didn’t feel right, I couldn’t conjure an image of a game without being able to see the field. On the way back to the subway I walked around the ippodrome (horse racing stadium) with its huge grafitti murals lining its walls and also through the QT8 which feels like a spread out English council estate, but with huge amounts of green spaces.
Later that evening when I got back from my more than full day of exploration we went to one of Milan’s more fashionable areas along the Naviglio Grande canal. The closer you get to the city the more the canal is lined with bars and restaurants and an ever increasing crowd of hip Milanese. We walked along the road aligned to the canal before grabbing a beer in a bar. In Milan it is possible to get a takeout beer and finish your beer or take it elsewhere on the streets of Milan so we had a second beer at the Plaza San Lorenzo Maggiore. On the paved flagstones outside the basilica and in the shadow of the Roman columns of Colonne di San Lorenzo we enjoyed our beer along with a couple of hundred other drinkers. People played guitar, chatted with their friends and cheered and clapped the odd drunken dancer. I don’t think you could trust the English to enjoy their drinks in such a relaxed and open atmosphere.
After enjoying the canal at night I took the opportunity to enjoy it on the sunny day that followed with a 10k run. As I ran in the blistering heat teams of rowers glided along the crystal clear waters. I’ve never seen a canal so clean! It seemed to me like Glauco had it made in this area of town. After my run I punished my legs with a long walk to the Sforzeco Castello and the Parco Sempione beyond it. The castle was ominous but not mind-blowing but the park proved a good place to rest and read. From there I went north to the Cimitero Monumentale. You may question why someone would visit a cemetery, especially when on holiday, but I had read that this was a cemetery like no other and I was correctly informed. The cemetery has a grand chapel at the front with bold coloured archways and behind are hundreds, if not thousands of graves with elaborate statues and grand architectural tombs dedicated to famous Milanese and in many cases their whole family’s. The cemetery was peaceful and soulless as I wandered around trying to work out what kind of person was incarcerated. While I was there a tomb to a mafia Don was visited by a mournful young lady. I’m not sure if he could help her now though, but I guess her emotion reflected the grandeur of the artistic tombs.
Glauco was off to the gym in the evening but before he showed me a delicious ice cream stand with the most mouth watering strawberry gelato. The Italian reputation for ice cream would hold strong throughout my time in Italy but thankfully, due to my pedestrian approach to sightseeing, it wouldn’t have its infamous effect on my waistline. I went off on my own along the canal and had my first aperitivo in Italy (buffet and a drink for a handsomely cheap price) before taking a fairly early night so I would be rested for my train journey to Florence in the morning.
A lot of people I have met who have visited Milan have given it less than glowing reviews but I absolutely loved it. I was lucky to have a great host but the city itself has a soul that bursts out where you least expect it, whether it is when you are lost in the Milan suburbs, deep in a cemetery or high among the spires of the Duomo. I think Milan is a place where you have to give it a chance and let it surprise you and not try and compare it to the romantic and historic towns and cities in Italy that grab all the tourism headlines.