It was time for a weekend break! Friday morning we flew with Alitalia from Heathrow to Milan. Milan is the style capital of Italy, there is plenty to do on a Friday. Travel guides are super detailed, they assume that you are going to emigrate there, the information is too much even if you stay there for a year. The “top ten” guides are supposed to be brief but still you need at least a month. So here it is (!) my own travel guide to Milan and the Lakes with my travel tips and tricks, (caveats and nuances as neurosurgeons would prefer).
You start from Duomo, a massive Gothic church, it took 430 years to be completed (photo). The interior is enormous, you can run the marathon inside or do bungee-jumping from the dome (so to speak!). Massive columns of stained glass let the scarce light get colours before it hits the marble statues. Make an effort and climb the stairs to the rooftop and see (and touch) the stone turrets. (You can also get the lift if you are a wimp!) From the very top get the best view in town (photo). The way down is a bit easier (I hear same applies in life!).
When you get down the stairs turn right. You are now on Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle, a fashionable shopping street. Depending who you are with, these two hundred meters can take anything from a few minutes to several hours! At the end you reach Piazza San Babila, turn left and immediately right, you are now on the home street of high fashion and art shops, via Montenapoleone, the fashion street of fashion streets(http://www.viamontenapoleone.org/eng/home.php, photo).
At the top of the street turn left and walk on via Alesandro Manzoni and in 3 minutes you will see the temple of opera, La Scala (http://www.teatroallascala.org/en/index.html). The exterior is rather flat, I was expecting something more pompous. Here Verdi was the house composer a couple of centuries ago. You can still feel in the air the fading sounds of Maria Callas arias.
Straight ahead on Palazzo Marrino and you are on Galleria Vittorio, a glass-covered shopping mall. Don’t spent too much time here, get out at the front of Duomo (yes, by now you have completed a small circle) and go straight ahead for 10 mins walk to Pinacoteca Ambrosiana (photo). Here loose yourself in some of Leonardo’s drawings, let your eyes see his sketches on yellow paper, go back in time, try to think this genius working, solving problems, creating, painting…
Here it is, in 4 paragraphs, material that a travel guide will cover in 40 pages. All this is a circle of less than a mile. When travelling do not take taxis, don’t become a tourist. Walk as much as you can. Take the local transport, bus, underground, tram. Mix with the locals, feel how’s the daily life, ask for directions. Caveat #1, when a local tells you that you need “x” minutes to get from point A to point B, always double that and add 10 mins. Example, if they tell you it’s 5-10 mins walk, prepare for 30 mins walk!.
Most Italians can understand English but learn a few words. Learn how to say “hello”, “thank you”, “please”, “right”, “left” and “straight ahead” (see caveat #2 below). Not only you ‘ll get a better feel for the place but its enormous courtesy to these people, treat them as you are guests in their own home. They live busy lives, they come from somewhere or go somewhere, when you stop them smile at them, (genuine smile!), have a little chat, they do enjoy it! Caveat #2, when you ask for directions never listen to what they say (“right” or “left”) always look where their hands are pointing, they often say right and show left! and vice versa!
Saturday morning we took the train to Lake Como. The train goes through tall mountains
for the whole journey with no signs of water! As we approached Como and there was no sight of a single drop of water I started to wonder if that was a different Como in Italy. But once we got out of the smallest of the two train stations there it was: bright waterfront, blue waters, rocking boats, people with sunglasses eating ice cream cones. Palace hotel (http://www.palacehotel.it/it/hotel-palazzo-Plinius-Como) is a 19th century mansion with beautiful gardens and trees lit in the night with Christmas-like lights. Drop your bags and take the boat for a trip to the Lakes. Sit at the bow (but be prepared to get a bit wet). Every 10-15 min the small boat stops at a different village. The lake is awesome! Is not very wide, not more than a couple of miles, looks like a massive, quite river at the bottom of tall, steep, green mountains. In the distance you can see tall, white-capped mountains, the beginning of the Alps! It was a bit windy, hence ideal for surfing. In about an hour you are back to Como (photo). Of course if you have a whole day to spare on the boat you can take a long ride to the other end of the lake.
I thought Como was a small town, turns out, its a proper city. Como is graphic, narrow cobblestone streets, red-tiled roofs (photo), busy piazzas (video), even a street carnival (photo). Here’s my next nuance, get an Italinal newspaper on Sunday morning, dosen’t matter if you haven’t got a clue what you are looking at, you’ll absorb more of the culture (and fold it under your arm when sipping espresso). I love the newsstand kiosks in South Europe (photo). Here the printed magazines and newspapers have an awesome smell, like nowhere else. Next time you approach one, take a deep breath you’ll understand what I am talking about. I recognise this smell, it’s the same sweet smell hit me in summers every time I was getting into to my local bookshop as a (constantly restless) boy in Greece to get my comic books and graphic novels.
In the night small cafes and cute restaurants that you didn’t notice during the day, appear out of nowhere attracting small mixed crowds of locals and visitors. Take a walk at the waterfront, it’s now dark (photo) but dozens of villages hooked on the mountains are lit with trembling lights. You can’t see but you can hear the swishing sound of waves breaking close to your feet. Now go back to town and sit at a lovely restaurant table on the stone courtyard, the night is just starting!
Sunday afternoon we took the fast train to sunny Milan. People were eating ice creams some wearing shorts. Back to Linate, one of three Milan’s airports. During chek-in the busy Alitalia stewardess exclaimed that my hand luggage was 8 kg overweight! Hmmm! Now what! I paused for a second, smiled at her, paused again, “what do you suggest we do?” She smiled back, “why don’t you take off your laptop and we’ll try again”. Unless I was carrying a full-size desktop I didn’t feel that this would make a lot of difference, but this was not the time to speak my mind. I remove my thin laptop and put my laggage back on the scale. She never said what the weight was, just smiled and wished “buon viaggio”. Here is my next nuance, never argue with people observing their “work regulations”, if they say you cannot do something it’s for a reason, often a silly one, but they don’t make the rules. However, they can always bent the rules (a bit) if you are (genuinely!) nice to them.
On the way back, always the same feeling looking at Heathrow from the air! It’s usually grey, it’s usually cold, no blue sea, no clear sky. But you feel warm, and somehow happy, not that your short break has now gone but you just came back to this great metropolis, full of surprises, wonders, monuments, theatres, gigs, non-stop buzz from people from every corner of the earth, you feel like your holiday is just beginning!