Friday, March 31, 2017

Dinner in Navigli

We spent our last night in Navigli, a trendy restaurant area on the south side of Milan. Meaning “navigation” in Italian, dating to the 13th century, the five canals were the chief method of brining goods into the city from the region. It is said that all the marble that went into the host of churches came to the city via barges on the Navigli. Use continued until the 1970s when the very last load of sand was delivered. Originally intended as an irrigation source, today that is its sole purpose.
These days there are hundreds of little restaurants, fancy and fast food along the main canal. The left side tends towards the trendy, attracting young people for happy hour, the right side, expensive, elegant restaurants. The streets leading down to the water are lined with bars and fast food take out places. It is almost impossible to navigate those streets without smoking what seems like a hundred cigarettes.
From our apartment, it was no more than 20 minutes by Metro and only involved one transfer. Arriving, we were a bit put off by the sight of the place – dirty, graffitied, seedy. Much like the area around most train stations.

We chose a very nice and quite formal restaurant. MLW had Duck, I went again for Oso Bucco on Risotto. A couple of nice glasses of Lombardy wine and panna cotta for dessert. Our first truly expensive meal on this trip, and it was worth it. A fitting end to an enjoyable visit.

The Last Two Churches in Milan

Last night we made one last pass through the Milan guidebook, trying to decide if there were any more critical spots to visit. Places that would cause abject regret upon discovering that we were so close yet so far. There are few things worse in life than chatting with someone about some place you’ve visited and having them say, “Oh, you didn’t find the time to go there?”
MLW and I are hard-core street pounding mega-travelers. We think nothing about walking 10 miles in a day and covering 23 centuries in history, from Celtic tribes to Frank Gehry. It’s what we do. I will however admit when it’s 78 degrees and a bit on the humid side and the sun is straight up over your head in these Baroque canyons, we get a bit weary. On this trip, we’ve been stuffing the mornings and taking a midday break before going out around dinner time. It’s been working for us and it’s allowed me to develop a nice relationship with the food truck guy around the block.
Well, as it turned out there were two more churches that could not go unseen. Both roughly in the same area as The Last Supper, we decided to head across country and make a grand loop back towards home. The area around The Last Supper is one of the best in Milan, with quiet leafy streets lined with upscale apartment buildings. Not many services, but a very elegant place to live. A few significant modern apartment buildings were marked by the very convenient signs the city places by important attractions. It was a nice walk, cooler than the busy streets we’d been on and less hurried since we were not driven by a ticket deadline.

The first stop, the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio was built in 386 by Bishop Ambrose who later became the patron saint of Milan. Built of red brick and framed by bell towers from the 9th and 12th century, you know you’ve arrived when you come around the corner and are confronted with its mass. Enlarged in the 9th and 11th centuries, and finally completed in the 17th with Bramante’s Portico della Canonica, it is Milan’s finest remaining Romanesque church. You enter through a columned atrium, designed as shelter for pilgrims. The inside was wondrous, beautifully decorated in styles spanning 14 centuries. Incredibly, much of the 4th and 5th century stone work is in excellent condition. The highlight for me was the crypt, when Saint Ambrose lies in repose side by side with two martyrs, Sts. Gervasius and Protasius. The Golden Altar at front of the nave was constructed from gold, marble and exotic wood in 835 AD.

One more church to go, San Lorenzo Maggiore, slightly across town but on the arc back home. Built on a Roman temple, it dates to the 4th century and is the oldest church in Milan. It also sports the largest dome, which made it irresistible to me. It’s foundation (visible from a small room beneath the altar) is comprised of huge stone blocks lifted from nearby Roman buildings. Out front is a line of Roman columns and three gates from the original city walls. The dome collapsed many times over the centuries, only to be rebuilt in slightly different styles. The rough stone that dominates the interior was once clad in various marbles, stolen for other purposes over time. The Cappella di Sant'Aquilino has several beautiful mosaics as well as a silver sarcophagus holding his remains. A second sarcophagus holds the remains of Galla Placidia, sister of Honorius, last emperor of Rome and wife of Ataulf, king of the Visigoths. It is thought by some historians that this church was originally that of a Roman Emperor.
This was an extraordinary church, full of beautifully preserved ancient art. The Cappella di Sant'Aquilino was lined with some amazing frescoes and mosaics, dating to the original church. Absolutely worth the midday haul across town, and most definitely one of places I would not want to discover I’d missed.

We arrived back at our apartment around 2 PM and had a nice lunch on the terrace. I like Milan, and I'm glad we came. Sometimes I'm sorry to leave a place, and unlike Rome I'm getting a bit of that here. Aside from a couple of museums, we've covered just about everything we wanted to see, a genuine accomplishment in only 4 days. I think I'll miss this place.

The Last Supper

I didn’t get a chance to write about dinner last night, it was late when we got in and I was in mood to stay up sitting in front of the computer. We went to a restaurant on Via Brera and chose the place where we’d had a nice chat with the owner the night before. He remembered us and was grateful that we had made good on our promise to return. We took a table inside, away from the smokers and ordered. Specific wines by the glass was a nice change after several nights of “house wine,” MLW had Sea Bass with roasted potatoes, I had veal with mushrooms. A very dinner, made better by the service and the atmosphere. The waiter wouldn’t let me leave without a grappa, after which we paid and made our way to the door. The owner, his partner and our waiter stood in a line and thanked us for our patronage, shaking our hands. What a nice touch, a genuine response when we all know it’s unlikely we’ll ever be back. On the way home I found a 5€ note on the sidewalk, and seeing that as an omen, I quickly turned it into gelato.
Francesca, our super apartment rental agent texted me yesterday that she had miraculously reserved tickets for Il Cenacolo Vinciano, Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece, more commonly known as The Last Supper. I had done a lot of research on buying them ahead of time, and the official web site said they were sold out until July. Every guide book had mentioned the same – buy them months in advance or forget about it. Or in desperation, you can always book a tour and pay 100€ more than the actual cost. Given all that, I was resigned to missing it so it was a pleasant surprise to know that we wouldn’t have to. I chose a 10:45 entry time, the latest of the three available.
We got up with the alarm, did one last load of laundry, stopped into the corner coffee shop (where we are now known as regulars) and then started the walk across town. The streets were already busy with students and tourists and people going off to their real jobs. The east side of the Duomo was just now fully illuminated by the morning light. 
Crossing the square and heading up past Piazza Mercanti (the old mercantile exchange, sadly closed for renovation) we made our way back to what has become the center of our touristic universe, Via Dante. 

The walk to the church was tough, narrow sidewalks, lots of traffic, sun and people walking slowly in front of us. We arrived 15 minutes before our entry time, knowing that we had to collect the tickets. I tried the first door to what ended up being the gift shop. An Italian grandma told me “no” but grabbed a postcard of the complex and pointed to the ticket office. Around the other side. She pointed us to a door, we went through and found ourselves in the middle of a morning mass. Continuing I tried the next official looking door and while that was the actual entry, they moved me along to the ticket office which was just next door. Presto, tickets at last.
We were directed to a foyer to wait for our time. People slowly filed in and when the group was about 25 in size, a guide came along and opened the first door. We shuffled into a second foyer and when the last person entered, the doors behind us closed. We repeated this process 2 more times, waiting one time for some teenagers who didn’t grasp that they needed to move, until we were all in the last air lock, just before entry to the chapel.
Leonardo worked on the painting from 1494 to 1498 using techniques that were revolutionary for the time, while unfortunate because the deterioration was observed less than 20 years after completion. From that point, the painting saw a sad history of poor restoration and downright abuse (the chapel was used as a stable by Napoleon’s cavalry.) In 1943, half the chapel was destroyed during an Allied bombing attack and the painting was then displayed in the elements for 4 years.
Once inside, you can stand and gaze or sit on small benches for a more relaxed appreciation. The painting is 29’ x 15’1” and covers the upper 1/3 of the right-side chapel wall. The condition is poor, but purportedly stable. Christ’s feet are missing (those of the disciples are present) because in 1652 the Dominican Fathers enlarged the door to the kitchen and removed them. Overall, the painting is quite ethereal, as though it’s disappearing before your eyes. While immune to the Bible story, the whole of the thing was quite moving. Da Vinci is said to have come in some days and not painted at all, rather just spending the day sitting on the scaffolding and working. That the man was a genius, is amply demonstrated here.

Precisely at 11:00 the two guards start rounding everyone up and herding them to the exit airlock. Cleverly, they added a second airlock door to a gift shop, we chose that exit and bought a few curios. From there, 30 minutes after entering the waiting foyer, you’re back out on the street.
The monastery that holds the chapel, Santa Maria delle Grazie was founded in 1462. It was expanded in 1490 under the direction of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro as his place of interment. Several noted architects including Bramante participated in the design and engineering. We spent a little time visiting it before heading out to our next stop. Modest, calming and really quite charming, it would be a nice place to take a break on a hot summer's day.

Thursday, March 30, 2017


The area around Como has been inhabited since at least the Bronze Age. A Celtic tribe known (to the Romans) as the Orobii had small settlements in the woods around the present city. It came under the control of the Romans in the 1st century BC, and the town center was moved and consolidated on its present location by order of Julius Caesar. The swampy southern tip of the lake was drained, and a traditional Roman grid was imposed. The town was named Novum Comum.
Its fortunes ebbed with the fall of the Roman Empire and it was captured in 774 by Charlemagne who turned it into a commercial center for the region. 400 years later it was on the losing end of a long war with Milan, but that setback was overcome in 1162 when Frederic I Barbarossa destroyed Milan. He rebuilt the city’s fortifications, some of which remain today on the south side of the old city center.
From then on, Como’s importance waned as it came more and more under the control of Milan, and followed its history of conquest by the Spanish, French and Austrians. In 1859, Garibaldi chased the Austrians out of the area and Como became part of the newly formed Kingdom of Italy.
Having largely conquered the sites of Milan we decided that today would be a lovely day for a road trip. There are many choices within an hour or two of here, Pavia, Bergamo, even Florence on a stretch. But with the goal of less train and more sightseeing, Como seemed like an excellent choice. So, I did a bit of research on Google Maps and plotted a course that conveniently started at the subway station just around the block from our apartment. After coffee and brioche, we were on our way.
The Milan Metro is among the best I have ridden. Easy to navigate, nice cars, clean and fast. We took the Red Line all the way to its end in the northern industrial part of town where we switched to a regional train at Sesto San Giovanni. There was a bit of time to kill so we wandered outside the station. Not a compelling neighborhood, shabby apartments, a flea market and many abandoned factories on the other side of the tracks.
The train was a lot like our local Rail Runner in size and speed, just a bit older. We wound our way out of the tired northern suburbs and out into the countryside, but being a train line the scenery wasn’t that attractive. Aside from one stretch that had a handful of colorful Italian villas at the top of a heavily wooded hill. The trip took about 45 minutes and ended at (another) San Giovanni station on the west side of Como. From there it was a quarter-mile walk downhill to the lake.
The lake itself is glacial in origin and was known to the Romans at Larius Larius. It is 56 sq. miles in size, and the 3rd largest in Italy. Its depth extends to more than 1,300 feet, making it one of the deepest lakes in all of Europe and its absolute bottom is more than 600 feet below sea level. The area has been a popular getaway for the rich and famous since Roman times.
We went straight to the water and sat for a bit, looking at the villas, watching the big water taxis come and go along with the occasional sea plane. The Como-Brunate Funicular (hillside train) could be see crawling up the hill through groves of trees that had not yet greened up. Tourists seemed a bit scarcer here – some Germans, some Italians, but mostly locals sitting and enjoying the spring morning. After a bit, we decided to go find lunch, passing by many waterfront spots before settling on Lantica Riva, a very posh spot serving out of a 200-year-old stone house. The waiters were all in suits, the tablecloths linen, and the location just ideal. We started thinking “pizza” but the menu looked so elegant and interesting that we decided to go with the surroundings and have an appropriate meal. I had gnocchi in a saffron cream sauce served on a bed of pureed asparagus, MLW went local with a risotto served with sautéed lake fish. A couple of glasses of Lombardy wine finished it off. It was an excellent meal in every way, and the more we sat there, the more we thought we needed to find a way to here.

The town isn’t very big and doesn’t have a lot of features so we wandered up the main pedestrian street and stopped in at the cathedral. Also known as The Duomo, it is reputed to be the final Gothic cathedral built in Italy. Constructed on the site of an earlier Romanesque church, building began in 1396 and completed nearly 400 years later in 1770. It holds a modest art collection that includes some important 16th century tapestries. The center cupola is very beautiful. A nice church, not too overwhelming in scope or decoration, many areas being closed for worship which allows it to retain a small community feeling.
From there we made our way up and down the streets, the town reminded us of Barcelona, with the age and style of the architecture being very similar. The southern end of the old city center is bounded by the remains of Roman and medieval walls, including a couple of nicely maintained watch towers.

We’d purchased open tickets for trains that run every 30 minutes so we were not exactly pressed for time. We took a leisurely wander back to the station, sadly having to go up the 100 or so stairs we had cheerfully descended at the beginning of the day, arriving 9 minutes before the arrival of our train. Perfect timing. The ride back on it made me wonder what it would be like in July, it was that hot. And I never thought I’d find myself happy to be back in the subway where the atmosphere was better. But there we were, roasting topside across the plains of Lombardy and rewarded with a cold ride home under the city of Milan.