Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Milano without FOMO

 So, we finally got on the road again. Actually, we have sort of been on the road for day trips several times, but it mostly ended in tourism failures which I could have made into witty blog posts if I had been in the mood, but coronavirus somewhat sapped my usual store of sarcasm.

Anyhow, when our daughter's Venice flight to her new school got cancelled, and Milan was the nearest airport offering an alternative, we decided to take a few extra days' break. It's a major Italian city I have never visited, and hubby has a good friend and colleague there. Plus our daughter got to enjoy telling everyone how her family was sending her off to boarding school and then going on holiday.

A little Milan street art

The FOMO? Well, it's Milan in August, post lockdown. Like many Europeans, the Italians see the holiday month of August as sacred. Even in non-pandemic years, businesses and restaurants, regardless of whether they are in the middle of famous tourist cities, think nothing of shutting up for the whole month - "chiuso per ferie" (closed for holidays) was the phrase we saw displayed on shop after shop. Museums and many other city attractions were open only for two days a week, and then only accepting visitors on timed tickets bought in advance. 

But, we were trying to holiday in a city with a five year-old and couldn't have big plans, so there was no pressure to see and do it all. Plus, the only real goal was to get our daughter safely off on her new adventure. As long as the plane left, it was a success. In fact, I had rashly declared to a friend that the rest of the holiday could be a disaster as long as she got off okay.

The Duomo. Credit: https://pixabay.com/photos/milan-cathedral-religion-883761/

The first plus: the roads were empty, so there was none of the usual terror of driving in an Italian city. We pulled into the carefully chosen car park, only to find that it was a supermarket. We'd mistaken it for the actual car park next door, which was "chiuso per ferie". We decided to leave the car there and go to meet the host of our AirBnb apartment. There was only one other car in the whole place, and who was going to fine us in August when all the traffic wardens were "chiuso per ferie"?

The AirBnb was the second plus: we got a one-bedroom apartment in the Isola district for a discount, less than 60 euros a night. A little squashed for the one night our daughter was there with all her luggage, but plenty of room for the three of us after she jetted off (see my review below). And, it turned out that even if half the city car parks are "chiuso per ferie", street parking is widely available.

Unfortunately, our first outing, and our daughter's farewell dinner, was not so great. We headed out to Chinatown to seek out a ramen restaurant - and spent about an hour and a half trailing from place to place which Google thought was open but in actuality was... "chiuso per ferie". Tired, hangry and with sore feet, we trudged back to the apartment to find that the Indian takeaway next door had at least opened, but with a limited menu. Not the best last night, but nothing could be done about it, and we had bought the next day's train tickets on the way, so that was a small victory.

Inside Milan's vintage trams. Credit: https://pixabay.com/photos/tram-milan-public-transport-wood-2384693/

The next morning, Alcuin and I saw Ted and our daughter off on the train to the airport (aside - DON'T FORGET TO VALIDATE YOUR TRANSPORT TICKETS BEFORE USING THEM. Just saying.). I had decided to take Alcuin for a ride on the #1 tram, which still uses the old, vintage cars and trundles through the main tourist areas. We made it to the central station, but then got into trouble. I asked for directions three times, and got vague answers from stallholders around the station probably annoyed that I wasn't buying anything when they were having a terrible summer, and weren't "chiuso per ferie".

 Ted checked in mid morning and told us what had happened with his tickets (but daughter's plane was on time, so what was a hundred euros compared to that?). I was beginning to think I shouldn't have called down disaster on our heads, and was about to limp off back to the apartment when I spotted one last tram line around a corner - and thank goodness it was the right one. The real thank goodness was that I found a small packet of biscuits hidden in my backpack, which stopped Alcuin from having a meltdown.

But yes, the tram ride was fun - and I had validated my ticket. Very few people were riding, and, like the underground trains, seats were marked off so we had lots of space. We journeyed through town until I could no longer follow where we were,, and got off near a park for a break before hopping on the tram in the other direction.

Guess what this is!*

In the afternoon, reunited with Ted, we made our way to the Duomo (cathedral) piazza to meet his good friend and colleague. The place felt like an oven. The temperatures were due to be similar to Koper, but a heatwave swept in at the last moment. We couldn't get inside the Duomo fast enough - literally, because we had to have a bag check and temperature check to be allowed in. There's lots you can do at the Duomo, but we knew our son's limits and just paid the few euros to go inside, forgoing the crypt, treasury and tower to admire the architecture. Taking six centuries to complete, it's technically the largest church in Italy (Saint Peter's in Rome is inside Vatican City).  Like all great cathedrals, it is designed to be a huge space that gives you a glimpse of eternity as it draws your eyes upwards to heaven. I'd go with the writer Henry James on the description that it is "not... commandingly beautiful, but grandly curious and superbly rich".

Next stop the Galleria in the same piazza, where the glory of capitalism rubs shoulders with the glory of God, to cool down with an ice cream and look at all the designer shops I would never step into. There was a lady and her baby dressed up to the nines in front of one, with her husband doing some sort of photo shoot for them. The beginning of the child's instagram life, I guess. There are several mosaics in the Galleria, and someone came up with the idea that it was good luck to spin three times on the bull's testicles of one of them. Luckily we had Alcuin to do that for us so the adults didn't have to be seen being cheesy but we could check it off our list.

From there, we walked ten minutes to the Sforza castle, built up around a 14th century fortress. Again, this is a budget and child-friendly option. You can enjoy the castle and environs, and even the courtyard for free, but pay to get inside the museum rooms (again, only open two days a week), which include Da Vinci frescoes. Alcuin had the most fun walking around spotting the colony of well-fed cats who live in the former moat. There's a notice up that roughly translates "Please don't feed the cats because we do". A short play in the Sempione park that backs onto the castle, and it was time to go back to our thankfully air conditioned apartment to cool down before dinner. Our friend took us literally around the corner in the other direction from the one we had gone the night before - and lo and behold there was an entire restaurant district on our doorstep. Oh well.

Our 'new' family of three at the fountain by the Sforza castle (that's not it in the background!)

The biggest plus of the coronavirus/August situation was that we were able to book tickets to see Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper only one week in advance, when it's usually months, so the next morning we were off to the monastery of Santa Marie delle Grazie and another temperature/ security check. (It's Cenacolo Vinciano in Italian if you're following the clear signposting.) Groups of eighteen are allowed in for fifteen minutes at a time, after going through a carefully climate-controlled entrance. The moment we entered the refectory was pretty emotional. Alcuin was incredibly patient for once and even allowed himself to be placated when he got a little antsy. And all was well, until our friend whispered to me, "Whose arm is that?" Bother, he was right, there's this arm that must be Peter's but doesn't quite sit right. This is what happens when you go around with mathematicians. (I've since discovered that yes, it must be Peter's but is twisted and that everyone who has read or seen The Da Vinci Code of course knows all about it.)

The Basilica cloister

With temperatures set to soar to 36 degrees, we could only choose one more spot to hit before we had to take a siesta, and we chose the Basilica of Saint Ambrose (Sant'Ambrogio), founded by the saint but extensively rebuilt. Saint Ambrose, if you are wondering, is famous for a couple of things in particular. The first is being instrumental in the conversion of Saint Augustine, whose writings influenced western thought for centuries. The second is that he dared to defy the Emperor Theodosius, refusing him entry to the cathedral (and excommunicating him to boot) after the ruler was complicit in a massacre at Thessalonica - and the Emperor capitulated and repented.

Saint Ambrose flanked by two martyrs

It was a good choice - a shaded cloister for exercising Alcuin, and, though we had not figured this out beforehand, Saint Ambrose is still there in person, decked out in bishop's robes! Admittedly, he's looking a little thin nowadays, but wow! Being in the presence of such a seminal figure of early history just blew me away. Even better - they had the forethought to entomb the bodies of his brother and sister there, too. Plus, under the pulpit is the tomb of Stilicho which almost certainly contains the body of the famous Roman (but half Vandal) general. This visit may have eclipsed The Last Supper for me. Ambrose, by the way, is still revered in Milan and his feast day is celebrated on December 7th each year.

And that, folks, was it for us. A rest from the heat and a final curry, but from a restaurant this time, and it was ciao to Milan, but we'll be back when it's cooler, and not "chiuso per ferie".

*I don't know. It was on the column outside the main door of the basilica.

Touristy stuff

The Last Supper: Don't be fooled by the first sites that come up when doing a search for The Last Supper: they inevitably try to sell you very expensive package tickets. We paid 15 euros per adult via the official site.

Accommodation:This is our apartment. We had no complaints - but if you are looking for an upmarket AirBnb experience, this might not be for you. It had comfortable beds, a decent amount of towels and bedding, and a fully, but not over, equipped kitchen, plus a utility room with a washing machine and lots of storage space if you are en route to somewhere else or travel with everything but the kitchen sink (but be warned if you do that as it's up 4 flights of stairs). It will not sleep four adults unless you are very short, because the sofa bed is not long enough for the average man, plus the place would be crowded. But if you are the sort of traveller who wants a decent, comfortable, budget place to rest your head, and the city is what you have come to enjoy, I recommend it. It's in the heart of the Isola district, across the road from a small supermarket, and a short walk from the train and underground stations - and restaurants, if you turn in the right direction.

Transport: Milan has a good public transport system that is very cheap. Tickets cover duration, not rides - 90 minutes per ticket, valid on buses, trams and the underground. (I thought at first that it was more complicated than London, but I say that of all other underground systems, even though they have about three lines and London has a hundred and three. Familiarity.) I bought a 24-hour ticket and it easily paid for itself with zipping here and there, because it was too hot to walk. VALIDATE YOUR TICKET - look for the machines, which will often have instructions in English as well as Italian.

If you are foolish enough to take a car, there are several parking apps that can at least make it less of a headache - I used EasyPark and it was very, well, easy.

Planning: This was a last minute trip, so there was no great planning campaign. If you are travelling with children, this might be an interesting website. I also perused this one on free or freeish things to do in Milan.