I have wanted to visit Italy for a long time now and this year we finally touched down for the first time, in Milan. This area in the north of Italy has historically been the more affluent side of the country and is considered a fashion capital of the world these days. Along with great style, the city had beautiful architecture and rich food.
It was a rainy weekend during our visit and Sunday, in particular, involved walking around for an entire day in unrelenting downpour. Water starting seeping through our umbrellas because it was just so wet! Stairs leading down to the metro became mini waterfalls, making me glad I had boots on. It was an adventure in more ways than one but nonetheless, we enjoyed our time in this fashion capital.
The flight to Milan from London took 1 hour 40 minutes which is slightly longer than usual. French air traffic control were implementing a new system which apparently meant we needed to avoid French air space. During our flight we passed over an endless expanse of rugged snow covered peaks. The variety of places you can reach in such a short time here is still astounding!
Once we arrived, we waited in a rather long line at passport control where only two of the four counters were open and there was no differentiation between EU and non-EU passports. After being scrutinised briefly by a rather angry looking boarder control officer, we were stamped and ready to go. There is a Malpensa Express train from the airport to the city which we bought tickets for but proceeded to wonder why it was called ‘express’ when there were so many stops along the way. But express can also be a relative term I suppose! Overall it took 50 minutes to get to the central station. Milano Centrale is one confusing place! It’s a vast, generally rectangular, multi-level building with ambiguous signage. After a few minutes we were able to locate an exit – a situation which would occur many times over the weekend in the warrens of the metro system – and found ourselves in the big puff of cigarette smoke that is outside most buildings in Milan. The concentration of smokers in Milan felt higher than most other places we had been too. The amount of smokers around Milan was our least favourite part of the city.
After a short walk to our hotel to drop off our bags, we sought lunch at a restaurant nearby called Plantina. Anyone who knows me is aware that I love Italian food and while I was excited to be having my first meal it Italy, I was also apprehensive that I had built it up too much in my mind. There wasn’t any need to worry however, because Plantina served up fabulous fare with super friendly service. Richard and I shared a plate of mussels to start. When it arrived we were shocked at the generosity of the portion – it was a good thing we decided to share! In this area you will find small black mussels rather than the larger green lipped mussels found in New Zealand. I am not a lover of shell fish and generally avoid them along with all crustaceans. This meal in Milan however, has proven to be a turning point. The mussels were sweet, tender and didn’t have the heavy “shell” taste I usually dislike in shell fish. It was a shock to both myself and Richard that I proceeded to take an active role in consuming our bowl of mussels. (Following this trip was Chinese New Year where, as tradition dictates, I had a prawn. I can confirm that I still do not like prawns. Observations of this metamorphosis are ongoing.)
Following our mussel revelation, Richard had spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams), and I had a tomato and aubergine pasta. Both were, again, generous portions and tasted delizioso! There is nothing like a tasty meal at a reasonable price to welcome you to a new city.
On our way to purchase daily travel passes, we wandered through a local produce market. It was busy, slightly hectic, colourful and loud. All the produce looked delightfully fresh including seafood. The man selling various shell fish, octopus, squid and fish only had a small amount of each which made me imagine that it was just picked up off a small boat in the morning and carted to the market – what a nice thought!
The metro in Milan has regular services, reasonably clean stations and trains, and is very affordable at only €4.50 per day. We caught the train first to Duomo di Milano; the main cathedral in the city. With the help of a friendly local, we were able to exit the station and were greeted by the truly enormous face of the Duomo.
The Piazza del Duomo is surrounded by wonderful renaissance-style buildings housing shops, bars and restaurants, and several museums.
Arriving after lunchtime, we were faced with a long queue outside the Duomo extending from the entrance and around the corner so we decided we would try to purchase tickets online for the following day when we returned to the hotel. As we circled the Duomo to admire its detailed and remarkably clean exterior, we came across another ticket office on the other side with virtually no line. There we purchased entry tickets to climb the tower and tickets to enter the cathedral the next day. What followed was a long trek up the stairs to the roof. The good thing about these stairs however, was that they were not a winding spiral staircase but a square shaped one. The stairs were all regular shaped and much easier to navigate than spiral pizza-slice-shaped stairs.
At the top we were able to meander around the edge of the entire roof and climb even further to straddle the very top of the cathedral. It was a very cool experience and worth the effort of climbing up. There is also a lift option but what is the fun in that? We were able to get up close and personal with the wonderful array of figures and decorative pieces on the roof, as well as get a good view of the city.
The afternoon on the first day of a trip is always tiring as the early start catches up with us. We returned to our hotel after exploring the Piazza and had a brief rest while looking for a suitable dinner restaurant. We went to a well rated place but unfortunately had a very average meal. The evening was improved by a night time stroll to the Duomo again. It truly is a magnet and you can’t help but marvel at the painstaking effort that went into it. We would return again the following morning before all the other tourists arrived for some photos in the rain.
Milan is full of large groups of tourists. They come by the busload and hang around the Duomo. We were able to avoid these large groups by heading out early on Sunday morning and didn’t have to wait in line. At the doors there are local military guards who would not let us approach the entrance with our umbrellas up so we got a little wet while us and our bags were being inspected. Once inside, the vast beauty of the cathedral takes your breath away and makes you forget you’re annoyed about being wet.
The columns were huge and reached high up, branching out like trees. To me, it felt like a forest of giants. The detailing throughout the entire place was astounding. We were so fortunate to have beat the crowd because there were very few people around and it was blissfully quiet which made the whole experience even better.
Next to the Duomo is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. It is a beautiful building containing restaurants and several high end shops.
Our next stop was Sforzesco Castle. Built in the 15th century but the then Duke of Milan, this was one of the largest citadels in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. The castle is laid out in wonky square (or quadrilateral if you want to be smart about it) with 200m long sides, four round towers and thick brick walls (7 metres thick in fact!). It is an impressively large and well preserved fortress housing several museums.
We walked through and enjoyed the scenery but didn’t spend any time at the museums. It was still great to see with plenty of area to roam including a ‘cat moat’. The moat was part of the initial fortifications before the castle was later expanded. These days, cats live around the area and are fed by volunteers. Since it was cold and wet, we didn’t see much action at the ‘cat moat’. Just two lonely friends braving the rain.
A short train ride away, we encountered an incredible cemetery. It seems odd to visit a cemetery as a tourist but this was definitely worth checking out. The Cimitero Monumentale sprawls across an area of 250,000sqm and includes a wide array of tombs and monuments dating from 1866 when it was opened. It was bucketing down so not many people were around and we were able to slowly make our way down the rows of sculptures, obelisks and temples.
A few minutes away from the cemetery is a modern collection of buildings at Piazza Gae Aulenti. The glass and steel circular building was a stark contrast to the many classic Italian sculptures we had been observing at the cemetery. Perhaps it was the rain or perhaps it was simply a usual Sunday, but there were hardly any people around. To be fair, the collection of shops was not super interesting. The surrounding areas to be developing and feels like a new bud of modern architecture bursting through all the romantic Italian buildings covering the city.
We were growing tired of the endless rain by this point and were happy to make our way to Ratana for lunch. This would be the most memorable meal of the weekend. In general, the Italian cuisine that you think of which has spread its fingers across the globes into everyone’s hearts (and stomachs!), stems from frugality and a desire not to waste food. Many of the greatest food traditions across many cultures have come from the peasant class who were forced by scarcity to innovate. The local dish risotto alla Milanese however, seems like an indicator that the wealthy can make unforgettable food as well. This risotto dish is characterised by its golden hue due to use of saffron, and the incredibly rich flavour from the use of lard and bone marrow. The restaurant is fantastic by the way. It was small and tucked away, looking like someone’s house from the outside. The staff were very nice an attentive, and we were reassured when the restaurant became completely full of mostly locals. A group in the centre of the restaurant were convivially celebrating a birthday and several families had come with their young children to sit through several courses (I am amazed at how much Italians can eat while still keeping their figures!).
Near the main desk was a table with various craft materials and a lady who supervised all the kids to draw pictures, make coloured card cut outs and all sorts of things – this restaurant really had an in-house arts and crafts lady to keep your kids happy!
We started with artichoke that was stuffed with anchovies which was bursting with flavour, and followed with the risotto alla Milanese. It doesn’t look that attractive but it is divine. It was also really huge! The huge bone marrow that came with it was excellent although it felt a bit like a marathon finishing the whole dish. While it is on the expensive side, I would highly recommend it (you won’t need dinner so if you consider it as two meals, it’s not so expensive!).
We followed the heavy lunch by returning to the shopping area around the Duomo. It was still raining cats and dogs which wasn’t conductive to trying on clothes for me. All the stores were well prepared with stands dispensing plastic bags for your umbrellas so you don’t drip all over the place. Even so, we just window shopped and admired the many beautiful buildings in the area.
After collecting our bags we caught the train to the airport where the food choices were disappointingly meagre by comparison to what we had experienced. We both got expensive and poorly made sandwiches to tide us over the late flight. Unfortunately the weather caused our flight to be delayed a little. The weather in London was no better as a storm was raging across the UK causing flooding and high winds. Our landing was the most choppy I have experienced before and once we were safely on the ground, there was clapping and cheering on board. Quite the adventure!
Richard and I found Milan to be a beautiful city with great buildings and a significant art scene. As a modern day home of fashion, it wasn’t surprising to see some quirkily dressed people. (We also saw a lady walking her grey hound who was wearing a very smart Burberry dog coat!) It’s easy to see how a weekend could be spent shopping, if it weren’t raining so much, because there really are a lot of shops clustered together. Despite the weather, we had a great time exploring the city and appreciating the local cuisine. Since this trip, we have returned to Italy so look out for an upcoming post on Naples!