Saturday, January 31, 2009

Milano, Italia (Dec 30 - Jan 1)

The train ride from Geneve to Milano was another absolutely beautiful ride. We traveled along Lake Geneve for quite a while. Sandwiched between the lake, the Alps, and assorted vineyards. The vineyards faded away and were replaced by larger mountains. By this time the tracks were far enough away from the mountains that we could see the transition of dense trees to snowy peaks on each mountain. Not long after that I fell asleep and when I woke up we were back in the thick of the mountains, with the slopes rising up on either side of us. Most of these slopes were tree-covered but occasionally the trees gave way to a village which probably only appeared after the railway was built. The villages were very cramped and crowded on the mountain-side but the church was always clearly visible. As we approach Milan we passed a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains. There was a castle of a manor situated on the other side of the lake that I think I recognized from one of the pictures my dad showed me from his business trips to Milan but I can't be certain.

Even though it was a pleasant train ride to Milan, I was definitely relieved when we arrived at our final destination. Our next challenge was finding the bus stop to take us to the hotel. Quite accidentally the first bus we found was the Malpensa Express which we would board in a couple days to go to the airport. The bus we needed was on the other side of the station. As we approached the bus stop we got our first taste of Italian public transport. The bus we wanted had pulled away from the bus stop and was sitting at a stop sign. In Brighton that would mean you were out of luck until the next bus came. However in Milan we were able to walk up at the stop sign and the driver opened the door and allowed us to get on. Our final place of lodging was Hotel 22 Marzo which, thankfully, gave clear directions from the train station to its front door.

We were greeted by a friendly staff and a recently refurbished downstairs. Unfortunately our room hadn't been refurbished but the bed was pretty comfortable and the shower was hot which is all I cared about at that point. It was still too early for dinner when we arrived so we walked around the area for a while before going to a Chinese/Italian restaurant. The menu consisted of pizzas, Italian antipasto, and Chinese antipasto. I opted for a pizza and then tiramisu. The pizza was great. The tiramisu - not so much. Leanna had some sort of ice cream with candied nuts on it which I got to try and that was delicious.

The next day was New Year's Eve and we started the day off early by walking to the Piazza del Duomo to see the Duomo di Milano. I had heard the term "duomo" tossed around and was expecting an average cathedral. Little did I know that this Duomo is the third largest church in the world. The guy that built it was trying to appeal to the Virgin Mary to give him a son. I hope he got his son because this church is insane. First of all it's huuuge. No other way to say it. The exterior walls are covered with carvings of saints, martyrs, gargoyles, etc. in addition to all of the arches and spires. It's almost too much to look at. The inside is just as ornate with probably a dozen alters, in addition to the main alter, dedicated to different saints. There was also an almost life-sized nativity scene. There were even armed guards at the entrances checking people's bags as they went in. In conclusion, the Duomo di Milano is not an average cathedral.

The only other church we went into was the Santa Maria della Grazie. Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" is in the refectory next to the church so we went to investigate. I was expecting a large ornate church but the building was actually fairly small and simple. We went into the church first and walked right into a beautiful courtyard. Again it was small, simple, and very pretty, with a few trees and a fish pond. In one of the rooms off of the courtyard someone was hosting an exhibit of angel paintings. All of the paintings had the angels in bright jewel tones instead of white. I thought they were fairly pretty. I really like the inside of the church. It was probably the simplest church we went into. The interior was mostly flat stone with very few decorations. There were a few alters to saints including St. Catherine of Alexandria, my confirmation name saint. My favorite part of this church was the Nativity. Unlike many of the other Nativity scenes we saw on out trip, this one portrayed a street scene instead of just the collection around the manger. It had the inn and the stable, and had figures of people coming to the stable to see what had happened instead of just standing around. It looked like it had belonged to the church for a very long time and was obviously well-cared for. Not long after we entered the church the Priest shooed us out for the midday service. Leanna and I thought we would try to check out "The Last Supper" while we were there and battled our way to the ticket desk. When we got to the desk the girl informed us that there were no tickets available to see the mural for the next TWO WEEKS. I couldn't believe it. Dan Brown and his novel have caused amateur art detectives to flood the exhibit trying to find a missing clue. It was rather infuriating. As we walked back towards the Duomo we decided that gelato was the only appropriate consolation for missing "The Last Supper" by two weeks. Excellent decision. I got some sort of berry flavors that was absolutely delicious.

Our next destination was the pinecoteca Ambrosiana, a library that also has a small museum in it. The museum had the most aggressive guides I've ever seen. They insisted that we go through the rooms in the correct order and one even stopped me for not looking at a painting for long enough (a fruit still-life of all things). The highlights of the museum were several of Da Vinci's papers and his "Portrait of a Musician," Napoleon's gloves from the Battle of Waterloo, and a wall-sized sketch of Rapheal's "School of Athens." My high school global teacher, Mr. Frahm, had a poster of the "School of Athens" in his classroom and it's been one of my favortite works of art ever since so I really enjoyed seeing the sketch. When we had finished the exhibits and were leaving we kept glancing around waiting for one of the guides to come after us and tell us we had done something wrong but in the end we left without being confronted.

We encountered another outdoor market for our collection in a piazza adjacent to the Piazza de Duomo. This market was not specific to Christmas and had done away with any residual festive wares. It did have several cookie vendors so we sampled some authentic Italian cookies, and a canoli for me, while we looked at the miscellaneous gadgets and gizmos available for purchase and then started toward the Castello Sforzesco, a castle that sits in a direct line with the Duomo.

Compared to the Duomo the Castello wasn't very impressive. It was large and square and had a cool fountain in front of it and a large park behind it so it wasn't a total bust. We decided to skip the museums that are housed within the castle and just walked around the grounds. The exterior of the castle was made of entirely of red brick with lots of angles so I had some fun trying different camera angles. When we got the the back of the castle we found a "snow park" - ramps with something like astroterf so little kids could ski down them. There was also a lodge with a bar and grill food and hot drinks for the parents. Just past the snow park was a legitimate park that stretched quite a ways back to the Arc of Peace, which looks very similar to the Arcs we saw in Paris. Although "Arcs" in general are not a unique idea in Europe. We found a poster saying that there would be fireworks for New Years by the pseudosnow park so we decided to return to the hotel, grab some dinner and then return of the fireworks.

On the way back toward the hotel we found a couple of good-looking restaurants that were closed. We found one just around the corner from our hotel that had its hours posted. The sign indicated that the restaurant would open in about an hour so we decided to chill out in our room and then go for dinner when it opened. When we came down from our room we made two discoveries. First, it had started to snow, and second, the restaurant was not open probably due to the holiday. We decided to just go back to the Chinese/Italian place again since we had passed it on the way and seen that it was open. Apparently that little hybrid restaurant was one of the few restaurants open because it was very full and they were having a hard time coping. Leanna and I both ordered off the antipasto menu but we probably should had ordered pizza. I had risotto Milano (rissoso with saffron), spaghetti carbonera, and apple cake. The risotta was pretty good, the carbonera was not so good, and the apple cake was exactly what I was expecting. I was a little disappointed with my antipasto experience after hearing about all of my dad's delicious antipasto meals. I'll have to try again sometime when I'm in Italy and it's not a holiday.

It was still snowing when we left for the fireworks and in places where the city was quiet it was very pretty. When we got to the Piazza de Duomo we ran into a crowd of people including a lot of teenaged boys armed with firecrackers which they set off periodically with no regard to where they went. After traveling for 14 days I had even less patience for this than I normally would have had and was very happy to reach the castle. The fireworks were being set off in a section of the park called the piazza del cannone, and the event had attracted a crowd. We had arrived early and secured a spot in the lodge in an attempt to stay slightly warmer than we would be in the open air. We watched the beginning of the midnight show and then started walking back to our hotel so we wouldn't get caught in the crowd. What we saw of the show was very good and as we walked back we could see more fireworks being set off in different parts of the city. When we entered our hotel room I turned on TV and found the Italian New Years Eve special. Minus the replays of the Times Square ball dropping, it was extactly the same as the post-midnight show you would see in the States.

The next morning was our last day in Italy and the last day of our trip. We checked out of the hotel and the innkeeper surprised us which a bottle of red wine, which I was lucky enough to bring home with me, and let us store our bags in the breakfast corner so we wouldn't have to carry them around the city all day. Our innkeeper was really friendly to us, which goes to show that trying a little to be friendly and humble goes along way while traveling.

After leaving the hotel, we went to the Milan fashion district. None of the stores were open but the didn't matter because we probably couldn't have afforded anything anyways. We were quite content to look in the windows and discuss what we liked and what we thought was just plain weird. As we made our way out of the shopping district, we ran into several bands that appeared to be finishing a parade or some other type of demonstration. We could hear the music but never saw where it was coming from. The vast majority of the shops around city center were closed and I'm sure the trend would have continued if we kept walking further out. We did find an Italian restaurant/pizzeria that was open. Their "famous" pizza really wasn't any different from the pizza we had had from the Chinese restaurant except it cost more. But, in the end, it was a good lunch and a "free" reststop.

We spent a good chunk of the rest of the afternoon walking down side streets around the city center. We didn't find anything breath-taking but it was still an experience to walk on quiet, cobbled streeted in the 21st century. The streets in old European cities just have a different feel to them than those in American cities. It was also a good way to unwind after two weeks of hardcore traveling and before heading to the airport. When we finally ran out of easily accessible streets, we bought one last gelato (chocolate chip, yum!) and headed back to the hotel to collect our bags. We ended up leaving for the airport a little early and subsequently spent a little more time waiting in lobbies than orinially planned but it was okay. As I sat at my gate in the Milan Malpensa airport, I found it impossible to wrap my head around everything that I had seen and experienced over the previous 15 days. I read through the journal I had been keeping and was even more blown away. However my travels weren't over yet. I was returning to England for roughly 12 hours and then boarding another plane for Detroit, MI in order to spend the last week of the holidays with my family in Michigan.

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