milan, italy

We arrived in Milan, the last stop on our Christmas & New Year's trip around Europe, by train at about 8pm on a Thursday evening and took a bus to our hotel.  We stayed at the Hotel XXII Marzo, a simple but clean and friendly hotel with an excellent breakfast.  We checked in and had a late dinner from the limited options in the surrounding area that were still open - falafel for Danny and fresh juice for me from the Mercato del Suffragio across the street.  It was a neat place - a bunch of different types of food all under one roof, and they all seemed to be pretty healthy and fresh.  

The next morning we thoroughly enjoyed our hotel's breakfast - it was probably the best we had our whole trip!  We took a tram into the center of Milan and tried to find Santa Maria presso San Satiro and had quite a bit of trouble.  We almost threw in the towel, until we found it, tucked behind some shops...that's Milan for you, I suppose!  The church is particularly interesting because of its false apse, making it look much larger than it actually is.

From there we were just around the corner from the Duomo, which I was really excited about.  I’d seen pictures here and there on Pinterest, and really, that’s all I knew about Milan.  Thankfully, the main attraction did not disappoint.  It’s a stunner, inside and out, and we got to explore it like no other church before...from the roof!

D - Before this trip, I literally knew nothing about Milan except that it was a city in Italy and that it was where Fashion Week happened so I was really pleasantly surprised once we started exploring the city!  I think the fact that I had never even seen a picture of Milan made my first look at the church and the surrounding square all the more marvelous!

After we waited in line for our tickets, we went inside.  It’s absolutely cavernous.  In fact, it's the 5th largest church in the world, and the largest in Italy (keep in mind that the Vatican City is considered its own country and not a part of Italy).  It took close to 600 years to complete (from 1386 - 1965), and there are more statues on the building than on any other building in the world!  It's amazing.  By the way, don’t these people look tiny compared to the size of the Duomo?

D - Entering the Duomo really feels like walking into a manmade version of the Sequoia forest because of the colossal marble pillars that stretch up to the ceiling.  One of my favorite parts of the church was the statue pictured below.  Upon seeing it, Mark Twain considered it repulsive and the stuff of nightmares, but it's one of my favorite statues I've ever seen. Created by a student of Leonardo, it's Bartholomew the apostle wearing his flayed skin as a robe. Tradition says he was skinned alive while sharing the gospel of Matthew (which he's seen carrying here) in India. I like it because it represents a truth that the early church knew well: the love and faith that compelled men to be obedient to Jesus, even unto death, was the best kind of evangelism. Jesus too, said that following him was a death sentence, telling his friends that whoever wanted to follow him would have to pick up a cross.

Then it was time to go up to the roof.  When I read about paying extra to go onto the roof, I was initially hesitant.  I usually automatically say no to those sorts of things as the views aren’t often worth it, and they really add up if you pay for them in every city.  However, most everything we were planning to do in Milan was going to be free, and it seemed like the roof of the Duomo would be worth it, so we decided to spring for it.

Not only was it neat to be able to walk around different levels of the roof, but we also had great views over the square and buildings surrounding the Duomo, as well as the city of Milan.  In terms of GDP, Milan has the third largest economy among European cities, after London and Paris.  It's Italy's financial and shopping hub, and the 2nd most populous city in the country.

D - The roof was super cool, although we didn't completely enjoy our time up there.  Shortly after reaching the top Shannon and I got into an argument after she refused to take a picture of me strutting down the catwalk (i.e. the center of the roof) because she was too embarrassed.  True story.  Thankfully we were able to reconcile before we left so we could enjoy the rest of Milan.  

Alongside the Duomo is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, one of the world's oldest shopping malls.  It's four stories high, and anchored by two Prada stores, Dolce and Gabbana, Valentino, and Versace.  In other words, it's our kind of place (not really).  We walked through quickly - it was full more of gawkers than shoppers, I think - admiring the architecture and pretty windows, in search of lunch in a more reasonable area. 

We ate lunch nearby at Luini Panzerotti, and we were tipped off that it might be a good place by the line outside the door.  The prices were surprisingly reasonable (around 2.50 - 3 euros each), so we grabbed a couple of panzerotti - it's to-go only - and stood crammed against the wall of the tiny restaurant (so we wouldn't have to eat in the cold) and enjoyed our tasty lunch.  Panzerotti are savory turnovers, very similar to calzones, from Italy, and the most popular at Luini seems to be the tomato and mozzarella.  Luini also sells sweet panzerotti, but we decided to wait and get gelato later in the day instead.  

After lunch we walked along some of the most famous shopping streets in Milan - Via Montenapoleone and Via Sant'Andrea to get a feel for one of the most important parts of city - fashion and shopping.  Chanel, Armani, Hermès, Gucci, Alexander McQueen, plus about a hundred or two more, they're all there.   

D - I was really hoping to have some sort of celebrity sighting at this point, but alas, we only saw regular, non-famous rich people.

Ready for something a bit different, we took the metro to Cimitero Monumentale, or the Monumental Cemetery of Milan.   It's been around for about 150 years, and is 2,700,000 square feet in size.  Mostly, though, it's known for its artistic tombs in Egyptian, Byzantine, and Gothic styles sitting along tree-lined paths, housing many of Milan's rich and famous.  Some looked more like mini-houses or shrines, and the variety was really amazing.  

D - I've found recently that I really enjoy going to cemeteries because of how they bring my life into perspective so quickly.  Nothing makes a man ponder how he is spending his life quite like when he is faced with the truth of earthly mortality.  Could it be that the celebrities I was so desperate to see only minutes earlier don't really matter that much?  ... nah!

The cemetery is a bit on the outskirts of town, so we took the metro back into the city and took a look around the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore.  The church was first built in Roman times, sometime around the late 4th and early 5th centuries and over the years it has undergone many changes.  

We ate burritos near the church, and headed to the Navigli.  Now a neighborhood named for the canals that pass through this part of the city, the Navigli canals were dug to provide Milan with water and to transport the marble used for the Duomo into the center of the city.  Today, the Navigli district is becoming more and more popular with locals and with tourists as the area has been revitalized and restaurants and shops are moving in and attracting people to come and walk by the canals and spend their evenings in Milan along the water.  I found the photos I'd seen online to be a bit more picturesque than what we actually experienced, but to be fair, much of life is like that, and we were also there in the winter when perhaps not as many people were out enjoying the area.  We did get our final Italian gelato, though, and it was delicious - fruity flavors for me, and cheesecake and tiramisu for Danny.  

D - At this point in the evening my pinky toes were really hurting for some reason (the cobblestone streets, though romantic, weren't helping), but I was able to put on a brave face because I knew gelato was in my near future.  It was worth it, although I think my American palette is used to less refined (and more fatty) frozen treats.  

We stopped by the Duomo on our way back to the hotel because I wanted a chance to see it at night, and besides, it was on our way.  Danny was a good sport ;)

Saturday, the last day of our trip, ended up being a bit quiet, mostly due to the weather.  We had another delicious breakfast at the hotel, packed up our bags one last time and left them at the front desk, and took the tram to see the Last Supper.  

Due to some confusion about how to get there and taking the tram in the wrong direction at first, we arrived a few minutes late for our English-guided tour of the Last Supper.  Kind of a bummer, since we paid as much to see one painting as we have for some nice meals out (think eight euros per person, plus 3.50 each for the guided tour), but we figured that we'll probably only go to Milan once, and the Last Supper is one it's main attractions.  

We were in the room with the painting for only about 15 minutes with our group of about 20 people.  The painting is one of the most studied, admired, and reproduced in the world, but what we saw is hardly what Leonardo himself painted.  Da Vinci was using a new method of his own invention - tempera paint on stone - and it turned out to be not the greatest.  He painted from 1494 - 1499, and by the early 1500s, paint was already starting to flake and decay.  Within 50 years, it was in ruins, and early restoration attempts only made matters worse.  Oh, and in 1652, a doorway was put in the wall where the painting is, cutting out Jesus' feet and other parts of the painting.  

D - Despite it's sketchy restorative history, I thought that The Last Supper was really cool!  I had no idea it was so large (15 x 28 feet or so).  After our visit, I noted three big mistakes regarding the painting.  The first two, as Shannon mentioned above, are the actual materials that Leo used, and that time when some numbskull put a doorway in the middle of the painting!  The last mistake was when (after the employees repeatedly, and empathically told our group that no flash was allowed) someone took a picture of the painting with flash.  Immediately people started yelling, "NO FLASH, NO FLASH" and our group was ushered out of the room.  I literally thought that the Italian swat team was about to start descending from the ceiling.  That guy pretty much ruined it for the rest of us.  

The Last Supper is housed in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, a church and convent that has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1980.  The church was bombed during World War II, and most of the refectory was destroyed, but the wall containing the painting survived.  

We visited one final church in Milan, and aside from the Duomo, it was definitely my favorite.  It's interior was fabulous, colorful, and so very unique.  The frescoes are from the 16th century, and the painter(s) must have used a different technique than Mr. da Vinci, because they're still vivid and original (as far as we know).  It was all just marvelous - one of my favorites.  

From the church we walked about ten minutes to get to the Castello Sforzesco.  On our way, it started raining, and it didn't let up until we got to the airport.  A real shame, because the castle and the adjoining park was the only part of our day that entailed being outdoors, but it wasn't really a big deal.  Pictures are sparse and subpar from the rest of the day because it was wet and raining, so consider yourself warned - or lucky :)

The Castello Sforzesco was built from 1360 - 1499, and was used until 1862.  Today it houses museums - about nine of them!  We hadn't planned to go in any of them, as we were about museum-ed out at this point (and well as running short on time and money on the last day of our trip, too), so we walked around and wandered through the park next door too.  

We made one more stop by the Duomo on our way back to the hotel to collect our suitcases and then we were on our way to the train station to catch a bus to the airport.  We had a late lunch/early dinner at the train station because we knew our next meal was going to be at home - well, we didn't make dinner (no food in the house after a 3 week trip!) but dinner was in Madrid at our fav little pizza place across the street.  

We were mostly going to Milan because of the cheap flight back to Madrid (Ryanair doesn't fly from Venice to Madrid), and when we started thinking about what we were going to do there, I said, "Well, I'm sure there's plenty, I mean, they have the Duomo!"  

Milan was a good end to our trip.  It was pretty low-key, not too jam-packed with sights, although we did see some pretty neat things along the way.  We ate some tasty food (looking at you, fresh-squeezed juice, panzerotti, and gelato!) and saw some amazing churches.  It's probably not a place we'll go out of our way to go back to, but we're sure glad we went.  

D - I'm definitely glad we went to Milan!  Even though I never had my celebrity sighting, I really enjoyed the city, especially the Duomo and The Last Supper!