Northern Italy’s Answer to Venice and Paris Rolled into One Unforgettable City
(The next installment in the series,, “The ABCs of Future Travel”, designed to inspire you to start planning your next trip.)
It was late afternoon on March 4, 2020, and Simon, Splendid, and I had just landed in Milan. Little did we know that the next four days would be the dividing line between the travel life we had come to love and a world turned upside down.
I wrote a short section on what we did in this remarkable Italian city in my first post about Covid-19 but didn’t come close to doing Milan justice. So, here is how we spent our last four days of relative sanity. I hope it will serve to inspire you to put Milan on your list of must-see destinations for future travel.
A Checkered Past
Milan is located in the region of Lombardy, one hour south of the Swiss border. The city is first and foremost Italian, but her location and history combine to give Milan a cosmopolitan air.
It is said that who ever controlled this strategic area controlled traffic from Central Europe all the way down to the Mediterranean. And so Milan found itself conquered, independent, then reconquered. First the Romans laid claim to the area in the third century BC, and made Milan capital of the Western Empire in the third century AD. Then came the Goths, France and the Holy Roman Empire. A couple of centuries of independence, then a German king took power. After that came France again, Spain, Austria, Napoleon himself, and Austria again. Until in 1861, Italian unification gave Milan a permanent place in the universe.
Taking a Tour or Two
In keeping with our practice of taking a walking tour to familiarize ourselves with a new city, we did just that on a mild sunny morning in Milan. Our guide was Marco, a charming young man who regaled us with tales of the city’s past as he led our small group through streets and past landmarks. He was a delightful guide, injecting humor into his narrative and sharing some of the lesser known facts about Milan.
It was through Marco that we began to comprehend the toll Coronavirus was taking on Milan. Tourism was down, and locals were staying home in unusual numbers. As if we needed more confirmation, Marco indicated our group was much smaller than usual.
Our second tour was a day later with Fat Tire Tours which involved a food tour in the morning and a visit to the iconic Duomo di Milano in the afternoon. This was a pre-TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exchange) tour as part of the conference in Catania, which had been canceled a few days earlier. At that point, though, the pre- and post-conference tours were still on. Sadly, we were the only ones to show up. Despite this, our guide, Mirella, insisted on leading us on what turned out to be a phenomenal private tour.
I promise to get to the food part of the tour later, but I’m going to start with the highly recognizable cathedral that says, “Milan.”
Duomo di Milano
This gothic symbol of Milan is a true masterpiece that took over 600 years to complete. Begun in the 14th century and constructed of white marble, the Duomo sits on top of the original 4th century cathedral.
When construction of the cathedral began, it started with the apse and altar. This meant it could be consecrated. and used even if it wasn’t anywhere near completion.
By the 1500s, the side walls were partially complete. Then, when Napoleon rolled into town in the early 19th century, he had the marble interior finished before the, façade so he could be crowned emperor in a proper church.
At the time of our visit, the Duomo’s marble had obviously seen better days. Mirella explained that over time, the marble gets crusty and begins to flake from Milan’s chronic pollution. Knowing we were from North Carolina, she noted that the machinery used to clean it came from what was at the time our home state. Apparently, the Duomo is so massive, the job of keeping it clean inside and out is never complete.
The Duomo’s exterior is decorated with over 2,000 religious statues. Some of these intricately crafted works of art are grouped to represent stories from the Bible. Mirella told us that the huge gargoyles were slanted in such a way that when it rained heavily, water spewed out of their mouths. I could just imagine walking under one of those marble monsters and getting drenched in gargoyle vomit.
As if the exterior isn’t grand enough, the Duomo boasts 135 towers and spires. Perched atop the Duomo’s tallest spire is a shining gold statue of Mary, to whom the cathedral is dedicated. The statue was covered during World War II in order to make it less of a target for bombers.
Inside the Duomo
Entering the cathedral, I could sense the enormity of this grand structure. The array of stunning decorations on the exterior continued inside: soaring marble columns, geometric marble floors in black, white, and red, a baptismal of red Egyptian granite, magnificent stained glass windows, huge religious paintings, and the original 4th century altar. We marveled at all of it, but were brought up short when Mirella led us to the glass cases containing two mummified Archbishops of Milan.
Both Archbishops were beatified. Both bishops wore red socks and white shoes. And both have their footwear changed to all black at Christmas, I hoped someone was getting paid well for that job.. The whole concept was as fascinating as it was creepy.
We learned much from Mirella’s narrative. Here are just a few of the fascinating facts with which we came away:
- Napoleon’s cannons firing to celebrate his victory blew out the 14th century stained glass back windows. They were eventually replaced with the vibrantly colored painted transparent glass we see today.
- All the windows were removed during World War II and hidden in private homes and churches throughout the countryside. Most were returned, but sadly, a few never found their way home.
- The ceiling was reinforced with concrete when vibrations from the two intersecting subway lines running underneath the church threatened to cause damage. Thus, the decorations are painted, not carved.
- A small hole in the ceiling allows the sun to shine down at noon along a solar trail marked with the signs of the zodiac, indicating the sun’s progression throughout the year. This sundial was installed in the 17th century under Austrian rule, and is highly accurate.
Under the Duomo
Leaving the grandeur of the cathedral behind, we descended to the lower level. There we encountered remnants of a Roman brick road, and then some of the remains of the original 4th century church.
Only the drain remained from what had been the original baptismal. Although some tombs survived the centuries, the coffins they contained had completely rotted away from humidity.
The small underground museum was worth the wander. It displayed Roman coins, ceramics, and pieces of mosaic that emitted an eerie iridescence. These artifacts revealed the true splendor of the church that had once thrived here.
Terraces of the Duomo
One of the many unique features of the Duomo is the series of terraces accessible to the public. These provided a spectacular finale to our tour.
It was an easy climb, and when we emerged from the stairwell, we were rewarded with one breathtaking sight after another. Thanks to the system of interconnecting stairways, we could admire the Duomo’s gold statue of Mary, as well as the towers, spires, and intricate carvings up close. We took in views of the bustling piazza del Duomo and the rooftops of Milan below, and could see the mountains in the distance.
Some of the carvings seemed out of place: such as a boxer and a tennis racket. These were added to the Duomo’s façade by nobody’s friend, Mussolini, who, when he wasn’t palling around with Hitler, had a passion for sports.
All too soon, we had to take our leave of the Duomo. Mirella and I took the elevator down, while Simon chose to brave the spiral staircase. Back down in the piazza del Duomo, we bade our delightful guide goodbye, blissfully ignorant of how, in two short days, Mirella’s remarkable country would be cast down into an abyss of hardship, disease, and death.
The Milan Monumental Cemetery
The following day, at Mirella’s suggestion, we paid a visit to The Milan Monumental Cemetery, the second-most popular site in Milan next to the Duomo. No, we weren’t crazy. Nor did we have some premonition of what was to come. We were in this tranquil, tree-shaded, 2,700,000 square foot space near Milan’s center, because it was as much an open-air museum as it was a burial place.
Established in 1866, The Milan Monumental Cemetery is a final resting place primarily for Catholics, with designated sections for Jews and other non-Catholics. It is also a wonderland of contemporary and classical Italian sculptures, plus a hodgepodge of other symbolic tomb markers, such as a tower shaped like a lighthouse bearing scenes from the Stations of the Cross, a life-size presentation of The Last Supper in bronze, elaborate obelisks, an assortment of angels, and much more.
The cemetery reminded me of Glasnevin in Dublin because the grave markers told the story of Milan’s history and the people who shaped it. It was a Who’s-Who of the city’s industrial families, musicians, sports figures, and other important people of Milan, spanning over a century-and-a-half.
Some of the notables buried in the cemetery include conductor Arturo Toscanini; poet, novelist, and Nobel Laureate Salvatore Quasimodo; and philosopher and writer Carlo Cattaneo. Also present is the Campari family tomb. Yes, the same Campari as the aperitif. Theirs is the afore-mentioned “Last Supper” sculpture.
We spent the better part of the afternoon wandering the paths and taking in the sculptures. It would be our last day of sanity for many months to come.
If you are in Milan, don’t miss the cemetery. Admission is free, and you will find it time well spent.
Savor the Flavors of Milan
Our first introduction to Mirella and Fat Tire Tours filled up the morning of our tour of the Duomo. Mirella met us at Pattini Dolciai a Milano, a bakery where we enjoyed outstanding coffee and pastries. As we ate, she spoke about Milan’s history and what the eating plan was for the rest of the morning. Here’s a short summary of where and what we shamelessly consumed.
Pattini Dolciai a Milano: At this popular neighborhood bakery, Simon went for a traditional cappuccino, while I tried a Marocchino: espresso in a small glass, topped with frothed milk and a dusting of coco powder. The coffees definitely revved us up and tasted heavenly with the beignet-like pastries, one filled with custard and the other chocolate. Although you won’t pay double to sit at a table as in Naples, many patrons of Milan bakeries still choose to stand at the counter to enjoy their coffee break
Rossi & Grassi: This family-owned emporium of all things delectable has been open for 40 years. The first thing we noticed was the front window, arranged to look like Alibaba’s cave. The display held a stunning array of foods that seemed to call our names.
Inside, glass cases containing hot and cold foods – cold cuts, cheeses, pates in aspic, hot pasta dishes, meats, including rabbit, and eye-popping desserts took over where the window display left off. Customers could stand at the counter or sit at outdoor tables.
We opted for the latter to feast on our platter of prosciutto, mortadella, Parmigiano Reggiano, fresh mozzarella, and dense crusty bread.
Mirella insisted we make another selection, so we opted for plates of cold thinly sliced tender, juicy veal under a thin layer of smooth sauce made from tuna, mayo, and capers. We washed everything down with a mellow local beer. Everything, including the mayo was fresh, made from scratch, and full of enticing flavors.
Quore Italiano: This family owned and operated restaurant, with whole prosciuttos casually hanging for all to admire, was our introduction to Risotto Melanese. I’ve eaten and prepared all sorts of risottos, but the Milanese version had to be one of the best in its simplicity and flavor. The risotto was yellow from the saffron used in its preparation. Along with the color, the saffron imparted that indescribable flavor which adds so much to every dish it graces. We topped our risotto with finely grated Parmigiano and black pepper. The rice was slightly chewy yet still creamy. In other words, it was perfect.
As we ate our risotto and sipped wine, Mirella gave us her tips on how she makes her own risotto at home. In short, the trick is to use a heavy-bottomed pot. Add the wine, then any other ingredients, such as meat and/or vegetables. Then slowly add the broth in small quantities, and don’t stir. Just let the rice absorb the liquid. Repeat until the rice is the right consistency. I haven’t tried making this yet, but it’s on my list.
Pastificio Moscova: This casual eatery offers simple home cooking made from scratch. The restaurant opened in 1924, and still contains some of the original furniture. It’s a popular lunch spot with journalists from the nearby newspaper publisher.
We settled ourselves on small stools at a high table, and indulged in samples of lasagna with artichokes, large juicy beef meatballs, small soft veal meatballs in a sage and béchamel sauce, and eggplant parmesan. This was comfort food at its finest, and the flavors and textures of the different dishes complimented each other exquisitely, while maintaining their unique characteristics.
Oggi: We didn’t think we could possibly find room for dessert. Then Mirella led us into this cozy gelateria, with its brick decor, soft lights, smooth jazz in the background, and the glorious assortment of frozen offerings in the glass case. Needless to say, we quickly reconsidered.
It was crowded, but we finally made our way to the counter. Then the problem became clear. Which of the many flavors to choose. The apple cinnamon was an easy decision for me. I’ve had that flavor before in other venues, but nothing came close to the fresh taste of apples in this version. It’s no wonder Pope Francis XVI has the owners come to the Vatican to make gelato for him. Think I’m joking? There is a photo on the wall showing the Pope with one of the owners. All I can say is “that’s one lucky Pope”.
One More Milan Food Story
Throughout our time in Milan, we couldn’t help but notice the lack of crowds in most areas of the city. Deciding to have lunch after our walking tour, we took Marco up on his suggestion to try Pasta d’Autore. This was a small family-owned restaurant that served freshly made pasta, made daily by the grandmother, flavorful sauces, and outstanding tiramisu.
“Normally, there is a queue at the door,” owner, Enrica told us when we commented that we couldn’t understand why, with such superb dishes, the restaurant wasn’t as crowded as we had expected. Suddenly, the three generations of this close-knit Milanese family were struggling to keep their business afloat. Times were hard and were about to get harder.
Our meal, including the tiramisu, was fabulous. So we decided to show the family some love by having dinner there on our last night in Milan. We were shocked to find ourselves one of only two couples in the restaurant. Again, our meal was exceptionally scrumptious. On our way out, we saw a couple looking in the window trying to decide whether or not to venture forth. We gave them a thumbs-up, and they went in. The gesture seemed totally inadequate in light of the situation, but we hope it helped a little.
I did check Pasta d’Autore,’ Facebook page, and, to my relief and delight, it seems they have made it through the worst of the nightmare. I hope they continue to thrive. It’s not only about the amazing food. These are hardworking, kind people, and they deserve to succeed.
What Else to Do in Milan
There is so much more to see in Milan than this post can accommodate. So, here is a short list of some of the city’s other delights.
- The Last Supper: This famous work of Leonardo da Vinci is located on an end wall of the dining hall at the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Painted directly onto the wall, the masterpiece measures 180 inches by 350 inches. During normal times, you will need to reserve tickets well in advance or book a tour where skipping the line is included in the price. The painting is a far cry from da Vinci’s original work, having endured neglect, abuse, mold growth as a result of flooding, and a bomb dropped on the church during World War II. Napoleon’s troops used the monastery as a stable, and the Last Supper for target practice. Science and hard work have made a partial restoration possible, and The Last Supper is still worth seeing.
- The Leonardo da Vinci National Museum of Science and Technology: Speaking of Leonardo, he may have been a brilliant artist, but he was equally brilliant as an inventor, scholar, and visionary. Many of his inventions, as well as other important scientific and technological displays, are located in the Milan museum bearing da Vinci’s name. Reconstructions of his flying machines, model cars, and other marvels created from da Vinci drawings and superior mind are on display. This is not a museum to breeze through and say you’ve been there, so allow plenty of time to be amazed.
- Castello Sforzesco: Once the fortress and residence of Milan’s most powerful rulers, this grouping of structures is now the location for some of Milan’s finest museums and galleries. You will find museums to satisfy almost every history or art itch.: paintings, furniture, musical instruments, Egyptian art and history, and more. Don’t miss Museo Della Pieta Rondanini, where you can marvel at Michelangelo’s last masterpiece, the Pietà Rondanini. When you’re museumed out, take some time to digest all you’ve experienced by strolling the lush grounds.
- Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II: Milan is known for many a splendid things, and one of these is the oldest, and most likely the best-known shopping mall in Italy. Constructed in the 19th century, this elegant glass-roofed gallery is a strong draw for the rich and famous, as well as those who wish they were. Some of the gallery’s cafes and restaurants date back to the beginning. Unless you have money to burn, you may have to confine your activity to window shopping at boutiques like Louis Vuitton and Prada.
- Teatro all Scala: In the center of Piazza della Scala, you’ll find a statue of Leonardo da Vinci. But that’s not why you’re there.. This is the location of the world-famous La Scala Opera House. Opened in 1778, this Milan musical treasure is one of the city’s most visited venues. The theater’s history is a good deal more impressive than the structure itself. Some of the world’s most beloved composers such as Gioachino Rossini and Giuseppe Verdi have had their works performed here by equally renowned operatic performers. If you take a guided tour, you will learn much more about La Scala’s history and back stories than you will wandering around on your own.
- Explore Milan’s Neighborhoods: Milan is a city of iconic churches, buildings, and museums, but people do live there, too. And, as in most cities, the neighborhoods in which they live reflect their culture, lifestyles, and personalities. One neighborhood worth walking is Navigli. If you think Venice is the only city that can boast canals, think again. The Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese canals are worth the walk, and there are lots of colorful buildings, trendy art galleries, quaint boutiques, and charming local restaurants to round out your visit. Another neighborhood worth walking is Brera. This neighborhood is not at all touristy despite being within walking distance of the Duomo. In the 1970s, Brera was bohemian in character, with its share of prostitution and crime. Today, it is très chique yet charming. There are many options for eating, drinking, and shopping. There is also the Brera & Braidense National Library, an 18th-century structure that is one of Italy’s most magnificent libraries.
Despite all I have written, this post has barely scratched the surface of Milan’s history, art, vibrance, and charm. As soon as we have the chance, this remarkable city will be high on our list of places to revisit. And I highly recommend you put Milan near the top of your list, as well.