A Weekend in Milan

8 Nov

I miss travel. This morning, I was thinking about my trip to Milan earlier in the year, and wanted to write about it, partly as a form of deeper reminiscence.

I haven’t travelled a lot on my own. In general, I dislike being alone; I don’t think I’ve yet found the means of being totally at peace in my own company. But there is also a freedom in setting one’s own schedule, and exploring at one’s own pace.

I chose to go to Milan on something of a whim. I knew I wanted to do a weekend away in February and looked at which flights were cheapest. My friend Hannah had recently been to Milan and enjoyed it, and I also wanted to make my first trip to Italy. With a bit of Coffee Break Italian under my belt, and advance bookings for the Cathedral and The Last Supper (essential), I set off from Stansted to Bergamo.

Obviously, looking back, the spectre of Covid-19 hangs over the trip. About three weeks after my arrival, Lombardy was the epicentre of Europe’s coronavirus crisis. But, at the time, the focus was on China. I remember being impressed that there was a temperature check at the airport, but other than that, nothing about my experience was impacted. In hindsight, I may have had a lucky escape, given how much time I spent in busy and crowded settings surrounded by people. Then again, I’m glad I had that experience before the world changed.

I stayed at Babila Hostel, a swish hostel near the city centre, which was easy enough to reach on the metro. It was my first time staying in a true hostel, in a dormitory; I’d found accommodation options in the city quite expensive. But I wouldn’t say I’d rush to repeat it. It was hard to sleep with people coming and going from the dorm room, and equally felt rude getting up early to fit in all my plans. Nevertheless, Babila was as comfortable as it could be, and being in a bustling hostel was good for alleviating loneliness. When I arrived, late in the evening, I had a delicious veggie burger in their bistro restaurant, while a local band played.

Day One

The next morning, I rose early to get to the Cathedral for my booked slot. I’d purposely chosen the very first time, 09.30, which turned out to be a good call, as there was hardly a queue to enter and the cavernous space inside was quiet…apart from the workmen doing repairs! I wandered around, taking in the size and serenity of the Cathedral, then headed to the elevator to the roof. This was a tip-off from Hannah, who recommended booking this option rather than queuing to take the narrow stairs. There were still some steps to climb before I emerged onto the roof for a breath-taking view. I could even see the mountains at the horizon. This was a spectacular experience and I’m glad I had plenty of time to take pictures and drink in the scenery.

When I came down, I went to the adjoining museum, accessible with the same ticket as my Cathedral entry. To my surprise, I was the only person there. Although the Cathedral is one of Milan’s top attractions, I’d urge you not to miss out on this excellent museum, which preserves stunning statues and artefacts from the 14th century onwards.

For a complete change, I headed to the nearby Museo del Novecento. Its collection tells the story of 20th century Italian art, often overlooked in favour of the old masters. It made for a great contrast with the Cathedral and its museum, and helped me understand the evolution of Italian history and culture in more recent times.

For lunch, I wanted to try Il Panino Giusto, a recommendation from my Italian colleague, Giulia. With a few branches to choose from, I picked one across town to allow me to experience a bit more of the city. However, when I arrived, the branch was closed. Wandering back towards the centre, I found a place serving Roman-style pizza with a crisp base and an incredibly delicious tomato sauce. And for afters? I had to stop off at a gelateria for some pistachio ice cream.

I had some time to kill before my booking at The Last Supper that evening, something I found problematic on this solo adventure – the days just seemed so long. I read in the gelateria for a bit, then walked over to the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio which turned out to be closed. With aching legs, I ended up getting an espresso in a beautiful cafe (and I don’t even drink coffee…). But there was still a lot of waiting time left.

So, I decided to pop into Leonardo’s Vineyard, a museum opposite the site of The Last Supper. It turned out to be a brilliant decision and the best place I visited on my entire trip to Milan. This house and garden have been renovated through the centuries, and an informative audio tour takes you through the different eras of the building. In the garden, Leonardo Da Vinci’s vineyard has been recreated, using the DNA of the original vines.

This led nicely to my visit to Il Cenacolo, aka The Last Supper, which is in the refectory of the convent over the road. Only a certain number of visitors are allowed into the space to see the painting, so our time there was somewhat brief, but our guide was informative and interesting. It was wonderful to see such a famous and beautiful painting ‘in the flesh’

For the evening, I walked over to the Navigli area, where the canals are lined with bars and restaurants. I’d heard lots about the merits of aperitivo, the pre-dinner drinks tradition, and wanted to sample it. In the first bar I visited, Aperol Spritz was on a 5 Euro offer, and you got an unlimited buffet of pasta, salads and crisps included. I then went over to another, more upmarket venue, where I was served a plate of charcuterie alongside my cocktail.

Weirdly, being out at the bustling bars made me feel more alone. I’d hoped that somebody might want to talk to a lady on her own, but perhaps the northern Italians are more reserved than the national stereotype. Nevertheless, I didn’t feel ready to end the night. Although I wasn’t hungry after my aperitivi, I went to a nearby restaurant and had veal osso buco, the local speciality. The meat was tender and falling off the bone, surrounded by a rich risotto; I only wished I was more able to appreciate it.

It had been a very long and tiring day. I took the metro back to San Babila, a little tearful after cocktails and wine.

Day Two

I started Saturday with a run to the Castello Sforzesco and around the park. I’ve run in several holiday destinations in the last few years, and it can be a great way to experience a new place. I then went back to the hostel for breakfast.

Given my packed Friday, I was still pretty tired, so didn’t rush out. I took a leisurely stroll through the upmarket part of town to the Pinacoteca Brera, a gallery located in a beautiful palazzo. The collection of Renaissance paintings was impressive. Afterwards, I went into the little botanical garden also accessible from the palazzo.

For lunch, I found an alternative panini spot, and another gelateria for dessert. I had more time to kill, so I also got a thick, decadent hot chocolate and did some more reading while I waited.

I’d arranged a meet-up for museum fans for the early evening. We met at the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, an eclectic collection of art, homeware and weapons. We then had a drink at a bar near the Cathedral. It was nice to meet Milanese natives and discuss life in the city with them.

On the way home, I stopped in at a few restaurants, but it seemed like booking was essential for Saturday night. I ended up having a delicious carbonara back at the hostel.

Day Three

I didn’t have any plans for Sunday, and with my flight at 2pm I wasn’t sure I had time for much. However, everyone had recommended a trip to Bergamo, and, although it was risky, I decided to go for it.

Travelling to Bergamo meant going to the main train station (an incredibly beautiful building), buying tickets and taking the train. I then had to cram onto a very crowded bus to travel up to the Alta Citta, the old town at the peak of the hill.

The bus back down was due on the hour, every hour. I knew I couldn’t miss the next one, or I’d be late for my flight. I was sweating. Was this all a terrible idea?

I had a short walk and got an ice cream, but fear prevented me from exploring further. Bergamo was full of visitors and I would have liked to see more of the place.

Knowing now that it was one of the worst-hit places in Italy, I wonder if the small town will ever be the same again.

I needn’t have rushed, as bad weather caused my flight to be delayed. I finally got my Il Panino Giusto at the airport, and rested my tired legs. My trip to Milan was completely jam-packed with culture, food and drinking in the sights, and I’d truly enjoyed my first trip to Italy.

I know it won’t be the last.

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