Friday 13 December 2013

My first solo trip - to the Queen of Adriatic - Part II

The city of Fashion and Ferraris - Day 2

The day begins

Despite the disturbances in the corridor and the streets, I slept like a log. When I woke up at 6am, it took me sometime to realise where I was and gather my thoughts. I was grinning to myself thinking of the evening before - My first solo trip - to the Queen of Adriatic - Part I.

Time to move. I had one very short day to see the sights of Milan before it got dark. My father had been here in the 90s and had filled me in about what I should definitely see. Unfortunately, I had already dropped 'The Last Supper' from my list. The tickets were to be pre-booked. Given the state the painting was in even after the renovation and considering my time constraint, I had already decided to give it a miss. I hoped to see other Da Vincis on my Italy trip, the ones he was more sensible with and where his genius brain was not taking any short-cuts. I got dressed and was ready for breakfast.

Roberto greeted me at the buffet restaurant. He was as courteous as ever and asked me to help myself to the vast selection of food on the counters. I definitely needed the calories. I wanted to have my standard black coffee but he suggested trying a cappuccino instead. It's Italy after all. When I mentioned my lactose intolerance, he even offered to make it from soy milk. However, after much deliberation we settled for an espresso - that was definitely a strong wake up call. As I devoured the food, Roberto kept me company, chatting about Milan and Venice, his friends in Venice and the Venetian language. The Venetians speak Veneto he said,which is very different from Italian. He reminisced how he enjoyed sitting at San Marco's and hear the people speak all around him, guessing the locals and the visitors. It was very interesting to speak to him but I had to leave. Roberto reminded me of the Fish Tagliatelle he would be making for dinner tonight and also asked me to save some space for dessert as well. He indeed was very charming.

I had not planned for Milan at all. This was something I was squeezing in as a stopover before my main destination. What I had planned was to use local knowledge and have a leisurely day. The reception desk gave me a street map and introduced me to Sylvia. She showed me what may be the best possible way to cover what I could see in a day and finally, direction for finding food. Even Roberto joined in for a few suggestions. I thanked them and was on my way with my backpack and camera. First stop would be Duomo and I would be taking the Metro. I did not need to go to Bovisa again as Affori Centro was only a 10 minute walk and it took me to Milan Central station. I wish I knew that the night before, but then it would have been difficult to find the route in the dark. It was a quiet street with a lot of vehicle traffic but not much pedestrians and a short-cut could be taken through the park. Sylvia had warned me not to take the short-cut at night 'It's common sense, isn't it?' she said. Of course, that's the sensible choice anyone in their right mind would make. It's just that some people don't and their experiences show up on the Tripadvisor reviews.

My subway map now had my points of interest jotted down:

And then the Milan city centre map with the places I were to visit highlighted.

Unfortunately, I have lost my used map in the past 2 years I was waiting to write this travelogue. It definitely would have been an interesting photograph with Sylvia's notes on it and with character in its tattered corners. All I have is a similar one from the web.

The plan was I would be concentrating on the city-centre - the obvious choice - Duomo, Galleria, take a walk around the Christmas market, a visit to the Ferrari shop, castle Sforza and if possible try to squeeze in a visit to the San Siro stadium. I knew I would struggle to cover even these, most of the time wandering the streets aimlessly as I do, while simply taking in the sights and the smells. But, I still needed to have a plan to stop myself from getting too distracted.

The Duomo and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

From Affori Centro I took the train to Milan Centrale. On the station premises, a Christmas market was on and the shops were gradually opening. That's the advantage of travelling during the festive season. There are festivities and celebrations all around and the festive lights definitely are the USP of travelling at this time. While I was at the Central station I thought I would purchase my tickets for Venice for the next day. I had checked for tickets at the Trenitalia website prior to travel, but had decided to purchase them on reaching Milan. Booked the train at 8:30am next day and then took the subway train to Piazza del Duomo.

I had seen pictures of the Duomo, aka the Milan Cathedral, and also heard first hand experiences of it from my father. But I was not ready for the impact as I stepped out of the Metro station. The stairs directly took me to the Piazza on which the cathedral stood. The sun was just peeking over the buildings and most of the cathedral was still in shade. Even with that, I was gaping at the imposing facade of this marvel from the fourth century. It was magnificent and overpowering - a huge structure - the largest cathedral in Italy and the fourth largest in the world (or maybe the third or even the second, have heard various versions floating around). There were only a few people around at that early hour and I had the place almost to myself. A massive Christmas tree in the Piazza was adding its festive touch. However, I didn't yet have the light to click pictures so ventured into the Galleria instead. Visiting the museums in the Piazza was not in my list and I kept the cathedral for later.

Here is how the Duomo looked later in the morning with the sun hitting it face on. Now, that's what always delays my plans, waiting for the light.
The Galleria - another breathtaking architecture from the 19th century is the oldest malls known for its designer outlets. The facade isn't much to write about in comparison to what is inside.
The place is dotted with designer houses and beautifully decorated restaurants. A McDonald's outlet was rubbing shoulders with a Mercedes showroom. I was surprised to find the presence of a fast food chain in one of the oldest shopping mall that had exclusivity for designer outlets. I think the authorities realised that as well and I heard that in 2012 McDonald's didn't get their lease renewed. I was still in 2011.

I had recently purchased my 10-20mm Sigma wide angle lens and was planning to utilise it to the full. Many complain about the distortion these wide angle lenses bring out, but that is exactly why I love them. Adding to that, the tricky light condition could only be handled through HDRs.

Indeed a challenge.
I walked about the four arms, dropping into some of the shops that had opened. No one bothered to ask me what I was looking for, they knew I was just another wandering tourist - on budget!

The place had a few surprises - I had no idea Mercedes was making accessories for the ladies as well. Maybe just because it was the Fashion capital. At least, encountered a relatively more familiar sight - the brand new SLS AMG Roadster.
The day was getting older and I had quite a bit to do before the sun set. The Duomo was waiting outside and I was already behind schedule. However, before I got into the Duomo decided to spend some more time at the Piazza. The sun was out and the warmth was pleasing. Getting indoors was not yet an option. I sat at the Piazza and watched people lazing in the sun, reading or chatting, feeding the pigeons, lovers holding hands, scammers making money from selling friendship bands to outwitted tourists and definitely a lot of posing and camera clicks all around. I was asked more than once to take pictures of couples. Everyone was smiling and happy and enjoying their holidays while the life of the Milanese people sped past them. People had their last minute Christmas shopping to finish, restaurants opening up for lunch and the normal life rushing on the trams and buses and all around. Exactly the same disparity we find at any city centre tourist spot - even in Edinburgh on weekdays - where I am a part of the daily rush while the tourists idle it away.  
Had a peek at the neighbouring Rinascente
It was now time now to go inside the Duomo. But six centuries worth of art work was staring down at me from the facade. I was stuck.
The security guard at the cathedral doors must have been noticing me for some time as I was studying the facade. As I moved towards the gate, he tapped me on the back and said 'You are not allowed to carry that'. He was pointing to my camera. I was lost for words and maybe my face was showing some sort of an intense sorrowful expression. He burst out laughing. 'On you go' he said. 'Phew...that was close', I thought.

The insides were as magnificent as the exteriors and reflected the huge size. Despite the rush and tourists all over clicking away, it was surprisingly calm. I generally try to be careful and restrain myself when I am inside a place of worship, keep my shots to the minimum and try not to disturb anyone. Actually, sometimes it feels so right to switch off and sit there soaking in the peacefulness. That's exactly what I did after a few clicks.

It is possible to go to the cathedral rooftop through the stairs or a lift by paying. I noticed a long queue forming and I had still a lot to cover, so decided to give it a miss. This was a leisurely trip, no rushing I reminded myself.
By the time I left the cathedral, it was afternoon and the Piazza was now brimming with visitors and shoppers. I had more of Milan to see, so moved away from the Piazza.

The Ferrari store

My next trip was to the Ferrari store round the corner. On my request Sylvia had placed a marker on the map near about where it should be located. Many automobile aficionados would have swooned on entering the shop. I was just an interested tourist. Maranello is not too far from Milan and this was a short-cut. The store housed a number of models of its parent company as well, especially on the upcoming launch of the Fiat 500 Abarth in 2012.
Bought a Ferrari key ring, not only because I liked it, but more so because it seemed to be the most sensible thing in the shop that I could afford. It was a special gift.

And just as I stepped outside the door, noticed this very powerful line-up, a bit ironical though with Lamborghinis placed strategically outside the Ferrari store. But what a way must it be to visit the city. Gaped for a bit before moving on.

My Lunch and Christmas market

It was late afternoon and I was finding it difficult to ignore the pangs of hunger. Sylvia had mentioned a shop that was a favourite with the locals and which made the most amazing Panzarotti. I had no idea till then what a panzarotti was. I later learnt that it had its origin in Naples. 'Luini makes the best!', that's what she said and warned that there will definitely be a long queue. Even though she had marked it on the map, I was struggling to find it in all the lanes and by-lanes and found myself ending up in the Christmas market instead. But satisfying my hunger was definitely higher on the list so decided to try and find the shop again. Asked a few locals and I wasn't too far away. It was hiding in a narrow lane. I could see people huddled on the main road, the queue spilling over. It was going to be a long wait and I waited patiently. Eventually I realised, Italians do not have much regard of a queue and had no qualms about popping in front of anyone as soon as they found a gap. I recalled my Indian instincts!
Finally I managed to get into the shop after about about half an hour and then didn't know what to order. The girl at the counter offered tomato and cheese, the hot panzarotti wrapped in brown paper. I was back in the lane. I couldn't go too far as the gelato shop across had me transfixed for some time. As I bit into it, the flavours were indeed out of the world even though all I was having was a tomato and cheese pastry. No wonder people don't mind waiting in the queue. By the time I finished the panzarotti and licked my fingers clean, I was already stuffed, but then who can ignore the temptations of Italian ice-cream? I queued at the gelato shop, this time a wiser person and fending off intruders, sat at the window and left fully satisfied.

I was again ready to shed some calories. The Christmas market I had so blatantly ignored was round the corner, so decided to pay a visit. The sights felt better now that I had a satisfied stomach and soul. I even managed to buy some mixed nuts from one of the shops, at a discount, much to the ire of the lady of the shop. Her son was much cuter.

The light was too tricky to capture the area in a greater perspective.

Castello Sforzesco

From the Christmas market I started to walk towards the Castello Sforzesco or simply the Castle Sforza in English. That would be my last sight of Milan after which I would walk back to the Duomo and get on the subway back to the hotel.

Sforza is a medieval castle from the 15th century built on the ruins of a fort and has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. It hosts a museum and the place is open for tours. I doubted I could do any of those and would satisfy myself with just a glimpse of the place. This meant Michelangelo's unfinished La Pieta is struck off the list as well, but I can't do everything in a day. The castle is at a walking distance from the Duomo at the end of the promenade built of cobbled stones. I do not remember how long it took me to walk as I was frequently interrupted by the sights and the sounds going around, but I guess it was over an hour. I remember taking a few detours as there was always something to distract on this historical stretch of path. I bargained for a model of the Duomo and landed a deal. I stared at the architectures skirting the path, watched the street vendors trade, the restaurants were being laid out for the evening, the fire tended and candles being lit and Vespas in every possible shades - bold, pastel and neutrals - scurrying around. It was a nice stretch of walk and eventually when I managed to reach the castle, the last of the sunshine was reflecting from the walls of the fortress.
I was greeted at the castle by a very pretty fountain. It was very refreshing to sit and watch the water dance and flow, but I had to convince myself that it could wait after sunset, the castle could not. I neither had the time nor energy for a proper tour of the place, so simply walked into the grounds and returned the same way.
By the time I left the castle grounds, dusk was descending and was giving the perfect backdrop for the lights that had started to come on gradually. The fountain looked gorgeous. So I stayed by them for a bit more and watched the festive lights coming on all around me.
It was almost dark by the time I started to walk back to the Duomo and took the same path. However, with the lights on and everyone in a festive mood, it held a different charm.
I returned to the Piazza del Duomo, but even this place had entirely transformed itself in the last couple of hours. It was now a magical land and I felt as if Santa and Rudolph were almost round the corner, any moment I could hear the jingling bells.
I hung around the place for some more time. My trip to Milan was not planned, but what it had shown me within the limited time made me want for more. I wished I had another day with me to just walk around the place and see the things I had deliberately skipped. Gone are those days when I used to run around to cover every tourist spot and every place of interest. Planning used to be rigorous and tempers flared. I now prefer to sit back and relax on my holidays, and try to feel the essence of the place instead. Any place is defined by its people, their culture, language, history and of course their food - that is what builds the character of a place. By being the silent observer, that is what I try to soak in. It never disappoints. And when I travel alone, it is easier to interact with people and without any distractions, easier to observe and absorb.

I was back on the subway to Affori Centro and was walking back to the hotel. The park was brightly lit but deserted, no reason I should have taken the short-cut.

Back at the hotel, I clambered back to my room, threw away my boots and had the most enjoyable hot shower. I was ready for food, and so was Roberto, with his tagliatelle cooked with salmon. Tonight I opted for the house white and was careful to leave some space for the dessert. I do not remember now what I had for dessert, had something to do with fruits but I remember it tasted like heaven. Roberto was as chatty as always and I was trying to respond the best I could. I was struggling to keep my eyes open. It was to be an early morning start the next day, with my train leaving at 8:30 from Central. So finally said my goodnights and retired to my room. Somehow I managed to shove my stuffs in the bag and called it an early night. Even the pillow did not need to go over my head this time. I could sleep through a hurricane.

I was up by 6:30am the next day and was soon down for breakfast. Roberto brought me my black coffee and asked me where I would be staying at Venice. He gave me the contact of a friend in Venice and asked me to get in touch with her in case I was in trouble. She owned a shop and he asked me to say hello to her. I promised I would. It was now time for me to leave and he gave me a hug and wished me the best. Sylvia was at the reception and I thanked her for her help and told her how valuable her suggestions had been.

So, off I went tugging my trolley bag to the Affori Centro to catch my train to Milan Central. The train to Venice was in an hour and I had plenty of time. It would take about two and a half hours on the train, which meant I would be in Venice by 11 am and have the full day to myself. Something definitely to look forward to.

Venice, here I come...

Trip Digest

From Edinburgh reached Milan Malpensa airport on Easyjet flight. The Malpensa Express leaves for the city from the Terminal 1. Tickets are available at the train station. To be ensure prior to boarding that the train stops at your designated stop as some of the trains are point to point services. Website: Malpensa Express

Stayed at the La Residenza which has easy access to the Affori Centro subway station to connect to Milan Central station. Hotel website: Eco-hotel La Residenza

I had only a short winter day to cover the major spots. This was my itinerary in Milan:

Purchased a one-day transport ticket that is valid for 24hours after first use. This was good enough to take me through to Milan Central station the next day to catch my train to Venice.

The Duomo - Entry is free. Access to the roof of the cathedral requires an entry fee
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II - Free, but expensive buys if restraint cannot be administered
Ferrari Store: Free entry and fee to play around as long as nothing is purchased
Christmas Market  - Seasonal
Castello Sforza: Entry to grounds is free. Museum entry is chargeable. Houses the unfinished La Pieta of Michelangelo. The finished one can be seen at the Vatican.
Roaming around aimlessly - Free

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