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Milan – Cisalpine Gaul or Northern Italy?

November 1, 2016 Leave a comment
Taking the concept of double-height ceilings to ridiculous extremes.

The cavernous interior of Milan Centrale.

Milan is rich, Milan is big, and Milan wants you to know all about it. The gradual change in Italy that I’d noticed on my northward trek from Palermo to Naples to Rimini came to its natural conclusion in the shadow of the Alps. Milan feels so different to the rest of Italy that I’d encountered that it’s a different brand of Italian entirely: chic, wealthy and engaged with the rest of Europe. The Romans called this area Cisalpine Gaul, connecting it more to France (Transalpine Gaul) than to Italia. That reasoning could still stand.

The unification of Italy under Vittorio Emanuele was an union of states that hadn’t been unified since the time of the Romans. Sicily and Naples were Mediterranean-facing and had been dealing with foreign rulers for centuries. Rome was the Papacy’s domain, and the surrounding Papal States marked a border between north and south. As for the city states of Northern Italy—Genoa, Venice, Florence, Milan, etc.—they managed to maintain on-off independence even as they served as a battleground in the intrigues between France and the Holy Roman Empire.

Northern Italian civic pride played a large part in the Renaissance, after all.

Looking like the world’s most expensive wedding cake.

There’s something of this mingling still at work in Milan. A mix of Italian and Northern influences—a pride in being Milanese and an openness to the outside on terms strictly set out by Milan itself. The famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele I is the prime example of this: an ultra-chic shopping arcade, dominated by high-fashion outlets, almost all of them Italian. Stand in the middle and you can see the Piazza del Duomo at one end, a statue of Leonardo Da Vinci at another, and a McDonalds’ (exiled to a street across the road) at a third.

Milan just feels different. At least in the parts of it I walked through, there’s none of the narrow alleys and abandoned or crumbling buildings that I saw further south. Milan is just as old as those cities—the layout of the city still follows the ancient walls, and the city itself is dominated by the Duomo and the gigantic Castel Sforza—but it wears that age more lightly. There’s more modern sheen than there is ancient dust.

At least it was sunny, right?

The main tower of Castle Sforza. Sadly – yes – closed on the day.

Usually, such a polishing of history makes me less sympathetic to a city, but I really liked Milan. There’s something very open and everyday about its blend of Mediterranean sunshine and Northern European business. Unfortunately for me, I’d arrived in Milan on Sunday evening and was spending all of Monday exploring. Which is my one piece of advice for this city: if you have to spend one day here, don’t make it a Monday. Everything is closed.

Well, not quite everything. I enjoyed spending time in and around the massive and ornate Duomo, enjoying the pillared interior, which I’m sure was an inspiration for the Great Hall of Moria in the Lord of the Rings movies, and the roof terrace, which I reached after a long walk up some very narrow stairs. From the roof, you could see the Alps clearly in the distance, and it was nice to get a glimpse of the place I’d be heading next.

The climb is worth it. The lift might be, if you don't fancy the climb.

Off in the distance, the Alps await.

Still, there were things that I’d really wanted to see in Milan, and most of those were closed. The archaeological museum and the church and monastery it was sited beside? Closed. The refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which held Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper? Closed. The museums of Castel Sforza? Closed. The Planetarium and Natural History museum in the Giardina Publicca Indro Montanelli? Closed. Alright, so those last two were targets of opportunity as I was enjoying a stroll through the gardens, but you get the point.

Still, even if all you’re getting to do in Milan is to stroll around the city, it’s well worth the visit. Though you should also bear in mind that a lot of the trattorias close between 3pm and 7pm. (Seriously, this was a weird day of missing out on things.) Milan is its own place, and by a distance the least touristy of the cities that I’ve been to on this trip. Come along and spend your money, it says, but if it’s touristy stuff you’re looking for, you’re going to have to search for it. That kind of thing doesn’t really mesh with our self-image.

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From South to North

September 12, 2016 Leave a comment
At the very least, it looks like a straight line. (Damn you San Marino!)

This is probably one of the more sensible-looking travel routes I’ve ever devised.

As mentioned in my previous post, I’m once again taking time off from local affairs this September and heading for less familiar climes. Moreover, so as not to break with tradition, I’m not just travelling to, I’m travelling through. Hitting all sorts of nations and cities that I’ve never been to before.

This excursion feels a little different from previous years though. This time there’s no strong theme, as there was in my Eastern European journey last year, or my exploration of Greece the year before. Instead, there’s just a direction: south to north, from the Mediterranean to the North Sea. Or as close to the North Sea as I can manage. If there’s a binding theme at all, it’s one of filling gaps in my collection of nations; visiting places that I haven’t been to, or even near to.

As I said, it feels a little off-kilter, as though the series of mostly train-based journeys that I’ve been on since Norway, back in 2009, is coming to an end. The two or three further European trips that are percolating in my head don’t suit train-based shenanigans nearly as well, and the continents further afield that await my bootprints are even less amenable to sticking to the iron rails.

It may just be time for me to stretch my conception of what a travelling holiday might be. No bad thing that—I’ve gotten a lot out of rail (and sea) travel, but this holiday will stretch the balance between exploring and watching the landscape speed by about as far as it’s likely to go.

As for this trip, there’ll be plenty to keep myself occupied (and not just making sure that I catch the next connection). I’ll be kicking off in Italy, which is familiar enough in itself, albeit in a part of it that I’ve never been to before: Palermo, Sicily. An island that’s been the site of contention ever since the Greeks and the Phoenicians first started looking crosswise at each other, it’s a long way south of any part of Italy (Rome) that I’ve been in before, and it’ll feed my lust for history nicely.

An overnight train (the only one of this trip) will take me across Sicily and the Straits of Messina (loading the train onto a boat in the process, which I’ll likely sleep through) and on through the night to Naples. Which is worthy of a visit in itself, even if it weren’t for the presence of Vesuvius and the ruins of Pompeii in close attendance. I won’t miss out on those, I can assure you. It’s no accident that the overnight train will drop me off beside the Circumvesuviana line to the ruins at a time when the tour groups have yet to have their breakfast. Should I be able to drag myself away from this long-awaited visit to the preserved ruins of ancient Rome, I’ll see as much of Naples as I can in the time remaining.

Onwards then from Naples and one of the more awkward routes of the trip. North through and past Rome to Bologna, then an almost-180-degree reversal to head south east to the Adriatic coast and Rimini. Why stop here? Well, Rimini itself and the nearby beaches are said to be well worth the visit, but that’s less my style than the small nation-state only a short bus ride away. San Marino has been happily independent for a very long time, and for all that it’s tiny in comparison to the Italian nation that enfolds it, it should be well worth a visit in its own right.

After Rimini and San Marino have had their fill of me, it’s north again, this time to Milan. I came close here last year with a layover in nearby Bergamo, but Milan is the big dog of northern Italian cities, nestled in under the Alps, and it should be interesting to compare it to the more southerly Italian locations that I’ll have passed through to get there. However, for the most part it’s a breathing space before tackling the mountains.

If any day is going to mark my complete over-commitment to the rail theme, this one will. Three nations, three trains (and a bus), and as many mountains as you may care to shake a stick at. From Milan to Tirano, there to catch the Bernina Express that’ll see me safely over the Alps, through some of the most fabulous scenery to be had in Europe. That will deposit me in Chur in Switzerland, from whence a train to Sargans and a bus to Vaduz will drop me in a nation almost as small as San Marino: Liechtenstein.

This is where the nature of the trip and the problems with it ought to become apparent: I’m on a one-way trip to Checklist-ville. Last year I visited ten countries, but I had just over three weeks in which to do so, which meant I averaged out at around two days in each. This time, I’ve got a little less than 12 days to cross Europe from south to north, and in way too many places I’ll be there no longer than it takes to have a look around. At least in Liechtenstein, where an afternoon stroll is enough to take you across the country from west to east, I’ll see a good percentage of it before I go.

Switzerland’s efficient public transport system will shuttle me back from Vaduz, across the border and on to Zurich. Given that my major Swiss influences extend to Heidi, William Tell and one of the Asterix books, it’s fair to say that I have little or no idea of what to expect here. However it turns out, given that Switzerland is one of the world’s most heavily armed countries, I will at least be on my very best behaviour.

From Zurich, it’s all downhill on the home stretch of this trip. Specifically downhill towards Mulhouse in France on a TGV, then onwards to my next destination, Europe’s biggest mini-nation. Luxembourg is a giant compared to San Marino or Liechtenstein, even if it’s trapped between France, Belgium and Germany, and it’s been at the heart of the European Union ever since its founding. I have been told by someone who ought to know that there’s nothing there to see there, but I feel that in these dark times of Brexit and Grexit, it’s probably sensible to visit the beating heart of the Euro Illuminati and make sure that I’m not on their “naughty” list.

After all, Luxembourg is just three hours on the train from my very final stop, which is the even more EU-centric capital of Belgium—Brussels. A place I’ve become all too familiar with over the past year and a bit, and there’s no more friendly or relaxed city to spend a last evening in before a late night flight back to Dublin. I’ll do my best to take a day-trip out to the North Sea before I leave, but the allure of beer and waffles may prove too strong.

For now though, I’m just engaged in pre-packing routines, printing out my train tickets (e-tickets are great, but it pays to have a backup), and double-checking everything else. Inevitably I’m going to forget something, as is always the way of holidays, but with all the travelling to be done, it’s not likely to be anything that I’ll miss much.

Bergamo: Italian Addendum

September 19, 2015 Leave a comment
Not that I had a choice, mind you. The stairs were out.

I’d say the climb was worth it, but I used the lift.

The vagaries of modern-day cut-price flying being what they are, you will, on occasion, find yourself with hours to waste on a layover in some spot halfway between a distant departure point and home. That being the case, there are probably worse places to spend said hours in than Italy, and more specifically Bergamo. Having been dropped off by WizzAir (comfy and punctual) and having 13 hours before hopping onboard Ryanair (cramped and delayed), I was pretty happy to be no more than a short bus ride away from the medieval Citta Alta, with its massive walls and narrow streets.

Not that the Citta Alta is the highest place in the vicinity. It occupies a high point south of the Alps, overlooking the plains of Lombardy, but San Vigilo Castle stands guard from an ever higher point just to the west. There’s not much there to be seen now, but the views are quite spectacular, even on a misty day. If you’re not inclined to explore and climb your way to the top, there’s a funicular railway that’ll take you to the heights, but you’ll miss out on cobbled streets and horse chestnuts that pop and drop around you as you pass beneath. (That last one might be time-of-year dependent.)

I still don't know what the testicle heraldry is about. Also, three?

Chapel Colleoni in the foreground, basilica in the back. Inside there’s less to choose between them.

As pleasant as it is to sit in San Vigilo and enjoy the view, the Citta Alta is the main draw, and it’s worth your time to descend. Possessed by the Venetians for more than 350 years, Bergamo was their western outpost against the rival great Northern Italian power and was massively fortified as a result. The Venetian walls still surround the Citta Alta, and the winged lions of St Mark, symbol of the Venetian Republic, still stand guard over the fortified gates. Yet Bergamo itself is far older than the Venetian occupation and there are buildings in the Citta Alta that are closer to 1,000 years old than 500.

Perhaps the most impressive is the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Dating to 1137 but built on the site of a 7th-century religious edifice, it’s not so imposing on the outside as the Cappella Colleoni, the massive tomb of the condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni annexed to it, but the interior is spectacular, with tapestries and frescoes adorning that walls and further frescoes and other adornments stretching all the way to the roof. Not that the Cappella Colleoni should be missed either – it’s a masterwork in its own right, and Colleoni’s heraldic symbol of three testicles on the gates have been rubbed to a shine by tourists and locals seeking some of his luck.

A brief visit, a fond farewell.

One of the Venetian “lion gates”, with an elevated walkway approaching it.

The museums are nothing to sneeze at either – I didn’t make it to the art galleries lying outside the eastern gate, but the Piazza della Citadella contains both the Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Natural Science. The former has some fine relics of the millennia of habitation in the area, from the palaeolithic through the Celts and Romans to more recent times. The latter sprawls all around the piazza and has an impressive section on other cultures. Closer to the Basilica, the Torre campanaria di città alta or old bell tower is worth climbing, and its attached museum has a fine interactive section on the medieval history of Bergamo itself. Don’t expect much in the way of non-Italian language help though.

Beyond all of the attractions though, the beauty of Bergamo lies in the ability to wander the narrow streets of the Citta Alta freely, medieval buildings towering to either side and cobbles packed tight under your feet. Enjoy a gelato, or perhaps a beer or wine, and find a place to sit and soak in the atmosphere. And then, when the hours have spun past at last, descend though one of the Venetian gates into the Citta bassa and make your way to the airport. The final flight on that cut-price carrier may depress your spirits, but it won’t erase those hours stolen in the Lombard sunshine.

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