Tag Archives: rome

Milan – Cisalpine Gaul or Northern Italy?

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.

Initial Greek Perambulations

It was all downhill from here…
If, like me, you harbour illusions about your ability to navigate around a foreign city unaided, Thessaloniki will disabuse you of them. Not so much the newer city, with its straight lines parallel to the dockside, but the older city, in the vicinity of the ancient acropolis and slightly less ancient Byzantine walls.
Here, roads go up and down, intersecting in random fashion, usually one lane wide but sometimes no lanes wide, owing to either parked cars or suddenly turning into stairs instead of a street. And while you’re trying to figure this mess out, the cats of the old city are watching you, aristocratically amused by another human struggling to survive in their domain.
I managed well enough last night, locating my hostel, the exceptionally welcoming Little Big House, and a pleasant place to have a beer in the form of Toixo Toixo. That was limited stuff though, and not long after beginning a day of perambulating this morning, I was reduced to heading vaguely downhill and hoping that I’d run into either the city walls or the sea.
Not that wandering wasn’t fun though, and once I did get my bearings again, there were plenty of places for this historical traveller to see, many of them relating to the little-thought-of Roman Emperor Galerius, who made Thessaloniki the capital of his eastern empire, a status it only held for a little time before Constantine moved the entire business to Byzantium/Constantinople.
Between that and the museums and the White Tower, wherein medieval prisoners were wont to be, well, imprisoned, there has been more than enough walking done today. The time has come to eat, at the Kitchen Bar by the waterside, before figuring out a route back to the Little Big House. If you don’t hear from me in the next ten days, send a search party…
Note: The wifi in the Kitchen Bar was pretty dire, so I’m posting this from the Little Big House. Which wasn’t impossible to find. Not easy, but not impossible either.

The White Tower. Once known as the Bloody Tower, before they literally whitewashed it.