Accidental Tourists in Milan
We hadn’t exactly planned to go to Milan. But, due to the insane economics of travel within Europe, unless we want to spend hundreds of euros on a whole series of trains connecting at godawful hours like 5am, the best way to get from Amsterdam to Venice by train is… Well, fly to Milan. And then get the train from Milan to Venice.
This copout galls me. I mean, it really galls me.
Not the Milan bit, but the flying bit. I don’t like sitting on planes. I don’t like hanging around in airports. And I don’t like pumping out emissions. But nor do I have the courage of my convictions to pay several times the price of a flight for a train ride, or the organisation to book tickets the infinity in advance that’s required to make choo-choos even remotely affordable.
Still, since neither of us have been to Milan – and Zac, in fact, was only a few months old when he went to Italy, so may as well have never been – we’ve decided to spend a couple of nights there on the basis that we might as well take a look at it.
Plus, I want to eat ossobucco (slow cooked veal shanks complete with marrow) with risotto alla Milanese, and we’d like to go to Peck, and we suppose we ought to see the Duomo and the Galleria and all that.
And, further, there’s a science museum in town with the world’s largest collection of Leonardo da Vinci models – Milan, like Florence, takes a proprietary interest in Leonardo da Vinci, who spent the bulk of his career there, and have even called the museum after him.
“You should not drink coffee,” our neighbour informs me, in charitably elementary Italian, bracelets rattling. “Coffee is with pastry: for breakfast. You are eating tagliere. You need to drink wine – Italian wine.
Mission “eat Italian food in Italy” doesn’t get off to the best start, it has to be said. I had forgotten that, like Paris times about a thousand, most Italian cities shut for August as folks retreat to the beaches to lie packed like sardines on loungers, blackening all but the small triangle left by their spangly G-string, or relax at their country retreat, or bugger off to Sharm-el-Sheikh, or whatever.
Further, it’s Sunday.
We amble up to our nearest “bar”, past block after block of elegant and firmly shuttered apartments, and endeavour to navigate the menu. Zac orders a panino. I order, by pointing at what the two glitzy Milanese ladies behind us are sharing, a tagliere, AKA a veritable porkfest of cured meats.
“Shouldn’t this be toasted?” Zac asks, dubiously.
“No,” I say. “That’s an English thing, or an American thing. I think in Italy ‘panino’ just means ‘sandwich’.”
I take a sip from my cappuccino. “You should not drink coffee,” our neighbour informs me, in charitably elementary Italian, bracelets rattling as she brandishes her glass of fizzy tap wine. “Coffee is with pastry: for breakfast. You are eating tagliere. You need to drink wine – Italian wine. Or beer. Not coffee. You like Italian wine?”
“Yes,” I falter, slipping into my finest Latinish, a language which is closely related to my Spanglish. (I studied Latin at university, have reasonable French and some pidgin Spanish and, push comes to shove, by mixing them all up, buggering around with the endings and stabbing randomly for cognates I can make myself vaguely comprehensible to a willing listener.) “But…”
It’s 11am! Lord knows, I am not a model of restraint when it comes to matters liquid, but I don’t think I’ve drunk alcohol before noon since I gave up drugs and clubbing many moons ago.
Zac saves me. “This,” he says. “Is actually pretty good.”
By putting my hand reflexively to my bag when a lady approaches to “help” me buy a metro ticket, I avoid spoiling our sojourn in Italy with that traditional Italian tourist experience, ye olde subway pickpocketing.
Off we toddle, tourist map in hand, to do the sights of Milan – well, our idea of the sights of Milan. The city’s blessed with an eminently simple public transport system – trams and a metro – and, by putting my hand reflexively to my bag when a lady approaches to “help” me buy a metro ticket, I avoid spoiling our sojourn in Italy with that traditional Italian tourist experience, ye olde subway pickpocketing.
Time for exhibit A: the Duomo.
“Wow!” I say, as we emerge from the metro to a blaze of fiddly-diddly pointy marble that makes Versailles look like an absolute model of restraint. “That’s pretty impressive, isn’t it?”
“No,” says Zac. “I think it’s one of the ugliest churches I’ve ever seen.”
“Oh,” I say. “So you don’t like gothic architecture, then?”
Apparently not. Even though Leonardo da Vinci worked on the design.
The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, however, with its stunning domes and arches, its glorious neoclassical facades, and its painstakingly Italian mix of tat shops and masstige brands, pleases both of us. They really don’t make shopping malls like they used to.
Gelato time! Zac opts for lemon and chocolate, and finds it good.
There’s a submarine! Hall after hall of models of Leonardo da Vinci’s amazing machines. A robotics lab (currently shut)…
Next up? The Museo Nazionale della Scienzia e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci which, much to my surprise, given the surfeit of science museums I’ve experienced over the last few years, I actually enjoy.
There’s a submarine! Hall after hall of models of Leonardo da Vinci’s amazing machines. A robotics lab (currently shut, but you can play with the robots anyway). Early prototype helicopters you can sit in and pretend to fly. Triumphs of Italian design from Marconi wirelesses to Vespas.
Oh, yeah, and there’s a spot where you can build towers out of bricks, which my lego-deprived child proceeds to do.
Zac picks our dinner spot, and tagliatelle al ragù, the original of our much-bastardised spaghetti bolognese. He pronounces it good. My ossobucco? Less so.
“I think Milan’s a fantastic city,” he says, adding a little accusingly. “I wish we had more time here.”
I’ve made the mistake of booking accommodation in advance, which means, unusually for us, we’re tied into a schedule. “Well,” I say. “We can always come back.”
I really hope he’s going to like Venice. I haven’t been to Venice since my parents took me as a teen, and I remember it as a constant cavalcade of wonder, although I’m not sure how much magic the canals will hold after Amsterdam.
Come to think of it, I really hope I’m going to like Venice, too… I mean, it’s got to have changed a bit in the last 25 years, no? And it is August, after all…