Friday, May 22, 2015

Visiting Milan

Big news! For years we've been going to Milan, but only to catch a plane. Because that's where Europe's cheapest carrier flies out of regularly. So I've seen the central train station (a lot) and Bergamo (a suburb, again, a lot) I've never seen Milan. This week we fixed that.

On Tuesday we took a new train service called Italo, which by the way arrives at a small station (which is near the historic center) instead of the big central one (which is not even close to the center), and walked into the historic center to see the sights and look at bikes. In fact, the bikes were the focus of the trip and we took the extra time in town to look around.

Striking curved glass building outside the center.
Milan is different from Florence in a lot of ways. It's modern sections are incredibly modern and big parts of the historic center are about a century younger than Florence's center. The people are more likely to talk to a stranger. The pizza put me into a dairy coma.....seriously like an American pizza which I'm not used to anymore.

Our story begins as we get off the train and try to find our way out of the station. It reminded me of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. No signs (that I could see anyway) and too many options to take. Luckily Leif has been there before and managed to get us to the street. If I were in charge we'd probably still be wandering around the station; starved, dehydrated and slightly insane. I thought once we left the station the hard part was over. I was wrong.

We brought a map along. It's large (Milan is a large city) and on the cover is a picture of a labyrinth. I should have known it wouldn't be easy after seeing that. We walked to a bench and sat down to look at the map and a very nice older woman stopped and asked us (in English) if we needed some help. I kind of gasped and looked at her with my jaw at about knee level. I'm not used to this kind of thing. She noticed my surprise and took it for confusion. "Should we use English, or perhaps French?" she asked with a bright smile. I kind of stuttered out "Parliammo l'Italiano," and she looked confused, then smiled again and started in (at about a hundred miles an hour) in Italian. She gave us very complete and precise instructions, said "Va bene!" and left us with a spring in her step, confident that she had saved us from wandering aimlessly.

We looked at each other and shrugged because her directions were useless; she directed us to the tram line and we wanted to walk. But it was so lovely to have someone offer help without having to ask for it and having language options was almost unbelievable. We took our bearings from the map, folded it up and walked a few blocks in the direction we were certain we were supposed to go and realized we had no idea where we were. We unfolded the map, found that where we thought we were wasn't at all where we actually were, even though we took the street the map told us to. We got our bearings once more, folded up the map and walked confidently in our chosen direction. After a few blocks we weren't finding the cross street that we were supposed to turn at.

Hmmm, this was starting to be difficult. And before you all start rolling your eyes and thinking that we just had an old map I want to say one thing. These streets have been here for centuries. An Italian city may grow outwards (like any large city) but the streets that exist, especially in any historic center, are set in stone...pun intended.

During our wandering we found lots of cool things like these
rental bikes....stations like this all over the center.
Back to our wandering, which continued in much the same way for about the next hour. We would locate our destination, find our current location, and decide on the most direct route possible. 20 steps into our next leg of the journey always found us scratching our heads and wondering how we could be on the same road we started on, yet headed in a direction that seemed to lead somewhere else. We nearly circled our destination, the Bianchi Cafe & Cycles shop, without actually seeing it. I found myself yearning for the tried and true grid system that much of Minnesota is laid out into.

At the risk of offending certain friends, it was like someone from Minneapolis trying to find an address in St. Paul. (or any of the bedroom suburbs that have hundreds of cul de sacs and no actual downtown) Streets in Italy wander, they change names frequently, the signs are difficult to find and more often more difficult to read and every town is dotted with Piazzas that everyone uses for landmarks (but when you really need to find one it's not clearly marked).

If I hadn't started getting hungry it might have been quite an adventure, but hunger made me a little testy. Leif might revise that to mighty testy, but I'm sticking with just a little. After that long wandering around I began to understand why the woman was kind enough to try and help us earlier. She's probably seen people sitting on the curb weeping in frustration, never knowing that the place they've been searching for is right around the corner. They've been circling it because the street isn't marked. I also understand why she seemed so intent on getting us to the tram. We would have gotten most of the way there without getting lost. Well, in an ideal world perhaps, but we stood a better chance with the tram.

Finally Leif said "Take the next left, it's on this street." I hate to say this, but I doubted. Seriously doubted. I was in the grip of a low blood sugar, sun stroked doubt of epic proportions. But there is was. The mecca of our trip. His one goal for the day. Looking at new bikes. We walked in and stopped. But where were the bikes? ! ? All I could see were tables and chairs and a few (precious few) bikes firmly attached to the walls. But Wait! A floor 1, cafe floor -1, bikes floor -2. That's right. The bikes were in the sub-basement. Interesting.

Once in the basement shop we ate a few almonds and raisins to hold us through to lunch and got down to the serious business of looking at bikes. I'm not gonna lie to you, I was seriously disappointed to see a single woman's bike among all the other bikes. Then again I was already disappointed because this shop was tiny compared to the one in Stockholm. AND they don't let you try the bikes. Which is weird because I understood that part of the purpose of these kind of shops was to show off and try out the new bikes. I will probably always have these languages difficulties.

We spent a good hour touching all (I do mean all) the bikes and asking maybe a million questions and generally making ourselves kind of a nuisance. But in our defense we will someday be buying one (or more) of these bad boys, so our questions are a small investment in a later sale.

All good things must come to an end. We ran out of bikes to touch and questions to ask and I distinctly heard lunch calling my name, so we said good bye to the guys in the shop and headed out to find lunch and to see the sights, in that order.

Fortified by my pizza, which had a ton of cheese on it (hence the dairy coma), we headed towards the dome. This was easy to find because 1. it's ginormous, and 2. we passed it about 5 times in our trek to find the store. The Duomo in Florence is a huge solid block of colorful stones held in place by the large dome. The Duomo in Milan is more like Notre Dam, still large but appearing lighter because it's capped by dozens of thin spires pointing to heaven while the walls are covered in intricately worked, irregularly colored stone. The only jarring point for me was the billboard tacked to the side of the building. Basically a giant TV screen with rotating adds for things people don't need and have no place in or on a place of worship. But that's just my opinion.

We walked through the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle, a tunnel shaped, glass covered street with a lot of fancy shops. We walked by Teatro alla Scala opera house. Then, (my favorite part) we went to the Castello Sforzesco. We wandered through the castle walls and courtyards, reading every sign and learning a little of the history of the castle and Milan. Then we walked through to the other side, which is a large public park. We sat for awhile just enjoying the day and being off our feet.

Seriously cool.

I do have to say that finding our way out was far easier than finding our way into the center. We found the station with no problem. Finding our track proved to be difficult because the station remained as like the Paris airport as before, the sign for our track was at the bottom of escalator. So you have to get  where you're going before you can see the sign to where you need to go. Did that make sense?

Once on the train we could relax, laugh a little bit about the day and look forward to getting home. It was fun, but I'm glad I live in a city that no longer confuses the hell out of me every time I step out the door. I suppose if I lived in Milan, someday I'd be better at finding my way around, but I don't think I would like living there. Yes, it's more international because so many businesses are based out of Milan, but with that international exposure and resulting openness to strangers and strange things also comes a more cosmopolitan attitude about everything. Things cost more. People are dressed more outrageously. Street vendors are downright aggressive in their quest to put a selfie stick into the hands of every tourist. Manners are less elegant. More modern doesn't always translate into more beautiful or more desirable. I think I'll just put this in the column of "a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there."

Totally cool buildings I read about that have full size trees on the terraces
and a lot of other energy saving and producing details.
read about it here

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