When I booked a weekend in Milan for my husband’s Christmas present, I neglected to notice that the said booking would mean we would not be in the UK for International Women’s Day 2019. I am delighted to say that, as well as experiencing a fabulous three days in Milan (Milano) in Italy’s Northern Lombardy, we were also privy to how the Milanese mark it.
We were disappointed to find that we would not be able to view The Last Supper during our visit, even though I endeavoured to book as early as January. We thought that since Easter was much later this year, most tourists would descend at that time. Little did we know that International Women’s Day/Weekend is celebrated in festival style, with visitor numbers to match!
The journey from Manchester Airport is around two hours, depending on headwind. We had learned our courtesy phrases in Italian and felt confident to find our own way by train into Milan. We had chosen our hotel as it was near the largest station in Milan, the Stazione Milano Centrale, from which we could also board a direct train to Lake Como. As seasoned travellers, we knew only too well that Sundays are a gamble as to whether everything will be shut, and so we had decided on a further adventure to see the famous lake, hoping that we would have the opportunity to take a boat trip. But that was for Sunday – back to our arrival on Friday evening.
As travellers who often find our way from a foreign airport into a city by train, I must say that it wasn’t as easy as we had expected. The ticket prepayment machines, at which we would purchase our ‘Malpensa Express Ticket’ were not working (our courtesy Italian phrases did not assist us at this point) and, after much waving of arms, a man in a uniform directed us down an escalator where we found four platforms, not one of them indicating our intended destination. Some Italian lessons might be a good thing next time, I feel – or even better, we will book our tickets online.
A half-hour journey will deliver you to either Stazione Milano Centrale, the largest station in Milan, or to Cadorna Stazione, the city’s second largest. We alighted at Milano Centrale, the nearest to our hotel. The station is one of the largest and most impressive train stations in Europe and is a mix of genres, the most dominant being Art Nouveau and Art Deco. The station is both magnificent and huge! More than 300,000 passengers arrive or depart from it every day, as well as numerous tourists that come just to see it. The train station connects Milan with several European cities, as well as the country’s main cities, which are represented in the remarkable blue tiles on the walls of the building. Unsuspecting tourists arrive at this station expecting that the station is central to the city, and the place to alight to see the sites. The station is, in fact, north of the city. Personally, I believe this a perfect base, but be aware that either underground trains, buses or a half-hour walk would be needed to reach Piazza del Duomo, home to the world’s largest Gothic cathedral which, has stood for over 400 years in some form and, is now complete.
A short walk from Stazione Centrale is Corso Buenos Aires, which is one of the longest shopping streets not just in Italy, but in Europe. Since the Corso Buenos Aires is so long, there are three underground stations serving it; Venezia and Loreto at either side, and Lima in the middle.
Having found that a visit to Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper‘ was not possible, we visited the awe-inspiring and truly unspoilt example of pure gothic style that is Milan’s Duomo. The Piazza Duomo was a veritable open-air party, celebrating International Women’s Day weekend. Children and adults alike were in fancy dress, there was confetti, purchased from street vendors, on all the walkways, while many women carried mimosa and men sported sprigs of it in their caps and pockets. La Festa della Donna as it is more commonly known in Italy, and the importance of women, is celebrated by the giving and receiving of mimosa blossom.
Around the Piazza Duomo, you will find the glass-domed Galleria Vittoria Emanuele II, and I loved the way many tourists had dressed in their finest just to parade around this 19th century shopping mall, posing by the windows of the fashion industry greats – a queue had formed by Prada’s window. Their next stop would most likely be Quadrilatero d’Oro, the Golden Quad, which contains some of the most exclusive brands available. The Piazza della Scala lies just around the corner from the Galleria and boasts La Scala, the world’s greatest opera house. The building was half destroyed in WW2 but, undaunted, Toscanini presided at the reopening gala in 1946. You can book a tour, visit the museum and the shop or, if you book well in advance, you can even enjoy a night at the opera.
With an easy to understand instruction board in many languages, and great value options for travelcards of more than two days, the underground railway is the simplest and best way to explore further. If, like us, you only have a short time in Milan, walking to Pinacoteca di Brera, Northern Italy’s great gallery, or Castello Sforzesco, the sprawling 15th century castle containing Michelangelo’s final work, is virtually impossible.
Leaving the frenetic partying and shopping behind we headed for Navigli, Milan’s southern district of canals and warehouses. Navigli is not far from Porta Genova station, where Milan’s Saturday market can be found. Whilst Navigli, with its colourful bars and restaurants, is the cool favourite for evenings out, for us, a browse of the flea market and a seat by the water, sipping Aperol Spritz, was mighty fine for a Saturday afternoon. We had become blasé by now about the fact that, in many establishments, buying a drink would entitle you to visit a free aperitivo buffet or, better still, enjoy a mini feast at your table. It was quite a shock at first to be offered cheeses and charcuterie with tiny dips and crisps for nothing – we always asked just in case to ensure it was indeed free, and we were never disappointed.
Sunday was our adventure day to Lake Como. I was aware of a few furtive phone calls being made by my husband, but, sure that he hadn’t suddenly turned into a gigolo, I assumed he was answering urgent business calls.
We booked our tickets at one of the machines in Statione Centrale, which we found easier than trying to talk to a human, as the queues in the ticket information office were huge. Please be aware that, at the time of writing, a ticket must be taken from a cheese counter-type machine, and then you need to queue and speak to a lone operative who will either point to another queue or, more likely, to a ticket machine.
We decided to pay the extra and book a first-class ticket on a direct train to Lake Como. I was aware that Bob seemed to be in a particular hurry to reach our destination, so I assumed he had taken a look at the boat crossing times.
We boarded our lovely train which, of course, left exactly on time and, soon after we were greeted by a steward who gave us a breakfast menu. We ordered two coffees, which were lovely – however, we were later presented with a bill for the said coffees of around £10, so no free first-class refreshments, then. Hey ho!
Half-an-hour later we were at our stop and we followed the signs to the Lake. As we glimpsed the spectacular lake before us, Bob guided me to a small office building, its sign reading ‘Aero Club Como’. There, I was told that we would be taking a seaplane tour of the Lake!
Founded in 1930, the Aero Club, verified by Guinness World Records in 2013, manages the oldest seaplane operation and seaplane flight school in the world. As surprises go, this was one of the best and, feeling a little like celebrities, we were walked to our plane by our pilot Edoardo and, as people and ducks crowded around to see who the sunglasses-wearing couple were, I was helped into the front passenger seat while Bob clambered into the seat behind. The plane was wheeled to the water’s edge, we were off along our watery runway, and soon airborne. Still recovering from my surprise, I tried to listen attentively to our pilot, who was also a tutor, as he talked me through how flying was the respecting of water, wind and land, about the panels, clocks, dials, buttons of the dashboard…..does a plane have a dashboard? At the same time, I was aware of the myriad wonderous sights overwhelming my senses.
The engine was surprisingly quiet, and it was easy enough to hear Edoardo as he guided us through the fascinating world of seaplane flying. I had read that Lake Como is known as the ‘Beauty Queen’ of the Italian Lakes and, as I looked down, right and left at the sapphire waters, turning turquoise, then green, then deepest azure blue, who was I to doubt it to be true?
The Lake is 50km in length, but hardly ever more than 2km wide and has three ‘legs’. Byron, Wordsworth and Shelley have all been inspired to write masterpieces, while composers such as Bellini, Liszt and Verdi all found inspiration whilst looking upon these waters. However, my words failed me!
Before us were the lakeside towns of Bellagio and Varena, and the immaculate gardens of Villa Carlotta in the village of Tremezzo. The Baroque churches of Menaggio, the 11th century Church of Santo Stefano and, just north of that, Mezzagra, where Mussolini was shot by partisans. The town of Como has been Italy’s silk capital since 1510 and boasts film stars’ houses, complete with their own moorings and, beyond that, with a front row seat to view the beauty that is Lake Como, stood the Alps.
As we came back to a graceful halt once more on the water’s edge, we said our goodbyes to our amazing pilot and headed to sit lakeside with an Aperol and the free aperitivo, still coming back down to earth.
Milano, this multifaceted global city of arts, culture and fashion, deserves more than a weekend visit, and we will absolutely be back to lend her that courtesy.