My one day in Milan was more of a layover than a visit, but our first encounter with Italy was both eventful and memorable. Milan was our first Italian stop, a good six hour train ride from Spiez, Switzerland. The first class train carriage was almost empty and the ride was uneventful as we relaxed through the evening, reminiscing about France and Switzerland, and anticipating how Italy would be compared to them. Would it be dirty and grimy like India, or would it be equally sophisticated and modern like the French. We indulged on a decent complimentary meal in the train and washed it down with champagne. Since I have come back from Europe, I have not stopped talking about the train system and the service in all of Europe. The comfort and trimmings of a first class train ride in Europe far surpasses any first class seat on an airplane. We reached Milan at around 9 in the night. Since we were in Milan for only one night, we had stashed our carry-on bags in the baggage deposit and packed the bare minimum into a backpack. Walking out of the train station was surreal, it was like stepping into a world almost the opposite of Switzerland. The dry crisp air of Alps was replaced by balmy air of the city, and it felt for a while like being in a future version of India. There were people sitting, standing and walking everywhere. My wife, Anu, was immediately aware of the shady looking young people, both Italian and North-African, loitering all around the station, many of them with alcohol in hand. The rough and rowdy city at night felt both intimidating and interesting. We cautiously searched for the local train station entrance, just so that we could get familiar with the train system there. The trains were much alike any train in Queens, the passengers representing a broad swath of the local populace. Maybe I was biased being in Milan, but the younger women definitely looked skinny and fashionable. We disembarked at our stop, fortunately we had noted down the stop and address of the hotel. Despite being prepared, we were lost as soon we walked out of the station. Without a map and just rough directions, we anxiously wandered the lonely and dark streets. The two or three people we tried asking for directions were as clueless as us. As the hour was nearing 11pm we were ready to haul the first taxi we saw. Unfortunately, there were no taxis to be seen anywhere. We decided to backtrack for another half hour after which we finally found a intersection where we could realign ourselves using the compass on the iPhone. Fifteen minutes later, we finally reached our hotel and the fun was just starting.
For some reason, Milan turns out to be a more expensive city than most of the more touristy cities. We could afford only a small three-star hotel in the city a few miles from the station. It was a tad shabby for our taste, the clientele was mostly middle class Italian and the elevator was a rusted metal cage with creaky doors. Anu waited in the lobby while I tried to get the front desk attendant to print out my confirmation for visiting the Last Supper in the Santa Maria delle Grazie church. They had strict rules about not letting anybody in without the confirmation printout. As our luck would have it, the internet connection in the hotel had stopped working a few hours ago. And for the next hour, I delved into the world of Italian Windows XP and some local wi-fi management software, trying to make sense of where the connection was broken. It was a futile effort as it turned out that the language barrier was a bigger problem in the virtual world than in the real world. We finally retreated to our room which seemed like it last renovated in the 80s. Between the floral wallpapers, the dated appliances and the weird musky smell, we tried to get some shut eye before the busy morning.
We were awake bright and early, with only a backpack there was not much to pack or unpack. Anu was immensely relieved to walk out of the hotel room. As I went back to the front desk to see if the internet was restored, the receptionist, a different gentleman, was in a heated argument with one of the customers. I immediately wanted to step in join the brawl in my Peter Griffin-esque imitation, but my wife held me back for the sake of my well-being. The argument went on for another ten minutes, with me trying to interfere with in my Indian style “saar”, “ssaar”, “printout saar”. It was amazing to see two people that looked like they were just seconds away from pummeling each other, yet had restrained themselves to a shouting match. I think somehow deep down they secretly relished the joy of arguing. After all, it was the Romans that gradually transformed the art of arguing into debating through their political processes.
After a few more minutes of fiddling with different websites and emails, I finally got the printout I wanted and headed out with a sigh of relief. It was a bright Sunday morning and save for a few cars the streets were deserted. Another short ride on the metro train took us to within a fifteen minute walk to the delle Grazie church. We marveled at the narrow cobblestone streets now filled with mopeds and smart cars. The stone walls though adorned with ancient seals, were now covered in ads of fashion and luxury brands. We reached the church an hour before our appointment time, and decided to grab some breakfast at the cafe opposite to the entrance – Caffe Ottolina le Grazie. The cafe was busy and there were four people behind the counter furiously whipping up espressos and other drinks. Italian cafes typically have a separate cash counter where you first pay and then take the receipt to the bar. Anything at the bar is usually much cheaper and faster than sitting at a table. Though I have known about espressos for years, I had always had an aversion to drinking them back home. Seeing everybody else drink espressos from the tiny cups, I decided to join the fray and have never looked back. The strong yet smooth caffeine and two spoons of sugar does much to kick your brain awake. That was the day I officially became an espresso aficionado. Since then, I have bought an espresso machine for my home and still drink espresso almost every alternate day. The espresso and croissant breakfast reminded me much of the tiffin centers back in india – standing and drinking chai while munching on a quick idli.
An hour quickly passed just watching the people come and go in the cafe, and it was our turn to view the last supper. A most popular misconception about the Last Supper is that its a painting, it’s actually a more of a dry fresco, a pretty large one at that. While it is somewhat difficult to express what it is to stand in the same place where once stood da Vinci admiring his masterpiece, there are two things to be said about it. One, the spatial perspective that da Vinci incorporated in the Last Supper is just mind numbing; you could literally stand at the end of the room and believe a table is actually set at the other end. Simply, the fresco would not be the same without the room it stands in. Second, the Last Supper is faded and damaged through the early years of neglect and abuse during the world wars; its a fragile piece and its unfortunate that future generations might not get to see it in its original form. I feel fortunate to have experienced this first hand albeit for only a few short minutes, for there is no greater persona that signifies the renaissance like Da Vinci and there is no greater work that defines the period than the Last Supper. And because photography was strictly not allowed, I made it a point to take some bad quality photos with my iPhone anyway. We spent all of twenty minutes with the Last Supper before we were ushered out for the next group of tourists. Months before, I had resented spending days looking for available tickets to see the Last Supper and squeezing it into our itinerary, looking back I thank myself for doing it.
As we made our way to the Duomo, the mainstay of Milanese architecture, we passed by a large unglamorous castle called Castello Sforzesco. The admission being free, we waltzed in despite the blazing sun and walked through the gates, later finding out that it was one the biggest castles still standing in Europe. After appreciating the large stone walls and open grounds for a few minutes, we were pleasantly surprised to find inside the castle’s library, Michelangelo’s very last sculpture depicting Mary mourning Jesus. Though not as marvelous as other sculptures that I would later see, it was an ironical start to my trip in Italy that I would see his last work first and with each work of his I saw, my appreciation for this man would only grow.
From the castle to the Duomo, was a long street lined with hundreds of large and small department stores and on my wife’s insistence we went into a large sports store and bought a few supplies much needed for continuing in Italy – sandals, hats and a larger backpack to hold water. Immediately after, we went in to a Sephora and bought travel sized perfumes, for something told us it was going to sweatier every stop south of Milan. Ten minutes later, we reached the most magnificent Duomo (cathedral) in Italy. Right next to the Duomo was a magnificent shopping plaza called the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele where every worthy brand had a store. Right in the center of the grand cast iron top of the plaza was a coat of arms of Turin right at the center of which was a pair of bulls’ testicles. It was considered good luck to put your heel on those “things” and rotate your body three times. It took only a few seconds for Anu to jump on top of them and do the turns as I watched in bemusement.
If you thought the Notre Dame in Paris was magnificent, the Milan Duomo’s is in simple words, extravagant. Built over five centuries, the Duomo is the largest in all of Italy, and is adorned with more statuettes and gargoyles than any other cathedral we saw in Italy. The only saddening thing that I tried my best to overlook was the large banner on the side of the cathedral for a fashion designer brand that funded the renovation of that section. Everywhere around the cathedral were large numbers of boisterous groups and families enjoying the Sunday afternoon in the center of their city. Inside the Duomo was a large boisterous crowd that was admiring the artwork on the walls amidst the towering columns that held up the distant roof. Several sculptures took their place between the paintings, the most curious of all of them was the rather gaunt and skeletal like sculpture of Saint Bartolomeo towards the end of the Duomo. The upward focused lights only made the sculptures more leaner and somewhat daunting, the light illuminating only the sides of the muscles and the undersides of the chin, all the sculptures looked even more grotesque than they were meant to be. We enjoyed the tail end of the service in the Milan Duomo with actual locals still jostling out slowly. It was after all a glorious Sunday, the sun shining loud and bright right outside, and Milan felt both warm and welcoming and despite the fact that it was supposed to be artificial and plastic by reputation.
One of the best paninis that we enjoyed in all of Italy, was at a corner of a busy street in the front of the Duomo. The spirited lady in the cart that made our sandwich barely understood what we said, but somehow she figured out not to add anything beyond chicken. And it was one delicious panini, with the fresh tomatoes and local cheeses, it was delightful and juicy and the fact that we enjoyed it standing in the middle of a busy street corner made it even more special. Oh, what I would give to be able to get to that square every other weekend. We walked around the Duomo one more time admiring the gargoyles on the higher spires and finally found a vendor that had cheap magnets for our collection. Throughout this trip we had decided to travel light and consequentially fridge magnets were the only mementos that we could afford to carry. Of all the nights and days me and my wife worked in order to make the trip a reality, in the end it was just the magnets and of course our memories that we could carry back. I can’t describe those magnets in glorious words but I can try my best to elucidate those memories as best as I can so that when we are old(er), we can read them back to ourselves and reminisce about our jovial younger days. And thus came to the end our marvelous single day in Milan. A mere eighteen hours that were both incredible and incredibly short.