Monday, 20 April 2009

If it is Wednesday, this must be Milan

There is a legend that has passed into European lore of a group of travellers whose coming heralds the start of the rainy season. No one seems to know when they are coming, but their arrival brings what the Italians call, the ‘aqua vitae’ - the water of life. In Spanish they are said to be from ‘en el marco de’; in Dutch it is ‘omlaag onder’; in Italian their home is ‘sotto terra’. Sometimes their stay might be only for a day, at other times 3 or even 4. They are … the drought breakers.

There is something about deliberately getting up early (as opposed to waking up early and being unable to get back to sleep) which automatically raises a level of excitement. That we were going back to Heathrow for the first time since we had been to Madrid only served to increase this excitement, although not enough to stop one of us from taking an unusually long time in the shower. Still, we were away by 4:45am and the lighter traffic at this time meant that we pulled into the parking at 6am ready for our transfer to the airport.

All of our standard things happened; the boys had no idea where we were going until we checked in, when Brock did find out he had no idea which country Milan was in anyway, and there was trouble with our passports which meant that we had to check in at a counter rather than use Lufthansa’s little self check in booths (to the consternation of the staff who were there to make sure we did use them), Most notable was the woman in the line in front of us who had two over packed suitcases, and another item the size of three fully stuffed bean bags wrapped together in a large amount of clear plastic, which she wanted to take on the plane as carry on baggage (how she would have possibly got this into an overhead locker no one seemed to be entirely sure). She was crying that she was already running late for her plane but, given the baggage situation, the staff was not being overly sympathetic. Other than that we moved rapidly through to Customs.

After the speed of check in, there were only two x-ray machines open at Customs which meant a queue. This would have been more bearable had Meg not had a group of three Manchester United supporters (flying to Portugal for that nights Champions League match) standing behind her. One, in particular, kept pushing Meg, complaining about the length of time it was taking to get through Customs, and making statements along the lines of, ‘this isn’t how we won the war’. Their disgruntlement grew to complete outrage when two things happened simultaneously; a new x-ray machine looked like opening, but was then delayed, and the lady from check in walked completely past the queue and attempted to go straight through the scanner in front of everybody who had been waiting. When Meg heard the people behind referring to a ‘princess’ she thought they might have been talking about her and was ready to open a can of whoop ass upon them. Fortunately (for the Manchester United supporters) at that moment we reached the front of the queue and Wayne was able to explain to whom it was really referring.

One of the comforts of Heathrow which Meg had been anticipating was the presence of a Harrod’s store. Because we had quite a bit of time until our plane was called for boarding we were off to have a look around, then it was an opportunity to browse some more. At this point we noticed the young lady from back at check in, sitting and looking very relaxed. Perhaps unsurprisingly we also saw the Man. United crew sitting at the Weatherspoons pub having a few drinks before boarding the plane. Apparently all the angst wasn’t about catching a flight but about downing a few before doing so. Meg and Brock tried going up to our gate to wait there but were sent back because it was too early.

Eventually the time came to board the aircraft and we were pleasantly surprised. After a few trips travelling with the ultra cheap airlines it was nice to have allocated seats. What was even nicer was that they were quite roomy (both for leg room and side to side) and, of course, they served us some food. Our flight was about an hour and a half, taking us over Geneva, and it seemed that we were very quickly on the ground at Malpensa Airport. Unfortunately, we had to exit the plane down on to the tarmac and then catch a bus to the terminal itself. Quinn was almost the most excited at this point, because although he had been to Italy skiing earlier in the year, this time he was going to get a stamp in his passport. Sure enough, we were through Customs in record time and outside Terminal 1 at Malpensa waiting for the courtesy bus to our hotel.

While checking with a member of staff from where the bus would leave we were referred to ‘the lady over there’ who was going to the Novotel. When we got over to her, although slightly taken aback that people seemed to know where she was going, we were delighted to meet Val from Townsville (the Australian accent was a bit of a give away). She and Meg had a delightful time sharing tips about Milan and about shopping while in Europe generally. Sadly, she and her husband were right at the end of their time in Milan and were off to Florence and Rome before heading across to the UK. Even more amazing, when we first met Val, she was chatting with an American couple. Meg and Wayne don’t know many people who live in the USA, so imagine our surprise when these people turned out to be from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where our friends Christine and Ian and their children live. We were able to chat about their home town before they were taken to their own hotel.

The Novotel Milan Malpensa is actually in the town of Cardano al Campo, only 2 kilometres from Malpensa Airport but at least 35 kilometres from Milan. We checked in to the hotel, took our baggage up to our room and then went back to the lobby to enquire as to where we might best acquire some lunch. Obviously the hotel staff recommended the hotel restaurant, but we were also informed of a restaurant in the forest just a short walk away. It was a beautiful sunny day and a restaurant in the forest sounded like fun, so we decided on the walk. This proved to be a better decision than we could have imagined.

Nel “Buco del Mulo’ is a ristorante and pizzeria set in the midst of the Nature Park of Torino, to the north of the town and within easy walking distance of many of the hotels. The lady who seated us spoke excellent English and we felt very welcome from the get go. Meg and the boys ordered pizzas, while Wayne chose a ‘calzone’ (one of his favourite things to eat) and we sat back and waited, chatting about the things we might do in Milan over the next few days. Our drinks came rapidly and the food arrived not long after and we were overwhelmed by the size of the portions and the quality. In particular, Wayne’s calzone was so impressive that he lost it to Meg while the boys both tasted it as well. Brock and Quinn struggled to get through their pizzas and all in all we were very impressed. The waitress was attentive and helpful and we quickly decided that we would be back there again before the end of this trip. If you find yourself in Cardano al Campo and want some really good and inexpensive food, don’t miss the opportunity to dine at ‘Nel “Buco” del Mulo’. We would like to find out if they deliver to the UK.

After lunch we decided to head down into Cardano al Campo (the town is named after a historically significant local family and had the name ‘field’ put at the end by King Vittorio Emanuele II, in 1864, to avoid similarities with other towns in Italy) in order to buy some groceries. As we soon discovered, there were two tiny problems with this plan. The first was that Meg had not changed her shoes with a consequence that, as it was a reasonable distance into the centre of town (and we didn’t take the most direct route) her feet became quite sore. The other thing which we had not counted upon was the fact that everything closes for lunch and siesta around 1pm and doesn’t reopen until 3:30pm. Thus, even when we did find the supermarket it was closed and we were going to have to wait for a while.

Cardano al Campo has a population of 13 800 people, of whom we saw less than 100 during our walk (they take siesta seriously in this part of Italy). There is archaeological evidence of a settlement on the site since Roman times, but the first written reference to the town doesn’t come until the twelfth century. Later it was hit by various plagues which had a serious effect upon the population although the Church of St Peter in the centre of town often provided support. During World War II it was taken by the Germans, but an active resistance was organised among the local townspeople, a number of whom are commemorated in street names. The main street of the town, however, is named Via XX Septembre in commemoration of the date that the Kingdom of Italy captured Rome in 1870. It was on this street that Wayne and Quinn discovered a traffic sign displaying the speed of passing vehicles. Because it also clocked the speed of pedestrians, they had a competition to see who could achieve the fastest speed on the sign. Wayne won with 23 kph to Quinn’s 21.

Once 3:30pm came and various purchases had been made we all set out back to the hotel, this time taking a significantly shorter route. Once back it was decided to go and hang out by the swimming pool. Having been assured that the water was freezing, both Meg and Wayne decided to stay out. Brock and Quinn played a game of table tennis, with the foolish proviso that if the ball went in the pool then Quinn would have to go and get it. While Brock was making every effort to get the ball into the pool, in the end it was Meg who managed it and Quinn ended up swimming. At this point we were informed that the pool was actually closed until next month. As the weather grew cooler we retired to our room, some reading up about what to expect the following day and watching of DVD’s followed before we all drifted off to sleep.

The following morning saw us arise in dribs and drabs before heading down to the restaurant for a buffet breakfast. Having looked out of the window we were dismayed (but not entirely surprised) to see that it was raining. Once again, as in Madrid, we had arrived on a beautiful day only to see it turn cold and wet the following day. We got ready and went downstairs to catch the bus up to Malpensa but missed the first couple that came along. Finally a member of staff gave us a lift in their own car (helpfully providing us with an umbrella when we reached the airport) and then we boarded the shuttle into the city.

We pulled out of Malpensa Terminal 1 at 10am and then back into Terminal 2 at 10:03. Then it was underway into Milan. Initially there was lots of farmland and industry, with turn offs to Torino, Genova and Bologna. As we proceeded down the tollway watching the power lines push off across the largely flat landscape into the distance it, gradually became much more suburban, still flat but broken up by large apartment blocks, church towers, and various industries. We knew we were getting close when we pulled up alongside the San Siro Stadium (the home of both AC Milan and Inter Milan, two of the top football teams in Italy) and passed the home of the Media Conglomerate owned by Sylvio Berlusconi, the Italian President.

At last we drew up alongside the, somewhat misnamed, Milan Central Station. This station is quite a distance from most of the major tourist sites which are largely considered to be the centre of Milan, but is one of the places where the overland line meets the Metro. Rather than put ourselves under the ground and miss some of the sights we decided to walk in toward what all the guidebooks assured us was the highlight of a visit to Madrid, the Duomo. Avoiding the taxis (all white, just to make a contrast to many of the other countries which we have visited) we set off down the Via V. Pisani toward the Piazza della Repubblica which is surrounded by large hotels and mirrors similar Piazza’s in other major Italian cities.

The map which we had brought with us labelled the Giardini Pubblici off the Bastioni di Porta Venezia as being the zoo. Somewhat excited by this we walked into the gardens only to discover that the zoo, as such, doesn’t really exist anymore. The Giardini Pubblici does however feature many, many statues, and we saw quite a significant number of Milanese walking their dogs (which in Meg’s mind became lions, zebra, bears and other assorted animals).

Having quite enjoyed our walk in the park, even if we were a little disappointed at the absence of any real zoo, we next found ourselves at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna. As the rain had started to become heavier no one was really adverse to going in and having a good look. The building itself was designed by architect Leopold Pollak in 1790 and over the years, it became the official residence of Napoleon III and of Marshall Radetzky. In the gallery there was a sizeable collection of paintings and sculptures from 19th-century Italy including works by Appiani, Canova, Hayez, Cremona, Medardo, Rosso, Ranzoni and Segantini. One of the most impressive things was a collection of tiny miniatures which showed amazing detail. Despite some misdirection by the guides, and a sense that we were a little underdressed, it was a very interesting time.

Emerging from the Galleria we found that the rain had lightened off a little and as we set off down the road we noticed what looked like a Museum down the next street, the Corso Venezia. As it turned out, this was the Museo di Storia Naturale which was founded in 1838 when a young man, Giuseppe de Cristoforis (1803–1837), died donating his collections to the city. It has just a fabulous collection of skeletons, dioramas and stuffed animals displayed in really interesting ways (although just a tad more English would have helped). We had a drink in the cafĂ© on the top floor first, where Wayne managed to make friends with a young child (she was apparently teaching Wayne how to put his fist in his mouth and found it hilarious when he attempted it) before looking through the museum itself.

As we were leaving the building after an excellent visit (well worth the €6 it cost us), the front entrance was extraordinarily crowded with teenagers. It was only as we squeezed out of the doors that we realised that this was because the rain had got even heavier. At this point Wayne became geographically challenged and started heading toward the Viale Majno, rather than in the opposite direction, which did two things; firstly, it made him grumpy, wet and cold, and secondly, it allowed us to see some of the most beautiful buildings we had yet seen. The apartments in this area of Milan were tall and elegant and through wrought iron gates we could glimpse gorgeous internal courtyards. One of the buildings was covered with creepers which have obviously been climbing for a long time.

After some misdirection, an aborted attempt to catch a bus, and Wayne being completely unreasonable, we finally found ourselves walking through the Corso Victor Emmanuele II and up to the Duomo il Milano. If you have never seen it then it is hard to describe the magnificence of this cathedral. We were approaching it in the rain, from the back (where scaffolding was obstructing some of the view) and with Wayne struggling to overcome his own frustration with himself, and yet all of us were amazed at just how impressive a construction it is. Mark Twain [in Innocents Abroad] wrote of it,

“What a wonder it is! So grand, so solemn, so vast! And yet so delicate, so airy, so graceful! A very world of solid weight, and yet it seems ...a delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath!... The central one of its five great doors is bordered with a bas-relief of birds and fruits and beasts and insects, which have been so ingeniously carved out of the marble that they seem like living creatures-- and the figures are so numerous and the design so complex, that one might study it a week without exhausting its interest...everywhere that a niche or a perch can be found about the enormous building, from summit to base, there is a marble statue, and every statue is a study in itself...Away above, on the lofty roof, rank on rank of carved and fretted spires spring high in the air, and through their rich tracery one sees the sky beyond. ... (Up on) the roof...springing from its broad marble flagstones, were the long files of spires, looking very tall close at hand, but diminishing in the distance...We could see, now, that the statue on the top of each was the size of a large man, though they all looked like dolls from the street... They say that the Cathedral of Milan is second only to St. Peter's at Rome. I cannot understand how it can be second to anything made by human hands.”

These days it is only the third largest cathedral in Christendom (as they say) with one in Seville having surpassed this one, however that does not detract from Twain’s words. We spent perhaps an hour inside, with all agreeing that it could have been a week and we still would not have seen everything there was to see. Despite the commotion outside in the square, and the number of people actually in the Duomo itself, it was tranquil and serene. There is the option to pay some money and catch the lift up to the roof but we opted not to. Instead, knowing that we would be back again during our stay in Milan, we headed back outside.

At last the rain had started to lighten, which was handy for the crowds packed into the square staring up at the balcony on one of the nearby buildings. We discovered that some famous pop star (or model, or actress, they all seem to be interchangable these days) was being interviewed by the Italian MTV with the square forming the background. Consequently, Brock and Quinn have now appeared live on Italian MTV (we could see the telecast on the enormous television which stood on the other side of the square). After looking around some more and being amazed at the number of stalls which filled the walkways around the square (let alone the shopping opportunities which completely surrounded us in the buildings) we adjourned to McDonalds for a traditional lunch/dinner knowing that we would only have a light supper when we arrived back in Cardano al Campo.

To make our trip back to the railway station just a little easier we caught the City Sightseeing bus (at a significantly reduced rate, thanks to the guide) which was also a good preparation for one of the things we had planned to do the next day. It gave us both an opportunity to see where some of the sights we would visit the next day were, and also demonstrated where the stop closest to the station was, as well as providing a timetable so that we would be able to catch it. Now that the rain had subsided it was much easier to view lots of the things around the station and we were able to grab some drinks from a local supermarket before reboarding the shuttle bus back to Malpensa.

All that remained was a quick transfer at the airport from the shuttle bus down to where we had met the courtesy bus back to the Novotel. At this point our major problem with the hotel emerged, as yet again we had trouble catching the courtesy bus. It arrived three times, with the first two seeing the driver resfusing to take us on. There was some confusion about whether there was another Novotel near the airport (there isn’t but there is one near Linate [the other airport] and another in the city itself). The next time he appeared we insisted that we get on the bus and took the journey back. By this time Meg was fuming and made her feelings about the situation very clear to the staff at reception. Then Wayne and Meg headed up to the room to remove wet clothes and have showers, while the boys went downstairs and spent time on the computers that were provided in the foyer. When they returned after their allocated 20 minutes we all had some cheese and crackers. Then, feeling significantly more tired than we had the previous evening (and the boys had slept on the shuttle bus on the way back) we all retired for the night, hoping that the weather on the following day would be an improvement.

NB. The ‘drought breakers’ from Down Under are available to visit you. All you need to do is pay for our flights and we can be with you to bring the rains almost anywhere in the world.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

You're the dirty rascal!

For our first UK Easter in 2008 there was snow. In 2009, Easter Day began similarly bleak and it looked like we would be spending the day at home. That morning Wayne put in a call to Callum, Declan and Ethan back in Australia. While talking to them about the excitement of their own day Declan asked what we were going to do. When we said that the weather wasn’t going to be very nice, he said that he would pray, ‘So that Daddy and Meg and Brock and Quinn could go out somewhere’. Sure enough the weather cleared, all we had to do was to decide where we were going.

Quinn has been doing Media Studies as part of his course this year and one of the tasks that he had to do was to film some footage to be used for a music video. The song he and his partner had chosen to do it to was called ‘Jump, Jump’, so we decided to go somewhere where he could jump around. We have not spent any time in Suffolk, which is one of the closer counties to Hertfordshire, so we decided to head out toward the coast and another English Heritage building.

Our route took us across through Harlow to the M11 heading North. At Ickleton we continued upon the A11 out through Abingdon to Six Mile Bottom. As we went around the horse racing town of Newmarket we merged onto the A14 which took us through Bury St Edmunds, Blackthorpe, Beyton and down into Stowmarket. At Creeting St Peter we turned on to the A1120 which wound through Stowupland, Forward Green, Stonham Earl and Earl Stonham (we’re not joking, the two towns have those opposite names, you can look it up). The A1120 continued through Stonham Aspal, Pettaugh and Earl Soham before we turned onto the B1119 at Saxtead Green for the last mile or so into Framlingham.

Many of those villages are exactly as you might picture an English village with such a picturesque name. There were cottages with thatched roofs, small stone churches at the centre surrounded by a village green, snug little laneways that led out into the fields of local farms or small wooded areas, wonderful stone bridges over rapidly flowing streams, and lots and lots of pubs. As we drove the weather cleared even more so that it was a lovely, fine day and people made their way into the outdoors. Traffic wasn’t bad, but all around us were people having picnics or doing other activities. Spring had truly sprung.
Framlingham is a market town and bigger than the others largely because of the presence of the castle. Raedwald (one of the powerful kings of the East Angles) is said to have founded it between A.D. 599 and 624. One of the Saxon monarchs of the region, Edmund, owned the castle by AD 870 and fled there at the invasion of the Danes in that year. They drove him out and put him to death at Hoxne (about 19 klm away) by binding him to a tree and shooting him with arrows. After many years his remains were removed to a place called Bederics-gueord however, because of this distinguished grave, it seems apt that the town is now known as Bury St. Edmunds.

After the Norman conquest of 1066, the castle fell into the hands of William the Conqueror and his son Rufus. During the reign of Henry I it was granted, along with the manor of Framlingham, to Roger Bigod, 1st Earl of Norfolk. While various of the surnames changed over the next few hundred years (from the Bigods to the Mowbrays, then the Howards) it largely stayed with the Earls or Dukes of Norfolk, apart from a slight digression where John Howard (not the former Australian Prime Minister) was slain at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, and it went through Henry VII to John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford.

Henry VIII then seized it from yet another Duke of Norfolk in 1547, but King Henry died not long after and his son, Edward VI, gave it to his sister, the then Princess Mary. When Edward died at the age of 15 it was to Framlingham that Mary went for refuge during the brief period while Jane Grey took the throne. By the 19th of July, 1553, Mary had raised an army of nearly 20 000 men at Framlingham (and when you see the size of the castle, you wonder where she must have put them). At this point, with uproar among the people and a large army gathered in Suffolk, the Privy Council changed their minds about Jane Grey, and messengers were sent to Framlingham proclaiming Mary as Queen.

After Queen Elizabeth had died, James I returned the castle to the Howard family and particularly to Thomas Howard, the first Baron Howard de Walden, who was proclaimed the Earl of Suffolk. However, he had a property already at Audley End (which we visited last year, and you can understand why someone might prefer it to Framlingham) and didn’t want to move so he let it fall into decay. Over the next few hundred years it was bequeathed to Pembroke College, Cambridge, in trust for various charitable uses. It has variously been used as a prison and a poor house, but in 1913 it came into the hands of the government and is now run by English Heritage.

We got out of the car in the carpark next to the bowling green and walked the short distance to the English Heritage office. Once again our membership came in handy as we received a rebate of our parking fee and were able to enter the Castle for free (except for the purchase of one of the books concerning the place). Then it was a short walk (maybe a couple of hundred metres at most) along the main path, across the bridge over the moat and through the enormous doors into the castle itself.

Unlike many of the castles we have now been to, where the bulk of what you see is the keep and much of the outer walls are missing, this castle had a curtain wall with regular mural towers. Indeed, Framlingham is one of the earliest examples of this type of castle. It was designed to be both a stronghold, providing security, and a statement that the owner was a powerful man. Like many of the buildings in Suffolk, it was built from the flint that makes up much of the landscape. Nowadays the inside is regularly used for English Heritage Events to teach young people about their past and today was no exception. Because it was Easter Day there was a giant Easter Egg hunt on (we had discussed on the way there the possibility that Brock and Quinn might have to let smaller children find the eggs rather than pushing them over and stealing them) however the Easter Eggs were large cardboard pictures with a letter which you needed to use to spell the secret code.

Only a couple of the buildings which use to fill the castle are still extant. No matter where you look, however, there is evidence that the inside of the castle was a thriving, bustling place; a town within a town. The walls show spaces where rooms used to extend out, giving the opportunity to access windows, and also the remains of chimneys which exited via the mural towers. The building that does remain was the poorhouse, and prior to that the remains of the old medieval hall. Lots of families with young children were already present playing in the grounds as we moved in to the poorhouse (which is now a combination shop/office/museum). To Meg’s dismay it was quite a steep set of stairs which led to the top of the wall, but everyone agreed that it was well worth the climb.

From the top of the wall, looking across to the west you see over the Framlingham Mere to one of the most beautiful looking schools we have ever seen. Not only was the main building massive and impressive, but it was clear that the grounds were equally splendid. Visible were a couple of golf holes, some extensive lawns, and the possibility of further sports fields. Framlingham College was founded in 1864 in memory of Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, who had been a great supporter of education and science. Today the College describes itself as ‘a dynamic centre of academic, cultural and sporting excellence providing fully co-educational boarding and day schooling’. The buildings are mock gothic and in front (although we couldn’t easily see from our vantage point) is a statue of Prince Albert.

Technically, the castle is now in ruins, but a wonderful job has been done in creating a pathway around the top of the wall. Although there were places which, from down below, looked quite terrifying it was very stable and solid all the way around. There were some amazing sights to be seen. Suffolk is quite a flat county so it was possible to see some distance over the countryside. It was also possible to see much of the town of Framlingham and the ruins of parts of the outside of the castle, including the pylons from an old bridge.

Of course, as well as the wonderful views, we were providing our own interesting spectacle for the benefit of the other visitors. Having asked for permission from the staff to do some filming on the site, Quinn was jumping around various parts of the wall, backwards and forwards. At times this meant having to wait for other members of the public to get past, so that Quinn could bounce, tigger like, around a corner or along a path.

As well as the museum, which not only covered the various historical periods that the castle had seen but also the living conditions for those who had been in the poorhouse, there were also themed games and toys provided for children in the courtyard. Various paths around the castle were linked to audio tours and there were signs and panels which displayed all sorts of information. Having walked, bounced and toured around (and collected all the letters for the Easter Egg hunt) we were very impressed, yet again, at how well everything was maintained. After a short break it was back to the car for a slightly different journey home.

This time our route took us down toward Ipswich before heading across to Colchester and then to Braintree. Here we stopped at a local pub for our evening meal before heading home. It had only been a relatively short trip but to a place in which an amazing amount of very significant history had taken place. Although it is relatively unknown it is really well looked after and there were are goodly number of people there on an Easter Day when it might have been expected that people would be elsewhere.