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.

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