Friday, 28 March 2014

From the Duomo - A series of sightseeing walks in Milan

Soon it will be visitor season in Milan, so I thought I'd post some ideas for walking around this under-rated city. As life in Milan radiates out from the Duomo, these walks will always start from this magnificent cathedral.

Each of From the Duomo walks will include:
  • places to visit:
  • suggestions for where to eat:
  • public bathrooms AND
  • a recommended gelato stop, or two.
Milan's most famous sites:  The Duomo, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, La Scala and Gallerie d'Italia.

Stop 1. Piazza del Duomo & Stop 2.  La Galleria
The first place in Milan that Stefano took me was to the Duomo.  Although I've seen it many times since that winter morning, its beauty never fails to surprise me.  The exterior is luminescent, but the interior is also incredible, especially the magnificently patterned marble floor.  Once you've taken your photos outside, queue up at the main entrance to wander through the cathedral, which the Milanese proudly claim is the fourth largest in the world.  To explore the interior at a leisurely pace allow at least 30 minutes, longer if you want to follow an audio-tour, or visit any of the Duomo museums. CLICK HERE for a brief history of the Duomo.
If the weather is fine and not too hot, a visit to the roof terraces of the Duomo is a must.  The roof terraces open at 9.00 and ticket sales close at 18.00.  Tickets are sold from a booth outside the Duomo, on the left-hand side. You need at least 30 minutes to enjoy the roof of the Duomo, but you can stay as long as you wish.
FREE entry to the Duomo.  
CLICK HERE  for opening times and tour information.
Audio tours can be purchased inside the Duomo 7€ (approx).
Roof terrace ticket information 7€ to climb the stairs, or 12€ for the lift  CLICK HERE.

  •  Cover your shoulders and your legs to below the knee - that advice is for men and women. The Duomo guards are very strict about these dress requirements and you will be turned away if your dress code doesn't meet these standards.
  • If you don't want to buy a children's book, or a string bracelet etc., avoid eye-contact with the many trinket sellers in the piazza in front of the Duomo.
  • Arrive early to avoid long queues for tickets to the roof terraces and for the clearest views of Milan.
  • On a summer's day visit, the roof terraces first and then venture into the Duomo for a wander in the cooler air.
  • Allow between one and two hours to visit the Duomo.
Covering up to enter the Duomo.
As you face the Duomo, the arched entry of Galleria Vittoria Emanuele II is on your left.
This Galleria is a beautiful, covered shopping arcade which is one of the oldest in Europe.
Spinning on the bull's balls - Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II
Guiseppe Mengoni, the architect of this wonderful building, tragically fell to his death just days before his creation opened to the public in 1877.  A strange custom has developed as a result of this tragedy. Look for the mosaic of the bull near the centre of the arcade.  Supposedly, this is the spot where Mengoni fell. To ward off bad luck, those passing through the arcade should detour to spin on the balls of the bull.  But, before you join those spinning for better luck, CLICK HERE to make sure you spin in the right direction! 
CLICK HERE for a brief history of this famous shopping arcade. 

Walk straight through the Galleria to the Piazza della Scala.

 3rd Stop - The MUSEUM of LA SCALA

Piazza La Scala and the theatre
From the Galleria you will exit into the Piazza della Scala, another important Milanese meeting place. Across the square is the rather unassuming facade of another of Milan's most famous buildings, La Scala.  In the centre of this square is a monument dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci. The smaller statues, which surround Leonardo, symbolise his talent as an architect, engineer, painter and sculpture.
The stage of La Scala
It's worth visiting the museum of La Scala just to see the incredible interior of this famous theatre.  Tickets to the museum include a view of the theatre, even when rehearsals are in progress.  While I found the rest of the museum moderately interesting, the opportunity to wander through the lavish entrance halls and to see the theatre are alone worth the admission price.  Information is provided in English and Italian but an audio tour was not available when I visited in early 2014.
Admission 6
Open daily from 9.00 - 12.00 and from 1.30 - 5.00.
CLICK HERE for more information.
  • Museum ticket sales are closed for lunch between 12 noon and 1.30pm everyday. 
  • An hour should be plenty of time to see the museum, unless you are an opera buff.
  • It is possible to get tickets to performances at La Scala without booking months ahead.  CLICK HERE for further information.
LUNCHTIME - Two suggestions
Plan your morning of sightseeing by aiming to be seated for lunch by 12.45.  The Milanese eat lunch between 1-2pm so the bars and restaurants become packed very quickly. To avoid the crowds start a little earlier as you may find that some restaurants no longer serve lunch after 2.30pm.
Pasta of the day at Cafe Pierre
Pierre Cafe, via Broletto, 15.
To enjoy a deliciously fresh bowl of pasta, or a panini for around 4.50€, eat with the office-workers in the small, traditional cafes/bars along via Broletto.  Turn left down the side of La Scala into the pedestrian street, via Filodrammatici. Then turn left again into via dei Bossi and at the end, turn left again into via Broletto.  When I ate at Cafe Pierre, the daily specials menu included several pastas and paninis for less than 5€. You may notice that many of the office workers pay with a ticket rather than cash, as many Italian companies provide lunch vouchers for approx 5€ per day.  This keeps the prices down in this part of the city. There is no extra charge for sitting at a table, although the locals often eat standing at the bar. All the bars along this street offer similar daily lunch specials.  
deCanto Cafe, Gallerie d'Italia
deCanto, Piazza della Scala
If you would prefer more of a restaurant meal, I recommend this lovely cafe which is part of the Gallerie d'Italia, the final stop on this itinerary.  deCanto offers a simple light lunch for less than 10€.  I've enjoyed a delicious vegetable pie and a cappucino in the beautiful dining room looking into the modern art gallery.  Although the meal was a little more expensive, the food and service was excellent.  Just across the road, the cafe of La Scala charges three times this amount for a light lunch, so I consider deCanto to be great value.  

Gallerie d'Italia, Piazza della Scala
On the street adjacent to La Scala is the Gallerie d'Italia, my favourite art gallery in Milan.  Not only does the building, which was once the Banca Commerciale Italiana, have one of the most beautiful interiors of any public building in Milan, but the gallery houses an extensive collection of artworks from the 19th and 20th centuries, some of which depict historic views of Milan. After entering the gallery go downstairs to the cloakroom and collect a free audioguide.  I suggest you allow at least one and a half hours to enjoy this surprisingly beautiful gallery.
Admission FREE and FREE audioguides.
Open Tuesday - Sunday from 9.30am -7.30pm.
CLICK HERE for more information.

After a full day of sightseeing you deserve a gelato! On Piazza della Scala turn left and walk along via Santa Margherita to number 16 the GROM gelato shop.  Although I usually prefer smaller gelaterias, GROM gelato is consistently delicious.  I can personally recommend two of their classic flavours, nocciola and torrincino, and they also offer seasonal flavours each month. A small cone, which always includes two flavours, costs 2.50€.
Grom gelato is rated gluten free by the Italian Celiac Association.

In the centre of Milan, near the Duomo, there are public toilets beside the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele.  Enter the doors of Caffe Motta and climb the stairs following the signs to Cafe Ciao.  Public toilets are on the second floor.  They cost 50 cents and there is a change machine.

All the museums have free toilets, as do the cafes and bars listed above. 

That brings us to the end of the first post in this new series.  I hope you enjoyed these ideas for places to visit and suggestions for where to eat in Milan.

Leave a comment if you have a suggestion to improve this itinerary or a tip to share.

Ciao, ciao, ciao!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

A rainy weekend in Florence

A wet weekend was forecast for Milan, so we decided to visit the art galleries in Florence.  Decades ago, during our "backpacking years", Stefano and I independently visited Florence. My memories are of the incredible Duomo, the spectacular Uffizi gallery and the delicious gelato. Stefano remembers flying through chaotic traffic on the back of his friend's motorbike, the picturesque bridges over the Arno river and the art galleries that he didn't visit. We weren't quite sure that the Florence of 2014 would live up to our memories, but it did, almost.

The beauty of the Duomo by night,
and by day, was just as spectacular as my memory from 1986.

The Ponte Vecchio was just as charming when viewed from a distance,
but still not so quaint, when crossed by foot.

The colours of Florence hadn't faded over the past twenty something years
 and the restaurants are even cosier.

There are still too many galleries to visit in one weekend
and too many spectacular gardens, reminding us that two days will never be long enough in Florence.
We weren't the only ones who thought that seeing the art galleries and churches of Florence would be a pleasant way to spend the weekend!

Now we've made new memories.
It is worth paying extra for the "skip the queue" tickets, rather than wasting precious hours standing in line to visit the Uffizi. But, there's no way to avoid the crowds inside.  They will be almost as memorable, as the beautiful Botticelli paintings.
At the Palazzo Pitti, set in the magnificent Boboli gardens, there were no queues, or crowds. It is an enormous palace which houses several galleries.  While the artworks might not be as famous as those in the Uffizi, the lavish interiors conjure a picture of the decadence for which the Medici dynasty is remembered.

Sadly, Florentine gelato remains a distant memory. Although we searched high and low for Gelateria dei Neri, supposedly the best gelateria in Florence, 
when it was finally located, it was closed! 

That convinced us that another trip to Florence for more memory testing must be completed before we leave Italy.

Dove è la primavera? Spero è tornare questa settimana.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

A spring welcome

This morning we woke to music coming from the street. 
Downstairs a musical trio was ambling along trumpeting the joy of spring.  Suddenly the signs of 'primavera' are everywhere...
The first green shoots sprouted this week 
and the magnolia trees burst into bloom.
They aren't common in Milan, so this stunning display caught us by surprise.  
Pansies brightened the footpaths and peeked from window boxes,
- while shorts
and T-shirts appeared in the streets and parks.
Best of all,
we enjoyed lunch on our balcony for the first time this year AND
our local gelateria re-opened!

Primavera ha arrivato a Milano! Benvenuto!

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Putting Como behind us

This week spring arrived early in Milan with blue skies and temperatures in the mid-teens. On Sunday we decided to make most of the weather with a day trip to Como.
Most people arrive in Como by train and then quickly leave to catch a ferry up the lake.  But Stefano had read about a walk we could do from the top of the funicular railway.  So on this perfect spring day we turned our backs on Lago Como and joined the queue for the train up the mountain.
The funicular takes you to the small town of Brunate which was a very popular holiday resort in 1894 when the railway was built.  Many of the original villas still remain, although not always in pristine condition, giving this mountain resort town a slightly dishevelled air.
From Brunate we followed the rocky, cobblestoned path further up the mountain to the village of San Maurizo.  Along the way we spotted several drifts of snow, reminding us that it was only a few weeks ago when it seemed that the winter would never end.
Then at 1000 metres we stopped for lunch at  Baita Carla.  Although we knew nothing about this small mountain restaurant, we were pleasantly surprised by the authentic, home-made mountain food.  Once again we enjoyed a delicious Sunday lunch surrounded by local families.
To walk off a little of the homemade ravioli and pizzoccheri we kept hiking up the hill for another half an hour.
Although it was tempting to stop and join the locals snoozing in the sunshine, especially after the vino rosso at lunch, we kept walking enjoying the fresh mountain air and scenery, before turning around and heading back to the funicular.
Back down at the lake we strolled along the shore before catching the train home to Milan.
We loved our day on the mountain above Como.  We're already planning to return to follow the Dorsale Triangolo Larino track, a two day walk down to Bellagio.  By turning our backs on Como and the lake, we've happily discovered more reasons to return.

Benveuto primavera!