Milan, Italy (Milano, Italia)
It was good to be back in the West. After a gorgeous flight in from Turkey that took us right over Lake Como, I stepped out and breathed in the crisp autumn air. The weird thing about Milan is that it simultaneously has many airports, and no airports. There are quite a few international airports within an hour of Milan, but none that are actually close to Milan. This makes 6am flights, like the one I would eventually take to leave Italy, complete nightmares.
I flew into the airport of a city called Bergamo. From there, despite having the passport stamps to prove that I had been to hell and back, I breezed through customs. I changed my money and took a bus into Milan called Terra Vision. The bus took about 1 hour to reach Milan’s Stazione Centrale (Central Station) and cost 5.00 EUR (5.32 USD).
Public Transit In Milan
In Milan, if you want to take public transportation, you essentially have 3 options:
- Metro (a.k.a. the subway)
- Tram (a.k.a. the trollies)
If you have a decent idea of where you are going, I would recommend taking the tram or the bus, because you almost never need to pay. I could never figure out how to get a ticket so always just sort of wandered on without paying. Every once in a while there will be a transit official on the train checking tickets, but in all the times I took the tram/bus in Milan, which was quite a lot, this never happened to me. If it had happened though, I would have been fined 60 EUR (63.83 USD). If you are a n00b (like I was) and don't know where you are going, taking the metro is easier to navigate but you'll have to pay for sure.
When I arrived, I took the tram from Stazione Centrale to the apartment of my hostess. So right now, let me give the biggest shout out EVER in the history of this website to Camilla for sharing her tiny, weird apartment with me.
The Milan Experience
The City & Its Residents
Milan does not have a good reputation with travelers. Before I came here people had told me how Milan was big, ugly, and snobby.
Big? Well, it was definitely big. No argument there. But since when is that bad?
Ugly? Well maybe compared to some other European cities, but that's a pretty hard standard to meet. Milan is still Europe, and as such, is well ahead of most of the rest of the world in the aesthetics department. After a months spent in India, Bangladesh, and Burma, I was NOT complaining.
Snobby? I guess I can understand this one. Milan is the fashion capital of the world, and to walk around the main areas of the city, you can definitely tell. Walking around near Duomo (which I’ll get to soon), people literally looked like shots out of fashion magazines. And there I was, looking disheveled and dirty in my grimy sweater and torn jeans. I was fine in Asia, but here I looked like a complete slob. I was feeling a bit insecure, sort of like I had in the trendy areas of Istanbul, until I realized something: the people here are really nice. Italians are actually awesome. I am (half) Italian, so I am happy to be able to report that.
In a time before this blog, I lived in Madrid, Spain. I have pretty intense nostalgia for that place, but I’d be lying if I said that Spanish people were, in general, friendly to foreigners whom they did not already know. There were a few exceptions, but that disposition seemed to hold true for most of the other places that I traveled to in Europe as well. I was sure that Italy, tourist Mecca that it is, was going to be much worse. But in fact, it was the opposite. I cringed to ask strangers for directions, hoping to God that they spoke English, but my ignorant requests for help were met with nothing but smiles and kindness. Nobody ever seemed to be too busy to talk to me, or anybody else for that matter. It seemed that Milan was perpetually in a good mood, against all odds.
To look at my face, my Italian blood is pretty evident. At 6-4, I’m a bit above the average height for a full-blood Italian, but whatever shadows of doubt this might have cast on my nationality, my mustache (which I was still sporting from my time in India) quickly cleared up. People were constantly approaching me asking me questions in Italian. I was flattered, but when I opened my mouth to answer those questions, I usually said something like this:
Also, if you've never seen Master of Disguise, the Italian accent is absolutely hilarious! Of course I appreciate the fact that so many of them spoke English (myself on the other hand, I played the part of the typical American who didn’t speak the local language). The point is though that Italians are funny. The delivery of what they say is just so overdone, with hand motions, and emphasis put on words that you wouldn’t think should get emphasis. I enjoyed eavesdropping on their conversations even though I couldn’t understand them. Occasionally I had a friend with me who could translate, and I was not disappointed by what they were saying.
My personal favorites were the following:
An older man is sitting in the corner of a wine bar in with his much younger girlfriend. The man says something loudly to his girlfriend, and my friend laughs. The translation went something like this: "Yeah, your mom is ancient!"
A group of men were talking loudly in a pizza shop late at night. I asked what they were talking about, and my friend took a moment to listen to them. With a laugh, I was told that they were talking about how the women (hookers) in Bucharest (Romania) are cheap. On man recounted a conversation that he often repeats with his mother. In the conversation the mother always says, “Why do you always go to Bucharest?? THERE’S NOTHING THERE!!”
I thought those conversations were so funny for some reason. I picture this mother as my own overbearing Italian grandmother. “Mamma! Non rompere i coglioni!”
Milan doesn’t have many of them, which I sort of like. However, with so few of them to see, I had even less of an excuse not to see what few there were. Luckily, most of them are literally on top of each other, so they don’t take long to cross off the list.
Piazza del Duomo
It’s easy enough to find because it is has a stop of its own on every form of public transportation. The stop is called “Duomo.” Piazza del Duomo is the centerpiece of Milan. Here the buildings are the most elegant, the food is the most expensive, and the people are the most fashionable. Most of the the store fronts are expensive women's fashion retail outlets, but if you are willing to take the dive down one of the tiny alley-ways, there is a lot more in store for you. It's a beautiful area.
Duomo di Milano
Commonly referred to as simply “the Duomo” (or “that big church” if you’re me), this is perhaps the most iconic piece of architecture in Milan. The Duomo was originally built to replace Milan's original cathedral, which was completed in the year 355. When it burned down in 1075, plans for what is now know as the Duomo began. Construction on this behemoth of a church began in 1386, but it wasn't actually completed until 1965. What happened in between were a series of set-backs and changes in management that perpetuated this construction project for a whopping 579 years!
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
This is one of the world's oldest shopping malls, although to look at you'd guess it would be something less trivial. Construction was completed in 1877, and it's businesses consist of mostly restaurants, with a few hotels mixed in. It is literally spitting distance from Duomo di Milano, and is also a part of Piazza del Duomo.
Those attractions aside, I had a pretty good time just putting the headphones in and walking around. Outside of the Duomo area, Milan walks a fine line between gritty and beautiful. It is true that compared to the canals of Venice or the cobble stones of Florence, Milan looks rather dull, but I think that is an unfair comparison. Milan is real! If Milan was a girl, you might say she has a great personality. She's definitely not bad looking either though. I'd be down to chill and watch Netflix.
Teatro dal Verme
A long time ago, where Teatro dal Verme stands today, was the Milan circus. Although this part of Milan was mostly inhabited by the upper class, the audience of this circus was primarily composed of the city's lower socioeconomic classes. Finally, Count Fransesco dal Verme bought the circus and disbanded it. In its place he built this theater, and all the snobs lived happily ever after, with no peasants to bother them.
Lucky for me, my amazing hostess in Milan, Camilla, works for the parent company behind most of the arts in Milan, and was able to get me a free ticket to come see the symphony play here. I saw the Orchestra Accademia Teatro alla Scala play Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5 in C# minor. That night the principal conductor of the Metropolitan in New York City (the Met), Fabio Luisi, was a guest conductor. It's sort of a scary piece of music, but I had a good time listening, and I counted myself lucky to be there. Here are some pictures:
Teatro alla Scala
If La Scala isn't the best opera house in the world, it's solidly a member of the top 3. It's top 2 competitors for this superlative title are Palais Garnier in Paris (France), and the Royal Opera House in London (England). Among people who know about these things (I am not one of them), La Scala is often thought of as being the best of them.
Opened in 1778 after Milan's previous opera house burned down, Teatro alla Scala holds a unique place in the heart of Milan. Some would say that it symbolizes the spirit of the city even more so than The Duomo. It is nothing if not close to the hearts of Milan's citizens. When it was initially constructed, it was done so by virtue of the donations of private citizens. After it was destroyed by bombs in WWII, it was the first building to be rebuilt, and again, it was done so thanks to the donations of private citizens. It truly is the people's theater, although it's pretty hard to score tickets these days if you aren't willing to empty your bank account.
Again, thanks to my Italian sugar mama, I got free tickets to see the opera at La Scala. This is no small thing, since tickets normally go for a minimum of about 200 EUR (212.90 USD). I saw an opera called Falstaff, the last composition of Giuseppe Verdi. It was directed by Robert Carsen, and the famous Nicola Alaimo played the lead role of John Falstaff. The story line of this opera was adapted from Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor to take place in the 1950s. This struck me as an odd choice for an opera, but what do I know? Regardless, the music was beautiful, and the imagery was powerful.
This was my first time ever seeing an opera, and it did not disappoint. Opera is such an odd art form. It's like watching a movie where every line is sung, but there is no discernible song or melody. Luckily every seat is equipped with a small screen and a choice of Italian, English, or French subtitles. My English subtitles allowed me to follow the plot. Here are some pictures from the La Scala performance of Falstaff, taken by somebody else...
The theater itself is a marvel of acoustics - perfectly shaped for opera singing, though nothing short of complete garbage for any other type of music (apparently). As you can probably tell from my pictures below, it is shaped like a horseshoe. Every level has 4 rows of seats in it. I was sitting in one of the highest sections, in the back row: the equivalent of sitting in the nosebleeds in an American baseball stadium. It wasn't complaining though. I was rolling with a pretty elite crowd by sheer virtue of being in attendance.
I would definitely come back to Milan, but hopefully I'll have more money next time. I had been on the road for a long time as this point, so by the time I arrived I was a bit stretched, financially. Western Europe is a bad place to be on a budget, but I got a lot of things for free whilst I was there, including one last ticket...
Up next: World Expo 2015