Towns / Cities Visited: 143
Countries Visited: 25
Steps Taken Today: 16,730
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,735,034
The dawn came far too quickly for our liking after our ten-hour travel ordeal. With great effort we dragged our sleep deprived selves from our warm beds determined to give Milan a chance to redeem itself. Although we lacked the usual pep in our step, we emerged into the mid-morning sun and wandered to the nearby underground station to make our way into the heart of this famed Northern Italian city. In keeping with the struggle that is public transport in this country, it was yet another hassle to find a ticket machine that was working and would accept some form of payment, but we managed to overcome once again.
Whisked away, we soon emerged to the sight of Milan’s most noteworthy building, the Duomo di Milano. Despite its spectacular appearance, ogling it properly would have to wait, as it was not our first destination. Wandering through the streets we made our way to a small square flanked by two churches, one of which we were here to visit, San Bernardino. Now, despite the cute little chapel within, we were here it visit the ossuary. At the beginning of the 13th century the adjacent cemetery was running out of space, so, in order to fix the problem, a room was built to house the excess bones. Around 60 years later a church was attached, renovated in the 17th century, and in the 18th century, after it was destroyed by a fire, it was rebuilt and enlarged due to the increased popularity of said ossuary. Although it is quite a small room in regard to floor space, it has a soaringly high vaulted ceiling brightened by its windows and donned with a heavenly fresco. The ceiling may be full of life and light, but as your eyes drift back down the walls you are met by nothing but death. They are covered in the skulls and bones of those who passed on more than 800 years ago. Much like the bone church we visited in Czechia, the remains are displayed artistically, and even though they are, in places, set into the shape of crucifixes, the vibe is far more ominous. Standing quietly in the solemn surroundings, being watched over by the empty eye sockets of hundreds, I took a moment to pay my respects to those who now rest here.
With our visit to the dead complete, it was finally time to make our way to the home of claimed eternal life, the Duomo. Now, to enter this towering beauty, you must first visit the nearby ticket office and select one of the many packages they offer. Being that this was one of our main attractions for Milan, we decided to go the whole slog and gain admission for the very depths of its crypt, to the sweeping views of its rooftop. The office was teeming with tourists, all bustling to get in line for the comparatively few desks, but after looking around, we realised that you were also able to buy tickets at automated machines, and thus we made a quick dash over, grabbed our tickets, and scurried out before claustrophobia set in.
Wandering to the large square that lays before the church, we took some time to really bask in the Gothic facade of this wonder which took almost six centuries to complete. Construction first began in 1386, but the final details were not added until 1965, and with this in mind, it is not surprising to learn that Milan’s famed cathedral is the second largest church in Europe, only shrinking in the shadow of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, and is fourth largest in the world. If anything, its handy that the forecourt is so expansive, otherwise fitting the entirety of the building in your field of vision would honestly be a challenge. Milan’s history stretches far further back than the church though, and was, like so many cities across Europe, once home to a Roman settlement, the one here named Mediolanum. The layout of the modern city’s streets reflect much of the original Roman blueprint, with the Duomo sitting pride of place in the centre where the Roman’s basilica once resided, the remains of which can be visited beneath. Despite how long it took for its construction to come to fruition, the facade has a surprisingly coherent style, which is a feat in and of itself given the ever-changing list of architects and engineers who worked on it over the centuries. Even the marble facing atop the brick underwork appears seamless, and for whatever flaws it might have, the impressive detailing of the church’s exterior makes up for it tenfold.
Excited to get on with it, and figuring we’d work our way from the top down, we made our way over to the entrance which grants access to the roof. As per usual, the inherent laziness of mankind meant that the line for the lift was ludicrously long; however, we had opted for the cheaper ticket as the cost of, shock horror, actually having to use our legs. Once again, we found ourselves hoisting our way up and up through the internal workings of the church, and being spat out, not on some dome-side viewing terrace like most churches, but onto the very roof itself. Breathtaking does not even begin to explain the experience of wandering freely betwixt the flying buttresses topped with endless meticulous stone filigree, and the countless spires decorated with the likenesses of many a saint. Even the mundane guttering system ends in detailed gargoyle spouts to deliver excess rainwater to the streets through the mouths of beasts both eerie but enchanting. Something about this marble jungle brought to mind the twilight battle on the rooftop in Beauty and the Beast, and I can only imagine if I were here after dusk a part of me would be on my guard for supposed statues set to pounce forth from the shadows. I could have spent hours admiring the craftmanship of each delicate curve, or simply basking in the view down over the mosaic stonework of the square below, who’s beauty can only truly be appreciated from a height, but alas we had a schedule to keep, so I tore myself away.
The hidden benefit of paying to see the roof, is that you can skip the dense cues to visit the interior, and simply follow the internal stairs down straight into the cathedral. Whereas the exteriors restoration work has stripped it of many of its signs of ageing, the longevity of this place can be felt more acutely once you step into the nave. As per usual my eyes scanned straight up to the stoic vaulting overhead, where the stonework shows the marks of age most severely; however, as my eyes moved down over the saint adorned pillars, and past the series of stunning biblical canvases depicting the life of Saint Charles Borromeo, hung not on the walls but almost curtain-esque between the aforementioned pillars, I found myself amongst the hundreds of others gawking at an interior which proved that some things do get better with age.
It may not be the lightest or airiest space, but there is an endearing romance to the prismatic light creeping through the stained glass to illuminate the mosaic flagstones and vacant pews. The addition of artificial light, although somewhat necessary, is also somewhat distracting, but given that the majority of it is mounted high up, it does not distract too much from the sights at eye level.
We skipped over the usual churchy accoutrements, even the more noteworthy ones, like an apparent nail from the crucifixion which is marked by a red light in the dome above the apse, which leaves the sceptics like me wondering how many nails were in that thing given how many places claim to have one. Instead, we gravitated towards some of the more unusual additions. Most of the statues here are pretty run of the mill, but one stands out, especially to those with a love for anything mildly gory, the statue of Saint Bartholemew Flayed. This hauntingly intricate piece depicts the saint standing all muscles and sinew as his flayed skin hangs limply over his shoulders and strategically across his manhood like some sadistic stole. I may not buy into the idea of religion, but I have to give them kudos for their dedication to confrontational art. If lifeless stone gore doesn’t give you your fill, off in the wings sits the remains of two late archbishops whose desiccated visage is covered by full ecclesiastical garb and silver death masks to retain their more aesthetic appearance.
When the ground level was thoroughly viewed, we followed the stream of people making the journey into the crypt below. You see, the archbishops above are not the only posthumous drawcard here, as in the depths of the church sits the remains of Saint Charles Borromeo, the former archbishop of Milan who was later canonised. They lay, similarly desiccated, in a rather impressive rock crystal sarcophagus, within an overly embellished room you can circle around and view from up close through a few windows. Unlike the other archbishops on display, you can actually catch a glimpse of the saint’s blackened skull; macabre proof that he did, in fact, once walk amongst us. Other than the saint, the majority of the underground space is dedicated to showcasing the Roman ruins, from crumbling brickwork and patchwork mosaic floors, to dilapidated stone tombs: historic sites buried neatly below historic sights seems to be Europe’s MO.
There is only so much of your day you can dedicate to heavenly endeavours, and thus we returned to the street to try and source a quick meal before our other attraction, Castello Sforzesco. Heading down the street which links the Duomo to the Castello, we sat down at a place offering a reasonably priced chicken Milanese, a local classic I was hoping to fit in. As they say, hindsight is 20/20, and after digging into a piece of crumbed chicken which looked to have been deep fried instead of pan fried as tradition would dictate, and soggy in a way that only things sitting in hot holding can be, coupled with lukewarm potatoes, a salad which consisted of undressed mache lettuce and a few sorry looking cherry tomatoes, and garnished with a lemon wedge which appeared to have been cut by a blind person sometime last week, we really should have known better and hunted down some side streets to get away from the convenience of tourist traps. To add insult to injury, my partner and I both ordered a Coca-cola with our meals which both were undoubtably post mix crammed with far too much ice and cost nine euros each (around AU$15 each). At a certain point you have to laugh lest you be overwhelmed with rage at the price gouging of people who care more about profit than patrons, and thus from this day forth we measured almost every expensive item we purchased by how many Milanese cokes it would cost.
Annoyed, we walked down the picturesque thoroughfare which had somehow lost its shine by this point, until we reached Castello Sforzesco. This enormous 15th century brick castle was erected by Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan at the time, and was, after later being enlarged, one of the largest citadels in Europe during the following two centuries. It was largely rebuilt in the late 19th and early 20th century, and now houses the city’s museums and art collection within its vast interior. Its exterior still boasts the charm of historic fortifications, with corner towers, roofed battlements, and a dry moat which now seems home to a number of Milan’s stray cat population atop discarded stone cannonballs (cute but weirdly menacing). The inner courtyards are impressive, if a little bland, and thus we did not linger in them long before ducking inside to buy a ticket to the large collection and wandering off to explore.
The museums housed here are a quite a rag tag bunch at times, including: the Musical Instrument Museum, with its fascinating old, and at times peculiar, instruments; the Museum of Ancient Art, with, surprise surprise, a large collection of ancient art; an art gallery which houses an original Da Vinci painting on the back of which you can see his name written, as well as an unfinished sculpture Michaelangelo was working on at the time of his death; and even the Antique Furniture and Wooden Sculpture Museum, with a few stunning pieces to remind you they really don’t make beautiful furniture like that anymore.
Considering all of the captivating objects here, it was an uncommon sight, housed in the Museum of Applied Arts, which captured my attention far more than any others, the Devil Automaton. This 16th century, carved wood, mechanical demon was made by taking the torso of another piece of art, ironically possibly of a statue of Christ, and adding a clockwork mechanism to it which controlled the attached devils head. When the crank handle was turned it would move its head and eyes, poke out its tongue, and make a rather unsettling yet inarticulate sound. Although you can not see it in action due to its age and delicate nature, they do show a video on repeat just off to the side. It is recorded that there was once horns and a collar which were part of it, but they have since been lost to the annals of time. There is something about automatons that has always fascinated me; pehaps it is the complexities of their inner workings; or maybe the masterful skill needed to make them, especially those which are able to write or paint; or perhaps it is simply seeing the intermediary between ancient puppeteering and modern robotics. Whatever the reason, I stood and watched that video through at least five times before we left.
Dusk was falling as we ventured back out onto the streets and made the return journey to our Airbnb, stopping to buy a local sim card to facilitate the next stage of our journey the following day, before I whipped us up a meal, then settled in to enjoy the rare luxury of staying somewhere with a bath. The steaming lobster pot of water I’d immersed myself in soothed my travel-weary soul, but as it did, my mind felt it necessary to ponder the annoyance of tourist trap culture in heavily frequented cities. As someone who has rooted their career within the hospitality industry, it always irks me beyond measure each time we find ourselves faced with a disappointing experience at a restaurant. I despise the mindset of businesses which cater to tourists who, due to the fact they do not rely on repeat patronage, care little for customer satisfaction, and far more about how much money they can drain from their wallets. I wish, just for once, they would consider the damage they are doing to their own cities. When you disregard the experience of tourists in your hometown, either through distaste for their presence or lack of care about their opinion, you irreparably damage the reputation of not only your establishment and your industry, but also the very place itself. In such a globalised world, where more people than ever can afford to travel and online reviews offer information and recommendation to millions simultaneously, tourists are fast becoming their own species of repeat customer. The single experience you ruin with your profiteering not only ensures that thatone person will not return, it results in countless others not trying you at all. In a restaurant, you should be selling food you can be proud of at all times to all people, if you lack the drive or ability to do so, you should not be selling food at all.
Its right there in the name, hospitality required the act of being hospitible, and in an industry where reputation is everything, flagrantly disregarding this is the ultimate sin. People travel to make memories, and those memories travel far and wide with the people who make them. When they tell the story of their adventures, they will recommend places to go and places to avoid, and these kinds of experiences become the addendum; they become the ‘but’ in the answer to the question ‘Did you like (insert place name here)?’ and, more importantly, to question ‘Would you go back?’. So would I go back to Milan? Its a no from me.