Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Milan: Home of the world's most photogenic rooftop

Up until last month, the extent of my knowledge of Milan was that it's that place you have to go through, no matter your final destination, if are unfortunate enough to fly on Alitalia.  As I loathe both that horrid airline and its chaotic, every-man-for-himself hub airport, I never really gave any thought to the city burdened with these twin albatrosses (albatri?).

Therefore,when I found out that I would be visiting for a couple of days, I wasn't exactly disappointed- it is Italy, after all- but I was not exactly thrilled, either.  Granted, I was going via a different carrier and therefore was not going to be subjected to their national airline's DMV level of service, but the lingering resentment over my past Milan experiences, brief as they were, prevented me from doing my usual level of pre-trip planning.  I figured I would just show up and do what normal people refer to as "winging it."
This plan started off well enough.  After a short flight from Istanbul, I got into my hotel room at 6am, slept about 3 hours and with the general idea that I had to find the Duomo church, I set off with a very not-to-scale map in hand.

It was a Saturday morning and the city seemed lively, if perhaps a bit too awake for my taste. The stores were open, everyone was out and the gelatto salesmen were out if full force.  I was very excited about that last one.

After 30 minutes of what I was told was going to be a 15 minute walk, I was a bit concerned that I had made a wrong turn somewhere but seeing as I had found the sandwich salesman and his caprese deliciousness, I quickly got over it.   Then all of a sudden, I saw it.  The Duomo.  Milan's principal cathedral and one of the most spectacular pieces of gothic architecture I had ever seen.  I knew Milan had a famous church.  I imagined it was nice.  But nothing had prepared me for this.  I was completely and totally blown away.

I saw a group of people waiting in a line.  All the telltale signs screaming 'tourist' were there- the cameras, the guidebooks, the socks and sandals combo.  I had found my people and they obviously knew something I didn't so I joined the line.  After a while, I decided to inquire as to why exactly we were queued up on the side of the building.  Turns out all these people had bought tickets to take the elevator up to the rooftop.  The other door, the one with no line, that was the one for the stairs.  As much as I am a fan of modern conveniences, it was 11am and I was already a massive mozzarella/ tomato sandwich, an orangina and 2 gelattos into my day. Those stairs were calling my name.

I eventually found the office (it is on corner across from the back side of the church in case anyone is wondering) and purchased a pass giving me access to every bit of this place- via the stairmaster version 1.0, of course.

I can honestly say that the climb was worth each and every one of those 919 steps.  From the vantage point of the roof, you can appreciate all the fine details that are impossible to note from street level.  Each step you take brings with it a new angle and a brand new sense of wonder.  The experience had me oohing and aahing like a person watching a fireworks display for the first time.

After the fact, I finally did some research and learned that I was not alone in my reaction.  Mark Twain, after visiting this same rooftop said the following:

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.

Preach it, Marky Mark.

I spent what may be been an hour or 5 minutes (depending on whether I am going by feel or by an actual timepiece) up on the rooftop, admiring both the church and the city it graced, and could have stayed there longer, but I had friends to meet and from this elevated perspective, I was pretty sure I had spotted another gelatto stand.

Once I had met up with my friends, we entered the cathedral and once more found myself wonderfully surprised.  Along the sides of the church, were a number of very well dressed sarcophagi, belonging, we later learned, to a couple of bishops and a wealthy donor.

Not being prepared does have its disadvantages.  For example, did you know that this is not, if fact, Gandhi?  It is St. Bartolomeo and the reason he is looking more ripped than a P90x after photo is because he had the misfortune of being flayed alive.  That jaunty shawl around his shoulder is actually his own skin.  None of this is information we possessed at the time.

Also, not in our databank was the schedule for the world's most famous opera house, La Scala.  Fortunately, there were no operas being performed during our stay, since I would have most likely   not been able to get tickets at this late date and would have held this as yet another strike against Alitalia.

We were, however, able to tour the museum and get a peek into the actual theater, which is just as majestic as I imagined it would be.   I'm guessing I was not the only one in the room daydreaming about what it would be like to actually experience a performance there.

More within our reach was a stroll through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, where we all took turns spinning on the bull's balls.

I am sure there is a very rational explanation why this is considered good luck, but even after the fact, this is not something I intend to google.

Probably the most disappointing result of our lack of preparation came at the Santa Maria della Grazie ticket office.  This somewhat nondescript church has a pretty interesting mural adorning its refectory.  It is Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper.  Apparently, due to increased interest because of the pop fiction book, The DaVinci Code- no, for real!-  it is wholly impossible to just walk up and get a ticket.  You either have to book way in advance or pay exorbitant fees to join a tour.  And it was too late in the day even to jump on that plan b.

So, we missed out on a pretty iconic painting.  But, on our way back, we came face to face again with the Duomo, now wearing its evening face.  And once again, all was right with the world.

I still despise Alitalia.  I still think the Milan airport is good only for training in hand to hand combat and/ or rugby scrimmages but the city itself (and particularly this architectural jewel) has won me over 100%.  Next time, I will be much better prepared.  I will have tickets to the opera, passes for the painting and a map detailing the location of all the gelatto stands in town, as I fear that a couple of them may have gotten away from me.

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