Friday, January 9, 2009

Milano: City of Santa

The flight to Milan was largely uneventful despite being delayed for half an hour due to the fact that most people boarding the plane considered anything smaller than a family sedan hand luggage. This required much fussing about by a very patient cabin crew and a bunch of perplexed passengers while the equivalent of the entire stock of a large clothing store was placed in the baggage hold, where it should have been in the first place.

We arrived in Milan just as the sun set and the rain started. Snuffling and grumpy from the early stages of the colds we picked up in England (the only thing we could afford), we caught a bus to Milan Central and got lost from there. We dragged our bags around most of the city becoming increasingly snarky with one another. My wonderful Nokia ‘Navigator’ proved about as useful as a house brick with 'North' written on it. Finally we purchased a map. Milan has hundreds of tiny little streets with their names in correspondingly small type but despite the darkness, the rain and incipient fever we did a 180 degree turn and eventually found our hotel.

I will take a few moments here to rant about modern technology. My Nokia ‘Navigator’ has a couple of problems. The first is that in order for it to lead you anywhere it needs a GPS fix on your present position and the name of your desired destination. This is only logical and not a problem in itself. However, the Navigator can only find a positioning satellite in fine conditions. In overcast weather or in a city surrounded by buildings, it can’t. It works best if you fly to America, take the phone to NASA and introduce it to a satellite on the launch platform. In fact the only times it successfully managed to find my GPS coordinates were on fine sunny days. Once in our backyard in Melbourne and the other on a clearly marked main street in Milan. I should not need to say that on both occasions I already knew precisely where I was.

The second problem occurs when using the maps and might relate only to Italy. By the time you write in the incredibly long street names that the Italians are so fond of, the battery is flat. And last but not least, the bloody thing doesn’t work overseas. When I purchased it I asked that it be set up for ‘Global roaming’ and explained that was also why I wanted the GPS software etc. It has not been able to find a network anywhere. I have been tempted to take it to a Nokia shop and get it fixed but I would be too tempted to shove it down the throat of the poor innocent behind the counter. I am going to save that joy for the guy who sold it to me back in Melbourne.

Anyway back to the story. We had planned to spend a couple of days in Milan and then go on to Venice. As it happened unseasonable rains and a super high tide caused by the Moon being closer to the Earth than at any other time in living memory meant the place was flooded. ‘Aqua Alte’ the Venetians call it. The city was rendered unviable unless you are a creature of the aquatic persuasion like a sea monkey or a flounder. We decided to stay in Milan until Christmas. The Milanese kindly decided to provide us with a taste of Venice by having days of torrential rain that turned the streets into wide, treacherously cobbled rivers. Undeterred we braved the elements and turned our colds into pseudo-pneumonia.

Milan is a mostly beautiful city. Well, the older inner bits are. The city layout is like a spider’s web – that is the web of a spider suffering severe mental problems. It is dotted with parks and plazas with streets radiating out from them – sort of. I should have been warned when I noticed the cover of the map I purchased was emblazoned with a maze. The most common residential structures are three or four storey apartment blocks that surround an inner courtyard. Access is gained via huge arched portals large enough to drive a double-decker bus through. These portals normally have impressive double doors made of wood and embellished in some way. Each also has a sign saying ‘Passo carrabile’ which most people interpret as ‘No parking in the doorway’. About a third of the population interprets it as ‘Ignore this sign’.

Almost all the buildings have some kind of decoration such as frescoes, patterns or sculptural features. We found a block of flats embellished with crayfish and a church with a statue of Margaret Thatcher (at least, Shiralee swears it is). These decorative details range from the authentic now mostly weathered into stubs of marble sculptural doodads, to the painstakingly repaired, to cheap knock-offs that look as though Michelangelo drank cement and vomited on them. I shouldn’t sneer. Authenticity is not really relevant as many of the buildings have been renovated or repaired over the centuries. Also many Italian cities were rather recklessly bombed during WWII and where possible historically important buildings have been carefully reconstructed. Anyway there are some dab hands at stone carving among the population.
Many of the public buildings are huge sleek Deco-classical-modernist things of grey stone or marble. They all seem to date from the 1930s so we dubbed the style Mussolini Modern. These building tend to be banks, burses, union halls and polytechnics with the internal volume of aircraft carriers. They often feature naked women bearing the symbols of fertility and plenty, and muscular men doing manly things in a very dynamic way. I don’t now who Il Duce’s architect was but he was way better than that other fascist hack Albert Speer.

The best example of Mussolini modern is Milan Centrale train station. It is a wonder. It’s not just a train station, it is a pantheon to public transport. Huge, solid and grey, it squats over a couple of acres with noble figures of men and beasts reclining on the outside while inside stalwart, sharply chiseled workers toil to stop themselves falling from the walls and killing the throngs of travelers below. Its interior spaces are vast, with ceilings so tall I reckon they intended to park Zeppelins in there.
However, despite all this chunky, egalitarian, fascist, modern hugeness nothing can prepare you for the Duomo. I first saw it on leaving the Victor Emmanuel II building – itself an extraordinary thing. The VEII is a gargantuan Victorian shopping arcade with an iron and glass arched ceiling that floats some three stories above you. I think it was intended to be a train station but some megalomaniac decided it was too small and shabby, and went on to build Milan Centrale. The VEII is overly ornate and now houses big name fashion stores, over-priced restaurants and a McDonalds – a temple to bad taste.

Anyway, on leaving VEII I looked up and saw the Duomo. I gave a very unmanly squeak of fright and jumped backwards into an ankle deep puddle. The Duomo is neither good taste nor bad taste. It is beyond taste. A staggering pile of ivory coloured stone it looks as though it is made from the teeth of gods – a good many of whom smoked. Buttresses, flying buttresses, and stupid, little, pointless buttresses arch up supporting a population explosion of saints, a vast menagerie of creatures, and, frankly, a few too many spires – all in the two-tone stone like a bizarre test for colour-blindness. It was being cleaned while we were there and they had painted the scaffolding to match the stonework. You have just got to love a people with such an eye for detail.
The interior is equally vast and surprisingly dark. Having become used to English cathedrals and Turkish mosques I was not quite prepared for the riot of decoration Italians seem to love in their religious architecture. I thought it was the most over-the-top thing I had seen outside the Dolmanche palace (Istanbul) until a visit to Bergamo disabused me of that notion. WARNING: Do not take acid before entering an Italian church.

The best way to get about Milan is the Metro. The trains tend to be a bit crowded, aren’t very much to look at, and can be a bit grubby on the outside – I touched one and it took a day for the grey smear to disappear from my hand. But they are punctual and frequent. The longest we had to wait was six and a half minutes. Mind you on the day we left they were renovating our local station and had neglected to place any signage suggesting this or advising alternate routes but with the help of a kindly local we got to where we wanted to be on time. While the trains are efficient, getting out of the Metro stations can be a bit of a trial. Our local station had about seventeen exits which meant that for the first couple of days we would disembark from the train, ascend escalators, walk along tunnels, climb up stairs, and arrive somewhere we didn’t recognize. However, you do eventually get the hang of it. We wound up using Xmas decorations, silly restaurant names and a parking sign as landmarks.

We used the Metro to visit far too many churches and a bunch of other places of which three stand out. First the Natural History Museum. This is great. Downstairs it has some very good and up-to-date galleries where children can learn about fossils and evolution and so forth while being glowered at by the busts of eminent scholars who look as though they wish the children were elsewhere. Upstairs they have dozens of vast dioramas of nature red in tooth and claw. It is an excellent place to spend a couple of hours particularly if you like you culture with a small ‘c’.

Secondly, is a huge palace that belonged to a clan whose name was something like Scrofula. It is the MacMansion of renaissance palaces and now functions as an Historical Museum (or 5). The bit we saw is jam-packed with medieval and renaissance paintings and sculpture. There are more St Sebastians than you could throw an arrow at, and enough St Georges to explain why dragons are extinct. After traipsing through about eight miles of the stuff we had seen less than half the collection. You get to a point where you think “Not another bloody Madonna and Child”. But they do have some beautiful portraits and fascinating items. Definitely worth a look but wear your most comfortable shoes.

Last but by no means least is the Monumental Cemetery. I was happy to visit this because I thought it was a place where they buried public art. It’s better than that. It is a suburb inhabited by the dead. An enormous church like structure surrounds it on three sides bearing a bunch of lachrymose sculptures. Within it are hallway after hallway of ossuaries or niches for ashes many of which are engraved with or bear a photographic image of the deceased, bizarrely enough watched over by a statue of a gladiator.

The grounds are full of mausoleums ranging in style from the baroque to the piercingly modern and all of which could happily house a family of four. Some even had altars in them. Now my Catholicism lapsed quite some time ago and I have never been tempted to renew my membership but even I thought this is a step too far. Even the Roman Catholic church with all its saint and martyrs must draw the line at ancestor worship.

The smaller graves ie: those of the dead who are happy enough to wile away eternity at ground level or below. are a riot of sculpture. These sculptures range from the poignant to the frankly perverse. For example there is one of a battle/ballet between a naked pilot (he IS wearing his helmet) and the head of Medusa and somehow involving a propeller. You have to see this place to believe it.
Our visit to Milan coincided with Xmas which meant that we had a couple of days to wander about when everything was closed. During these wanderings we played a little game called spot the stupidest name for a motorbike. There are thousands of little Vespa-like machines in the city and each appears to have it own brand name. We saw the Scarabeo, the Xciting, the Vivacity, the Dink, the People, the Majesty, the Liberty, the Burgman, and the Dylan. But I won by spotting, I kid you not, the Slurp.

It being Xmas and the locals being Italian the city was draped beyond reason in festive symbols. The large public ones were fairly tasteful but it seems everybody had been instructed to decorate their flats with little inflatable Santas that hung from windowsills and balcony railings. The place looked as though it had been invaded by a horde of red-suited midget housebreakers.

No description of Milan would be complete without mentioning the Milanese themselves. When you first arrive the city seems to be inhabited by super-models. Then you realize that only one third of the population look like super models but two thirds dress like fashion plates. The other third just fail to register on your consciousness. Nobody but tourists and the poor dress badly in Milan. I think acne may be a criminal offence. On our first night our host read a police report warning that a tourist was stealing from hotels. The description read “An American with the face of an angel…” No height, weight, race or gender. Mind you a strange thing happens to Milanese women as they age. Once they reach about fifty they start wearing fur coats, and as they grow older their coats get furrier and furrier, and their hair starts to match their coats. Whereas the men just get smaller and wrinklier like dried apples.

If you visit Milan you must stay at the Hotel Trentina. The people that run it are lovely. Paola, the manager, was wonderfully helpful to us - assisting us in finding a place to stay for our trip to Venice and giving advice on transport and so forth. She is energetic, sympathetic and fun to be around. I think she liked us because we would play with her dog Jacco a brown, flop eared bundle of exuberance.

Paola’s mum was somewhat quieter. She would make endless cups of coffee, smoke cigarettes and roll her eyes at the antics of her daughter.

Luka, the brother who does the day shift, gave us some very interesting insights to Italian culture. Shiralee was able to help him with his website that covers such things as revisionist history, UFOs and the Kennedy assassination. He was happy to ply us with drinks, order in pizza, and slag off Southern Italians.

We also met Mark, a Kosovan engineer who was working on an alternative to Google Docs. We all got on famously. Mind you it was a bit embarrassing when Luca and Mark discussed Latin grammar in English for the benefit of us benighted monolingual Australians. (JB)

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