And finally, the 1st bat of the year

And finally, the 1st bat of the year

This year spring has been a long time coming, but finally we have spotted the first bat of 2018!

It was probably Pipistrellus pipistrellus or Pipistrellus pygmaeus (based on previous identifications). It is way later than last year, which was on the 5th April, and other have been even earlier, 26th March 2012 and 30th March 2009.

It is great to have such opportunities to see wild life, such as bats, in the centre of a city which one of the reasons I do so enjoy living in Edinburgh.

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From Montecatini to the Marsh Land of Fucecchio (MTB tour day two)

From Montecatini to the Marsh Land of Fucecchio (MTB tour day two)

For the second day of our MTB tour (day one here) we were heading out from Montecatini into the Marsh Land of Fucecchio or the Padule di Fucecchio, known since ancient times as “an insalubrious and dangerous area”. These days the Fucecchio Marshes cover an area of about 1,800 hectares, however these ancient lake-marshes were considerably larger in the past and once covered most of the southern Valdinievole. In 217 BC, Hannibal took four days and three nights to cross these marshes, loosing along the way most of his elephants (well the ones that had survived crossing the Alps), a large chunk of his army and an eye (due to an infection). Or at least that is the story Livy tells us in his History of Rome.

By the Middle Ages there was increasing interest in draining the marshes, with the great Leonardo da Vinci studying their hydrology and the Medici and Lorena families putting up the money and then taking the profits from the system of grand-ducal farms which were created. However, even after all the changes over the last few centuries, the charm of these wetlands remains intact today. The traditional way to get about the Padule was by barchino (a form of punt) or navicello (a flat-bottomed sailboat). These days, as a result of the drainage, the marshes are criss-crossed with strade bianche (gravel roads), and so the mountain bikes make an ideal way to see some of the area in a shorter time than it took Hannibal.

Our day started by threading our way out of Montecatini Terme (where we were staying at the Hotel Arnolfo) through the rush hour traffic. Once again I was surprised by the patience and tolerance of Italian drivers, only once on a roundabout did we get tooted at by a driver who also made a rude gesture which I had only previously seen on TV Inspector Montalbano on BBC 4.

Leaving the town behind, we were guided along the bank of a canalised river, which I had expected to lead us into the Padule proper, but to my surprise we then turned back on to the road again. Taking a right turn into what at first looked like a side road, there was a barrier to keep out motor vehicles and a ribbon of super-smooth tarmac appeared beyond. Once we rode onto it, we realised that this was a bike racing circuit. Riding round, our mountain bikes felt a little like riding Hannibal’s elephants especially when overtaken by a light cavalry charge of kids from a local cycling club on road bikes.

Road circuit

Riders on the road circuit

Realising that I am getting too old to lead the chase, I sat up and decided to ride the rest of the circuit hands free, which was great fun, especial on the hairpin bends. Play time over, it was back to the strade bianche and exploring the marshes, which are rich with wild life. Today the Padule are a strange mix of reed beds, maize and tobacco crops, and plantations of poplar and alder trees. Our local bike guide, Massimo, told us how during the winter these plantations would flood and how he liked to to kayaking between the trees.

Trees in the Marsh Land of Fucecchio

The area is popular with both bird watchers and hunters, it is not uncommon to see spent shotgun cartilages lining the side of the tracks. Of the 1,800 hectares of the Padule di Fucecchio only about 230 hectares are protected nature reserve, and the first people we were to meet were a couple of hunters and a wildlife photographer at Casin del Lillo. The hunters were very hospitable and had set up a gazebo with a table of refreshments for us. Well it was the right time for a mid morning snack, and just the three bottles of wine. Casin del Lillo is one of the many “ports” of the Padule, where the hunters set out on their barchino to stalk game, or just take tourists on sightseeing trips. We were taken out in groups of four for a short taster ride in a barchino, while the others tasted the local specialities which had been laid on for us.

Refreshments at Casin del Lillo

Barchino taster ride

Seeing the drainage canals close up, you really get an idea of the level of eutrophication from the local agriculture. This isn’t the only environmental problem the Padule suffer from. There are also invasive species such as the red swamp crayfish (Procambarus clarkii) which are undermining the dykes which contain the drainage ditches. Now you might think that the solution to the crayfish problem would be to trap and eat them, but this would be ill advised as the crayfish are subject to heavy uptake of lead from the lead shot used by the hunters. Not that we let any of this spoil out visit, of course.

The next stop on our itinerary was a nature reserve, established by the Provincial Administration of Pistoia (207 hectares) and Florence (25 hectares). The area we were to visit is the oldest protected area in the marshes, which is managed by the Centro di Ricerca, Documentazione e Promozione del Padule di Fucecchio (the Centre for Research, Documentation and Promotion of the Fucecchio Marshes).

Along the way I had been hearing the calls of a bird of prey which I hadn’t manage to spot and wasn’t sure what it was. So I was pleased when our guide from the research centre pointed to a couple of birds zooming overhead and told us that they were a family of Lodolaio with the adults teaching the young how to hunt. There was just one problem, what were Lodolaio? He dug out his field guide to show us a picture and gave us the scientific name Falco subbuteo, now at one time this would have meant people looking at the picture to find out what they were, but not now. There was a flurry of phones pulled from pockets, a quick Google search, and we knew that they were called Lodolaio in Italian, Hobby in English, Baumfalke in German, and Boomvalk in Flemish.

We were then taken to a bird watchign hide overlooking part of the restored marsh. There were a wide range of water fowl to be seen, but the highlight for all of us was a Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia, or Spatola, Löffler, or Lepelaar, as you please). I was cursing not having brought my camera with the big lens, having left in the car with the film crew who had been following us around. Then I noticed that Ulli was trying to take a photo through the eye piece of the spotting scope which our guide had brought, so I decided to try the same with my phone camera. The (cropped) image below is the result of a OnePlus 3T phone camera taken via a Swarovski lens, which I am rather pleased with.

photo of Spoonbill

The nature break over, we headed off for lunch, according to the itinerary this was to be a light lunch. At one point I stopped to take a photo, as nothing quite says “cycle touring in Tuscany” as well as a picture of a far off hilltop village and the sight of your companions dispersing into the distance at the prospect of a “light lunch”. The chosen place for lunch was the Grotta Giusti Spa, and let’s just say the food was not the highlight of this stop.

The highlight of our visit was the thermal caves, apparently the largest in Europe, where you can “enjoy the detoxifying steam”. These caves have had an illustrious stream of visitor over the years: Giuseppe Verdi called them the eighth wonder of the world, Garibaldi came and had his photo taken. However, sadly, there is no record of Hannibal (or his elephants) ever having visited. The caves are divided into three distinct areas called Heaven, Purgatory and Hell. The other curiosity of these caves is that the stalactites have a strangely cauliflorous appearance with bobbles all over their surfaces.

Grotta Giusti

Before entering the caves you have to put on special robes, which make the wearers look rather like Benedictine monks as they shuffle into the caves. When reaching the area known as Purgatory, the path divides into two, with most people turning left and going straight to Hell. It turns out that Hell is a broad low ceilinged cavern with people sitting around in deckchairs, in 36°C heat with near 100% humidity. No wailing and gnashing of teeth here, just signs saying “Il silenzio aiuta il relax, Silence helps relaxation”. On leaving Hell, after a restful doze, I decided to pass through Purgatory and visit Heaven, which turned out to be a smaller cavern with a small pool of water. The temperature in this section is a constant 28°C, which did feel blissfully cool after a period in Hell, although the place was strangely empty. It was not somewhere people seemed to linger, unlike Inferno.

After leaving the caves and returning to the surface, we spent some time hanging out at the spa’s outdoor swimming pool before heading off on the bikes once more. The final stop on our itinerary was the Terme Tettuccio spa at the heart of Montecatini town. Getting there did require riding through the heavily congested traffic, which makes me wonder why they don’t put in some proper cycle infrastructure and reduce the level of congestion? After all if places like Ferrara and Bolzano can do it, why not in towns in Tuscany? Hey, even Milan manages better than this.

Thankfully, as I have said before, Italians seem to be very tolerant of cyclists and we did finally make it to the Terme Tettuccio, a place which in many ways defines the town. The thermal springs were a site for votive offerings in Roman time, although the Romans were noted for making such offerings at water courses generally. The first written evidence of the use of thermal baths dates back to 1201 AD when a merchant from Prato, Francesco Datini, wrote to his doctor to ask about the waters. However, the spa really took off around 1400 AD when another doctor, Ugolino Simoni da Montecatini, wrote a treatise on the therapeutic use of the waters by the local peasants.

The spa as we know it today is as a result of work started by Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo of Lorena, who initiated the construction of the Bagno Regio (1773), Leopoldine Baths (1779) and Tattoo (1779), which form the core of the modern Spa town. The current Art Nouveau buildings date from 1928 when water from four thermal springs were all piped into one place for the serious purpose of parting the rich worried well from their money.

The four springs that feed the spa are given different names: Leopoldina, Regina, Tettuccio and Refreshment. Each contains a range of mineral salts which give them a characteristic salty flavour, all the waters are diuretic, but have no fear of being caught short: there are 1000 toilets arranged over two floors, ground floor for the Ladies and first floor for the Gentlemen. I kid you not! However, to give Terme Tettuccio its due, the place is stunning, the floors, the walls, the ceilings, just art everywhere.

Terme di Montecatini

Taps and frescos

Escher floor

Building at Terme Tettuccio

But where’s the cycling angle? I hear you ask. Well, apparently the great Eddy Merckx tried the waters here, before winning the Giro d’Italia five times. I think that is good enough.

 


Thanks to the lovely people at Italia Slow Tour for organising this trip and to our local bike guides Massimo and Graziano of Bike Experience Tuscany for showing us around. If you would like to follow our route it is here:

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Tuscany calling, an MTB tour (day one)

Tuscany calling, an MTB tour (day one)

When arriving in a new place, there is often a moment of disconnection when you see something you think is familiar and then find it is not. For me, one such moment came as we circled waiting to land at Pisa, looking out of the window at a forest canopy below, there were bulbous, lollipop shaped tree tops sitting above the canopy, looking like broadleaf but with the colour of pines. These were maritime pines (Pinus pinaster), native of the western Mediterranean, and a reminder that it had been a long time since I last visited the Mediterranean.

When you mention Pisa, most people’s first thoughts are of social media images of tourists pretending to prop up/push over a medieval stone tower, thereby (mostly) subconsciously celebrating one of the great inventions of the Italian Renaissance, the use of perspective in art.

In some way this can be seen as part of the modern pattern of fast tourism, rather like fast food: turn up, Instagram the experience and hop back on the bus to the next iconic site without appreciation of the space in-between or time for refection. However, we weren’t here for quick-snap tourism, but as guests of Italia Slow Tour to explore the Valdinievole area, in the heart of Tuscany, by mountain bike. There were seven of us, Dries and Nele from Belgium, Bastian and Natalie from Germany, Mara from Milan, plus Ulli and me, with our local bike guides Massimo and Graziano of Bike Experience Tuscany (Oh and we were also followed round by small film crew).

Our first day out started with a short ride from the hotel to the station, learning to ride The Italian Way. Apparently in Italy it is perfectly acceptable to cycle the opposite way up a one way street, certainly we got no hassle from motorists coming the other way, as we all agreed would have happened at home. Similarly to my Slow Tour trip to Milan last year I was surprised how tolerant Italian drivers are of cyclists generally. All 9 of us took a train to the nearby town of Pescia. Here again it was interesting to contrast with the situation at home in the UK, where the rail companies are trying to keep bikes off trains, here (as with other parts of mainland Europe) getting the whole group with all nine bikes onto a train is not an issue, which makes cycle tourism much easier.

The town of Pescia was once famous for silk production, but now more so for its flower market. However, in September the carnations are out of season, and as we cycled out of the town along high river banks, we looked down on rows of empty polytunnels, and nurseries with rows of trees in pots destined to be planted out in parks and gardens across Europe. The riding was easy under a bright blue sky, those of us from the more northern latitudes, the Belgians and the Scots enjoying the unaccustomed warmth. However, those from southern Germany and Italy, like the polytunnels, were preparing for winter.

After waving to the film crew on the far bank and crossing a bridge, we headed away from the river towards Montecarlo. No, not THAT Monte Carlo, this one is a Medieval Borgo, the term Borgo has the same roots as borough in English or Burg in German, meaning that it was a self governing settlement. The name Montecarlo actually just means Charles’ Mountain. The Charles in this case was the elected King of Bohemia (1347) who also owned a wee place called Luxembourg and went on to become King of the Romans (1349), King of Italy (1349) and King of Burgundy in 1365, which made him the the ruler of all the kingdoms of the Holy Roman Empire. Yes, he was also the Holy Roman Emperor… Keep up at the back there!

Now as the name suggests, Montecarlo is on top of a hill, so there was a bit of a climb to get there, but it is worth it. Along the way you pass though olive groves and vineyards, Montecarlo is famous for its wines and has an annual festival to celebrate them (which sadly was the week before we got there). The borgo was one of our refreshment stops where we were treated to generous serving of antipasto accompanied by several bottles of wine (this was just elevenses, you understand).

Suitably refreshed, we had a wee stroll about the town and were taken to see the Teatro dei Rassicurati which from the outside looks much like the other buildings around it, but inside is an amazing pocket theatre. It is the second smallest theatre in Europe, with the smallest being in Budapest. Sheds used as venues in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival don’t count apparently. Built in 1795, it was was extensively restored in 1894. In the inter-war period, it fell into disuse and by 1966 it was at risk of demolition, however, it was rescued and restored again in 1973 and is now in regular use. The oval auditorium seats 140 and is surrounded by 22 tiny boxes spread over two levels above, and an impressive painted ceiling. One of the theatre goers in the late nineteenth century was young Giacomo Puccini, who went on to become one of the greatest composer of Italian opera. One wonders how much this experience influenced his later work.

We set off once again, riding though the Tuscan countryside, occasionally stopping for photos and to watch the olive trees being pruned, well I stopped to take a photo, the others just went on…

Pruning the olives

Our next scheduled stop was the Quercia delle Streghe or the Witches Oak. An amazing oak tree (Quercus pubescens), estimated to be up to 600 years old with a girth of ~4.5m and a canopy circumference of ~40m. Legend has it that a group of witches held their sabbatical rites right on the branches of the tree, creating the broad lateral grow we see today. Personally, I think it much more likely that the tree was pollarded and the branches trained out laterally, probably originally to increase acorn masting for pigs.

Quercia delle Streghe or the Witches Oak

There is also another story this tree is famous for, it is where Pinocchio was hanged by the assassins who wanted to steal his four gold coins. In Carlo Collodi’s original story (first published in 1881) the tale ended at this tree, with Pinocchio dying at the end of chapter 15. However, Collodi’s publisher didn’t like this ending, as the story was serialized and proving very popular, so he persuaded Collodi to allow Pinocchio be rescued by the the Fairy with Turquoise Hair (or “Blue Fairy” in the Disney version), and then to write another 21 chapters. The full story was published in 1883 as the The Adventures of Pinocchio, and later became an international best seller and was turned into a sanitised Disney film.

Photo and cultural/nature stop over, there was a glorious dirt road descent, ideal for testing the bike’s front suspension and tyre traction. The next stop was San Gennaro, and of course, this being Tuscany, the hamlet is on top of a hill. To get there, we rode single track Strade Bianche through the woods, olive groves and vineyards, arriving back on tarmac just below the village.

Strade Bianche

We stopped by a traditional drinking fountain with a stone trough to fill our water bottles, the day was getting very warm (from a Scottish perspective). Although it was nearing lunchtime, culture comes before food, with a visit to “the old Roman Pieve”. Yeah, I had to look up Pieve too, according to Wikipedia it is a rural church. Being one of the oldest buildings in the village (dating from 980 AD) it was near the top of the hill. To get there, there was a winding cobbled street, with a final ramp of 18%!

San Gennaro

Was it worth it? Yes. The sign board outside said that it retained “its original Romanesque characteristics”, while also noting that the capitals at the tops of the columns were decorated in “Pre-Romanesque style”, basically recycled from earlier buildings. The sign also says “Of particular interest inside the ambo [Catholic term for pulpit] dating back to 1162 … ”. However, oddly, the sign board neglects to mention this wee church’s greatest treasure, a polychrome painted angel statue, is the only known statue made by Leonardo Da Vinci himself (confirmed by Carlo Pedretti).

Da Vinci's angel

The thing about visiting all this cultural stuff is that it does make you rather peckish, fortunately it was just a short distance down the hill to lunch at Ristoro Il Corno, just a simple four course affair, you understand. I can highly recommend the Pecorino Toscano with honey.

pecorino with honey

With a few calories to burn off, we set out for Collodi, a name you might recognise from above. Carlo Collodi is actually the pseudonym of Carlo Lorenzini, who took the name Collodi from the village where his mother came from, and it was that village we where aiming for. On seeing it for the first time, I was struck by the way it appears to tumble down the hillside and is then terminated by the seemingly overblown Villa Garzoni at the bottom. What I couldn’t see from that angle was the water gardens attached to the villa, nor for that matter could I see the Parco di Pinocchio (a theme park dedicated to a wooden puppet). For the record, the Villa Garzoni was on sale for a mere €19,000,000 a couple of years ago, just in case you happen to find a winning Euro Millions lottery ticket down the back of the sofa.

A view of Collodi, Tuscany, Italy

We visited the lower part of Villa Garzoni’s water gardens and the Butterfly House. Collodi is on the list of places I would like to visit again, I would like to have the time to explore the village itself and also see more of the water gardens. Not sure I would go to Parco di Pinocchio, although we were told that it isn’t just for kids, there is stuff for adults there too, with the original tale far darker than the Disney version many of us are familiar with.

Villa Garzoni’s water gardens

Via delle Fiabe (the path of the fairy tales)

Leaving Collodi, we followed the Via delle Fiabe (the path of the fairy tales) back to Pescia, which partly follows an ancient mule track paved with flag stones. While this may sound like straight forward riding, it was highly technical in parts, in particular the 15% descent with stone cross drains on the path followed by a narrow bridge and a hairpin turn. Walking this section is highly recommended (which we all did). The path is great fun and takes you through some lovely scenery before eventually bringing you out onto black top on a ridge overlooking Pescia, with the final part of the route all downhill, which was also a lot of fun. Then it was train back to Montecatini Terme where we were staying (at the bike Hotel Arnolfo), a spa treatment, and an amazing five course dinner of Tuscan specialities at the restaurant Arnolfo.

If you’d like a different view of the same trip, you can read Dries’ travel diary here and Nele’s travel diary here. Oh and that film crew that was following us, here’s the film they made, hope you enjoy it 🙂

If you’d like to follow the route it is here:

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Not so slow tour of Milan (part 2)

Not so slow tour of Milan (part 2)

I woke surprisingly early on my second day in Milan with Italia Slow Tour, looking forward to my visit to Idroscalo. The first day had been busy and this day was to be just as busy. The Idroscalo is an artificial lake constructed in the late 1920s as an airport for seaplanes, however, it is now a park used for recreational and sporting activities. Sometimes known as the “Sea of Milan”, in summer the beach area at Idroscalo is heaving with sunbathers and swimmers, however in November it looked more forlorn. But I wasn’t here to sunbathe.

The Idroscalo

First up was horse riding, and this was a first for me. While I had sat on a horse maybe once or twice, I had never actually ridden one so I was a wee bit apprehensive, but I needn’t have been. I was the guest of Giacche Verdi, which is a non-profit association of “Civil Protection and Environmentalists” who are “working in harmony with the horse, man and nature pursuing concrete objectives and benefits to society”, or at least that’s what their website tells me. I was initially riding along with the President of the Giacche Verdi, but as I don’t speak Italian he passed me on to his translator, who was very friendly and told me more about what they did. However, mostly I was trying to negotiate with my horse which way we were going and who was in charge. I finally came to an accommodation with her (the horse) and was able to give most of my attention to the conversation. Unfortunately this was just before we had to stop, and I was to move on the next part of the tour.

And this is your horse...

Having dismounted from the horse, who was now happily eating, I was introduced to Valeria Manfredda, a post graduate student in the Faculty of Sculpture at Brera Academy of Fine Arts, Milan, who was to show me round the outdoor sculpture park. We looked at a number of sculptures including her own work, Ed ero giovinetta (And I was a young girl), echoing memories of childhood, playing with a pair of tin cans on a length of string. She also showed me a number of other art works by other students and told me a wee bit about each one.

Discussing art with Valeria Manfredda

Following this arty interlude, I was pleased to be lent a bike to continue the tour of Idroscalo in the company of my guide Gianfranco of Italia Slow Tour. As bikes go, it was nothing special, just an eight speed hybrid, but for the purpose of seeing the area it was ideal. Next activity on the list was kayaking with the Idroscalo Club, here again was an activity which I hadn’t engaged in since I was at university. Getting kitted up I asked to have a spraydeck, half expecting to be told that that was something they wouldn’t give a beginner. The purpose of www.realrecipe.net the spraydeck is to stop water landing in your lap while paddling, but should you capsize, it can trap an inexperienced paddler upside down in the kayak. Experienced paddlers know how to release the spraydeck with their knees if they absolutely have to, although most would try to roll upright first or signal to be rescued by a buddy. So I was happy to be given a neoprene spraydeck, which kept me warm and dry.

Paddling at on the Idroscalo

Paddling away from the dock I was surprised by how quickly things came back to me, apparently it is rather like riding a bike, once learned you never forget how to paddle in a straight line. The senior coach from Idroscalo Club was accompanying me and telling me a about the lake and pointing out the concert stage on the west bank, I had been wondering what it was. It was notable how quiet the area was in late autumn compared with what it must be like in summer. We were the only ones out paddling, but there were a great number of water craft laid up on the shore.

Back on dry land, it was back on the bike to continue the circumnavigation of the lake. Part way along, I spotted a mountain bike pump track and, despite being on borrowed hybrid bikes, this was an opportunity not to be missed. So we turned off and took in a circuit of the track, which was great fun and just had to be done.

Hire bike

Then onwards to lunch, where I was the guest of the AS Rugby Milano rugby club. When we arrived there was an under 15’s match just starting. It was interesting to see that they were playing on an artificial pitch, so not the muddy extravaganza of the school boy rugby of my youth. Inside the club house the food was excellent, and so was the company, but I was surprised the wine was Australian rather than local. Apparently this was in honour of the Southern hemisphere clubs who were on tour in Europe just now. Somehow the conversation turned to politics and I was asked what I thought of Brexit. I explained that Scotland had voted to stay in the EU, but that England and Wales had voted to leave, and that the overall majority leaving had only been <2%. It was suggested that surely the UK didn’t really want to leave and that when it came to it, the UK Parliament would find a way of staying. I could see what they were saying made perfect sense if you were looking at the situation from the outside, and I now began to understand how my Italian friends in Edinburgh used to feel when we asked them about Silvio Berlusconi. So we changed the subject and went back talking about wine and food instead.

Lunch over, we continued our circumnavigation of the Idroscalo. On reaching the far end we stopped a while to watch some wake boarders. There is a lot to see and do at the Idroscalo, even in November. There was still time for some more sightseeing in the centre of Milan, highlights of which included ice cream (an absolute must when in Italy). Also a quick look at Castello Sforzesco from the 15th century, right in the centre of the city, and Sempione Park which is packed with art works, street hawkers, and people just having fun! Oh and it also has free public WiFi.

But as with all good things, my time in Milan had come to an end, and I had to catch a bus back to the airport for the flight home. Milan is somewhere I definitely want to return to, there is still so much more to see and do, and I’d like to take Ulli along too, as she would very much enjoy it. My thanks to my guide Gianfranco Nalin and Italia Slow Tour for organising a great weekend break.

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Not so slow tour of Milan (part 1)

Not so slow tour of Milan (part 1)

Looking out into the dusk as I arrived at Malpensa on a mid-November evening, I had moved the hands on my watch forward by an hour, but it looked like the seasons had turned back by about three weeks. On the morning I had left Edinburgh where the trees were bare of leaves and there had been a layer of frost on the roof tops. Yet here in Italy, the trees where still covered with leaves in full, glorious autumn colours, although as darkness fell and the temperature dropped I was aware that winter was coming.

I had arranged to meet friends for dinner at a traditional Italian pizzeria and was delighted to find that, just as in Scotland, the Italians have deep fried pizza: “pizza fritta” (although it is not quite the same as in Scotland). The other thing I learned from this evening was that Milan, like all cities, is not a good place for driving, it took half an hour to cover three Km – I can walk faster than that. Fortunately Milan has excellent public transport with an extensive tram and metro system. Not only that, in the central area there is a bike share scheme called BikeMi, more of which later.

Now Milan is not a small place, to quote Wikipedia “Milan, a metropolis in Italy’s northern Lombardy region, is a global capital of fashion and design”. But there is so much more to it than that, and I had only two days to see it. The hotel I was staying at has bicycles available for guests to borrow, which is great, except for the fact that they had been put away for winter and the only bike available was a single speed with rather strange gearing (rather too high for my high cadence style of riding). No matter, I set off to explore with my guide Gianfranco of Italia Slow Tour who had invited me to be one of their ambassadors.

Not far from the hotel is a cycle path alongside the Naviglio Martesana, a canal supposedly designed by Leonardo Da Vinci, which makes for a pleasant route through the city. However you can’t follow the canal all the away along its original route because in the 1930’s Mussolini covered over much of it to make way for cars (he had similar plans for Venice, but fortunately only managed a small area). However, there is now a plan to re-instate the Naviglio Martesana to its former glory, which will be a great asset to the city.

Cassina de' Pomm

As the canal disappeared underground, at the Cassina de’ Pomm, I took the opportunity to swap the hotel bike for a BikeMi bike at the first rental station we encountered. The hire process was very simple, swipe the card I was given at the info post, choose your language, select the type of bike (either classic or e-bike), and it then tells you the number of the bike to take. Over the course of the day I tried both types of bike, the yellow classic bikes www.garida.net have three gears and are fine for city riding. The red e-bikes are single speed and have an electric motor on the front hub which kicks in (and out) by itself. This can be a wee bit disconcerting, and I prefer the classic bike. We continued the tour using Milan’s network of cycle tracks, some of which were better than others, it’s not all like the photo below 😉

Cycle lanes of Milan

There are other signs that the City is looking to a greener future, such as the Bosco verticale (the Vertical Forest) which consists of two residential tower blocks that are home to 730 trees. Unfortunately there wasn’t time to get any closer, but it is something I would like to come back to see more of, one day.

Bosco verticale

Although much of the Naviglio Martesana is underground these days, there are still bits of it to see in places, such as at the Porte Vinciane where the lock gates, originally designed by Leonardo de Vinci, are forlornly stranded without water. If the canal were to be re-instated as planned, this could be a great asset to the area. Later in the day I was to meet Professor Flavio Boscacci from the Polytechnic of Milan who is planning to bring back the canals, not just as a nice water feature for the city, www.hayamix.com but as a functional means of transport. Rather in the same way as the Union Canal was restored in Scotland as a Millennium Project. Professor Boscacci is also a proponent of “slow tourism” and has helped to develop a cycle route along the Via Francigena pilgrims’ route from Canterbury to Rome – fuelled by the best rustic food and drink, according to the website. Following the cycle route into town shows Milan to be a fascinating mix of the old and the new. The bicycle is an ideal way to explore the city.

Porte Vinciane on the course of the old canal in Milan

Cycle lanes of Milan

One of the hidden gems of Milan which most tourists miss out on is the Brera Botanical Garden, tucked away behind the Brera Palace, which includes the Brera Pinacoteca, the Astronomical Observatory, the National Library and the Academy of Fine Arts of the University of Milan. The garden was founded in the 17th Century by the Jesuits as an orchard and a place for growing medicinal plants. With the suppression of the Jesuits by Pope Clemente XIV, the whole Brera complex became a property of the Austrian State and transferred to new cultural institutions, among them a new School of Botany run by a Vallombrosan monk Fulgezio Vitman. The current structure of the gardens is divided into three sections: two of them have narrow flower-beds and a water basin at the centre, the third is a plain lawn surrounded by trees, as laid out by Vitman. Also a greenhouse was built on the North side of the garden, facing South (now used by the School of Art). The main purpose of growing medicinal plants was for teaching medical students. However, in the 18th Century there came a fashion of exotic species and the gardens were first opened to the public as a “site of pleasure”, which they still are today.

Botanical Garden - Orto Botanico di Brera

Continuing on into the centre we had a quick meeting at the Milan Tourism Info Point in the Vittorio Emanuele Gallery. The people there, Francesca and Paolo, were very friendly and helpful, suggesting lots of other sites to see locally. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is one of the oldest purpose-built shopping malls in the world, and probably one of the most stylish, so you won’t find anything as tacky as a McDonald’s in the Galleria (although apparently there is one nearby if you need a free toilet).

Should you visit the Galleria on a quiet day, you will find there are four mosaics portraying the coat of arms of Milan and the three capitals of the Kingdom of Italy (Turin, Florence and Rome). There is a tradition that says if you spin around three times with a heel on the testicles of the bull from Turin’s coat of arms, this will bring good luck. However, this practice has caused damage to the mosaic and a hole has developed on the place of the bull’s genitals. As the Galleries were very busy when I visited, I was unable to verify this, but continued on out to the square in front of Domm de Milan.

The Duomo di Milano (to give it its Italian name as apposed to the Lombardy name) is the fifth largest church in the world and the largest in Italy (the Papal Basilica of St. Peter is bigger, but it is also in the Vatican which is a separate country). It took 600 years to build and the Duomo is undoubtedly impressive, as is the queue for the ticket office which extended the whole way across the square, so we skipped that and went to see the nearby La Chiesa San Bernardino alle Ossa (the Church of St. Bernardino of the Bones) instead.

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect – it is rather an odd feeling to enter a large room where the walls are decorated with 100s (maybe more than a 1000?) human skulls and tibiae. What would the original owners of the bones have thought of me taking photos? Not that they had photography in the 13th Century, and then ossuaries were more common, a normal part of death. I still find it slightly unsettling, but it was worth the visit.

La Chiesa San Bernardino alle Ossa, or the Church of St. Bernardino of the Bones

After all this I was in need of a coffee. Fortunately in Italy it is easy to find good coffee, just look for anywhere that serves coffee but isn’t an American chain. Suitably refreshed, I looked around for another BikeMi station, in the centre of Milan you are never far from one. However, the station I found didn’t have any classic bikes available, only the e-bikes. I did consider looking for another rental station but then decided to give it a try, on the grounds that I could always change it later.

The next stop was the “Tree Experience” at Parco Avventura Corvetto. This turned out to be a bit further out of town than I had initially expected and there was no opportunity to swap the red bike for a yellow one, but no matter, we made it. I had not previously tried this sort of high-wire “tree top” course, but I had seen the Go Ape at Aberfoyle [https://goape.co.uk/days-out/aberfoyle] which is on a completely different scale (Aberfoyle is one of the highest and gnarliest tree high-wire courses in Europe). Needless to say, I was keen to have a go, given the choice between the low (blue) course and the high (red) course I went for the latter (if they had had a black course, I probably would tried that, but you need to go somewhere like Aberfoyle for that).

As I was putting on the climbing harness, I realised this was something I hadn’t done since I was at University 20 years ago. Next up was the safety briefing which was thorough but straightforward, after which I was let loose on the course. Having stormed my way up to the first platform and tackled a series of wire rope crossings between the trees, I was starting to feel tied. Advice from the ground suggested that I slow down and take it easier, so I took a breather and relaxed at the next platform. The second half of the course was even more fun, now that I was no longer trying to race around. The whole thing was thoroughly enjoyable and something I would highly recommend.

Walking in the air

By now it was past midday and I was looking forward to lunch, fortunately this was the next item on the agenda. Just a wee bit further out on the outskirts of the city, lunch was provided at the Nocetum Centre [http://www.nocetum.it]. The Nocetum Centre is a community project which organises educational visits and environmental education activities among other things. Included in those other things is job training in the hospitality industry for refugees, the food (which was excellent) was cooked and served by people who had found sanctuary there, having fled conflict in their own country. The hospitality was warm and friendly, although mostly in Italian and rather beyond my language skills, nevertheless I felt welcome.

Lunch over, we took a look at a wee church just by the entrance to the Nocetum Centre. It doesn’t look much from the outside, but once inside you notice the Medieval frescos by painters from the same school as Giotto, but it is unlikely that Giotto himself ever visited the site. These frescos have been dated to between 1350 and 1375. Other recent archaeological excavations found a surprisingly large number of burials below the floor of the church, suggesting that has been a community living around the site for a very long time.

After leaving the church, we crossed the road to the Cascina Nosedo, an abandoned farm on the urban fringe, to look at a new bicycle recycling project which aims to provide skills and training for unemployed young people. There are also plans for an arts centre.

The final location of the day was a guided visit to Vettabbia Park and Milan Nosedo Wastewater Treatment Plant, as you do. Again it was the sort of thing which I hadn’t done since University and I really enjoyed it. I was given a short presentation about the plant and its ambitious waste heat recovery systems, providing distributed heating to the local community. There is also a park beyond the main plant with reed beds for the final cleaning of the water before it returns to the river.

All of the places and organisations I had visited since arriving for lunch at the Nocetum Centre are part of the “Valle dei Monaci” (Valley of the Monks) [http://www.valledeimonaci.org]. This network of organizations is committed to patching up this strategic area of Milan – from the city centre south to Clairvaux and Melegnano – which today is seemingly disjointed, and to develop new cultural and economic opportunities in the process. Included in the plans for the Valle dei Monaci is a cycle route from the centre of Milan to Piacenza to link up with the Via Francigena, the ancient road and pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome.

Prof Boscacci then guided me back to the city centre, which was an interesting experience, he is not a slow rider and I was on a red BikeMi e-bike. It wasn’t long before I found the speed at which the e-assistance dropped out. As I didn’t know where I was going, there was no way I was going to loose him, but without the e-assistance the bike was heavy and none too nimble. I thought he might notice that I was struggling to keep up, until he turned round and complimented me on my bike handling skills. It was a great way to finish a whistle stop tour of the city, and the following day promised to be another fun filled one! But that is for another post.

My thanks to Italia Slow Tour for arranging it.

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