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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 😉
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.