Christmas in Milan – A Monumental Cathedral, Cemetery and Horse

Snow started falling as we brewed the morning’s first cups of coffee on the stove using a traditional Italian Moka coffee pot.  Invented by Alfonso Bialetti in 1933, Italians readily accepted it as an easy way to make espresso at home, and it quickly became symbolic of “la dolce vita,” the sweet life and for us a pleasant morning ritual. The day before had been warmer, and bundled up we were able to take our coffee outside on the balcony of our fourth-floor Airbnb rental and enjoy a great sunset view.  This morning though, the tracks of the tram line melted through the thin blanket of freshly fallen snow and left two parallel lines, as if someone had drawn them on this new white canvas with a pencil.

Continuing with our philosophy of slow, immersive travel, we had opted for an apartment in the Isola neighborhood.  Though far away from Milan’s city center, it was situated near the Porta Garibaldi train station and the recently built modern skyscraper complex that surrounds Piazza Gae Aulenti. The illy Caffè here was a frequent stop for comsmopolitan people-watching and excellent coffee.

Nearby were the twin apartment towers of Boeri’s Bosco Verticale, Vertical Forest, famous for their lush foliage-covered balconies, and the Isola and Zara subway stations. The latter was only seven quick stops from the Milan Duomo.

The neighborhood also had numerous tram lines traversing it, but it was impossible to find a hardcopy map of this very extensive system while we were in Milan, though we were able to find this online map of the Milan Tram System while writing this. Ultimately, we relied on our phone’s mapping App to view our tram trips in real time and determine where to change lines to continue our journeys across the city.

Two blocks away, the bi-weekly outdoor food market closed the streets around Piazza Tito Minniti for the bulk of the day while families shopped the stalls for fresh vegetables, cheese, meat and seafood along with socks, pants, dresses and blouses. We enjoyed this aspect of Italian life after learning its subtle nuances – for example, only the vendor touches the fruits and vegetables. There is also a protocol of queueing. Sometimes though our schedule required us to shop around the corner at La Pastaia for fresh pasta or the Penny Market grocery store, where we signed up again for another shopper club card.  We’ve done this in every city where we have stayed long term – Cuenca, Antigua, Lisbon, Cape Town and Kotor. It seems silly, but those small savings do add up and jokingly it helps us feel more like a local.

Emerging from the darkness of the subway station onto the Piazza del Duomo, we were momentarily blinded by the bright sun reflecting off the monumental cathedral that towered before us. Breathtaking in its size and capable of holding 40,000 worshippers, the cathedral is the second largest in Europe, following Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, and the third largest in the world.  Designed in 1386, the ornate and dramatic Gothic façade of the cathedral is covered with 3,400 statues and spires, which required the recruitment of hundreds of stone masons and artisans from across Europe. 

The opulent exterior belies the cathedral’s spartan interior.  While massive in scale, the interior’s gray stone walls and towering columns are cold and austere even with the soft, filtered light of beautiful stained-glass windows illuminating the space. Most moving was a ghastly sculpture by 16th century Italian sculptor Marco d’Agrate of Saint Bartholomew holding his flayed skin, depicting how he was punished for converting an Armenian King to Christianity in the first century AD.

Wandering around the flying buttresses and sculpted spires on the roof of the church was the highlight of our visit to the Duomo. The day was crystal clear, and the panoramic view stretched from the Milanese skyline to the snowcapped Italian Alps. It was spectactular.

Across the plaza the Museum of the Milan Cathedral has an extensive and interesting collection of art and sculpture that at one time or another was part of the Duomo.

On the other side of the plaza stood Milan’s official Christmas tree, a modern conically shaped metal structure covered with thousands of multi-colored changing lights. Beyond the tree was the famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, where four-story tall buildings and the promenade between them are covered with a spectacular vaulted glass ceiling.  It is considered the world’s first indoor shopping mall, built shortly after the unification of the Italian peninsular into the Kingdom of Italy in the 1860s when Vittorio Emanuele II was named king.  Lovingly nicknamed “il Salotto di Milano,” or “the living room of Milan” by the Milanese, the phrase acknowledges it’s the place to meet friends and be seen.

Wanting to stay in the city center till night fell, so that we could fully appreciated the Christmas lights on the tree in front of the Duomo, we wandered farther afield until we found the Chiesa di Santa Maria presso San Satiro. First built in the 9th century, the present church dates to the Italian Renaissance and  features a gilded interior and a rare example of Trompe-l’œil in a church. This painter’s effect utilizes a forced perspective to create an illusion of depth behind the altar.

After dark the plaza in front of the Duomo continued to fill with people eager to enjoy the festive mood of the Christmas season.  The Christmas tree was stunning, and its modernity nicely complimented the historic buildings surrounding the piazza.

From our balcony we could see the silhouette of Tomba di Manzoni, the grand entranceway and “Hall of Fame” mausoleum for the noteworthy, though not as wealthy, Milanese who are interned at the Cimitero Monumentale. 

As we wandered farther into the cemetery, we realized that monumental might be an understatement. It was difficult not to confuse this extraordinarily extravagant place of entombment for an outdoor sculpture garden with memorials created by a who’s who list of famous 19th and 20th century Italian artists and architects for prominent Milanese families. 

The family names on the mausoleums also adorn roads, parks, tram and subway stations across the city. There seemed to be an afterlife version of one upmanship in play here with each monument more grandiose than the last.  As if competition or success in life was not enough and had to continue till your final committal.  It was a fascinating place to explore. Plan on spending most of the day.

Donna’s mom had passed away the year before and one of our reasons for staying in Milan was to revisit a project her mother was instrumental in as a member of the United State’s Italian American Heritage Foundation and Leonardo da Vinci’s Horse Foundation. She helped for fifteen years in the 1980s and 90s to raise 2.5 million dollars to the see Leonardo da Vinci’s 24ft tall Il Cavallo recreated. The sculpture was finally realized by American sculptor Nina Akamu

Da Vinci was commissioned by the Duke of Milan in 1482 to create, at the time, what was the largest equestrian statue in the world, as tribute to his late father, Francesco Sforza.  The full-size clay sculpture was completed in 1491 and was waiting for its terracotta mold to be made and enough bronze amassed for its casting when the French invaded in 1499. Subsequentially, the clay model was totally destroyed by French crossbowmen who used it for target practice.

On its 500th anniversary, da Vinci’s Il Cavallo was unveiled outside the Ippodromo Snai San Siro, Milan’s famous horse racing track. Smaller artistic interpretations of Il Cavallo stand in the plaza behind it. This being modern Italy though a horse just can’t be a horse, and many were psychedelically painted and wore tutus or unicorn horns. Wonderfully whimsical, they definitely made us smile. 

One rainy afternoon we took the tram to the 15th century Sforzesco Castle, seat of power for the Sforza dynasty that lasted only 100 years. But in that time the fortress/palace was expanded to be one of the largest citadels in Europe and filled with works of art by numerous Italian Renaissance artists.  Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bramante, Correggio, Bernardino Zenale and Bernardino Butinone were commissioned to adorn the walls and ceilings and sculpt pieces to fill the vast space. Today the castle houses several of the city’s museums and art collections where the artists’ contributions to the palace can still be seen. A heavy fog had blanketed the citadel by closing time and was evocative of the moods cast in the historical fiction novels set in Renaissance Italy by Sarah Dunant. Later that evening we attended an Anglican Lessons and Carols service as a prelude to Christmas, then headed back to our apartment humming Christmas tunes as we window shopped.

Signs for Artigiano in Fiera, the Fair, dotted our route into Milan when we first arrived from Bergamo and piqued our interest.  We hadn’t heard of it before, but with a quick internet search realized it was the shopping event of the Christmas season in Milan. While in line to enter the center we noticed many people pulling large suitcases. Toward the end of our shopping spree, laden with purchases, we realized the bags on wheels were pure genius, and allowed the seasoned pros to carry their holiday shopping with ease. The Fiera is a tremendously popular annual, nine-day event that draws over one million visitors to the Fiera Milano, Europe’s largest exhibition center, located in Rho, just outside Milan. Folks shop for home furnishings, fashion, jewelry, arts and crafts, along with artisanal foods, wines and liquor. The sites’ nine cavernous exhibition halls were filled with vendors from 100 countries, though displays from the twenty regions of Italy occupied ninety percent of the space. Plan on spending the whole day if you hope to see everything. It was all very interesting and entertaining and truly a marathon event. From Milan it’s an easy trip on the M1 subway, which stops right at the venue.

Wanting to make our last night in Milan special, we made dinner reservations at a highly reviewed restaurant, only to be turned away into a rainy night because we arrived early as the staff was enjoying their pre-work communal meal together. (The later you dine out in Italy the more you’ll feel like a local. Though this does take some getting used to and we haven’t mastered this yet.) “Okay, we will have a drink at the corner bar and return,” we agreed.

To our delight, our aperitives were accompanied by small sandwiches with chips and olives.  We had every intention of heading back to the restaurant, but our waiter was engaging, and the Aperol spritzes were very good. We spent the time watching folks fight the wind with their umbrellas through the bar’s rain-pelted window. The specular highlights from the streetlights added magic to the scene. Occasionally some groups popped inside seeking a warm reprieve from the downpour outside, shook out their umbrellas and found a seat.  Recapping our adventures, tentatively planning the next six months, and talking about Christmas with our kids back in the states, the evening flew by until the waiter said they were closing. Umbrellas up! We headed home.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

PS – The Artigiano was canceled in 2020 due to the Corona virus lock down in Italy. Hopefully, it will be allowed 2021.

Reggio Emilia – Fine Food and Ancient Alleys

Seemingly never-ending waves of softly rolling hills that we viewed from the towers of San Marino, up-close now, were verdant with the new growth of winter cover crops and persimmon orchards, heavy with their delectable late-ripening orange fruit. The landscape, a patchwork quilt of autumn colors and earth tones, dotted the countryside enroute to Reggio Emilia, like the brush strokes of an impressionist painting.

Still elegant nineteenth century villas now stand where Reggio Emilia’s ancient defensive walls once rose, until a surging population demanded city expansion in the late 1800s.  A wide boulevard lined with trees and a well-used bike path now follow its original hexagonal footprint around the bike friendly city.  Bicycling across the flat terrain of Reggio Emilia is a popular way to commute to the train station or work in the pedestrian-only historic center from outlying neighborhoods, and is supported with 125 miles of well-marked urban bike lanes.  Emilia-Romagna has set a regional goal of getting 20% of all commuters to bike to work and funding 2300 miles of dedicated bike lanes.

The Reggiani’s enthusiasm for bicycling dates back to the 1870s, when a hippodrome was part of Parco del Popolo, and continues today with fierce loyalty to area road-bicycling racing teams that compete in the historic Giro dell’Emilia that has coursed through Emilia-Romagna since the race was first held in 1909. Currently it’s an a 1.HC event on the UCI Europe Tour.

With the assistance of the receptionist at Hotel Posta we were able to park on the street, just outside the historic center, without a fee for a week. This is unheard of during high season, but it was a great savings for us that we fully appreciated.  Located in the center of the city on Piazza del Monte, across from city hall, the hotel is in the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, a historic building which was originally constructed in 1280 as a governor’s palace. For over 500 years, since 1472, the rooms under its crenelated roof have been used as a hotel.

It has been renovated numerous times during the centuries, but still retains the old-world charm. The room rate was quite affordable in late November and we practically had the place to ourselves. From our window overlooking the piazza we watched the ebb and flow of Reggio Emilia pass below, highlighted by a teachers’ protest, a Christmas parade, and nightly buskers who took excellent advantage of the wonderful acoustics that the small plaza offered.

The city’s three large piazzas, Camillo Prampolini, Di Prospero, and Della Vittoria, are lined with historic buildings, churches and restaurants. During high season they would have been bustling with tourists and cafes tables would have nearly filled the squares.

Now in late November, city workers were hanging Christmas lights from the lamp poles throughout the city and erecting a Christmas tree in Piazza Prampolini, while a large temporary ice-skating rink was under construction near the Romolo Valli Opera House. 

Bundled up against the chill now, only the hearty sat at the few tables left outside, though inside the cafes was not really much warmer. Good coffee and locally produced Lambrusco helped ward off the chill as we expanded our concept of “walk a little, then café,” during our wanderings between churches in this pleasant city. 

Cheese is our weakness and we delighted in every opportunity to try different aged Parmigiano Reggianos. (Longer aging produces a stronger or more flavorful cheese, with some cheeses aged up to 36 months for that intense flavoring.) Paired with a locally produced aged balsamic vinegar, it is a surprisingly tasteful combination.

Oh, let’s just face it – Italian food is our weakness and we thoroughly enjoyed discovering the city’s cafes, bakeries, and restaurants as much as we enjoyed the city’s churches and museums.  Charcuterie boards, pastries and pasta tempted us repeatedly in this culinary temple of gastromic delights.  Here are some of our favorite places: Antica Salumeria Giorgio Pancaldi – always worth the wait for a table. Terme del Colesterolo – you have to love the name and their porchetta sandwiches. La Casalinga – a fresh homemade pasta store with super nice ladies who will stop what they are doing and make any tortellini or ravioli you request if the case is empty. Yes, we did buy some to take to our apartment stay in Milan. Dolce Charlottefor their savory and sweet baked goods. And Tabarin Osteria Popolare – even though they confused our order with the table adjacent to us it was still a wonderful dining experience.

The Chiesa di St. Francesco stands on Piazza Della Vittoria adjacent to the Romolo Valli opera house. It was built in 1272 to support a Franciscan convent and monastery. The cloister was converted in 1830 into the Musei Civici di Reggio Emilia to house the private scientific and zoological collection of Lazzaro Spallanzani, an Italian physiologist (d. 1799) whose research into nutrient culture solutions advanced the scientific investigations of Louis Pasteur. 

It’s an amazing collection, still displayed as it was originally assembled, in now-antique wood and glass cases, evoking an earlier time.  There is also an extensive collection of regional archeological discoveries that was remarkably interesting.

On the Martiri del 7 Luglio 1960 plaza in front of the museum, (named for five workers killed by police during protests against a neo-fascists political party there on July 7, 1960) there is a moving commemorative monument to the 615 Reggio Emilia Resistance Fighters, both men and women, who made the ultimate sacrifice during WWII, fighting the German Army that occupied Italy.

A short distance away, next to the Romolo Valli Opera House, the Parco del Popolo, People’s Park, provided a tranquil haven speckled with neoclassical sculptures and pathways through a forest of old growth specimen trees, still holding their fall colors. The city’s ancient fortified citadel occupied this space until its demolition in 1848 to make room for the park.

The twin arches of Porta Santa Croce, built in 1199, are now the only reminders that Reggio Emilia was a formidable walled city.  A walk there along Via Roma revealed antique architectural details and a very large, whimsical sculpture of a bucket of fish, across from a street mural at the train station.

Aside from being renown for culinary excellence, the city has a tradition of supporting academics with ties to the University of Modena that date back to 1175.  But the city’s real claim to fame is the Reggio Emilia Approach, born from the aftermath of Italy’s destruction during WWII when men and women were in the work force to rebuild the country. With this new preschool concept parents “desired for a new form of education that would ensure against future generations being brought up in toleration of injustice and inequality. Where children are valued as strong, capable, resilient and rich with wonder and knowledge.” “With a small amount of money sourced from the selling of a tank, three trucks, and a few horses from the war, and with land contributed by a local farmer and building materials from bombed-out buildings, local men and women of all ages built the first post-war preschool for young children.”  A first in Italy, it was a break with parochial education which was the historic norm.

With a region that boasts about its excellent cuisine and fine wines it only makes sense, with a small leap in logic, that some of the most exotic cars and motorcycles built in the world are made in Emilia-Romagna, Italy’s “Motor Valley.” While Reggio Emilia doesn’t have any automobile factories, it’s close enough that you are sure to get the doors of your Fiat 500 rental blown off on the E35 by a passing Maserati, Lamborghini, Ferrari or crotch- rocket Ducati.

They all have museums in the region, but we spotted an advert in our hotel lobby for Ruote da Sogno, a showroom with more than 100 classic cars and 700 restored classic motorcycles and scooters, all in perfect working condition and FOR SALE! 

It was an interesting space that we wandered about freely. They also conduct traditional and online auctions., while the high-tech showroom is also available as a corporate or wedding event space.  The eclectic collection was very interesting, down to the glass refrigerator case full of champagne for auction winners to celebrate with. Vespas with a sidecar are our passion and speed. Do they ship? We asked ourselves. Zoom, zoom!

The city had completed stringing Christmas decorations down the ancient lanes and on the piazzas.  They were especially beautiful at night when the cobblestones glistened from the afternoon rain and the lights reflected off their still-wet surfaces.  The Christmas market on Piazza Camillo Prampolini was in full swing now and we couldn’t resist the opportunity to weigh down our luggage even more. After all, in late December, we would be heading back to the states to enjoy Christmas with our family.

Till next time, Craig & Donna