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One Last Day in Milano

I spent my last full day in Milan immersed in the Duomo. The day was bleak, so my images aren’t spectacular, but at least the rain stayed away. I took a so-called Fast Track tour, which I highly recommend, as you buy your ticket online, then meet your guide beside the entry at your appointed time, skipping the line of folks waiting to buy tickets and get in. It also allows you to take the elevator to the terraces, though you then must climb to the rooftop and eventually walk all the way down.

The cathedral, as you can imagine, is full of art, sculpture, stained glass, symbolism — a sensory overload that makes it impossible to remember everything shared by the guide — six centuries of history in ninety minutes. Construction began in 1386, with the apse at the rear and continuing toward the front, the Napoleon Fa├žade, dedicated to himself in 1814. It wasn’t until 1965, however, that the finishing touches were added. It’s dedicated to the Nativity of St. Mary, and on its surmounting spire is the golden Madonnina, at over 300 feet high.

The major patrons of the project were the Visconti and Sforza families, whose family crests are prominently displayed in stained glass and bas relief. When the decision was made to use Condoglia marble as the construction material, it was the Viscontis who owned the quarry on Lake Maggiore who supplied the pink stone. Sadly, air pollution and acid rain cause the marble to crumble, so preservation efforts are continuous. As our guide pointed out, you will never see the Duomo without scaffolding somewhere. The marble is stunning, especially the parts that have been recently cleaned, with grey, pink and ivory striations. Notice in the image below left how the pattern is matched. What awesome craftsmanship!

Inside, one of the first statues to greet you is that of the disciple St. Bartholomew, who was flayed alive and then beheaded for converting the king of Armenia to Christianity.

Fifty-two statues line the nave, each bearing a unique decoration.

Since most people of the time could not read, the acres of stained glass recount Bible stories to the faithful. The church has a precious relic, a nail supposedly from Jesus’ crucifixion, that is stored in the uppermost reaches of the nave ceiling. Each September the Archbishop is spirited up in a private elevator to take down the relic and do what with it I don’t really know! But it goes back up after whatever ritual is performed.

The gigantic organ has 15,800 pipes, the largest measuring more than nine meters in length(over 30 feet) and the smallest only a few centimeters. Imagine tuning it! Another interesting interior feature is the sundial, which is a simple piece of bronze embedded in the floor, marked by astrological signs. A tiny oculus in the ceiling captures the sunlight at noon on the summer and winter solstices, shining directly on the bronze strip.

The tiny five-person elevator whisks you up to the terraces in 25 seconds. I couldn’t help but think what a boring job the elevator operator has…while most jobs have their ups and downs, he has more than most. It’s hard to describe my first impression on reaching this midpoint to the top of the structure. It was like being in a fantasyland of carved marble, with gargoyles staring and carved figures and decoration on every surface. Further on, a series of stairs leads you to the rooftop. It’s remarkable to think how all this artistry was accomplished. Did they tote the marble up here and carve the figures in situ, or was the carving done below and the figures hoisted up?

My ticket also allowed access to the Museo del Duomo. Inside are hundreds of artifacts, including some original sculptures displayed here to protect them from the elements. The rooms are kept very dark, with spotlights on the pieces, and descriptive plaques are mounted close to the floor, making it virtually impossible for me to read what I was looking at. Nonetheless, it was a monumental collection.

There were dozens of bas reliefs.

After all the churches I’ve visited on this trip, this was a fitting and unique ending.

Home tomorrow, and I must say I’m ready for it, though this has been a memorable trip.

Two Days in Milano

My hotel in Milan, the Rosa Grand, is just behind the famous Duomo in Piazza Fontana. My goals on this first afternoon were to get oriented, find lunch and pinpoint a place for dinner. Since I had done an abysmally poor job of planning for these last few days of my trip, I also spent a bit of time figuring out what I wanted to see. My big planning fail was not getting a ticket to see DaVinci’s Last Supper, which must be done well in advance.

First, of course, was the Duomo, a massive Gothic structure that dominates the immense piazza. I snagged a ticket for a guided tour on Monday, and also plan to visit the museum, so will have more to say about it later. But for now, a few facts.

It is the fifth largest Christian church in the world, surpassed only by St. Peter’s in Rome, Our Lady of Aperecida in Brazil, St. John the Divine in New York (who knew?) and Seville’s cathedral in Spain.

It is decorated with more statues than any other building in the world: 3400 statues, 135 gargoyles and 700 figures.

Construction began in 1386 using terra cotta stone, but given the grand designs for the structure, pink-hued white marble from Lake Maggiore was used instead. Nearly 80 architects worked on the design over the centuries.

In the end, I skipped lunch, had an early dinner and returned to the piazza for a few night shots.

I woke Sunday to rain, the first I’ve seen in nearly six weeks in Europe. But it wasn’t pouring, and my hotel doorman had a plentiful supply of umbrellas, so off I went to the Pinoteca Ambrosiana, a treasure trove of Renaissance paintings founded on 1607 by Federico Borromeo. There is also a library featuring drawings from Leonardo’s notebooks and some 30,000 books and 15,000 manuscripts, including the Codex Atlanticus, a 12-volume set of Leonardo’s drawings and writings. Unfortunately, its bookstore was closed, so I couldn’t browse there. About twenty of his sketches from the notebooks are on display, with his characteristic backward handwriting.

My final stop of the day was La Scala, the world-famous opera house, which is only a few blocks from Piazza del Duomo. It’s not currently opera season, but the museum is open and you can go into the boxes overlooking the theater.

Auditorium Chandelier

The museum, divided into seven rooms, has an impressive collection of paintings, busts of composers like Rossini, Verdi and Puccini, and an entire room dedicated to the prima donnae who graced the stage during the opera house’s golden age in the mid-19th century. Franz Liszt’s piano, recently restored, is the centerpiece in one of the rooms. La Scala has an app with audio tours that is very helpful.

A pretty full day in spite of the rain — including an overview of the city on the Hop-on-Hop-off Bus. One more day and my Italian adventure comes to an end.

On Lake Maggiore

Our water taxi delivered us this morning to Isola Bella, which is dominated by the Baroque Palazzo Borromeo. Construction was initiated in 1632 (though work continued for 400 years with a hiatus during the plague) by Count Carlo Borromeo, head of a wealthy banking family. Our animated and knowledgeable guide, Frederica, led us through the sumptuously decorated rooms, pointing out candidly that the galleries on the piano nobile contained paintings of no particular artistic value, but rather were intended to impress by their sheer numbers.

The descendants of the original Count still live here, but open their home to visitors during all but the winter months, when the palazzo is closed — because there is no central heating!

The red-draped bedroom above is Napoleon’s room, where he spent but a single night. In the entryway are coats of arms from the Borromeo family, the Medici, the Barbarini and others who were frequent guests.

The stunning circular table above is crafted from micro mosaics, incredibly tiny square tiles. I took a master five years to make it. Frederica said most people overlook it as they pass through the hallway.

A special room with a richly decorated arched ceiling houses six magnificent tapestries dating from 1561 — older than the palazzo!

Down a cantilevered granite circular staircase are the grottoes, designed as cool spaces to escape the summer heat and constructed from pebbles, tufa rock, stucco and marble. Lake breezes waft through, and the stone construction adds to the cooling effect.

The grottoes lead to the stunning gardens, still blooming on this early October day thanks to the Mediterranean-like microclimate created by the lake. At the pointed end of the island a pyramidal terraced structure features a unicorn at the high center and various statues of gods and goddesses presiding over lush bushes, vines and flower beds. Photos don’t do justice to the scale of the place.

White peacocks have apparently been living in the gardens for generations.

A walkway lined with red begonias and the last of the dark yellow irises leads to a small greenhouse.

Palazzo Borromeo was an exceptional site to visit. Another short boat ride took us to Isola di Pescatore for lunch in one of the seafood eateries and a short walk around the town.

Returning to Stresa, four of us went on a walk with Alessandro, which started with a drive to the top of the town and a nearly two-hour downhill tromp through the tiny hamlets of Levo, Campino and Someraro. Some stretches were fairly challenging for this old girl, as the trail was steep and rocky. Totally worth it, however.

Tonight we had our final dinner, everyone agreeing that we couldn’t have asked for better group of fellow travelers. We’re all headed to different destinations: two home to Texas, two to Rome and Florence, two to Istanbul for a cruise, three to Venice and yours truly to Milano for a couple of days. A great trip organized by Classic Journeys.

To Lugano and Orta

Bright and early on Wednesday we mounted our small bus for the drive to Lake Lugano, and a step into Switzerland. After crossing the border at the small town of Gandria, we walked along the lakeshore to the cosmopolitan city of Lugano. The scenic walk was mostly flat — a real treat after the hilly cobbled streets and paths in Bellagio — and hugged the rocky cliffside that dropped precipitously to the waters below. Alessandro pointed out the evidence of the Eurasian and African tectonic plates that have heaved up over centuries, leaving a unique striated pattern.

Olive trees clung tenaciously to the steep cliff, and prickly pear cacti grew in abundance. Some hardy flowers were still blooming, though the foliage was beginning to show fall color.

As we entered the city, it was clear that this was no sleepy lakefront town, but a bustling shopping mecca showcasing all the top Italian brands, even in the old section of the city. The image at left below is of chestnuts in the market; I had never seen them in their pre-roasted state before.

Switzerland is a Protestant country, but there is a notable Catholic church, Santa Maria degli Angioli, built in 1599-1600, that features a fresco attributed to the Italian painter Bernardino Luini, a student of Leonardo da Vinci. The remarkable depiction of the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ features over 150 identifiable figures. You can see other partial frescoes on the cloister walls.

Leaving Lugano behind, we returned to Italy and the town of Stresa, on Lake Maggiore. The stubborn haze that settled in yesterday continues to mute the vistas, which is very disappointing, as there are several islands offshore from our hotel that are shrouded in mist. Our home for the next three nights is the ornate Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees. Ornate is actually an understatement, as every surface seems to be dripping with frescoes, gold and stone relief sculptures, Renaissance-style paintings and heavy draperies, all lit by Murano chandeliers.

Thursday’s destination was Lake Orta, the smallest of the major lakes in the district. We began the day with a visit to a dairy farm, saying buongiorno to the feeding cows and getting a lesson in cheesemaking from the farmer. We capped off the visit with a generous plate of various cheeses and bread, including the soft fresh cheese he had made before our eyes.

In the town of Orta we met our guide Caussette, an art historian who led us up the Sacro Monte (translated as sacred hill), a UNESCO world heritage site comprised of over twenty chapels built starting in 1583 as a pilgrimage site honoring the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Construction ended in 1788. Once again we were amazed to see well-preserved and -restored frescoes, along with three-dimensional sculpted scenes from the life of the saint.

Orta — officially Orta San Giulio — is a quiet medieval village on the lakeside, with winding cobbled streets and interesting architecture. A five-minute boat ride takes you to Isola San Giulio, with its basilica dating from the 4th century; most of the interior, however, variously dates from the 12th to the 17th century. There is a silver crypt down below containing the bones of the saint.

So ends another eventful day with my nine fellow travelers. I’m hoping for a bright day tomorrow, as it’s our last in the Lakes Region and I’d like to capture better images.

Exploring Como

On this rather murky morning, we hot-footed to the ferry pier to catch the 8:30 boat to Como, which sits at the southern end of the western fork of the lake. Lake Como forms a kind of inverted wishbone shape, with Bellagio taking pride of place right where the two arms separate. There we met Donatella, our lovely guide for the morning’s walk. We crossed the corner of the medieval part of the city to the funicular that took us up to Brunate, the highest point of the city, with its commanding views below. Donatella pointed out the graffiti that decorates so many homes here: not graffiti as we think of it, but graffiti — an Italian word, after all — in the form of elaborate decoration painted or etched on the outer walls of the large, mostly summer homes perched on the mountainside.

Back down at lake level we explored the medieval section of the city, including the 15th century Basilica Sant Abbondio and the Duomo, portions of which were built in the 10th century, with Donatella giving us a short art history lesson along the way, pointing out paintings executed by students of Leonardo da Vinci, who lived in Milan and visited Como frequently. The fresco at left below is an original from the 16th century, decorating a private home.

The two images directly above are of the courtyard of a medieval building not open to the public; but we were able to go in because Donatella knows the shopkeeper who owns the building. The graffiti achieves a level of artistry hard to describe, but examples are everywhere in the historic center. The map above depicts medieval Como, with its intersecting Roman roads.

Unfortunately, the light was flat and the atmosphere hazy today, so it was hard to capture the ancient beauty that is Como. A late afternoon ferry took us back to Bellagio, where the sun was shining brightly, for a rest before our last group dinner before we set off tomorrow for Lake Lugano, where we will dip our toes into Switzerland.

Back Across the Pond

After returning home from Athens I was grateful for a few nights in my own bed and the chance to do my laundry the right way, not in my hotel room sink. But my next adventure came up fast, and after three days at home off I went to Italy, for a walking trip in the Lakes District. My window seat on the flight from Zurich to Milan treated me to these views of the Alps.

The drive to Bellagio, on the shores of Lake Como was, first of all, hair-raising — fortunately, I wasn’t driving. But it was one of the most scenic drives I ever experienced. Consider that these shots were taken from a moving car… It’s no wonder George and Amal Clooney chose to have a home here.