Walking on the Rooftop of the Duomo, Milan
It took a while for Milan to grow on me. The city lacks the obvious historical romance of a Paris, or the vibrancy of a Barcelona. Her charms and delights lie hidden, separated by a sprawling metropolis. Milan is not walkable like Florence, and she lacks the quaintness of a small town such as Assisi.
It’s easy to find the heart of a small town, where locals live and promenade of an evening, and the cafés and restaurants are full of locals and tourists alike. In contrast, the first face Milan presents to the visitor is of a large, rambling city, filled with dirt and pollution, and buildings which have seen better days. Yet scattered through this lie pockets of wonders, such as the Duomo, the area around Sforza Castle, her art galleries – and, of course, Leonardo’s Last Supper.
Along the Corso Buenos Aires, famed for its shopping, many shops stood empty as the homeless and the disposed drifted by, past the beggars and the buskers. Arriving in the middle of a heat wave didn’t help. The air was hot and muggy, and I dripped with sweat within moments of leaving our apartment.
Yet the more time I spent here, the more Milan grew on me. It can take a while to get a handle on any large city, to discover her districts and her boulevards, how she changes with the hours, to find a local market or a regular place for breakfast. Getting around on the metro definitely helped. The system was quick and easy to use, and a train was always arriving whatever platform I went on. Just as in Paris, I simply headed in the direction of the last station on the line. (I once travelled with a friend who refused to use the metro. She could not embrace the elegant simplicity of listing just the last station, and not all the others on the line, overwhelming. She would prefer to walk the length of Paris rather than risk being lost forever in those underground passageways. We haven’t travelled together since.)
I emerged from the metro at the Piazza Duomo. This grand and spacious square is the most palpable heart of Milan. On one side stands the iron and glass symbol of a newly unified Italy, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. The building is a work of art in itself. This area has been the religious centre of Milan since the 4th C (although the world of finance has frequently tried to muscle its way in). From atop the cathedral a giant statue of the Madonna watches over and protects the city.
Milan’s Duomo is the fourth largest in Europe (after the Vatican, St Paul’s and Seville Cathedral) and worthy of all the praise lavished upon her. The unique colour arises from the marble used in her construction, a softer, more porous stone than those used for example, in Florence’s Duomo. As a result, Milan’s Duomo remains in a constant state of repair, for the soft stone dissolves under the pollution of the city and slowly washes away. Every piece of marble needs to be replaced over a 200 year period. She is always covered in scaffolding, and it is easy to spot the differences between the old and new pieces. The damage done by bombs during WWII can still be seen by the main entrance.
Perhaps unique to Milan, the roof (or terraces) of the Duomo is open for visitors to explore at their will, and not simply follow a set walk around the parapets as in other major cathedrals, such as Paris’ Notre Dame. Of course, actually getting to the roof involved the rigmarole of buying a ticket. Firstly, the ticket office was closed for a fire drill. When the doors finally opened, the waiting crowd simply surged in, flowing over the officials trying to bring order to the chaos. I braved an automatic ticket machine simply to save time and to escape the increasingly impatient crowds; what the machine didn’t tell me was how the terraces were actually closed that day.
No matter; my ticket was valid for 24 hours, so I returned the next morning just as the terraces opened. This proved a perfect decision; there were no crowds, and the heat of summer had yet to bake the roof. Indeed, when I alighted from the lift (having decided to be lazy and pay the few extra euros so as not to take the stairs) there was almost a cool breeze.
The view proved stunning. Milan stretched below me to the horizon; in the distance were the Alps (too often hidden by clouds and pollution). It made me realise the enormity of the city.
Yet what I found most fascinating was being able to see details in the stonework and the statues all too often hidden from view. I found thousands of different faces amongst the angels, warriors, queens and all manner of people populating that roof, along with the animals, grotesques and demons, cherubs and cardinals. There was the sheer beauty of the spires when seen up close; I even found dates on the stonework, showing when they were last replaced. Just before sunset is reputedly another great time to visit, when the stones are bathed in hues of orange and gold and pink.
Milan may be a difficult city to love, but I am so glad to have gone. Seeing Leonardo’s Last Supper was a life-changing experience; and there was much I didn’t have time to find and will come back to see. Spending my last morning atop the cathedral was the perfect way to end my visit, and to inspire me to return.
The Literary Traveller
As the centenary of the end of WWI draws nigh, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is worth revisiting. It goes beyond the futility, the absurdity and the banality of war to exploring the tragedy of human existence. Much of the tale comes from Hemingway’s own experiences as an ambulance driver in Italy during the war. The novel follows the experiences of Lieutenant Frederick Henry; when he is wounded he is sent to Milan to recover, and much of the story takes place here. The novel was banned in Italy until 1948. Many critics cite A Farewell to Arms as Hemingway’s best work.
Please click the link if you are inspired to travel, or simply looking for ideas or advice.