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.
A heavy wooden door separated the convent from the outside world. As it closed behind me, I stood surrounded by silence. Flying anywhere from Australia takes a long time, and after a night and a day and a night I was exhausted. In true Roman style the taxi driver had careened down tiny streets where footpaths were more a suggestion than reality, before double-parking on the wrong side of the road.
The convent Le Soure di Lourdes was just a short walk from the top of the Spanish Steps. Once inside, the world became peaceful. Large wooden doors shut out the chaos of the street, and I stood in the quiet of a marble foyer.
We sailed into Livorno under a blazing Mediterranean sun. Sailing these waters is like sailing into the past – long stretches of barren coastline, little villages marked with their groves of olives and grapes, the sails of small boats dotting the water. Livorno is apparently the second largest shipping port in Tuscany – but a port where no work seems to get done.
The area here has been occupied since Neolithic times, with pieces of copper, ceramics and carved bones found in nearby caves. The Romans named the cove here Liburna, in reference to a ship used by their Navy. The town has been owned by Pisa, Milan, Genoa and Florence. Under the Medici the port expanded, and two Medici fortresses still dominate the port: the Fortezza Nuovo and the Fortezza Vecchia (Cosmio I had a palace built within the Fortress Vecchia). By the end of the 17th C had become a major trading port. (On a side note, the Italian Communist Party was founded here in 1921.)
The wind swept over the square outside the Upper Basilica, filling the sky with grey clouds. St Francis sat astride his horse with bowed head. This statue captures the moment when, in 1204, the saint heard the voice of God telling him to leave the war and return home. The grass shivered and swayed; the rain was not far away.
I hastened into the cathedral. Earlier that day I’d watched as would-be pilgrims arrived by the busload, the Franciscan friars who give tours around the Basilica struggling to keep their herds together. It seems, however, few visitors choose to stay overnight, especially as the days of autumn lengthen. By this late hour barely a handful of tourists wandered the aisles.
In the middle of the Tiber lies the picturesque Isola Tiberina. Even today the island remains an oasis in the chaos of modern Rome. On one side of the island lies the still medieval neighbourhood of Trastevere; on the other it’s but a short walk to the Colosseum and Forum.
The Isola Tiberina embraces two millennia of Roman history, for it has been important to Rome from her beginnings as a small river-side settlement through to her growth into the Eternal City. Founded in myth in and legend, the foundations of the island date back to the Iron Age – long before Romulus and Remus were mothered by their She-wolf.
Ah, Naples. Something to see at every corner. Reluctantly leaving the Spanish Quarter, we returned to the Via Toledo. Another time, I promised myself. I will return to Naples and spend days exploring here.