Milan Italy, Walking in Da Vinci's Steps
Updated: Nov 25, 2020
Milan Italy usually conjures up images of tall, skinny runway models wearing oversized sunglasses while indoors during fashion week. Based upon the amount of wannabe Instagram models all posing in the same cliched poses at all exact same spots, I'd say this stereotype of Milan is very alive and well for a lot of people. This is the Milan a wanted absolutely nothing to do with. After you get past the mob of shady characters offering you "friendship" string bracelets and the queued up 20 year olds waiting to take the same picture with the same fake expression as the previous 40 women, you'll find a Milan with a rich history that's impacted the culture of the entire world.
Piazza del Duomo and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
I was in Milan for a business meeting, and I was fortunate to extend for a few extra days to explore the city that was once the capital of the Western Roman Empire. I was staying at the Grand Hotel Villa Torretta in Sesto San Giovanni, a short metro ride away from the Piazza del Duomo. I've been really impressed with the train systems in Italy, they're easy to understand, reasonably priced and usually on time. Getting off at my metro stop, I climbed the stairs and emerged into the light of the spectacular Piazza del Duomo and had my first glimpse of the Milan Cathedral, or Duomo di Milano. This Gothic style church is the largest in Italy and is about 600 years old. The piazza is surrounded by more modern building, but this space dominated by the cathedral. On the highest of the many pinnacles, you can spot the glint of gold on the Madonna statue, marking the highest point of the structure. The piazza is usually very busy with people snapping photos, sitting on benches or having an Italian drink in one of the nearby outdoor cafes. On the left side of the piazza, you'll find the ornate entrance to the vaulted glass ceilings Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. This is Italy's oldest shopping mall, built in the late 1800's and is filled with local shops and restaurants. The glass ceilings were heavily damaged in WW2, but they've since been restored to the former glory and still attract the packs of aforementioned Instagram models.
Sforza Castle and Leonardo da Vinci's Early Work
A short walk from the Milan Cathedral through the city will bring you to the impressive and sprawling Sforza Castle. This walled fortification has changed hands numerous times throughout history and it now houses several museums within it's high walls. You can purchase a ticket at the main entrance, and exhibits include famous paintings, sculptures, tapestries, Egyptian artifacts and a very impressive music instrument display. Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned here early in his life and one of his projects was decorating the walls and ceilings of a large room in the tower with realistic vines, trees and branches. Incredibly this was soon completely painted and plastered over when the caste was taken over by the French and the space was used to stable horses! The work here of da Vinci was forgotten and remained covered for several hundred years until plans began to restore the castle. The original work of da Vinci was barely detectable under the paint and plaster, but restoration processes were able to uncover most of it, including original black and white sketches outlining the project created by da Vinci himself. The museum features and interactive light show in the room that lets you visualize how it was painted and restored on the actual surfaces of the building.
Santa Maria delle Grazie and The Last Supper
Walking out through the same gates that Leonardo surely did countless times, you emerge into an enormous park with manicured lawns and gardens. Oddly enough, the entire park is a free wifi hot spot and you'll find lots of people working on laptops on picnic tables throughout the park. While the park is only a little over 100 years old, the city of Milan exhibits a lot of notable sculptures within the gardens. The Arch of Peace (Arco della Pace) is located on the far side of the park opposite the castle. From here is set out to see one of da Vinci's most famous works, The Last Supper. This mural is located on a wall in a dining room of Santa Maria della Grazie, a church and convent. It's a profound feeling looking up at this work of art, wondering if da Vinci knew or understood how this painting would effect the world, hundreds of years later. The fact that we still have this to view is just short of a miracle, considering the
extremely poor treatment it's faced in the past 500 years. French soldiers threw stones and attempted to carve out the apostles eyes, and after it was used as a stable and then a prison! Several restoration attempts have cracked or destroyed parts of the painting, and nearly the entire building it resides in was bombed and destroyed in WW2. Fortunately, conservation of this piece of world culture and history has been treated much better in recent times and this work of art should remain visible to the public for hundreds of years to come. There is an admission fee, and a you can purchase tickets in advance online. It tends to sell out, so make sure you reserve your spot as early as possible.
Finally, no travel post about Italy would be complete without at least one food mention. Italy is by far my favorite food destination, and for good reason, almost every city has it's own distinct culture and foods. While in Milan, I wanted to eat where the locals ate, and I found my way to the small locals restaurant Salsamenteria di Parma (Via San Pietro all'Orto 9, 20121,Milan). Like many local spots, it's not the fancy exterior that impresses, it's the fresh generations old recipes inside that count. I usually try and ask the servers or locals what they'd recommend if they were eating there, and in this case the waitress pointed me in the direction of the tripletta parmigiana. Fresh pumpkin ravioli, ricotta cheese with savory culatello cream sauce with a local bottle of Lombardy wine,Sforzato di Valtellina and you have the kind of Italian meal you don't find at the Olive Garden back in the states.
Where We Stay: Grand Hotel Villa Torretta (Via Milanese, 3, 20099 Sesto San Giovanni MI, Italy). A 17th-century building that once belonged to Milan's most famous and wealthiest families. About a 10 minute walk to the M5 metro Line.
Where We Eat: Salsamenteria di Parma (Via San Pietro all'Orto 9, 20121,Milan). Fresh pasta
Piz (Via Torino 34, 20123, Milan) Fresh Local Pizza