Saturday, June 12, 2010

This morning I’m traveling by train to Milan. It’s a three hour journey, so there is ample time to sit back, read, and reflect. I pull out my iPod and tap on the Kindle reader. Soon, I’m back with my old friend Henry James, immersed in his Italian Hours.

When it comes to Milan, he says, “in its general aspect still lingers a northern reserve which makes the place rather perhaps the last of the prose capitals than the first of the poetic.” After spending yesterday afternoon staring across the Gulf of Poets, and finding all of the Ligurian coast perfectly disposed to lyrical verse, this has me worried. I’m reading between the lines, and Milan doesn’t sound very interesting.

I know just four things about Milan—it’s a large city, long considered the financial capital of Italy; with names such as Ferragamo, Versace, and Valentino, it has a major influence in the world of fashion; it is home to Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”; and it has a famous cathedral. Altogether these seem like promising ingredients, worth a three night stay.

My entrance into Milan through the massive Centrale train station is not auspicious, however. It’s early afternoon and the weather has turned. The crystal blue skies I enjoyed in the Cinque Terre have been replaced by a suffocating blanket of grey.

I’m staying nearby at the Hotel Berna. It’s a nice place—quite luxurious on the inside, actually—but as in most cities the area surrounding the station feels a bit seedy. There is a Thai massage parlor next door and, according to the sign, a “Sexy Shop” across the street.

After checking in and unpacking my bag, I buy a day pass for the Metro and ride the yellow line four stops down to the Duomo. When I emerge from the subway below, the massive cathedral stands before me and at first all I can think to compare it to is a wedding cake. It is, perhaps, an overused comparison when it comes to ornate architecture. Londoners refer to the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace as the “wedding cake,” just as Romans call the Vittorio Emanuele II monument in Piazza Venezia the “wedding cake.” There is even a private home in Kennebunk, Maine that locals dub the “wedding cake.” But here I’ll allow myself some latitude. After all, Twain suggested it more than a century ago in the Innocents Abroad. He thought it was “a delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath!” and I find myself hard pressed to improve upon the metaphor.

Reaction to the cathedral has always been mixed. It took workmen nearly 600 years to complete it, using a jumble of architectural styles, and even then it required a direct order from Napoleon Bonaparte to finish it off in 1805. John Ruskin, that cranky arbiter of good taste, hated it. Henry James was more circumspect, declaring it a “structure not supremely interesting, not logical, not… commandingly beautiful, but grandly curious and superbly rich… If it had no other distinction it would still have that of impressive, immeasurable achievement… a supreme embodiment of vigorous effort.” It’s hardly a ringing endorsement, but as for me, I like it well enough.

The interior is a massive cavern, supported by fluted columns of grey stone that rise from the floor like giant sequoias, between which oil paintings are suspended. There is some impressive stained glass, a graphic sculpture of a flayed St. Bartholomew carrying his skin slung over his shoulder, and an interesting treasury below with jeweled goblets and reliquaries. But the real highlight lies above, way above. I make my way back outside and around the corner where I purchase a ticket for the elevator that speeds me to the roof. From here, visitors can walk among the flying buttresses, admiring the thousands of statues that stand like sentries at the top of lacy spires. A little girl nearby says in amazement to her mother: “But why did they put them all the way up here where no one can see them?”

Back on the piazza, I walk next door to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a 19th century shopping arcade named for the first king of a unified Italy. The soaring space inside is covered by a vaulted glass ceiling and it reminds me of a cathedral, although clearly it is the god of commerce that is worshipped here.

I scan the mosaic tile on the floor, looking for the coat of arms of the city of Torino. There is a bull in the center, and in my guidebook it says that if you place your right heel on the animal’s testicles and spin around, it will bring good luck. I’m not in the least superstitious, but I give it a whirl anyway, figuring it can’t hurt. It can’t hurt me, in any event. Unfortunately, a century or more of this clearly has hurt the bull, because the poor beast’s underbelly has worn away into a deep crater.

I walk around the Galleria a bit, but I’m too timid to actually enter any of the shops, which include Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton. There is, however, a McDonalds, and I find the juxtaposition so intriguing that I’m tempted to grab an early dinner there. Unfortunately, I settle on the nearby Caffè Letterario instead.

Every region of Italy has its own signature dishes. In Rome it’s saltimbocca and in Milan it’s ossobuco—a classic braised veal shank, usually served with saffron risotto. This is what I have my heart set on, although in retrospect a Big Mac would have been the better culinary choice. Yes, I am eating in the stylish Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which has its own rewards, but the food is horrible, and to add insult to injury, wildly overpriced.

Later, I stumble across a blog called The Simplistic Aphrodisiac. The author visited the same restaurant just two days before me and he says that the experience was “memorable,” but for all the wrong reasons. “After having had so many delightful meals throughout the trip, I finally hit a brick wall with this deceitfully established restaurant in downtown Milan.” And boy, does that ever hit the proverbial nail on the head!

As I walk down Via Dante toward the Castello Sforzesco, I find myself falling into a sour mood. The street itself fails to impress and just as I reach the grounds of the castle, they are pulling the gates closed for the day. On the way back to the metro and the Hotel Berna, with its “Sexy Shop” across the street, I give in and finally admit that I don’t like Milan.

I wonder if I somehow overslept on the train and slipped quietly over the border into, say, Switzerland. Henry James was right. Milan, indeed, symbolizes the “supreme embodiment of vigorous effort.” Its solid streets, banks, and shops represent “difficulties mastered, resources combined, labour, courage and patience”—all admirable qualities, to be sure, but as travelers we seldom want to visit such joyless places.

My Italy exists in poetry. When Milan speaks, I hear only prose.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

I wake up this morning determined to do one thing. Leave Milan. Yes, I’m holding a grudge, and it is an admittedly hasty and irrational one, but nonetheless I’ve scratched the remaining items off my to-do list. The Brera Art Gallery and the La Scala theatre museum? Nixed. I’m fleeing town to spend the afternoon on the shores of Lake Como instead.

First, though, I need to speed through breakfast, which is shame since the Hotel Berna lays out a mighty fine spread. I have a 9:30 AM reservation to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, and given how hard those slots are to obtain, I don’t want to take any chance of being late. I had tried to book online months ago, but every slot on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday appeared to be full. It was a tip on the TripAdvisor forums that led me to call directly, and I have to be there thirty minutes early to pick up my ticket.

I take the metro’s green line down to Cadorna and walk from there, first along Via Giosue Carducci, and then Corso Magenta. There’s some ongoing construction in the piazza in front of the church and in navigating around it, I happen by a bus stop with two large posters advertising Almo Nature, alimenti per cani e gatti, dal loro punto di vista—“food for cats and dogs, from their point of view.” The ads depict humans wearing Venetian-style animal masks, posed amorously under the tagline l’amore… love. In each, there is a woman who is topless. I know that Europeans have a more relaxed view of these things and that they consider Americans to be rather prudish when it comes to nudity—and perhaps we are—but I still think it’s strange, and not just because of its proximity to a major religious site. It’s just such an odd way to sell pet food.

I collect my ticket at the front desk and read some displays on the history of the church as I wait for my time to be called. Leonardo painted “The Last Supper” over a span of two years beginning in 1496. It’s on a wall at the far end of the refectory, which was used as the convent’s dining hall. I hadn’t known this, and it makes the subject matter surprisingly appropriate, for it is, after all, the depiction of a meal.

Rather than traditional fresco, Leonardo used an experimental technique, painting tempura directly on dry plaster, and the application caused problems from the start. By the late-19th century when Henry James visited Milan, the work was in a state of serious deterioration. He wrote that it was “an illustrious invalid whom people visit to see how he lasts, with leave-taking sighs and almost death-bed or tiptoe precautions.” For my tour group, that includes standing in a dehumidification chamber before entering the room. And photography is, of course, strictly off limits.

When we enter at last, it takes my eyes a moment to adjust to the dim lighting. It’s a short visit, limited to just 15 minutes, and like with the Mona Lisa in Paris and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, it feels surreal to be standing here looking at something I’ve seen a thousand times before, on T-shirts, magnets, and computer mouse pads, to say nothing of the countless parodies, including an Annie Leibowitz version starring the cast of The Sopranos.

I’m standing with an English-speaking guide and she tells us that Leonardo has captured the moment when Christ says to his disciples: “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” The movement around the table is dramatic and it tells of their reaction. All of this would be easier to appreciate if our well-meaning narrator would just stop talking. She quizzes us incessantly, and valuable minutes slip by as she prods us to play what amounts to a hidden object game. Who can spot the salt on the table? How about a knife? An orange? When no one answers, she is clearly annoyed. With so little of the original paint left, and so many different hands at work in so many restorations, it’s simply hard to tell.

The miracle, however, is that it has survived at all, and not just because of Leonardo’s poor technique. The work was once considered so inconsequential that Christ’s feet were actually cut off to make room for a doorway. During the Napoleonic war, French troops used the space as a stable. And it only survived an Allied bomb during the Second World War because of some carefully placed sandbags.

I’m glad I came, and for this, at least, I may reconsider my harsh views on Milan, but for now Lake Como beckons.

My visit to Santa Maria delle Grazie has been so short that for a moment I think I might actually make the 10:20 AM train to Varenna, and I would have had the lines for the self-service ticket machines been shorter at Centrale station. The next train is at 12:20 PM, so I use the time to grab a panino and to pre-buy some train tickets for tomorrow.

The journey to Varenna is a memorable one, with increasingly beautiful scenery out the window. In just over an hour, I’ve left the traffic and noise of Milan far behind. I walk from the train station down to the docks, and stare out across one of the oldest, deepest, and loveliest glacial lakes in Italy. There are lumpy mountains all around, made of bald rock and half covered by a carpet of vegetation. As I look north towards the Alps, I can see remnants of winter at the highest elevations, although the white of the snow is melting into low lying clouds.

Just across the lake, I spy an impossibly tiny church—the Shrine of San Martino—hugging the cliffs above the town of Griante. Twain called Lake Como a “paradise of tranquil repose” in the Innocents Abroad, and waxed poetically about the “music of the vesper bells… stealing over the water.” It may be too early in the day for that, but surely he’s captured the spirit of the place.

At a small ticket counter on the waterfront, I buy a ferry pass to Bellagio. The lake is shaped like an upside-down Y and Bellagio rests at the fork, on a peninsula of land known as the “Larian Triangle.” The area has always been a magnet for celebrities and aristocrats, and when seen from the water, their lakefront villas—like something out of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”—stir my envy.

Clouds are starting to gather overhead, so in the event of rain, I decide to stroll through the Villa Melzi Gardens first before heading into town. The estate was built in the early 19th century for Francesco Melzi d’Eril, a politician who served as Vice President of the Italian Republic during the years of Napoleonic rule.

It’s a beautiful space, built in a neo-classical style that feels more English than Italian. There are lily ponds and rock gardens, a shaded path along the lake, and an octagonal gazebo with a sky blue roof. And everywhere, it seems, there are elegant marble statues and flowers at the peak of their color. I once complained about the Boboli Gardens in Florence, and my grumbling seems even more justified now that I have a point of comparison.

When I leave I’ve already filled the third of my camera’s 8 GB storage cards. I reach into my pocket. It’s on to the fourth!

I walk back into Bellagio proper and wander its hilly lanes. I visit the 12th century Romanesque church of San Giacomo, which has an ornate golden altar and a superb apse mosaic with medieval knights in shining armor, but as in the Cinque Terre there really aren’t any major historical or cultural sites here. It’s simply a charming place to wile away the afternoon. I buy a lavender scarf made locally of raw silk, and before I go, I break for a late lunch under the awnings of Ristorante Suisse. It seems an appropriate choice being this close to the border with Switzerland, and I feast on what would seem to be a culinary compromise—a plate of fettuccine with sundried tomatoes, capers, caramelized onions, and goat cheese.

I reboard the ferry, and once back at the dock in Varenna—the self-proclaimed “jewel” of Lake Como—I walk along the lakeside promenade and into the town, which is smaller and quieter than Bellagio, more fishing village than resort. There is a small harbor where a collection of park benches face out toward the lake, and I sit there for a while, relaxing and eating a dish of chocolate and hazelnut gelato from a shop nearby.

It’s just after 6:00 PM when I head back to Milan on the train. The rain has held off and there is still light left in the sky when I arrive back at the Hotel Berna to tuck in early for the night.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

I wish I hadn’t said anything.

When I turned in last night I noticed a hole in my bed sheet. OK, so it was worse than that. There was a small and deliberate hole cut out of the middle, about one inch square, but also a huge chunk hacked out of the side. It’s worn and frayed at the edges, so it must have been laundered that way at least several times and still reused.

This morning I decide to take it downstairs to bring it to the attention of the front desk, where I know they speak English well. The clerk is appalled and he immediately calls for the head of housekeeping who, when she sees it, slaps a hand to her mouth and cries “Mamma Mia!” Soon, I’m told that the maid who serviced my room has been summoned to account for her mistake and she’s in tears.

I feel just terrible. I’m not in the least angry about the situation. I just want to make sure that the offending sheet is taken out of circulation, but the hotel insists on taking 50% off the bill for my last night’s stay, apologizing profusely. It’s a kind gesture and I leave feeling warm toward the staff at the Hotel Berna. I just hope the maid is all right.

I walk the short distance to Centrale station in Milan and wait for the 9:35 AM Eurostar train to Venice. This is the last leg of my journey; from there I’ll fly home. In truth, I’m growing weary at this point in my travels, but I’m also loath to see it end.

When I arrive at Santa Lucia station at noon, it’s pouring down rain—which after so many days of fine weather was bound to happen sooner or later. To save a few Euros for arriving mid-week, I booked a 72-hour Venice Connected transport pass online and now I have to pick it up. With my printed confirmation in hand, the instructions say to look for “the ferry embarkation point to the left of the station.” Unfortunately, I take that to mean to the left of the station as I depart down the steps. By the time I correct the error and walk back and to the right, I’m soaking wet and so is my luggage.

As I wait for the vaporetto that will take me to San Stae, I think about the contrast between this arrival in Venice and my last. On my first visit in 2008, I likened the experience to a C.S. Lewis novel. It was as if I had walked through a wardrobe and found the world of Narnia on the other side, and it made my heart leap with excitement. Today, I can’t help feeling a bit disappointed. There’s no time to stand in awe at the Grand Canal. It’s all I can do to manage my luggage and camera case and umbrella in the rain.

Still, the Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo is as welcoming as I remembered, and like in Florence I’m ushered to the very same room I inhabited two years before. It’s comforting to mingle the fond memories I have of that trip with those I’m currently making. I change shoes and do the best I can to prepare for the weather by sliding a plastic sleeve over my camera, and then head out into the torrent.

I decide to walk toward St. Mark’s Square, and along the way stop at Cicchetteria Da Jorghe for lunch. They serve what the waiter calls a “special toast” and it’s delicious—an open faced sandwich with tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers, and basil, along with a variety of less identifiable but equally savory ingredients. I feel better having something warm in my stomach.

When I reach the square, it too is a different kind of experience this time around. On my first trip, the weather was glorious for four days straight, so to see Venice in the rain is to embrace a different Venice, and it has a casual charm of its own. After all, this is a city for which flooding is not an annoyance, or even an inconvenience, but a mere fact of life, and because of that it seems more real and less like a theme park for tourists.

I take shelter under the long arcade in St. Mark’s Square and circle around window shopping. At Pauly & Co. the art glass is a thing of absolute wonder. There is large fish, a centipede, and a series of balloon animals that would surely pass for the real thing. I’d be tempted to take one home if the price tags didn’t run into thousands of Euros, but they do. And that’s just that beginning. There’s a green fedora for €7,500, and a folded shirt, complete with buttons, for €8,100. They’ve even made what would appear to be Cinderella’s glass slipper, and at nearly €11,000 I would need to marry Prince Charming to be able to afford it.

When the rain slows, I venture west toward the Accademia bridge and the art museum on the far side. It’s a steaming mass of humanity on a day like this, and I should have known better. Crowds are seeking shelter from the storm, and the air inside is thick and humid. I follow behind a woman with a blue guidebook in her hand. She has three children in tow—one a surly teenager, the other two much younger. We are standing in a room filled with Renaissance art and she spins them around searching only for the pieces Rick Steves recommends. There are so many Madonnas and Bambinos to choose from, and she insists on finding the one by Giovanni Bellini. It’s like playing a game of Where’s Waldo, only more challenging and less fun. I glance over at the kids and feel sure they’d agree. I could use a Bellini myself right about now, but the one I have in mind is more liquid in form.

Wanting fresh air, I take a short walk toward the church of Santa Maria della Salute, whose dome is, at long last, free of scaffolding. It’s nearly 6:00 PM and the rain seems to have come to a reluctant end. There is a classical guitarist playing nearby and I catch snatches of music as I wander in and out of shops in search of Murano glass jewelry.

For dinner, I already have plans in mind. A colleague from work recently returned from Venice and he’s recommended a pizzeria called Al Nono. I looked up the restaurant before leaving home and have a computer printout from Google Maps to guide me, but this is Venice, after all. There is nothing as precise as a street address because there aren’t any real streets. Instead, there is a number associated with a particular neighborhood, or sestiere. The one I’m looking for is Santa Croce 2338. Google Maps places it just to the west of Ca’ Foscari, and if I can find Campo Santa Margherita, it’s not far from there.

Finding the campo is easy enough because it’s unusually large, but Al Nono is no where to be found. A young couple sees me squinting at a map and stops to ask for help. They’ve checked into a hostel for the night, but went out exploring and now they can’t find it again. The best that I can do is to show them where we’re standing, but that basic logistical fact is of little help because they don’t know where they’re going, and quite frankly neither do I. I wish them well, they shrug with a cheerful resignation, and I continue my hunt for number 2338.

Eventually, I can feel myself getting warmer. I’m into the 2000s and then the 2300s, but that exact number simply doesn’t exist. Frustrated, I decide to give up and zigzag back to the hotel.

At the front desk of the Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo, I ask the clerk if he’s ever, by chance, heard of a pizzeria called Al Nono. “Of course,” he says, “it’s just around the corner.” Incredulous, I ask him if he’s kidding and he says no, it’s literally three turns away. He pulls out a map and a pen and shows me. One. Two. Three.

So much for Google Maps. Go figure.

Perhaps it’s because of the damp weather, or perhaps it because of the epic quest that brought me here, but Al Nono fails to live up to expectations. It’s a cozy place with a lively clientele made up mostly of locals, but the food is middling. I order a pizza with prosciutto, pepperoni, and mushrooms, but find that the tomato sauce is bland and the mushrooms rather soggy.

When I leave the restaurant I look overhead and see that the sky is continuing to improve. The night is still young, so I wind my way back to St. Mark’s Square to hear the orchestras play. Lavena’s is midway through “Skoda Lasky” when I arrive. It’s a Polish tune that we’re more likely to recognize as the “Beer Barrel Polka,” and before long all that I have ever known and loved about Venice has come rushing back, and I find myself tapping my toe in time to the music.