Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

The long-winded-niest travelogue on the internet!


Milan, Italy

Posted on 11/23/03

Once I’d mentally plotted a detailed and brutal revenge for that Nice train station ticket agent, I set out to explore Milan. The time it took for me to find a decent hotel and unload my things pretty much ate up all the remaining sunlight for the day. The sun sets before 5:00PM in November in southern Europe, meaning that any decent natural light is gone by 4:30 at the latest. Despite being on the tail end of rush hour, the streets of Milan seemed unusually deserted. This was slightly off-putting, but I had been patiently waiting for five months (Well, eight years, really) to eat a real Italian meal and top it off with some authentic chocolate gelato, so I wasn’t going to let some stupid Twilight Zone-like empty streets stand in my way.

I picked up a free copy of “Hello Milan” from my hotel lobby, which had a two page, color map in the middle and set out in the general direction of the heart of Milan. I walked almost 15 minutes before I found a place that was serving anything other than kebobs. It was expensive and all the front curtains were closed. I peeked through the little breaks between the curtains and it seemed like the kind of place that might not be too thrilled to see a travel-beaten backpacker saunter in with a filthy day bag and a copy of “Hello Milan” unfurled, flapping in the breeze, so I kept moving. I couldn’t get over how desolate the streets were at such a relatively early hour. Every once in a while I would happen upon a jogger or a lone woman who would swing exceedingly wide of my path as we passed. I’m about the least threatening looking guy in the history of guys, so I had to assume that this behavior was due to the fact that perhaps the streets of central Milan were not the best place for a stroll after dark.

I was also a little dejected about the fact that it was definitely colder in Milan than it was in Nice and it didn’t appear that things were going to get any better as I moved south. I had been clinging to the possibility that Italy would still have something resembling temperate weather in late fall, but as is often the case, my hopes and reality were about as interconnected as the U.S. Senate and common sense.

Nevertheless, I kept moving. I passed dozens of very fancy looking clothing stores which only succeeded in frustrating me further. You can find just about any kind of apparel imaginable in downtown Milan, but apparently to get something to eat, you need to go to the suburbs. There was one exception to this food shortage. Milan seemed to have a McDonald’s on every third block. There were more McDonald’s than there were people in downtown Milan at the time. What I wanted to know was, where were all these goddamn McDonald’s when I was going through that horrible burger withdrawal back in Lisbon??? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, God hates my ass.

Finally, I stumbled across an outdoor, mall-like area with a movie theater, more clothing stores (yawn) and, thank Christ, a decent restaurant. I studied the menu out in front for a long time. Long enough for one of the waiters to approach the window and stare back at me suspiciously, wondering what I was doing loitering so long by the front door. I gave a little wave and went back to translating the menu. As I had expected, having a respectable grasp on Spanish allows one to read Italian with almost the same skill. Well, at least the food part, anyway. I finally went in and treated myself to a weird seafood gnocchi. It would have been great with a glass of white wine, but I felt like it was too soon after the wine bender in Nice to tempt my cravings again.

After dinner, I managed to find a gelato place hidden between two shoe stores and ordered an excessively large cup of the chocolate. It took me nearly 30 minutes to eat it all. I was in heaven.

The next day, I had a very clear agenda set out. I had absorbed the entire “Hello Milan” during dinner the night before and had narrowed down Milan’s offerings to four sights that I thought would appeal to me. I was motivated to get through these sights in one day and depart the following morning as I was not too thrilled with the dark and dreary hotel I was staying in or its nightly rate.

My first stop was the train station to get a schedule for trains going to Verona the following morning. Normally, upon arrival in a city I flee the train station like the Japanese scurry from a Gozilla attack, but seeing the station again in a more calm state of mind allowed me to appreciate the fact that Milan had put a little thought and care in to its design. The station was as big as two airplane hangers. Its weakly lit, cavernous marble and stone interior, was very impressive and otherworldly. The public address system bounced around the strongest echo I have every heard indoors and all these elements together made the place seem like a set from “Blade Runner.”

While I wandered around the station looking for a schedule, I was able to observe Italians in their native habitats for the first time. Italians have this way of speaking that makes it seem as if they are super excited or really pissed off all of the time, with their voice volumes set on ‘11’ and arms gesticulating wildly, even if they are just talking about gardening. Until you catch on, this makes Italians seem like very tense, high strung people. The funniest part is when they behave the exact same way while talking on their cell phones. Voices raised, limbs flailing… The Italians are second only to the Norwegians (a distant second, albeit) with their irritatingly constant cell phone use. The big trend in Italy is to have a hands-free headset, so they can scream at each other about the weather and needlepoint while they ride their bikes or shop for the day’s groceries. With dozens of these hands-free, animated, one-sided conversations going on around you while you move through the streets, a recent arrival might be tempted to assume that Italy has an out-of-control schizophrenia problem.

Once I had my train schedule to Verona sorted out, I headed straight for the largest and most hyped tourist attraction, the Duomo Cathedral. Work on the Cathedral started in 1386, but on-again/off-again problems and varying degrees of motivation to see the project through to fruition over the centuries delayed completion of the Cathedral until 1960. Security was unusually tight around the Cathedral. Four armed, grim looking police officers were standing in the entryway of the Cathedral when I arrived and their mere presence was clearly making people second-guess whether or not to approach the giant bronze doors. Their stance and attitude seemed to convey the notion that nobody short of the Pope or Jesus was going to get passed them. I had already walked the entire circumference of the Cathedral and I knew that this was the only way to get in, so I walked cautiously toward the entrance. None of them even flinched as I closed in and passed by (sometimes it’s a plus to be the least threatening looking guy in the history of guys). My successful entrance into the cathedral was closely followed by several other jittery tourists that were encouraged by my uneventful passage by the Italian fuzz.

The interior was massive. Maybe even bigger than the train station. And quiet enough that you could hear every throat clearing and the shuffling of all the lazy walkers throughout the Cathedral (Petty Pet Peeve Tangent [PPPT]: Where and how do these “lazy walkers” grow up and reach adulthood without someone correctly their walking style? You know what I’m talking about… Those people who walk so that the balls of their feet never actually lose contact with the ground, so their gait is a non-stop shuffle, scraping about a month’s worth of rubber off of the soles of their shoes for every step? They must go through shoes like most people go through loaves of bread. This rhythmic shuffling is annoying enough on its own, but when you are in an otherwise dead silent, humungous, 600 year old cathedral, a single lazy walker can be as distracting as a root canal. End PPPT). As I walked (silent as a gnat fart, I might add) through the Cathedral, I realized that I had finally worked through my overdose of ancient churches and cathedrals. I was truly dumbfounded and in awe of the magnitude of the effort needed to build something this large, so long ago. Every inch of the wall, ceiling and floor space was crammed with paintings, frescos, stained glass windows, sculptures and carvings that on their own could take an hour or more to absorb. I had begun to refer to this sensation as the Louvre Effect, meaning that even if you had a week, you couldn’t give enough of a time commitment to soak up the quality of work, significance and historical merit bursting from every nook and cranny of the sight in question and the mere thought of trying to do so makes you legs go weak, your eyelids get heavy and your stomach start growling.

I snapped out of my tourist sensory overload long enough to try to take a few pictures that would do justice to the Cathedral before leaving the place feeling very small in the grand scheme of history and the world.

I sat out on the filthy front steps of the Cathedral, facing the Piazza Duomo, with about a thousand chain-smoking, truant teenagers and fell into a swoon of contemplation of my existence. My semi-deranged moment of clarity earlier in the year made me realize how short and fragile life could be. My new goal was to live every moment like it was my last (within reason) to the best of my abilities. But now I was overwhelmed with the concept that if, for example, one of the millions of pigeons in the Piazza happened to fly full speed into my eye, penetrated my brainstem and killed me, what would I have left behind? Several reliable, high speed electronic payment network connections? A handful of people with an improved command of the English language? Debilitating reams of jabbering? When most people start to feel this way, they slam on the brakes, find a spouse and sire as many kids as is socially acceptable. Having explored that avenue already, I knew that this was not the answer, at least not for me. I had to make my mark in another equally effective way, but how? Build my own freakishly large cathedral? Being a devout non-believer, this was probably not a good idea. Cure the common cold? Firebomb the Monte Carlo Casino?

I cleared my head momentarily by gobbling down a cup full of chocolate and coffee gelato and heading out to see yet another historical mind-bender, da Vinci’s “Last Supper” at the Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie. Lonely Planet said that one should call ahead and make reservations. This made no sense to me. Sure, the Mona Lisa required an interminable wait in line, but a reservation? In November? Well, perhaps they serve supper when you view the “Last Supper,” because sure enough when I arrived, despite being early afternoon, there was a “Sold Out” sign on the door. I salvaged the effort by stopping in the nearby Basilica of Sant’ Ambrogio. The crazily popular Ambrogio was elected bishop of Milan in 374 A.D. and is now their patron saint. Parts of the Basilica date from the 11th and 12th centuries and it features a crypt that displays the skeletal remains of Ambrogio himself. I rushed through this part. I had gotten four lifetimes worth of remains of the dead in the Paris Catacombs and I was not ready for a refresher, even if it was behind glass and solemnly posed.

Back in the world of the comfortably undead, I finished my walking tour of Milan with a tour of the Piazza Scala which features the world famous Teatro alla Scala (Scala Theatre) that is currently sealed up for restoration. After examining the exterior I quietly hoped that there was a whole lot more going on inside, because the exterior couldn’t have possibly been more dull and nondescript. I started strolling aimlessly through the giant, covered outdoor Galleria shopping mall, featuring (what else?) over priced clothing stores and then out and around the Old City for an overall impression.

Milan is in the midst of replacing their trams. Half the trams are new, sleek and futuristic. The other half are basically tanks on rails. The older trams, which if I had to guess, probably date back to the 1920s, look like they could go straight through a 12 inch brick wall without a scratch. They seem to be made completely out of reinforced steel and when they lumber by, the ground shakes. It must take a hell of a lot of electricity to power those bad boys down the street. I don’t know if they have any plans for the old trams, but if Italy ever gets pulled into armed conflict again, all they have to do is derail those trams, rivet gunner turrets to the roofs and bam, instant fleet of armored personnel carrier.

That night I set out again to enjoy more of the legendary Italian cuisine. I had passed by Trattoria la Baita earlier in the day on my way to the train station and noted the promising menu they had posted out front. I ordered the “ravioli with meat sauce” for my starter and out of pure curiosity I ordered the “ham omelet” as a main course. I was put on edge while I waited for my dinner by a woman and the two year old noise-maker with arms and legs that she had with her. This child was a non-stop screeching machine and the woman was completely oblivious to the disruption that the child was causing to the entire restaurant and probably the people outside at the tram stop. The noises that this kid emitted made the blaring from my Defcon mobile alarms seem almost peaceful in comparison.

The ravioli came. I have never had worse ravioli in my life. Worse than the Chef Boyardee that I had at a friend’s house when I was six that turned me off Italian food for 17 years. To make matters worse, the child’s screams were reaching a crescendo as her mom prepared her to leave the restaurant. I guess she didn’t want to lose her captive audience.

The noise-maker was mercifully dragged out of the restaurant as I was being served the most dull, tasteless and expensive omelet that I have ever eaten. I was desperate to salvage the meal at this point and ordered a dish of chocolate ice cream, gambling that unless it was homemade by a blind orangutan they couldn’t screw it up too much. Fortunately, I was right. It was tasty and almost killed the aftertaste from that awful ravioli. The bill came and I was stunned to see that I was being charged about $30 for the meal. I was expecting about $20, but I didn’t count on them gouging me for the water and the “coperto” - a charge that is supposedly for bread and table cloth laundering, but to me it felt like a thinly veiled compulsory tip - that brought the grand total to a ridiculous amount. I was very grumpy after this and vowed to exact therapeutic revenge by naming names and ripping Trattoria la Baita in print. Done.

The next morning, I slept in, ate a leisurely breakfast and hit the road for Verona.

Go to Vernoa

Back to the travelogue index


©Leif Pettersen 2012