I wrote a while back about how the way we identify places, specifically travel locations is stupid and limiting. I dubbed this problem the recommendation conundrum, noting how we concentrate on one or two specific aspects of a place, making it a must-see. For example, Rome is a city for history, Paris for art, etc. I sincerely hope that i never end up spending serious time in a city that can be truly condensed so minutely. As I just wrote, Rome can be equally fantastic without visiting the monuments, and after living in Paris, I know that while it is full of art, that isn’t what defines the city for everyone. In the end, as I wrote about Seville in relationship to this conundrum, anywhere you are is really just a backdrop for the what you engage in, and who you are there with.
Milan is one of those cities that gets dumped on by the oversimplification. I grew up knowing Milan as the fashion city, and anytime an American mentions a trip to Italy, the important stops are Rome, Florence, and Venice. So after an awesome weekend spent in Milan, my reaction is, “Come on everyone, where’s the love?” Milano is an awesome city.
Milan hadn’t factored into my plans, which only made it all the more thrilling. My two friends in Rome had to leave, and I didn’t feel like finding a hostel in a city I already had such a particular relationship with. So I hopped on the train and away I went. Free wi-fi on the train and I soon had a few apps with Milan maps and sights, recommendations from some friends who had studied there, a hostel, and a few recommendations in my journal from Matteo. The city was mine.
Traveling to hostels by yourself can be very delicate. I was only looking for a place to sleep, and this was lucky because there weren’t really any other English speakers or people looking to make friends at this hostel, and it had a really crummy open area. But it was cheap. In a different mood, I would have never wanted to stay here because it encouraged no interaction with anyone – in fact it was nearly impossible.
So I got arrived in the late evening, and prepared to explore and eat. A quick survey of the shitty hostel verified that there would be no companions for the incredible pizza I was about to have. On Matteo’s recommendation, I ate so well. Then I just wandered. One of the benefits of solo travel. You can go where you want, when you want.
Two things caught my eye and laid the foundation my immense liking of Milan. First was that it was an immensely bike friendly city. There were bikes everywhere, and cool ones at that. When I was in Paris, uncle Jess was dying to know if I saw cool old French bikes everywhere. Not so much – but there truly were so many cool old bikes in Milan. Bike lanes, wide roads and lack of hills obviously helps this culture, unlike Rome. Second was the wide, stately boulevards with gorgeous buildings. Distinct architecture, obvious class and style define the center of the city – consequently I was reminded of Paris. Hard to dislike a city after that.
I inevitably wound up in the center of the city, at the famous Galleria and Duomo. The luxury and design and detail is so immaculate, it is hard not to be awed. Its sad though, such a beautiful area marred by pickpockets and people hawking cheap products. The contrast between the wealthy and poor is highlighted by masses of people selling bracelets and plastic toys outside of Gucci and Armani. I understand the difficulty in their life, but it is nonetheless intrusive.
The next day I got to spend a lot of time with Ivan, my friend from Rome who, though he couldn’t host me there could hang with me in Milan. He knows it just as well. It is always nice to have a friend and a guide even. We strolled through a nice park, the castle and headed towards the Navigli district. What do you know, another Paris similarity! Its a lot like the Canal St Martin, a young hip neighborhood around a canal where you can eat and drink well. Loved it. Seeing some of these touristy sights was better with Ivan, because they became more of a backdrop than the focus of the day.
Ivan went to study, and I went to “study” aka gorge in visual awe at the Museo Novecento. Ivan had heard it sucks, but much like the modern museum in Rome, it had a great collection and was well curated. They had a ton of futurist works and I finally got to see the Boccioni sculpture that I’ve craved to see in person since I first learned about in class: Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. They had a ton of Fontana works (the guy that sliced through canvas), a huge 20th century collection, and the building had the best view of the Duomo in the city. Well worth three euros for an awesome afternoon.
Then I wandered through the Brera district, proof that people make experiences, not places. It was cool, but the kind of cozy neighborhood where you share a drink with a friend. Luckily next I headed back to Navigli to meet a new couchsurfer friend for aperitivo. My favorite Italian tradition, you pay a bit more for a good drink and access to an awesome Italian buffet. I made a new friend, watched the sunset over the canal and ate and drank well. Pretty much my ideal off bike situation.
After a bit of difficulty due to a dead phone, Ivan and I met at Colonne San Lorenzo for a few beers. In Rome we drank in front of churches, in Milan, Roman ruins. The columns are the best surviving ruins in the city, beautiful marble columns in the middle of the city. There must have been thousands of people there, drinking, dancing, chatting. No one was out of control and there were a few police with a watchful eye if things turned south. America could learn from this. Rather than squash what people want to do, encourage it safely. It will work.
I spent Sunday with a few last foods I wanted to eat, a few more sights and galleries, and a cool bike themed coffee shop where I hung out for a while. Wandering around, in shops and restaurants, it was clear that Milan had the right livable vibes for me. I stopped by the once a month antique market and saw plenty of cool things to furnish my future Milanese apartment. So yeah, what people say about a place, be it your friend, your neighbor, or in horrible circumstance Rick Steves, go and make your own decision. I could have so easily disregarded Milan and never visited, thank god that didn’t happen.