travelogue viva italia!
My first introduction to Italy came in sixth grade when I snuck under the bedcovers with a flashlight to read a forbidden Mills and Boons paperback. Now that I sit at my desk writing, I cannot (for the love of God) remember the name of the book. Yet I still remember Lorenzo, the Venetian Adonis who captured the heart of Meredith, a prim and proper English schoolteacher. But what I still remember today, more than Lorenzo, are the detailed descriptions of Italian architecture, villas and art. And it is after having read that book, that I made up my mind at the age of thirteen that Italy was THE country I wanted to visit. My romance in France, skiing in the Swiss Alps, and sunbathing in Fiji could all wait. Italy- I needed to see.
After starting college, after three art history courses, and even two Italian courses, what started as a teenage schoolgirl's dream, ended up becoming the determined resolve of a college student studying Fashion Design. After all who could blame me? Milan is one of the first fashion capitals of the world. And as it just so happens, it is in Italy. Thus when an opportunity arose for me to visit Milan this summer, I jumped at it. And that is precisely where my journey began…
Memoirs of Milan
When I landed at Malpensa Airport in Milan I was expecting Renaissance arches and Gucci gift shops. But I was greeted by grey walls and green signs, both equally dismal looking. I took in a deep breath and calmed myself. After all one should never judge a country by its airport! I cleared customs easily and took the Malpensa Express to the city center. My friend Umberto was there, waiting to pick me up. It was when we got out of the train station that I was hit by the full force of Milan. Or should I say heat instead of hit? After all that was what struck me. The Milanese heat of June will put Dhaka to shame. Umberto assured me that this had never happened before. Great, I thought, I bring bad weather with me! As I got over the heat stroke I looked around. I didn't need to visit any museum to be assailed by art, I realised. The centuries old architecture of the city did that- all I needed to do was walk around.
During my stay in Milan I realized that while Milan was both the fashion and financial capital of Italy, for a tourist it only held a handful of attractions. And on a Sunday when I went to explore, I realised that all the city's sights could be seen in a day. There are in fact five main places to visit.
My day started at the Castello Sforzesco, a huge castle that houses various art galleries and has a beautifully sprawling green backyard. It is ideal for museum lovers since one ticket buys entrance to a dozen museums. From there I walked to the Palazzo di Brera that is home to both art students and artists such as Raphael, Goya, Caravaggio and van Dyck. The Pinacoteca di Brera, as the gallery is known, is home to hundreds of Renaissance and other periodical artwork. In fact its collection is so huge that not everything can be displayed at once. What Sforzesco lacked in art, Brera made up. I knew that it was time to say arrivederci to art and visit the core of Milan.
And by the core, I quite literally mean the heart of Milan- the Duomo or Cathedral around which the city was centered. Italians are very strict on religious etiquette. Hence I was relieved that both my shoulders and legs were covered when I walked past a group of tourists who were refused entry because of their attire. The cathedral is a sprawling catacomb of religious art, paraphernalia and worshippers. And if there is anything more breathtaking than the inside of the cathedral, it is the roof. An elevator ride to the top not only gave me a bird's eye view of Milan but allowed me to see the artistically carved towers and turrets of the Duomo at a much closer range. When I was finally back on real ground my map beckoned me to visit Teatro alla Scala a block away. Standing demurely in front of a watchful statue of Leonardo da Vinci himself, the Teatro alla Scala is one of the grandest opera theaters of all time. A peek from one of the audience boxes gave me a breathtaking view of the hundreds of other audience boxes waiting in a circle all around the main stage. La Scala also houses a museum that showcases costumes, musical instruments and portraits of past performers. For opera lovers this museum is a definite walk through history.
My excursions in the heart of Milan winded down to one last stop, Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie- home to Da Vinci's famous L'Ultima Cena or The Last Supper. After the huge success of The Da Vinci Code, it now takes one month in advance to buy tickets. Hence I spent five minutes pondering on the what-ifs of booking a ticket before I walked into the welcoming shade of the church itself. One thing became apparent. Italian churches seem to be in the habit of nesting artwork. And this church was no different.
Having seen all the sights of Milan, my friend took me to the Brera neighbourhood one evening amidst a flurry of vendors, gelateria's and fortunetellers so that I could taste the Milanese nightlife. And a stroll past the Navigli canal became the perfect nightcap to a perfect visit to Milan.
With Milan safely tucked in the memoirs of my mind, I knew it was time to move onto greener pastures. And just two hours away, Florence beckoned to me like a moth to a flame. So without further ado I hopped onto the earliest train to Florence…
A Florentine Tale
When I got down at the train station in Florence, I knew that if Milan felt like the pit of a volcano, the Florentine heat came straight from the bowels of hell. It once again reminded me that June was definitely not the right time to visit. But besides the hellish heat, Florence was a heavenly city. And I knew that I only had two unfair days to cover an ancient list of sights. My first day was spent in visiting the Duomo (central Cathedral), the Santa Maria Novella Church, Palazzo Pitti and Giardino di Boboli. While Palazzo Pitti itself is a sprawling palace that houses various art galleries, its backyard, the Boboli Garden is a true gem. A haven for nature lovers and trekkers, the garden is divided into various areas, some that boast flowers, some that take you to smaller out houses and some that hide tiny life-saving water spouts. As I trekked back to the bridge that connected the Pitti Palace to downtown Florence over the Arno River I realised that that night I had hit jackpot. It was the night of the San Giovanni Battista festival. Battista, Florence's patron saint would be honoured with a spectacular display of fireworks. The sparks went flying at nine over an Arno mirror and by ten when the festivities ended, hundreds of adoring spectators returned home with stars, quite literally, in their eyes.
I started my second day in Florence with determined resolve. The four-hour line in front of the Uffizi Gallery the day before had spoken volumes. So at the crack of dawn at six I got up to wait in line in front of the Uffizi. And lo and behold! I was the first in line and the first to get in. My biggest reason for visiting the Uffizi was to see Titian's Venus of Urbino and Boticelli's Birth of Venus and Spring. When I finally set eyes on these paintings, for a minute I stopped breathing. After all, those art history books had done no justice to the real thing. Waking up at six had truly been worth it.
As I walked out of the Uffizi with wing-tipped heels, I knew that there was one more thing I had to see before I left Florence. And it was none other than Michelangelo's David. After twenty minutes in line, when I finally entered the Galleria dell'Academia, staring at David I knew that had I not seen a single thing in Italy, this one moment would make up for it all. As I staggered out of the Academia at noon and hopped onto a bus to the Piazzale Michelangelo, to see another David statue, I realised why visitors to Florence suffered from Stendhalismo. French writer Stendhal was so dazzled by the beauty of the Florentine Basilica di Santa Croce, that he could barely walk from faintness. And Florentine doctors reportedly treat a few cases of Stendhalismo each year.
When I glanced at the watch I knew that while I had promised Florence two days, I had seen everything I wanted to see. Thus with half a day still left, and a train ride that took only an hour, I knew it was off to Pisa for me…
Pieces from Pisa
As the train pulled into the Pisa Station, I said a silent prayer to God. The weather here was definitely cooler. I hopped onto a bus that would take me to the famous world wonder, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. During the fifteen-minute ride one thing became apparent about Pisa. It was a sleepy city with a suburban feel. And the only thing that drew in the crowds was the tower. Hence one only needed half a day to do Pisa justice.
The bus dropped me off in front of the walled off area that housed the Piazza dei Miracoli, Pisa's cathedral and il Torre Pendent or the Leaning Tower. Both structures were in the center of vast stretches of green grass. The area had a very town square feel although the rows of souvenir stalls spoiled it a little. Surprisingly the tower wasn't as tall as one would expect. There wasn't much to do there besides take pictures.
After I had made sure that I had taken enough pictures and bought some postcards I decided to call it a day. I hopped back on the local bus and caught the next train back to my hostel in Florence.
That night as I sat at the desk of my mosquito infested hostel room writing all the postcards I had bought, a breeze blew in through the plantation doors that opened into the balcony.I set down my pen and replayed my fortnight in the country I had now come to love. Were a few postcards enough to write all that I had seen and experienced here? No, I realised. I looked down at what I had written and added just one word: Arrivederci!
And as I switched off the light to go to bed, I realised that I wasn't just saying arrivederci in the postcards. It was time for me to say arrivederci once again: to Italy.