When it comes to Italy words fail me...
In the first of a two-part feature Max Hall travelled between the Italian cities of Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome using an Interrail Italy pass and airbnb accommodation. First stops Milan and Venice...
THE trouble with writing about Italy’s most beautiful cities is the lack of superlatives available. Dante himself would be reaching for the thesaurus if faced with the – literally – monumental task of describing the first feelings experienced by travellers catching sight of Milan’s magisterial duomo or the first rush of euphoria when travel-weary tourists cross their first bridge into the crumbling grandeur of Venice’s labyrinthine alleyways.
Offered the opportunity of spending two weeks touring the breathtaking sights of Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome, I jumped at the chance and an Interrail Italy ticket seemed the perfect choice for our retro-obsessed age.
The romance of following in the footsteps of Victorian gentlemen on the Grand Tour has endured for subsequent generations thanks to the Interrailing option and remains a popular choice for tourists despite the widespread availability of cheap flights. For the eco-conscious traveller it is a no-brainer, although users of Interrail’s Italy pass should note there is effectively a €10 surcharge on every inter-city journey booked.
Placed alongside Venice, Florence and The Eternal City, Milan often suffers by comparison as Laura, my guide on the Walks of Italy, Best of Milan walking tour explained: “People think of Milan as industrial and not as beautiful as cities like Venice but the beauty is there, you just have to dig a little deeper to find it.”
Laura’s walk did just that, taking in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper – painted on a wall in the former refectory of a monastery next to the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie and not on a canvas, as I supposed; the stunning interior of the church of San Maurizio, with its walls festooned with awe-inspiring artwork hidden behind an utterly inconspicuous exterior; the impressive Castello di Sforzesco and grounds; the fashionable Brera district; the strikingly-vaulted Gallerie di Vittorio Manuele; and culminating in a rooftop tour of Il Duomo. During the tour, visitors are treated to nuggets such as seeing the tiny self-portrait Mussolini added on the rooftop of the cathedral – although the partisans who strung him and his wife up from a lamppost in the city had the last laugh on that one – the personifications of the four known continents high in the roof of the gallerie and the reasons why the distinctive Alfa Romeo badge takes the form it does.
With the chance to sample local tipple of choice spritze as part of the Milanese tradition of aperitivo – where punters pay around €8 per drink but can gorge themselves on an indescribably tasty feast the word buffet fails to do justice to – in the scenic canalside district of naviglio, it is hard to see why Milan would suffer in comparison with anywhere on earth.
Stepping off the train at Venice, however, and crossing into the Byzantine maze of tiny streets criss-crossed with waterways is a feeling impossible to convey. The city simply takes the breath away with its decaying gothic splendour, describing it as York on water barely covers the aged majesty of the medieval trading entrepot.
A map is invaluable and, fortunately, my airbnb host Nina met me at the station to provide one. In the digital age, airbnb offers another accommodation option and, having been given my own apartment with a rooftop terrace in Milan I now found myself sharing a beautiful house with Nina and Ricky near one of the stops used by the vaporetti, or water taxis. Buying a three-day vaporetto pass for €40 proved a wise choice and opened up not only the city’s six districts but also further-flung islands such as Murano, renowned worldwide for its glassware, and the former plague island of San Lazaretto Nuovo.
The Best of Venice walking tour and gondola ride, led by Francesca, offers the chance for visitors to orientate themselves and includes a trip to the German Warehouse, once decorated by resident Titian, the courtyard where Marco Polo grew up and the olfactory heaven that is the fish market, where Hemingway used to pick up his delicacies and take them into restaurants to be prepared for him. Walks of Italy also offers the Exclusive Alone in St Mark’s Basilica After Hours trip, which offers access to areas of the stunning landmark usually closed to the public.
Seeing the rays of a westering sun enter the cathedral and illuminate the gilt-covered ceiling, setting it afire in a blaze of gold, is worth the fee alone. And that’s it – I’m all out of superlatives... for now!
Next week Max travels to Florence and Rome
Medieval decoration in the striking interior of the church of San Maurizio in Milan, hidden behind an anonymous exterior
Above, a gondolier is a familiar sight on the canals of Venice Right, Max’s airbnb accommodation in Milan, a centrally-located loft conversion with a rooftop terrace