We’ve always wanted to see Venice. When I found this bike and barge trip, which ends in Venice, I thought it would be a unique way to arrive in Venice “in style”. Our sort of style anyway.
We originally booked this trip for March of 2020. Everyone knows what happened next. We were only a couple of weeks from departure in 2020 when Covid became a “thing”. Even though this tour wasn’t technically refundable, the tour company generously offered us a postponement. This is the 3rd scheduling and the 3rd time is the charm! We departed for Italy on May 10, 2022.
There’s always the logistics to the beginning of a d’venture – I booked our flight to Milan because there is a direct flight there from Atlanta. we both loved the idea of not having to get off a plane sleep-drunk at one of the major European airports and trying to catch a connecting flight. After a day or so in Milan, the plan was to take a train to Mantova, which is the starting city for the bike & barge trip.
Our flight was actually very nice and the 9 hours seemed to fly by (pun intended) -except for an 1-1/2 hour departure delay. That somewhat worked in our favor because that reduced the time we’d have to wait to check into our hotel in Milan.
When we landed in Milan, we needed to take a train to the central part of the city (about 1 hour) where I had booked a hotel very near the train station. I’m ashamed to say that during the train ride, I lost my travel guru mojo and we got off the train too early at the wrong stop! It was easily corrected -we only had to wait about 20 minutes for the next train. I’m usually better prepared. To be fair, the trains usually announce, or have a monitor showing, the next stop. The one we were on had neither -and we were sleepy-eyed. But you can be sure I was still kicking myself for that mistake!
The Milan Central train station was a work of art. I only took one picture inside when we arrived because we were more interested in getting to our hotel.
Arrival day was scheduled to be a recovery day of sorts. Our hotel was the IQ Hotel. It is one of the little boutique “hip” hotels that seem to be emerging. These are generally small with a more modern feel to things.
Our room was modest, but functional. They had a very nice hang out spot up on the top floor. Their free breakfast was one of the better ones I’ve enjoyed in Europe.
We decided to take a short walk around the hotel area to get some fresh air and stretch our legs after the flight. They say that staying awake into the evening at your new time zone helps you get past jet lag faster.
We were hungry and found a little sidewalk restaurant where we were too tired to get any more imaginative with our food order than pizza. We thought we were ordering a little pizza to share, but we ended up each getting a large slice –
That and a couple of cold beverages took care of us for the rest of the evening.
Our hotel gives their guests a welcome drink – there were two options…we chose Prosecco.
Mike and I hit the pavement early the next AM for our one full day in Milan. There were only two things I really wanted to see in Milan -and I figured out that we could walk to both of them.
As a bonus, I realized that our walking route would take us through the Sforzoesco Castle grounds.
This impressive site was built in the mid 1400’s by Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan. Over time, the site was used in a variety of ways. Now it is the home of several city museums and an art collection.
We entered through a side gate:
Then we left through the “front door”:
This is the view of the castle’s front and decorative fountain from the street:
This is an old section that hasn’t had a facelift.
Our first official stop was at Santa Maria delle Grazie church, which was originally completed in 1469. This is the church where DaVinci’s Last Supper is on display. You’d expect such a famous painting to be in an elaborate, over the top cathedral, or even the Louvre or something. Amazingly, Santa Maria delle Grazie is a very modest and unassuming church.
The front faces a plaza.
Our first glimpse came from behind.
Standing on the plaza, both Mike and I remarked on how behind us was a very old church and down the street was a modern skyscraper.
We walked through the church first, which is charming in its simplicity.
Next, we went to the area where we’d line up to view The Last Supper.
DaVinci painted the Last Supper between 1495-98 on a wall in what was the nuns’ dining hall -which was both surprising and perhaps ironically perfect. The Last Supper where supper was served? My grandmother had a paint-by-numbers version of the Last Supper hanging in her dining room all my life -so maybe the nuns at Santa Maria delle Grazie started a trend back in 1498?
We entered a small hallway lined with windows looking out into the cloister.
Access to see the Last Supper is very controlled. I found myself contrasting this viewing against the time we saw the Mona Lisa in the Louvre… Not only were we surprised at how small the Mona Lisa is (30” x 21”), it was an absolute “sardines in a can” mob scene to even get close to it. For the Last Supper, you need to buy advance tickets for a specified time. Only 25 people at a time are allowed into the room and they are allowed 15 minutes to view the two frescos in the room. (More about the 2nd one in a minute). We lined up in front of two automatic doors that opened only when it was our time to enter.
The doors opened and we entered a large, narrow space which has dim lighting with a few benches to sit on while looking at the fresco. Where I was surprised at how small the Mona Lisa is, I was equally surprised at how big the Last Supper is! It is 29 feet by 15 feet.
The Last Supper was painted on a dry wall, which is not the usual way painters prepared and painted their frescos back in that time. Unfortunately, because of the technique DaVinci chose, the paint began flaking off the wall as soon as 20 years after it was finished. Many different attempts have been made over the years to preserve and restore it. The biggest and most successful effort took place between the 1970’s and 1999.
Of course we took a million pictures of it.
The group arrives together and leaves together -so there’s no National Lampoon Vacation scenes where you go, “yep…there it is”…and 10 seconds later are headed for the exit. We did think we were ready to go at about the 10 minute mark, but the exit doors didn’t open until 15 minutes passed, so the only thing to do was to sit quietly and enjoy the experience. It was surprising how fast the 15 minutes went.
At the opposite end of this room is another fresco of the crucifixion by Donato Montorfano, done sometime after 1495. I told Mike – This is probably the most ignored fresco on the planet !!
As we exited, there was a small room displaying some pictures explaining the damage to the church during WWII. I had never heard about this in relation to the Last Supper and was fascinated to realize how close they came to losing it forever. It had been damaged in the early 1800’s when Napoleon’s troops were quartered at the church; apparently they took potshots at the painting when they felt like it. But those in charge of Santa Maria delle Grazie during WWII claim it was nothing short of a miracle that saved the Last Supper. The church was practically bombed to smithereens. When the war started, they built a sandbag wall to protect the fresco in case they got bombed. I was able to take a picture of the picture of the fresco sandbagged.
I also found a picture on line showing some of the damage to the church -and to the right side you can see the Crucifixion fresco still standing amid the rubble.
The church’s website has a few other pictures from the bombing -just scroll down to the bottom of the page if you’re interested: saint-maria-delle-grazie
Our second official stop was at Milan’s Duomo -the cathedral. It is so big it is hard to get it all into a photo.
They were preparing for some sort of event and were working on putting up barriers and a stage (I think) -so it made it even harder to get into a good spot for a photo. We were a bit early for our pre-arranged tickets, so we wandered toward the nearby “mall” -Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II- which was built in the late 1800’s and is a wedding cake of a structure, four stories tall.
The Duomo was started in 1386, being built in the area where two earlier churches had been. The final touches weren’t finished until 1965! It is the largest church in Italy after St. Peter’s in Rome. There are 3,400 statues, 135 spires, 150 gargoyles and 700 marble figures. I was a bit disappointed inside the cathedral -it was absolutely beautiful, but also somewhat restrained in grandeur compared to others I’ve seen.
After walking around the cathedral, we went down some stairs to the archaeology area. The only picture we ended up taking was of Mike. It was so low ceilinged down there his head was touching in some places!
Mainly what we saw was located below the area that is now under the big plaza in front of the Duomo. We could see evidence of old brick walls, parts of old tile floors -stuff like that. Sometimes pictures in areas like that just don’t work …so I didn’t take any.
The main discovery from the excavation is the presumed original location of the baptismal font/pool that St. Augustine was baptized in in the year 387. It is about eight feet across. Now the shallow circle visible in the exposed earth is full of coins and other money that people have tossed in there for unknown reasons.
The last part was to climb the steps up to the top of the duomo.
Usually when you go up into a church like this, you end up climbing up to a small bell tower type area and enjoy the views and leave. The duomo experience is much more than expected. We climbed the stairs and emerged on one side of the actual roof line where we had a very close up view of the gargoyles and statues and spires up there.
There was a one-way path that followed the edge of the roof to the front of the duomo…then up more stairs to the actual roof of the cathedral where visitors were allowed to walk pretty much anywhere up there -although the sides were slightly angled like a roof would be.
When we got up to that point, I was feeling a bit woozy. I’ve never been bothered by heights before, but this was a whole new category. As we came to the point where what goes up must come down, there weren’t railings to hold on to, so you really had to watch your step. It would be impossible to slip and fall off the roof anywhere up there because the edges were protected by waist-high cement barriers, but even so -it was a bit …um… nerve-wracking!
On the way back to our hotel, we happened to come across this “art” in the Piazza degli Affari.
It sits in front of the Italian Stock Exchange which is housed in the elaborate building in the background.
I looked it up and it is called L.O.V.E. It was sculpted by Maurizio Cattelan in 2010. He is known as a bit of a jokester with his works of art and it is thought that this was his “message” when he was commissioned to do a piece during a time when Europe was experiencing an economics crisis.
Just a block or so before we were back to our hotel area, we saw this “gate” up ahead.
It turns out that it was a relic city gate from possibly the 1100’s. Milan had three sets of city walls in history, starting with the Romans. Each new protective wall pushed the protected circle out further as the city was growing. There are several places around the city where remnants or entire gates can still be seen. (Below is the other side of it)
We ended up walking nearly 10 miles today. Neither of us thought it would add up to that much! Along the way I took pictures of some (but not all) things that caught my eye.
Our return route took us by the same little restaurant from the night before so we thought we deserved a nice cold drink -we were hot and thirsty for sure! I thought I deserved an ice cream style dessert too – but it looked better in the picture on the menu than it tasted.
Being tired after our long day of walking, we thought it was too much trouble to go out and try to find dinner. We decided to go up to the top floor bar/restaurant at the hotel and check out their menu. We had a very simple meal there. It was not very crowded and we enjoyed having the peace and quiet to unwind a bit. We were still feeling a bit of jet lag, so it was early to bed…and early to rise!
Categories: Italy 2022: Planes, Trains, Bicycles & Barges!