Advantages Vibrant, cosmopolitan city and stunningly beautiful lakes
Disadvantages Pricey, dirty and plagued by annoying gypsies
|Value for Money|
I went to Milan in early May with my partner. I still don’t really know why I went there, but I suppose I was attracted by the allure of the big city as well as the proximity of the beautiful lakes of northern Italy. I stayed for 7 nights and paid £450 in total for the flight, hotel and transfers to and from the airport. Another £300 or so was spent during the holiday on travel, eating out and entertainment.
There is a lot to say, so I have subdivided my comments into suitable headings:
The hotel, called “Delle Nazioni”, was situated within walking distance of the railway station; this was infact one of the reasons why I chose it. Despite being rated three stars, it was a big disappointment; it would have rated no more than two stars in the UK. The room was very small and, although facing the inner courtyard, there was plenty of internal noise coming through from other rooms. There was no air conditioning and no tea/coffee making facilities. The bathroom lacked a tub – we had to be satisfied with shower facilities only. There was satellite TV, but CNN was the only English language channel. Breakfast was OK, but nothing special, consisting of fruit juice, tea/coffee, cereal, hard-boiled egg and slices of ham and cheese. The staff was reasonably helpful, but often seemed harassed and stressed. Last but not least, the hotel had no restaurant.CITY SIGHTS:
The main landmark of Milan is undoubtedly the impressive gothic cathedral, known as the ‘Duomo’. Inside it is dark, spacious, intimidating and cold (literally), while outside it is mightily imposing and dominates the large square on which it is located.
You can take a small lift and go to the top of the building for a few Euros and I would strongly recommend doing so as the view is magnificent, especially on a clear day.
Next to the cathedral, on the left hand side, there is an impressive archway housing a variety of smart shops and restaurants; this is known as the ‘Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II’ and was built around 100 years ago to honour the then King of Italy.
After visiting the cathedral it is normal to pay a visit to the city castle, the ‘Castello Sforzesco’, which is only ten minutes walk away. The castle used to belong to the powerful Sforza family, which dominated Milanese politics in the late middle ages. There is an interesting museum inside the castle, with a variety of medieval artefacts related to the city and its history.
Lastly, I would suggest visiting the railway station (you may have to do so anyway). This is no ordinary station building, but simply the most impressive in Europe, if not the world. The architectural style could best be described as ‘art deco Fascist’, which is not surprising given that it was built during Mussolini’s rule. The size is utterly colossal and the overall impression is one of brutal grandeur, designed to intimidate rather than just impress.
Milan is a dream for shoppers, as all the famous designer houses have shops in the city centre. Needless to say the prices are ridiculous and affordable only for the genuinely rich, but it’s a good chance to do some window shopping. The main department store in Milan is called ‘Rinascente’ and is very near the cathedral. Even here the prices are closer to Harrods than M&S, but at least the toilets on the top floor are very convenient, given that public toilets in Italian cities are virtually non-existent.
The Galleria houses a series of bookshops and also various smart cafes and restaurants, the one exception being a branch of Macdonald’s. I would avoid the smart restaurants but I did sitting outside a café with a cappuccino and an ice cream just relaxing and watching the world go by.
The other main shopping areas are Via Torino and Via Dante, which come off the main city square. The shops here are generally more ‘normal’ than the ones on the smart streets near the cathedral. The best priced clothes shop is ‘Standa’, which is the equivalent of our own M&S, but is probably more closely related in style to the now defunct C&A.
It isn’t easy to find restaurants in central Milan. The few that are there are either very posh or very ordinary ‘self service’ types. The latter, ironically enough called ‘Ciao’, has two outlets on the main square. You can eat well there for around £10-12, but it can be confusing to find your way around, so make you know what you want beforehand. The two luxury restaurants in the Galleria are called ‘Biffi’ and ‘Savini’ and are best reserved for a special occasion for obvious reasons.
I had most of my evening meals at an excellent seafood restaurant on the main road leading to the station – unfortunately I’ve forgotten its name, but that area is good for eating out, as there are plenty of others.
Italians are often brisk mannered and don’t have much time for pleasantries, but are rarely deliberately rude. Italy, like most countries of Western Europe, has absorbed numerous immigrants and refugees from Third World nations, and whilst many of these have been successfully integrated, others have not – and it shows. In every Italian town of any size there are large numbers of gypsies, and Milan is no exception. These people seem to be spending all their time begging for money and harassing virtually anybody who happens to stop to have something at a café or restaurant, particularly those perceived to be tourists. This is a significant public nuisance and can be rather intimidating as the gypsies are often insistent and stubborn. At least the many Africans and Philipinos who inhabit the city prefer to sell small goods of various kinds and do not beg. Be careful!LAKE LUGANO:
Lugano is a small town in the Italian speaking Ticino canton of Switzerland. To all intents and purposes it is no different from anywhere in northern Italy: the architecture is the same, the people speak and look Italian and the food is Italian. However, when you look beneath the surface you start to notice that this isn’t the real Italy after all, but a sort of Germanicised Italy. The streets are clean and have little or no graffiti, the people are quiet and reserved and everywhere you look there is the distinct ‘scent’ of money in the air. There is a bank on virtually every street corner! If you reach Lugano by train you will need to take the funicular railway down to the town centre. The ferry point is close to the main square and from there you can explore the lake. Lake Lugano is not a particularly big lake and is surrounded by steep wooded mountains, which makes it look very ‘fjord’ like. One interesting lakeside village is ‘Campione’, an anomaly of politics and geography, being a sovereign Italian territory completely surrounded by Swiss land. Overall, I was less impressed by this lake than the other two I visited, but I enjoyed the trip all the same. Remember that Switzerland is not in Euroland, so you’ll need to change your money if you are going to be coming here from Italy.LAKE COMO:
Como is only a half hour rail trip from Milan. The station is about 20 minutes walk away from the lake, but this isn’t a big problem as the town isn’t hilly. Again, the main town square has the ferry point, from which ordinary motorboats (‘battello’) as well as fast speedboats (‘piroscafo’) depart. There are various cafes all over Como, but restaurants are hard to find and very expensive when you do find them. Como has an interesting medieval ‘Duomo’ (catherdral), which is a worth a good look, but the real interest is the lake. Lake Como is a truly beautiful lake, not too wide, but very long and surrounded by many hills and mountains, as well as quaint little lakeside villages, each one with a slightly different character. I went to Bellagio, certainly one of the most attractive of these villages and a definite ‘must’ for a visit. There are loads of touristy shops and pricey cafes here, together with elderly British and American tourists, so it’s not everybody’s idea of fun, but the scenery is really spectacular. Unfortunately it poured with rain incessantly during my excursion, so the main memory I have of my visit is that of grey rain clouds swirling menacingly around the surrounding mountains, like a scene from ‘Lord of the Rings’ or a Wagner opera.LAKE GARDA:
This was the last of the lakes I visited (sadly I didn’t have the time to see Lake Maggiore) – and also the most impressive by far. Lake Garda is reachable from Milan by rail – around a one hour journey to Desenzano. Once there you’ll need to take a taxi to the lake and boat point, as the distance is quite a few miles – but the cost is not high, only 6-7 Euros. Desenzano is a rich, lively and very tourist orientated town, full of bars, cafes, restaurants and smart shops. The lakeside promenade is a gorgeous experience, especially on a sunny day when seemingly hundreds of boats and yachts crowd the harbour. One thing to be careful about is midges and mosquitoes, which emerge in force when the weather is hot – put insect repellent on beforehand! I suggest taking a speedboat from the ferry point and doing a full lake tour – it starts at 10am so you’ll need to be here in good time. The lake is huge and stunningly beautiful, flat and very mediterrenean in the south, mountainous and alpine in the north. Each lakeside town has a history and character all of its own: from the historic but lively and hectic Sirmione, through to the more scenic Malcesine, Limone, the majestic alpine resort of Riva and many others. Lake Garda is worth a full week’s visit, if not more, you cannot do it justice in less time.
The downside of Lake Garda – and indeed all the north Italian lakes – is that they are not designed for active young people who wish to dance and drink the nights away. They are far too genteel for that, and to be blunt, they attract a more sedate and upmarket class of tourist. Having said that, they are ideal for families and those who wish to have a relaxing and ‘chilled out’ break from a stressful life back home.
Another point of interest: Lake Garda is enormously popular with Germans, so do not be surprised to see (and hear) many of them around!
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