Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Italian Job: Milan

Driving into the outskirts of Milan was a bit of a shock after the relative peace of the mountains of France.  Traffic veered wildly from left to right and even Garmin, our sat nav, seemed to be taken by surprise.  Her very British accent seemed at odds with the long road names and often she gabbled incoherently like a woman in her cups. However soon we found the locality of our next hotel, which was situated in a suburb of Milan called Novate Milanese – a very Italian village scattered with cafes, gellatorias, old ladies in black seated on foldaway chairs outside in the street, a newsagents and not one hotel in sight.  Garmin announced that we were here.  We looked incredulously around us. There was nothing but traditional ancient townhouses, and certainly none with car parks. 

G wandered aimlessly up and down the road, trying to find our hotel Antica Corte Milanese by tracking the numbers.  I went into the newsagents, and he directed me to where G was standing in front of an enormous arch with double wooden doors.  I buzzed tentatively on the bell that was scrappily labelled with the name of our abode.  The doors swung open to reveal a wonderfully cobbled courtyard, surrounded with balconied apartments covered in white flowering heavily scented passion vines, large pink unidentifiable blooms and in the top corner of the balcony white linen curtains flapped gently in the breeze round a sun terrace.

A young man who could only have been a few years older than Eldest Son appeared and announced himself as Lorenzo.  He was extremely helpful, and was eager to practice his English on us, which was a good thing as none of us speak Italian, and there was a complicated system of keys and machines to be explained.  The boys soon disappeared into Dalia, our delightful three storey apartment complete with secret attic bathroom which Little Man claimed for his own. Lorenzo patiently explained all the intricacies of living in a converted 17th century building – the light switches were all in odd places, the clay brick floor creaked, the main bathroom had a tiled floor and a bidet, and the stairs were precariously steep. Breakfast, which was included in the price, was through a vending machine, on a prepaid key.  We looked at the empty machine, which apparently served both hot beverages and packets of pastries and made a mental note that we would probably skip breakfast in favour of the many pastry shops we had seen en route. He then led G and I through a series of maps, and drew out laboriously our train route into Milan, and back, and gave us pointers to restaurants. We instinctively knew that we would enjoy our stay in Milan.

the gorgeous Corte Antica
That night the street was thrown open to a Festa, or street party.  We ate at a pizza restaurant called Volpe to the strains of a jazz band that had set up on one end of the street by a bouncy castle and a bustling cafĂ©. Our antipasti arrived, mountains of mussels, prawns, clams and razor clams, fresh thin slices of smoky breseola, peppery rocket and creamy buffalo mozzarella. All this before our pizzas, and sloshed down with a lovely bottle of Italian red. We ambled back through the crowds - couples wheeled buggies, young men swaggered past giggling teenage girls in teeny shorts and iPods, and old men laughed over glasses of beer, gesticulating wildly with cigarettes.

Exhausted, we all fell into bed, the faint sounds of the street music in our ears.  The next day, G went down the stairs to see what he could hunt down for breakfast, only to find Lorenzo disconsolately mopping up in the breakfast room.  It seemed that the vending machines had given up the ghost and flooded the floors overnight…

G came back with 3 Elvises and 2 Sophia Lorens.  These were hot paninis made by a local who not only dressed like Elvis, but named his fodder accordingly.  They were delicious and differed only in that the Elvises had salami and the Sophias were slightly less fatty with parma ham.

Fortified thus, we set off for the railway station clutching Lorenzo’s map.  It was a five minute walk and we found it with no trouble at all.  I must stop here for a moment and talk about language.  None of us can speak French or Italian, and one thing that I have found so far with booking slightly out of town is that not a lot of people speak English.  So G, armed with a phrase book, attempted to talk to the woman behind the counter.  Now although I cannot speak Italian, my deceased grandmother, an uneducated woman, could speak 7 languages and write not a jot.  Something has rubbed off on me, because I can understand a lot more than I can speak. 

On their first double decker train
Sensing that I understood her, the woman turned to me in despair, and began rattling off staccato style.  I am proud to say that I managed to get a free pass for all public transport in Milan for all of the kids, and an adult return to the station.  She then ran on to the platform where we were waiting and proceeded to chat on about all the things she had forgotten to tell me – where we should get off, what we should do etc.  Maybe it was only because I was the ‘Madre’, but I noticed G had put away his phrase book and slunk off to look at the train timetable as the boys sniggered.

Feeding the pigeons outside the Duomo
The Duomo
a fortifying gelato
Milan, home of fashion and the beautiful people.  The boys looked in awe at the expensive shops and Middle Son declared his ambition to one day own a Gucci suit.  The superb Duomo, towering above a Piazza in which the kids fed the birds courtesy of some Senegalese hustlers (hmm…5 euros later we learned our lesson, and so did the kids – shouting NO! whenever any approached us). The lovely women with endless legs and swinging little expensive bags, the men, no matter what age, exquisitely dressed in a panacea of colours.  But the unexpected hit of the day was the Leonardo 3 exhibition.  Covering all aspects of Leonardo da Vinci’s life including his inventions and his art, meant that all of us had something to look at.  The boys were fascinated by the model flying machines, time and motion, and invented their own land and air machines with print outs. Always an amateur conspiracy theorist,  I spent ages reading all the 3D computerized info on the Last Supper and was shaken out of my reverie by the boys. Little Man declared that he wanted to be an actor and an inventor.

the biggest billboard in the world - and aspiring models...
We got back in the evening exhausted.  G went to sleep. I was packing up and checking through the stuff for Verona, our stop the next day. The boys were debating what the bidet was.  Eldest Son thought it was a bath for toddlers, Little Man thought it was for washing your feet.  Middle Son, who is a bit more savvy, told them that it was for washing your butt.  The other two looked up in incredulity as he described what to do.

And then they tried it out to much hilarity.

Milan, here bidet, gone tomorrow