Posted by Lisa Hill on March 18, 2006
We spent the day on the train. It was easy from Avignon to Nice, and the scenery was sublime. The sea is a beautiful blue, the villas are brightly coloured in yellow and terracotta, and the blue and teal shutters do look just the picture postcards. It’s good fun to admire the playgrounds of the rich and famous at Monte Carlo and Cannes, and we were very comfortable with the cabin all to ourselves.
At Nice, however, we had to race onto the train without a reservation because the queue was just too long and we would have otherwise have missed the train. We felt a bit anxious each time we stopped in case someone wanted our seats, but eventually the conductor turned up and although he couldn’t sell us a reserved seat because his machine was broken, he reassured us that we would be able to sort it out once the new conductor boarded at Genoa…
Well, she didn’t, but it didn’t matter. What spoiled the trip was three very disagreeable middle-aged Italian men who talked nonstop all the way to Milan, sniping at tourists (us), the trains, and young people, and then held a voluble argument about Italian cuisine and how bad all the restaurants were. They obviously didn’t realise that we could understand what they were saying!
Still, it was useful practice at listening to Italian, which came in handy the next day when we went back to the railway station to book reservations for Venice. Milan railway station is huge, with shops everywhere and dozens of confusing entrances and exits and places to buy tickets, but eventually we worked it out and found our way onto the subway for Castello Sforzesco.
We didn’t have time to explore it thoroughly, but it’s a fascinating place. It’s certainly the biggest fortress I’ve ever seen, but I suppose the Sforza dukes had plenty to protect. The complex is built in the shape of a massive rectangle around a vast inner courtyard, and the clock tower in the middle of the façade is 70 metres high. Above the great door is a bas-relief of King Umberto I on horseback, and under the battlements is St. Ambrose among the coats of the arms of the six Sforza dukes. There’s a moat (minus the water) and a splendid drawbridge for the obligatory photo. There was no time to dawdle through the museum, but the park was peaceful and quiet after the city crowds, and we liked the monument to Napoleon III and the Arch of Peace.
We had a lovely lunch at the Gambero Rosso Restaurant across the road from the castle. I tried risotto with cuttlefish ink, & Tim had linguine al pesto. My Italian was tried and found wanting, however, when I ordered two glasses of wine and got a bottle, and the waiter brought formaggio (cheese) instead of pane (bread)! Still, it was all very nice, and we tried Sardinian wine for the first time, a crisp and refreshing 2004 Nuraghe Majore, from Isola de Nuraghe. Nuragus is one of the oldest known species of vine, and was probably drunk by the Phoenicians!
. After lunch we discovered a phenomenon with which we were soon to become familiar in Italy, the famous landmark (in this case the Duomo) shrouded in sheets of advertising to mask restoration scaffolding. It didn’t matter – we enjoyed some terrific South American music in the piazza, and wandered through the Galeria Victor Emmanuel (Prada, Luis Vuitton, McDonalds) gawping at the ornate arcade with its frescoes and mosaics and breathtaking glass roof. From there we walked through to Piazza la Scala and saw the theatre and a marvellous monument of Leonardo da Vinci surrounded by four scholars all looking very erudite. Unfortunately I hadn’t thought to book tickets for The Last Supper and we couldn’t get in, but we’d had enough by then anyway and were glad to head back to the hotel for a rest.
Our Italian teacher, Maria Quinto, had warned us about La Passeggiata, the urban ritual of an evening stroll, but the real thing in Milan doesn’t leave much room on the pavement for a couple of hungry Aussies in search of a meal! Eventually, however, we found Sabatini’s off Corso Buenos Aires, and on the advice of a kind and helpful waiter who spoke very good English, we discovered that we like Valpolicella Classico Allegrini. Tim had a buffet antipasto, but once again I could not pass up the mushrooms and had bruschetta al funghi, followed by steak and porcini for him and green pepper pasta for me.
Our day in Milan had a couple of disappointments, but if we enjoyed our introduction to Italy in an impersonal busy city, then things could only get better from here onwards – and Venice is next!