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Trip Report Italy trip report: Milan (Milano), and some final thoughts

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This trip report is part 5 of a report that starts at:

http://www.fodors.com/forums/threadselect.jsp?fid=2&tid=34821411

It concludes our report with a few words on Milan, and some thoughts on the overall trip, which took us to the Lakes District (Maggiore, Como, and Garda), the Dolomites (Ortisei), Venice, and Milan.

Milan

We arrived in Milan Sunday, June 4 at 13:05, and headed off to the designated taxi queue. Hardly any taxis showed up, and it took 25 minutes for us to get one. The driver explained that taxi drivers like to take a long lunch. Italy is not the US. Stop the taxis, shut down the stores, close the museums: there's nothing more important than lunch. Remember that in Italy: don't plan to do much between noon and 3 pm except eat lunch yourself.

One benefit of our switch to an earlier train was that we arrived in Milan in time to go to the 'Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia', and see a larger show of da Vinci machines than we had seen in Venice. The museum had rather a mish-mosh of technological exhibits, including an entire square-rigged sailing ship, and numerous planes and railroad engines and cars. It was all of greater interest to me, the engineer, than to Margie.

The museum was within easy walking distance of our hotel, the Antica Locanda Leonardo (http://www.leoloc.com/en/index.htm). The hotel had notified us by e-mail that work was being done on the interior courtyard, which the hotel shares with some apartments. They offered to find us alternative accommodations if that would be a problem. But we replied that as long as the work didn't go on overnight, we had no objection. Indeed, the work going on was no problem. In addition to being near the science museum, the hotel was within easy walking distance of the Cadorna railroad terminal, from which trains go to the Lakes, and to Malpensa airport. The management of the hotel was extremely helpful in recommending nearby restaurants.

The manager told me a story about the Italians, which I had never heard before, although I suspect it's a classic. He said that if two Italian men get together, they talk about women. If three Italian men get together, they talk about soccer. If four Italian men get together, they form a political party.

After our arrival day, we had only one full day in Milan, a Monday, the day when almost all of the museums are closed. The Duomo was impressive, although the front is partly covered by scaffolding. Before the trip, by the time we had attempted to book a late Sunday visit to the Last Supper, it was too late (it's booked way ahead these days, in part because of the success of the da Vinci Code). There was nothing being presented at La Scala the Monday we were there, so we had to be satisfied with a tour through the attached theatrical museum, from which we could see the inside of the theater from one of the boxes, and watch a rehearsal going on on stage. We also walked through 'La Galleria', a famous Milan shopping gallery.

We had lunch outdoors at 'Al Mercanti', where we were serenaded by a jazz concert that happened to be going on in the square at the time. We wanted to visit the Peck delicatessen (http://www.peck.it/), but found it closed, its windows covered by steel rolling shutters. There was no sign to indicate if it was closed all day Monday, or just closed for lunch. A woman at the desk of the adjacent Hotel Spadari patiently informed us, in excellent English, that they would open at 15:00. When we noted the lack of any sign to that effect, she cheerfully said, 'That's OK, people can just come in here and ask me'.

It was already 14:30, so while we waited for Peck to open, we sat down to have a sweet (VERY sweet) dessert, and coffee, at the Victor Hugo Caffé. I had their Sachertorte, for which, the waiter informed us, they are famous. As the shutters on the Peck were retracted, a sign giving the hours of operation came into view on the window. It turns out Peck is closed Monday mornings, but of course, when it is closed and the shutters rolled down, you can't see the sign. Italian organization strikes again. After wandering around admiring the displays of meat and cheese and other food, we bought some small gifts to take home.

Back to the hotel, by subway. The automatic ticket vending machines in the Milan Metro had posted instructions in several languages, including English. However, they were insufficient to allow us to figure out just what we had to insert, and what buttons to push. This was because they assumed that I would naturally know that my stop was 'inter-urbano' (the machine, it turned out, also sold tickets for a much wider suburban network of stops as well). Somebody saw our confusion, however, and helped out. We only took the train as far as the Cadorna station, so we could see what the walk would be like with our luggage the next morning.

Dinner that night at 'La Brisa', which had been recommended by the manager at the hotel. Dinner was excellent, and our waiter was very helpful, even chatty. After a really nice last dinner in Italy (we both had a terrific crispy pork dish), we staggered back to our hotel, having treated ourselves in our last meal by drinking our fill of Prosecco, wine, and grappa.

The next morning, we had only to check out of the hotel and get to the airport. Margie was having some trouble with her arm, and was reluctant to haul our luggage any distance at all. We consider paying 70 euros for the 40-minute ride to Malpensa airport, but decided instead to just get a cab ride to replace the 5-minute walk to the station. The cab driver was non too pleased, after hefting our luggage into the back, to find out that we were going for only a ride of a couple of minutes. I gave him a nice tip to make up for his trouble (you don't usually tip cab drivers in Italy). A 40-minute train ride to the airport, a nice flight back to Boston (via Zurich) on Swiss International, and our trip came to an end.

Some final thoughts

This section gathers together some final thoughts, some of which you might also find scattered throughout the report.

The region: One objective of our trips is to meet local people, and learn something about the culture of the country we are visiting. This trip was not as good in that regard as our earlier trips. The area we visited on this trip, and in particular the Lakes District, is tourist oriented, and so the people we met were mostly either tourists themselves, or serving the tourists. Although there were some exceptions that we've noted, we met very few people who actually lived in the area and had no connection to the tourist industry.

In the past, we've liked visiting small towns, watching children get out of school, men playing bocce, and similar things. We like sitting in a small caffé and watching people pass by. In the Lakes, the people passing by were all tourists. When choosing where to go, we had not really thought about this aspect of the region, and had we done so, we might have chosen a different portion of Italy to visit.

We visited the Dolomites too early. The Summer season had not really started, and so many things were closed that it restricted our choices. It's a ski area in the winter, but in the Summer, stay away until June.

We loved Venice the first time we were there, and we liked it even more this time. It's unique. When we were leaving the Uhrerhof, I asked Dunia for details about exiting the A4 for Venice. She said that she didn't know about that. Then she casually mentioned that she has never been to Venice, adding that she really doesn't like big cities. I was stunned. She lives a three-hour drive away from the most remarkable city in the world, and has never been tempted to visit it! We could spend a week in Venice just walking around, without even visiting a single museum.

We were not really in Milan long enough to say much about it.

The food: One of the purposes of our trips is to eat well. While we had a lot of good meals on this trip, and a few very good meals, there were none that I'd call memorable. I ate a lot of good, fresh shellfish, often as a mixed seafood antipasto. But Margie, who is allergic to shellfish and crustaceans, had a harder time finding food that was not too heavy on fatty meats, cheese, and pasta. There was a tendency to bathe everything in large quantities of olive oil. Good olive oil, but it still sometimes got excessive. Within each region, many of the menus were virtually the same from restaurant to restaurant. We did sample many good local wines. I had expected northern Italian food to be similar to French cuisine, but I don't think the French have anything to fear on the culinary front.

The people: Being in a tourist region, we dealt mostly with people in the tourist industry (in hotels, restaurants, and shops). They were uniformly friendly and helpful. Most of the other people we met were other tourists.

The languages: I've found that one of the secrets of speaking a foreign language is that you don't need to speak it all that well for tourist purposes. If I read a magazine article in Italian, I have to look up quite a few words, and I come across entire sentences that are difficult to decipher. But as a tourist in Italy, hey, I speak Italian! Tourists don't discuss philosophy and other difficult ideas. We shop, ask where the bathrooms are, and make small talk about the weather. This requires neither a large vocabulary nor a great many verb tenses.

And a wonderful thing about speaking some Italian is that you get a lot of credit for it. Worldwide, lots of people study English, French, Spanish, or even German, but not that many bother with Italian, apart from those with families or a family background in Italy. Thus, if you learn even a little of the language, Italians seem very pleased with your effort.

I also brushed up a bit on my college German before this trip, due to the portion of the trip in the Dolomites, which is a majority German-speaking section of Italy. What I hadn't realized is that I'd also use a lot of German in the lakes, due to all the German tourists there. Other than Italian, German is the language most often heard in the lakes, followed by English, and then French. I made good use of my German, despite the fact that after years of non-use, it is really very weak.

As areas with lots of tourists, it would be easy to get along well in all the areas we visited on this trip with only English.

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