May 27 – 31, 2015: Milan, Genoa, Italian Riviera
While in Cabo Verde, I was delighted to learn that Denise and Ellen could join me for two weeks. We chose Italy and spent two weeks visiting Milan, Genoa, Italian Riviera including Cinque Terre, Porto Venere and Portofino, Sarzana, Leiri, Pisa and Sardinia.
May 27 Wednesday: Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Spain – Milan, Italy (GMT)
I left Lanzarote before 2pm and arrived in Milan Linate Airport at 9:30pm. The airport bus to Milan Central Station takes less than 30 minutes (€5). Hotel Amadeus which I stayed on my last visit is only five minutes’ walk from the station.
May 28 Thursday: Milan
Denise and Ellen would arrive in Milan before 8am and I would meet them in Hotel Stationze on Calle Pirelli (opposite the Central Station). After breakfast, I moved to the hotel and they arrived 15 minutes later. Everything went smoothly. After having a cup of coffee, we began our busy day in Milan. We first went to the train station to buy a ticket to Genoa (€20). We also got a ticket for Duomo and the museum (€2).Duomo is a must-see and an icon of Milan. I have been to Duomo a couple of times. This time I visited the newly opened Duomo Museum which has an exquisite collection of stained glass, statutes, sculpture, paintings, tapestry etc. Though I have visited Duomo many times, I still cannot stop admiring this colossal masterpiece showcasing the Milanese three hundred years of painstaking labour, zeal for perfection, craftsmanship and engineering achievements. Its grandeur, serenity and beauty are breathtaking.
After spending over two hours in the Duomo and the museum, we wandered around the historic centre lined with Italian top brand shops and eateries. Piazza Duomo was preparing for a concert: a huge stage had been set up and many young people were waiting anxiously for it to begin. I am old and find the music too loud.
We were tired and hungry and found a nice roadside café near the world famous Scala Opera House. Pizza is delicious but too heavy. After having two large pizza for lunch, we skipped dinner. We reached the Opera House around 4pm. As expected, tickets for the evening had been told out. We were told to come back to queue up for returned tickets at 6pm. A man tried to sell us three tickets for €150. The price printed on the ticket was €24 each. We of course did not take the offer.
The best thing to do here is to discover the place on foot. With a map from the tourist office, we followed a trail starting with the Crypt of San Giovanni at Piazza Missori (south of Duomo). The crypt is the only example of the 11th century crypt remaining in Milan.
We stopped at Church of Santa’Alessandro (17th century), one of the sacred buildings in Milan. Then we visited another church (I forget the name as there are numerous churches). Both are in Baroque style with elaborate alter, paintings and sculpture.
I often prefer to see the back alleys and districts away from the tourist areas. We got lost a couple of times before reaching the Church of San Maurizio (16th century). It stands in the former Benedictine convent which was known as the Monastero Maggiore. The church is composed of three parts: a crypt (now incorporated into the tour of the Archaeology Museum), an ample hall and a smaller sanctuary for the public. The inside is covered with the most integral and exemplary decorative cycle of 16th century Milanese painting. I am most impressed by the architecture, wood works, frescoes by Berardino Luini and the Antegnati organ installed in 1557. We had a rush tour of the Archaeology Museum next door before it closed.
Before taking the metro back to Central Station, we had our first gelato (ice-cream) and paid €2 for a cone with two flavours. (We had an ice-cream almost every day for the whole trip). We had the window open for fresh air. As a result, I could not sleep owing to the traffic noises.
May 29 Friday: Milan – Genoa
Genoa, capital of Liguria, sixth largest city and the largest port in Italy has an area of 243.6km² and a population of about 600,000. The city has a long history of well over 2,500 years and a glorious past with a solid financial sector dating back to the Middle Ages. It is also the birthplace of Christopher Columbus (1450-1506), an explorer and navigator and Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840), a violinist.
By the 12th century, Genoa became one of the “Maritime Republics” along with Venice, Pisa and Amalfi. Through participation on the Crusades, Genoa established colonies in Middle East, the Aegean, Sicily and North Africa. It became a satellite of the Spanish Empire in 1528 and enjoyed stable economic growth for a century. Christopher Columbus who discovered the New World for Spain, donated one-tenth of his incomes from the discovery to the Bank of St George in Genoa for the relief of taxation on food. At the zenith in the 16th century, Genoa attracted many artists including Rubens, Caravaggio and Van Dyck. Galeazzo Alessi (1512-1572), a famous architect of his time, designed many of the city’s splendid palazzo. Genoa however began its decline in the 17th century. Today, Genoa remains one of Italy’s major economic centres. Its historic centre articulated in a maze of squares and narrow caruggi (typical Genoese alleys) with an old port and countless splendid palazzo of 6-8 storey high and churches in various architectural styles, is now a World Heritage Site.
The journey from Milan to Genoa takes about an hour and a half. We took the train after 9am to La Spezia. There were many people on the platform. Ellen and Denise boarded the train first. A pregnant lady helped them to put their suitcases on the rack above the seats. I was the last to board the train.
When we arrived at the Genoa train station, Denise stayed with the luggage while Ellen and I looked for City Hotel Britiannia which we had reserved a room online. For hotel registration in Italy, one has to show his/her passport/ID. Ellen discovered to her horror that a small bag containing her passport inside her hand bag had gone. It’s the old story: the pregnant woman on the train in Milan had opened the bag when helping her with her luggage. Luckily, she had only lost the passport. The tourist police located in a building next to the hotel is helpful. Ellen took half an hour to get a paper which enables her to travel around the country without problem.
Time to eat! We walked along Via Bairi and Via delle Fontane and found Ristorante le Maschere in a side street near Via Antonio Gramsci. The food is delicious and reasonable. We paid less than €50 for two starters and two main courses – all fresh seafood.
After lunch, we went to the ferry terminal to sort out our journey to Sardinia. I had miscalculated the distance and we walked 2-3km. We managed to get useful information and book a cabin for four person for €210 from Livorno to Oblia on June 4.
We took a bus back to Piazza Caricamento and explored the old town for the next three hours. We reached Piazza Giacomo and visited Duomo San Lorenzo.
Then we went to Gesu Church and visited the church and its museum. We had a wonderful time when an 82-year-old man took us on a guided tour. He speaks some English but has difficulties in explaining the history of the exhibits and the building. His passion and love for his city are adorable. He can speak French and tried hard to explain to me in French. We had a fun time. There is a special exhibition of religious paintings on cloth dyed in blue from the 15th century. It is the first time I have seen such amazing paintings.
We arrived at Palazzo Ducale which was filled with festive atmosphere: a band was playing and people all looked relaxed.
We walked along Via XXV Aprile, Via Garibaldi, Via Cairoli and Via Bairi: I felt like walking in an open air museum. After an eventful day, I was glad to be back in the hotel. I like our cool and quiet room on split level. I had an excellent sleep.
May 30 Saturday: Genoa.
June 2 is a public holiday. The local authority has arranged “Rolli Days” from May 30 to June 2 providing free access to two dozens of palaces which once belonged to the city’s noble families. Given the topography of the city, many of these grandest residences had been erected on sloping grounds. They have their own architectural style and character but usually include an atrium, courtyard, grand staircase and garden and boast richly decorated interior.
We spent the whole day walking in the old town visiting a couple of churches, Casa Columbus (where Columbus had lived) and eight palaces.
Palazzo Stefano Balbi (Museo Palazzo Reale) a grand patrician residence first built between 1643 and 1650.
Museo di Strada Nuova comprising of three palaces-
- Palazzo Bianco built in the mid-16th century for the Grimaldi family
- Palazzo Tursi built by Nicolo, the richest Genoese who first built his residence in Strada Nova showing off his power by buying three lots along the new street enabling the palace to be flanked by gardens
- Palazzo Rosso built in 1671 by the brothers Brignole-Sale with two piani nobili
Palazzo Francesco Grimaldi (Galleria Nazionale di Palazzo Spinola) built by the Grimaldis before end 16th century
Palazzo Antonio Doria built by Admiral Antonio Doria between 1541 and 1543 and decorated by the most important artists of the time, including Luca Cambiaso. I am impressed by the murals of maps of the main trading centres of the day including Genoa, Venice, Rome and Jerusalem.
Palazzo Giorgio Spinola (built in 1580s) & Palazzo Tomaso Spinola (1558-1561)
We had a sumptuous lunch with lobster and seafood in Ristorante le Maschere for less than €100. Highly recommended.
May 31 Sunday: Genoa – La Spezia – Porto Venere
After a good breakfast, we took the 10:04am slow regional train to La Spezia (two and a half hours) which we used as the base for exploring Porto Venere, Cinque Terre and Islands. The Gulf of La Spezia is also known as the Gulf of Poets.
Cinque Terre (The Five Lands) is a rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera in the Liguria region comprising Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. The coastline, the five villages and the surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park which is a World Heritage Site. Over the centuries people have built terraces on the rugged, steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the sea. These villages clinging to the cliff face or concealed in miniature inlets are perfectly blended in to landscape.
A dense network of paths linking the villages and their hamlets provides spectacular views across towering sandstone cliffs, coast and crops (particularly vineyards) framed by rich flora of this area. A walking trail known as Sentiero Azzurro (Azure Trail) connects the five villages. The most popular section between Manarola and Riomaggiore is called Via dell’ Amore as it has been built by cutting through the cliffs – a product of labour of love.
This region is famous for sciacchetra, a strong sweet wine produced from grapes of Bosco, Vermentino and Albarola. All the houses here are painted in pastel colours. Cinque Terre is a popular destination for tourists and hikers who enjoy the Azure Trail. Unfortunately, the area were severely affected by torrential rains causing floods and mudslides on October 25, 2011 and only a couple of short sections of the path have been reopened.
As we could not book any hotel online, Ellen and I had to venture out for a quick inspection tour of hotel and B&B near the train station. All were fully booked except Hotel Frienzecontinental (3-star) and Hotel Aurora (2-star). The charge is €250 with breakfast for the former and €70 without breakfast for the latter. We decided to take the latter which owner is a nice guy from China who has spent over 20 years in Italy. The family also runs a restaurant next door.
We were hungry and had a delicious Chinese meal with steamed fish, stir-fried vegetable and tofu for less than €40. I enjoyed my meal as I had not had any decent Chinese food for over four months. We visited Our Lady of the Snow Basilica on Via Garibaldi which has an ancient image of Our Lady of Snow dating from the 16th century. The interior is covered with Byzantine mosaics and paintings. I find it atmospheric especially when natural light shone through the window.
In the afternoon, we took a bus to Porto Venere which origin goes back to the Roman era. The Nature Park of Porto Venere consists of the ancient village, the islands of Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto, the western coastline and a Protected Marine Area. Island Palmaria has a walking trail round the island.
We spent two hours in the ancient village. We visited Castle Doria first as it would close before 6pm. The entrance fee is €5. But there is not much to see except for the panoramic view of the area and Island Palmaria.
Next, we went to the Church of S Lorenzo consecrated in 1130 by Pope Innocent II.
The final stop was the Church of S Pietro (4th-13th centuries) and the Byron’s Cave.
Before leaving, we found a gelato shop in a narrow alley and had an excellent ice-cream. We took the bus at 7:55pm and were back to the city before 8:30pm. We were not hungry and tried a local bean soup (€6 for a portion). I do not find the soup special or value for money.