Milan 23 – 25 April 2017
We left Trisobbio today, with more than a few regrets. Life here has been wonderful and we will miss our gorgeous little village on the hill with its castle and church but it is time to move on and give the Piscicellis back their apartment. Rob and Yvette drove us to Ovada to catch the train to Genoa and we took a local train on the 1 hour 50 minute trip to Milan. Along the way, I watched the seeding operations in the wheat fields. Compared to back home in Dowerin, the process was simple, with small tractors pulling tiny seeding units across fields not much bigger than a football field. However, the land looked very productive and there were lots of them so there must be a decent yield.
The train delivered us to Milano Centrale, one of Europe’s biggest rail stations with more than 20 platforms. It took quite a bit of walking to get out of the place but we found the taxi rank with little difficulty. This was the first taxi we have used on this trip in Italy. We normally get away without them but our hotel location made it difficult to use public transport with heavy backpacks.
The taxi driver bundled us in, took the address then started driving out of the rail station into the traffic. I noticed that he was playing “Candy Crush” on his smartphone while driving so I growled something about “playing games” and he threw the phone onto the passenger seat alongside him. However, it was soon back in his hand but hidden from my view, forcing him to change gears with the wrong hand and no hands on the wheel. Christine typed out a clear instruction to cease on Google Translate and showed it to him. “No,” he said, “I need GPS.” Then he showed us the phone on Google Maps. After that, he did use two hands to drive but drove a lot faster just to show us he was still the boss of the taxi. We gave him the exact change.
Milan is one of Italy’s great cities and has numerous buildings that make you stop and stare in amazement. Overall, it lacks the grand scale open piazzas and sweeping vistas that so impressed us in Turin but the buildings are grander and more impressive. It houses many great art treasures, including da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. Getting a viewing is a long process so we skipped that, along with Michelangelo’s last unfinished sculpture but we go the idea and settled with copies.
The Duomo Cathedral is at the heart of Milan, on the site of the ancient Roman Forum. Roads radiate from here and ring roads circle it, following the lines of the various old town walls, expanded outwards as the city grew. The Duomo was the site of a church as long ago as 355AD and parts of that still remain beneath the current cathedral. Its modern form was commenced in 1386 and built in stages over the years until its final completion was commenced under Napoleon’s rule in 1805 so that Napoleon could be crowned King of Italy within the walls of the church. Work goes on well into modern times and incomplete bits are always in evidence. The effect of the many rising spires and countless sculptures clinging to the walls and battlements is simply stunning. The white stone of the facade gleams in the sunlight. No wonder the square in front is always packed with people.
The piazza of the Duomo is also home to a pigeon population to rival Venice. People purchase small packs of grain so they can be photographed covered in pigeons. However, covered in pigeons means covered in crap so it was not for me. Neither was sitting eating my lunch, as hundreds of people were doing while pigeons flew around overhead. We counted ourselves lucky to get away unscathed.
The dominant building in Milan is the Sforza Castle, the main structure of which dates from the 15th Century. It was severely modified under Napoleon’s rule, who seemed to delight in tearing down the work of previous rulers, but restored towards the end of the 19th Century and again after damage from bombing in WWII. Today it’s huge courtyards are open to the public and forms the focus of long walkways from the Duomo through to rambling open parklands. Many of the important museums and galleries are housed within the walls of the castle. Unlike most of the other castles we have visited so far, the Sforza Castle is built on flat land, a blessing seeing as our legs are feeling rather sore from all the walking. Indeed, all of Milan is built on flat land and used to have a huge system of canals, partly designed by Leonardo da Vinci, but only a couple remain today.
We were puzzled by the sight of very long lines of people queuing to gain entry to a small bakery in an alley near the Duomo. People also covered most of the nearby steps and walls as they sat and ate what looked like slices of a rather doughy pizza-like substance. The long lines put us off testing the food but it had to be something good, although how one store can sell pizza so much better than anyone else’s in the land of pizzas is hard to understand. A bit of research showed that this was the famous Luini Bakery, established in 1949 when Giuseppina Luini came from Puglia and began baking a type of panzerotta popular in Puglia. It is a pocket stuffed pastry filled with mozzarella cheese and tomato. No wonder it was so popular. We had sampled one at a small stall near Sforza Castle earlier without knowing what it was. Not a pizza at all but very yummy.
Milan has a lot of public transport, with an extensive Metro Underground, trams and trolley busses. Our hotel was around 5km from central Milan so we used the Metro to cross the city and trams to move within the central area. An all day pass costs 4.50€ so it was excellent value. Our hotel was on the Yellow M3 line, the latest Metro line that featured driverless trains. Sitting at the very front afforded a great view of the tunnel and approaching passing trains. Even weirder was a seat at the very rear to watch the tracks melt away into the darkness. However, in a country with youth unemployment running at in excess of 25% I think that driverless trains is something they can do without.
Our trip into the city centre on 25th April was really relaxed and easy because it is a public holiday, not for ANZAC Day of course, but for Independence Day, representing the day that the Milan and Piedmont rebels overthrew Mussolini and the Nazis. The streets were quiet, despite the fact that most shops were open and at least half the restaurants were also closed.
Nearby our hotel was a large modern shopping mall, similar in layout to most the world over. It was really handy because it had a large supermarket that supplied all our needs. The top floor had a food hall of sorts with a range of different offerings, including a Spanish themed place that offered such a great range of tapas that we were wishing we had time to work our way through the entire menu.
The weather in Milan has been excellent, with maximums in the high teens, great for walking. From here we head over the Alps through Switzerland to Munich, where we can expect snow and temperatures only a little above zero. The bus will be warm but we have to get out at stops so it is drag out the beanie and scarf time.
Is Milan recommended? Absolutely!
Bus Trip Milan to Munich – 26 April 2017
We caught a Flixbus to Munich. The original plan was to use the Metro to cross town to Lampugnano Bus Station but fate intervened with a terrible back pain, not Christine this time, but me. I have no idea what did it but it was the same old issue, with the legs barely working and the muscles threatening to go into spasm. We know now that pain control is the only real solution and that it is a 48 hour issue if treated properly. So we caught another taxi.
The taxi driver was named Franco and was a riot, quite unlike the guy we had on arrival. He told us he knew all the ways to get around the traffic jams that the rain had created and gave a running commentary as he used back streets, changed direction and shot down bus lanes. The whole trip was very entertaining. Incredibly, it was like he jumped ahead of us to meet us in Munich, because the next guy was just the same, except for the German accent. He described in detail the upcoming important soccer match between Munich and someone that was bringing the city to a halt and ruining his night’s takings. This guy knew all about Australia because he had seen Crocodile Dundee. Both were friendly, spoke good English and were very entertaining.
The bus trip proved to be a highlight of the trip so far. We had been across the same route heading south from Frankfurt but it was at night. This time we crossed the Alps in daylight. What a drive. The early part of the drive took us through Como with its beautiful lakeside scenery. Once into Switzerland and climbing, the snow commenced and it was covering the pine trees, creating a forest of perfect Christmas trees. The snow fall was heavy enough to make everything white and fresh but didn’t create dangerous conditions on the roads. Below the snow line was a glorious carpet of green fields, quaint villages and fast flowing rivers. Scores of long waterfalls plummeted down from the towering cliffs. Higher up there were huge mountains, fairy tale snow covered hamlets and deep valleys traversed by high bridges. It was amazing and even the two Austrian women in front of us were busy with their cameras.
I confess to being a little nervous about an alpine crossing in snowy conditions but the driver was very careful and at no time did I feel insecure. We reached Munich in the early evening, just in time for the peak hour rush and crawled our way into the bus station.
Munich 26-27 April 2017
Our accommodation in Munich proved a real winner. Rather than a hotel or AirBnB, we opted for a “Pension” or boarding house. This one (Mona Lisa Pension) had seven rooms in total, each with en-suite, and was attached to an Indian Restaurant called the Sitar. It was perfect, with our own secure entrance to the building, a lift facility rather than endless flights of stairs, great central heating and a wonderful location in the heart of the old part of Munich. The only thing lacking was any form of self catering, but we found a fantastic bakery with take-away coffee and piles of delicious offerings just around the corner. We also sampled the Indian fare and found it well priced and tasty.
My back improved steadily and we were able to explore the inner parts of Munich without doing our usual long haul of around 10kms a day. The Metro system helped us move a bit further afield to check out some of the history of this famous Bavarian city. One beautiful area was around the Isartor, one of the surviving medieval gates to the old walled city. Behind the restored walls is a market area that would have been an absolute feast of food if the weather had been better. The cold and steady rain put a lot of people off and the streets were quiet and more than half the stalls closed. There was little incentive to sample the beers stalls either because the thought of drinking beer outside in 5 degrees was too much. Later, at the central station, a wurztel stall did tempt us with a delicious plate of Curry Wurztel, which we would normally wash down with an ale but even the warmth inside the station didn’t tempt us. Wurztel stalls sell various types of sausage, along with a variety of sauces and a healthy serve of good German beer, usually from a small kiosk in a town square. A few standing height tables provide a space to consume the goodies and watch the passing parade while indulging in the ultimate gluttony.
Munich on a fine spring day would be wonderful. It is a shame that we have been here in such cold weather but then we have been lucky so far with an unseasonably warm spell. Furthermore, the local farmers were starting to fret, as they were in northern Italy, because even in Europe they can experience water shortages later in the summer.
We woke on our second and last morning in Munich to light snow. The cars lining the street where covered and the nearby trees had a charming white dusting. It took ages to get fully dressed to head out and around the corner to buy a coffee and a couple of rolls for breakfast but the scene along the street was delightful. As the morning wore on, the snow turned to sleet then rain. Fortunately, we did not have far to walk to enter a Metro station and get to the Central Railway Station for our train to Passau. My back had improved to the point where the backpack was not too bad and we got to the train without issue.
The train trip was only a couple of hours. The scenery just outside Munich was gorgeous with a heavier fall of snow covering the whole countryside. I am not sure how the farmers cope with snow so late in the season because there was a lot of wheat already growing and most of the canola was flowering. Hopefully, the effect of a light snow cover is not the same as a frost back in Australia. As the trip wore on, my back decided it had had enough sitting for one day and started to really hurt so I was very glad to get out at Passau, even though it meant loading the pack again and trudging through steady rain in very cold conditions.
Passau 28-29 April 2017
The rain destroyed our plans to walk to our accommodation, a trip of only about 1km, and we took a taxi. The driver dropped us at the entrance to Passau University and indicated that our address was somewhere within. After a bit of searching and help from students, we located our lodgings, a room in an apartment through AirBnB. This part of the University was once a monastery and we were lodging with the director of the student accommodation. We had a small room on the fourth floor (no lift) and the use of bathroom and kitchen. It was not ideal but it was cheap and central, two things that all other accommodation wasn’t. The worst thing was the smell. We couldn’t really identify it but it was definitely a stale food type smell, maybe the result of cooking in a closed environment over the cold season. It wasn’t the smell from “Jerry” the cat that seemed to revel in scratching all guests’ baggage and legs but I could have happily turned Jerry into stale food given the choice. He seemed to be the true owner of the property and was one of those repulsive cats.
Despite the rain, we spent a couple of hours wandering the charming streets of Passau. The city is located on the junction of the Danube, Ilz and Inn Rivers. It has a population of around 50,000, of which students comprise a significant proportion at 12,000. Passau has a rich history dating back into medieval times and was an important part of the Holy Roman Empire and the Austrian Empire. The streets are lined with beautiful buildings and shops full of charm and character. A couple of modern shopping malls take up the centre of the city but don’t detract. In the cold and wet weather, they provided us with a safe haven to dry off and seek some food for lunch.
Our second day in Passau was beautiful. For a start, the other occupiers of our accommodation were away in Prague for the day. Almost as good was the weather, with a cessation to the endless rain and a rise in temperature from a very chilly 5 to a bearable 12 degrees. We still set forth in long-uns and full length thermal underwear but at least the coats came off at times during the day. The worst part was entering a shopping centre, where they insisted on maintaining a steady 25 degrees. We were doing the full strip tease when only metres inside the doors.
Our final day in Passau was largely one of waiting for the cruise boat. In the morning, we found it at Dock 13 as expected and probably the most convenient location for our lodgings. Walking across town with our backpacks would not be difficult. However, we were not able to leave our luggage until 2pm and were unable to board until 4pm. Fortunately, Andreas our accommodation host allowed us to leave our luggage with him while we did other things.
The city was hosting a huge festival which was organised around a massive street parade featuring groups from the surrounding areas in traditional dress. We bagged ourselves a great vantage point and watched for an hour as group after group of marching bands, village groups and other organisations filed past, interspersed with magnificent horse team pulling carts loaded with people. Most of the men seemed to be drinking copious amounts of beer. There was much clapping and cheering and the whole spectacle was both entertaining and quite moving.
Any way you look at it, Passau is a very beautiful city, small enough to walk around the central old part and soak up the ambience and yet big enough to have a lot of features. Once the rain cleared and we were able to have a decent look at the city, its true beauty became apparent. Rows of quaint 18th Century houses interspersed with 16th and even 15th Century remnants of fortifications and larger buildings create a wonderfully “toy town” atmosphere. It really is a delightful place to walk around. It is easy to get lost for a short while, given the random pattern of the streets and alleyways, but then it doesn’t take long to get ones bearings because a few minutes walking will bring you into contact with either the Danube or the Inn Rivers and a chance to re-establish a location.
With the weather taking a very optimistic turn for the better, we look forward to our time on the forthcoming Danube River cruise. Ours is the first cycling cruise of the year and so we knew we were taking a risk with the weather but it looks as though we may have made a good decision. Time will tell.