Seven cities in 10 days: Part 3

If you’re just joining us, you might want to check out Part 1 and Part 2 first.

We’re in Milan, where we’re getting ready to tackle the entire city—including the Duomo and La Scala—in one day. Within 12 hours, we’ll be on our way to Venice.

Day 3: Tuesday, September 18, 2007

I don’t think I woke up at all … but I still didn’t feel fully rested when the alarm clock started chirping at 7 a.m. We had a quick shower and an equally quick breakfast, and were out the door by 9 to meet our tour group.

[We’d really wanted to see DaVinci’s last supper. The only way to do so was with a tour group, so we swallowed our independent pride and booked the tour.]

The taxi ride through downtown Milan reminded me so much of Lima [Peru] that I immediately felt at home. Beautiful colonial-era buildings with ornate balconies graced the tree-lined streets.

The peaceful surroundings were a sharp contrast to the chaotic traffic below. It took us about 15 minutes to cover two miles, weaving and honking the whole time. Every so often the cab driver’s arms would pop up, like jacks-in-a-box, in the universal gesture of exasperation. O, dio mio!

I was amazed by the courage of the young women on mopeds—lithe and impeccably dressed—who were hurling themselves into the smoggy snarl of cars and buses. Klaxons honked almost constantly around us.

Our cab driver helpfully dropped us at the wrong corner and we almost missed the tour. In truth, I did miss the tour: I couldn’t hear a word our charming guide was saying.

In the span of three hours, we visited the Palazzo Reale, a former royal residence, DaVinci’s take on the Last Supper, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, and the ornate Scala theater. Then, we were unceremoniously dumped in front of the Duomo, Milan’s enormous cathedral. Fine with us. We were tired of being herded like sheep.

We spent maybe a couple of hours on the Duomo, mostly on the roof. The scale of the place is incredible—it’s the largest church I’ve ever seen. The stonework was awe-inspiring … of dazzling originality, and exquisite in its detail.

From the roof of the Duomo we surveyed Milan and decided to come back someday. It was much bigger—and much more interesting—than we’d ever imagined. Too bad we were out of time.

It took us a while to find the entrance to the subway. I stopped to ask directions of a pair of machine-gun-toting guards in camo. “Buon giorno, signori. Scuzi, ma dove posso trovare la stazione di treni?” The guards used every word in the Italian language—and about 6,000 gestures—to direct me to the corner of the plaza, about 100 yards away. “Grazie mille,” I said. My Italian teacher, Frida, had taught me well.

After picking up our bags at the Hotel Florida, we strolled around the corner to La Centrale (past the same row of pickpockets from the night before) and hopped our train to Venice.

First Class was sweltering, so we moved to the back. We were joined by several heat-stroke refugees, one of whom entertained me for two and a half hours with an erudite explanation of the area’s geography, history, and customs. All in Italian. All very quickly.

An architect, Dottore Cavestro explained that the region’s marble has been prized for centuries for its malleability. It is strong and durable, he told me, but not brittle—so it holds sculptural details well. Like in the Duomo? “Si, precisamente!”

His impression of an American giving directions, nodding almost imperceptibly with his arms pressed tightly against his sides, cracked me up. I was sorry to see him go at Vicenza.

Two stops later we were in Venice.

I was inexplicably moved by my first glimpse of the lagoon. It was oddly familiar, and a welcome sight. It wasn’t what I’d expected. But there was something magical about the color of the water, and shape of the islets that dotted it. Perhaps that’s why 12 million people visit this tiny city every year.

We arrived to bursts of torrential rain. My first impression of Venice was akin to the Renaissance Festival—only here, the stores really were medieval, and their goods cost four times as much. We were getting drenched. But who cared? We were getting drenched in Venice.

Our hotel (Hotel Rossi) was very near the train station … maybe three blocks. Our third-floor room was bright and comfortable, and the windows opened onto a tiny courtyard below.

We headed back out into the now-clear evening and enjoyed a glorious sunset, a bottle of wine, and dinner. I devoured a calzone that measured one foot across by about nine inches—no exaggeration. The waiters came out to peer at the small American woman with the appetite of a wolf.

Here are some photos from Day 3. Mouse over the images for a caption.

Tomorrow we’ll spend our first full day in Venice. We’ll skip the gondola ride in favor of a vaporetto, and will find ourselves being mistaken for millionaires on the small island of Murano.

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