Dr. Shaji arrived almost an hour beyond the appointed time of 8.30 am. However, the time was used to update social media, contact family and the like. The Hotel Ritter on Corso Garibaldi, where we were staying, thanks to a good friend from Bangalore whose multi-national operations cover all the Continents – well, I shall test that out in Antartica – was central to the sightseeing plan. Just a stone’s throw away is the Moskva Metro and a short walk away is the Piazza San Babila. Shaji said that we would start the day from San Babila and accordingly we strolled to the Piazza. It is part of the historical centre of Milan and a favourite meeting place for the Milanese upper class. The fountains, the sculptures and the Church of San Babilo occupied us for a while. Next we walked to the Minor Basilica of San Carlo, a Roman Catholic church. After a few moments in prayer there we continued our walk on Via Dante. At a distance we could get a glimpse of the Duomo, the Milan Cathedral. Shaji, who seemed to be a Brand Fan, took us on a short detour to the Ferrari showroom. It showcases everything Ferrari and gives an idea of how a Brand is reinforced and marketed. From a F1 racing car, its engine, exhaust and the like to perfumes, caps, bags, T-shirts, dolls, sunglasses, etc were available for viewing and buying. The store also has a simulator that can be tried out, for a fee of course. The F1 car is the star attraction; most photographs are taken with it in the store. At intermittent intervals one car hear the sound of a racing car over the store audio system. Pleasant people help visitors navigate inside the store and there is never a word to hurry and leave it.
The Duomo is the major attraction in Milan along with the Castle. It was built more than 900 years ago. Interestingly, almost all major church building we have visited in the journey have all been decked up for renovation. Shaji told us that the Milan Cathedral is almost every year under restoration and renovation. The entrance doors of the Milan Cathedral are ornate – the main door has sharp scenes from the sentencing and crucifixion of Jesus. The bronze doors have become green with age, but the legs of a soldier whipping Jesus, in one of the panels, has been rubbed most often by visitors that it gleams. Why it is that the cruel man’s legs that have been specially treated is not know! There is security check at the entrance to the Cathedral. However, the rather long queue moved quickly and, as I entered the Cathedral, I was stupefied into silence. The magnificence of the interiors is awe inspiring. The proportions, baroque works, sculptures, stained glass windows, chapels, knaves, altar, paintings and all else were, without an exception, top class. Shaji told us that the original paintings, huge ones, used to embellish the Cathedral, hung from the ceiling to cover the space between columns. They have now been replaced by a few copies, smaller versions. Many places inside the Cathedral have been forded off from visitors. Photography is limited to those who pay a fee for the permission. The Cathedral has a chapel with a unique picture of Our Lady and the Child Jesus. Possibly it is the only picture in which Our Lady is depicted suckling the Child Jesus. Photography of the picture is strictly prohibited. Another chapel is for confession and adoration. Wardens restrict entry there. When the three of us wanted to pray in the chapel the warden restricted us first. We gained entry by saying that we wanted to pray there. He possibly thought that we could not be there for anything other than tourism as we had small backpacks with us.
Out of the Cathedral, reluctantly due to the shortage of time that we had at our disposal, we took the few steps to the Galleria Vittorio Manuele. Before experiencing that we thought of a cup of coffee in Motta Café, situated at the entrance to the Gallery. The traditional café, established in 1928, serves possibly the widest variety of tourists, for it’s a must experience site in many tourist brochures. We paid Euro 0.70 to use the toilet and got 0.50 reimbursed on the coffee bill! The caffe latte was awesome but not as hot as I normally like my coffee.
The Gallery was originally the Palace of the Milanese ruler. It is now home to some of the best Brands that assail human minds. The shops are auctioned and fetch huge money for the local authorities. Having a store in the Gallery is considered to be most prestigious and Brands vie with each other to outbid and establish a store there. Shaji told us how, after many years in the Gallery, McDonalds lost out in one of the auctions and, in protest, they organised free burgers outside the Gallery for a full day. During the visit we saw a large space being done up to set up a Versace store. The high, arched, glass ceiling lights up the huge Gallery and one can leisurely stroll the alleyways of the Gallery admiring Brands and, if the purse permits, pick up an item from one of the many stores. However, I discovered that the star attraction in the Gallery is not the stores; it is something that is embedded on the floor almost in the centre of the Gallery! I found most visitors gravitating to that place. Initially I thought that the centre of the Gallery provided the best panoramic view of it. Then I noticed people looking down on to the floor rather than craning their necks to view the ceiling. As I came close I realised why and Shaji provided an explanation. On the floor was a mosaic of a Bull. The Bull seemed to be in fine shape except for its extremities. The belief is that if you put your heel on the Bull’s extremities and turn around three times you will be granted another visit to Milan before you make the final journey! Visitors were waiting in queue to do the bull act. The place where the heel is kept has become a deep recess with the number of visitors wishing to come back to Milan. Shaji said that the local authorities have had to replace that portion of the Bull many times due to wear and tear!
The Opera House and the Da Vinci statue were taken on our stride to the Milan Castle, which is part of the old fortified City of Milan. The fort had more than 12 entrances, or Porta. The majesty of the Castle, many of the buildings now house valuable collections of art and culture, will easily keep you enthralled for a few hours. But we did not have that kind of time. The ‘Last Supper’ of Leonardo Da Vinci is on display in one of the Museums in Milan. Reservations have to be made in advance to make a visit. Since we did not have one we decided not to risk a refusal at the gate. Milan is being readied to host the International Expo in 2015. Most heritage buildings are under renovation and additional transport arrangements are being readied; extension of Metro lines and the building of a new one are on. The City has a very good network of trams, metro trains and buses. The integrated day pass entitles you to use all the modes of traffic, as we experienced in most of the European cities that we travelled through. What amazes me is that most of the Metro stations, in many of the countries, have been built before WWII! How far behind are we in the development process in India?
We wound up the morning part of the tour at the Napoleane monument and the luxurious park near it and took a tram cum Metro to the Hotel. At the reception organised in the Indian Consulate Mohan, who owns the Rangoli restaurant on Via Solferino, invited us to have lunch and dinner there. Though I had mentioned to Mohan that we would go there for dinner, Shaji thought it better to be there for lunch so that we could go to his house for dinner. Accordingly, after spending time at the Napoleane Monument and walking through the park adjoining it we took a combination of the Tram and Metro and reached the hotel via the Moskva Metro station. After freshening up we took the Rangoli restaurant. In the meanwhile Shaji had informed Mohan that we would be at the restaurant for lunch. We reached the restaurant hungry and thirsty. The restaurant was quite busy and we were seated in a private enclosure. After that it was a Pallab show. Pallab Talukdar, from Kolkata, is an exceptional person. He has been working in the restaurant for many years, but was an ardent cyclist in his younger days. He has logged more than a 100,000 kms on his bicycle. Apart from the many forays from Kolkata to various parts of India his most adventurous has been from Iran to Denmark about 15 years ago. He narrated many interesting anecdotes and dedicates his efforts to the indomitable spirits of Bimal Dey, the cycling globe trotter settled in Switzerland and Jayanta Mondal. Pallab suggested a set meal and Lal and I plumbed for fish curry. The food transported us back to the homeland – it was authentic and tasty. The meal was followed by a Kulfi; I had both the mango and pista kulfis. We wanted to spend more time with Pallab and get more stories out of him, but we had to complete the sightseeing of Milan and get to Shaji’s house in the outskirts of the City.
We took the Metro to the Centaralle FS to get to the Central Station which is the hub for trains to all of Europe from Milan. It serves regional and long distance trains. The Central Station is not a railway station, it is a museum. The elaborate building was officially inaugurated in 1931 replacing the old transit station built in 1864. The arrival hall and the roof of the station along with the many sculptures are noteworthy. Though there were many platforms – 24 to be exact - and hundreds using them (over 320,000 per day) I did not see any congestion or confusion. Passenger information system is regularly updated and, of course, late running is not something they are familiar with! Over 500 trains service the station daily.
After the tour of the Central Station we were back in the Metro once again to go to the Gobba station where Shaji had parked his car. Shaji lived just outside the urban limits in Vimodrone and we reached there in his car a little after 4.30 pm. He lived in very elaborate surroundings on a floor of building with three other tenants on the other two floors. His part of the house has an exclusive entry and a rather large garden where he grows grapes, figs, apples and peaches besides cultivating a kitchen garden. Shaji’s wife and sister-in-law were at home to receive us. As we parked the car Shaji plucked us a bunch of green grapes which was ready for the palate without even a wash. It was so sweet that I finished off the entire bunch without sharing much with Lal! Then arrived the figs, again straight from the tree. I had never had fresh figs; sun dried figs were a favourite with me and I had carried a huge lot for the travel. We were nearing the end of it and, voila, the fresh figs arrive. They were ready to eat without even peeling. A large portion of it and some water later I took a snooze. When I woke up it was almost 7 pm. Shaji started a grill with Pork and Chicken while a veg grill of zucchini, capsicum and brinjal was dressed with vinaigrette and a ‘secret’ masala. We sat on the balcony overlooking the garden. While we were at the meal Shaji packed for us freshly plucked grapes and figs. The day was wearing on and I was worried that the day pass we had with us would not be valid if we got late. It transpired that way, finally. We bought a single journey ticket for the trip back to the hotel. In the hurry I forgot to collect change from the machine! The journey from the Metro station close to Shaji’s house involved 11 stations, but we did not have to get down and take another line.