Saturday, May 02, 2015

My Milano Pt. 1

Some of those who follow this site may have detected that I have been on assignment in Milan, Italy for most of the past 16 months. The city is having a big year in 2015--it is the site of a world's fair, Expo 2015.   In the January New York Times article in its Travel section listing 52 places to visit this year (one per week, a pretty aggressive timetable, even for affluent readers), Milano was listed as #1.

"Nourish the Planet, Energy for Life"
That would be my translation of the theme of Expo 2015 ('nutrire la pianeta, energia per la vita').  In other words, it's all about food--food production, agriculture, agricultural workers, food distribution, and, yes, there's going to be plenty to eat and drink there.  Here's the plan, for your (in)convenience:

I saw the opening ceremony yesterday--well attended, despite some rain.  The site looks quite beautiful.  All of the pavilions are open, though some are not quite finished inside; the one from Japan looked particularly good.  There are many national pavilions--there will be national days for many of the major nations, with the big political guys coming for theirs--but also some theme areas within which  nations can participate for smaller investments--there are 145 countries represented.   The emphasis seems to be on sustainable agriculture, and, architecturally, fancy prefab buildings that can be taken down after the expo ends (October 31). There's strong backing from the Pope, who reminds us all to keep the hungry in mind, and a cast of major corporate sponsors, private benefactors, etc.   For more information, here's a site for the Expo (it's in English, Italian, and French), and here's one for the B.I.E., the official sponsors of the big World's Fairs.   I will report more on this once I've been there.

Almost enough about that, though I should mention the political dimension.  This thing has been about 10 years in the making, and there has been plenty of controversy (as one would expect, in Italy). The timing is quite good, though, I think; the economy is beginning to recover from a prolonged, double-dip financial crisis and this has provided a shot in the arm, for the city, for tourism, and for the country as a whole.  Nevertheless, it has occasioned protests (including some imported anarchists to start riots), there were some arrests for corruption last year, and the more general question remains of what the long-term impact will be.

The city of Milan has been gearing up for this in a number of ways.  There was a lot of infrastructure development (among other things, new lines of the Metro going out to the Expo site), and a number of cultural events in town, both during the lead-up to the opening, and through the season.  We will come back to this.  First, though, a personal travelogue (for the Times' version--'36 Hours'--see here.)

Milan is the second-largest city in Italy, after Rome. Milan dates back to Roman times, though, unlike Rome, few traces of that period remain.  It became an important city during the later Empire days--named "Mediolanum".  In those days, its approaches were navigable for ships going either to the Ligurian (western) coast of Italy or, via the Po River, to the Adriatic as well. Nowadays, the streams are suppressed, pushed underground or reduced to canals.

One analogy that might help Americans, in particular, is that Rome is a bigger version of Washington, older and even more spread out, while Milan is a smaller version of New York.  Milan is the financial and business hub, a major center for fashion, journalism, and sports.  It is close to the major manufacturing areas throughout Italy's North, though nowadays Milan is more likely to house the headquarters than the factories.   In its physical layout, though, Milan resembles London--also a Roman city in its origins--more than New York.  Instead of a rectilinear grid, it is a chaotic maze of streets going at all angles, changing names and angles frequently, and particularly of concentric rings.  I count four of them:
1) The innermost ring is quite small in area and probably corresponds to the original Roman walls (of which few, if any, remain).  It is the site of most, but not all, of the main attractions in the city proper.  Certain roads mark the edge of the ring, and there are a couple of wide ones (probably originaly canals or streams), but, apart from the cleared squares near the Duomo (the city's cathedral, the heart of the city), it's mostly a jumble. There are major bank headquarters here, the Cathedral (the Duomo), the famous opera house La Scala, and the stock market (La Borsa).
2) The second ring is still considered part of the city center.  The principal roads are either lines radiating from the first ring outward to "porte" (gates) that would have been in use during medieval times (though the walls, again, rarely remain), or the wide ones (where the walls were) that generally mark the boundary of the "zona limitada", the edge of the areas where cars can normally go (without special permission, which residents and others with pull can get).  It's not quite as crowded, and it has some nice parks, a very old university, and lots of old churches.
3) The third ring is a mix of residential neighborhoods, good and bad, old and new, along with some semi-industrial areas, large shopping complexes, etc. Particularly noteworthy are the new developments on the North side of town with modern high-rises both residential and commercial.  The third zone out is readily navigable by car, though there is also bus and tram service.
4) The outer ring is marked by the "autostrade" (the equivalent of the interstate highways), the airport closer to town, more industry, some office complexes which moved seeking lower rents, and some open areas, one of which will be the site of the Expo.  The big soccer stadium (San Siro) is out there as well (it also has a new Metro connection).  Some of it is technically within the city limits, some outside of it.  There are a lot of small towns and cities in every direction which feed into the city. 

All four rings have some nice residential areas and major offices, though the style differs:  the inner rings have imposing palaces, the third ring high-rises built from urban renewal land or postwar reconstruction, the outer rings sprawling campuses.  The inner ring's skyline is dominated by the Duomo and buildings are only a few stories high--a mix of postwar, older (1800's), or really old.

Getting Around
First, of course, you have to get to Milan.  If you're arriving by long-distance flight from abroad, you will almost inevitably come through Malpensa airport.  I am not a big fan--through some historical naming accident, the word literally would be translated as "Bad-Thinking"--it is some 45 minutes from the center of town by the best means of access (the "Malpensa Express" train, it costs 12 Euros, and make sure you "validate" your ticket!), while a taxi costs about 100 Euros.  There is a bus into town that is priced comparably to the train, but then you risk getting caught in traffic. It's basically out in the country, halfway to the Alps, and your airport experience will feature long lines (security, getting your passport stamped), long walks within the airport, and your general Sixties-era big-airport blues.  The one thing I like about it is the set of giant picture windows in the check-in area, from which you can see all the activity on the runways and service areas.

I am a proponent of arriving by train--high speed trains go to Milan from many other European cities, the one from Rome is particularly fast.  The Central Station is a huge Fascist-era edifice (third ring) where most of the trains arrive, though there are several other stations around the periphery, as the train lines generally don't run through the city (a couple of them are way underground, the topic for another post maybe).

 If you're flying from another European city, landing at the Linate airport, just outside the fourth ring, is the preferred destination.  Linate is small, really quick to get through, the taxi costs 10% as much, and if you're cheap or have plenty of time, you can take a bus to town for Euro 1.50.  Of course you could drive there from somewhere else, stay at a hotel/motel on the outer ring (probably there are several new, half-full ones near the Expo, or near Malpensa, which is in that general direction), or in one of the many nearby towns or cities, and avoid the Milan city center entirely, but I think that would be missing out on about 75% of the fun.

Within the city, there are lots of ways to get around, and locals use all of them.  In spite of the traffic limitations, cars are plentiful and allowed on most streets (if you have the right permit), motorcycles and motor scooters, taxis, bicycles (there is a popular bike exchange program for those who don't want to risk theirs getting stolen), streetcars (called "tram"), buses, and, my two favorite ones--walking, and the Metro.    I live, work, and spend 95% of my time in Milano within the first two rings:  the first one is less than a mile in diameter and the second some 2-3 miles (4 km).

First, a few comments about all the other modes of transportation:
Cars:  You don't actually need a permit to drive into the center of the city in the off-hours, outside the workday, but you're still going to need to park somewhere (it's all permit on the streets, and the parking lots are expensive), and there's all the one-way streets to deal with.  It's OK if you're going to a specific destination, have a place to park, and don't get lost.  The locals generally go for tiny cars (Smart cars, and even smaller ones) which are easy to maneuver and park, or have a place to park inside the gates of their building, or both.
Tram: They go lots of places, but you need to know the routes, and--most important--buy the ticket ahead of time, in a tobacco shop or at a newsstand.  If you research, sometimes it will be the best way to get to certain destinations distant from any Metro stops, especially in the third ring. Some of them are really cute, I must say.
Bikes:  There are a lot of them, and a fair number of bike lanes.  I don't think it's a good biking town, though, except in the parks and on the bike paths separated from the main part of the roads. Many of the roads are old paving stones and very treacherous when wet, and the motorized vehicles drive fairly aggressively. To use the "bike Mi" service you need a monthly subscription; then you can pick one up for an hour or so for practically nothing at one of the many stations in town and leave it at the same, or a different one.
Motorbikes:  Same general comments as for bicycles (except the Bike Mi part)--obviously they are faster and more dangerous.  I've seen many near-misses, and only a few accidents.
Taxis:  They are expensive to use.  The quality of the rolling stock is very good (a lot of Prius, some good vans and station wagons).  Generally you have to go to one of the Taxi stations (big orange sign that says "Taxi" near most principal squares); they won't stop for you on the street often (even if the light on top is lit, meaning available), and depending on the time and location, there may not be any taxis at the stand.  A lot of the taxi service is arranged by cellphone (there is usually a sign at the stand with a number you  can call, if you have cellphone service).  Their big new challenge is Uber, and the taxi drivers are not happy about the competition. They don't all take all cards, and may grumble if you ask.  Tipping is optional, as is giving you a receipt.  I have had drivers just give me a receipt and tell me to put in whatever I want.
Buses:  See above for "Tram", except you can do something when leaving the Metro to have your ticket work on the buses, if you're attentive and know where you want to go with the bus.  There don't seem to be as many bus routes as the Tram service in the center of the city; I think they are used a lot to come in from the periphery. 

Tram along via Turati

well-chosen parking spot for a Fiat 500

This leaves my two main modes.  The Metro system is a very good one, in general.  It doesn't go everywhere, but there are five main routes that dissect the city in different directions, so it's very good to go between points within the center if it's a longer trip or you're in a hurry--generally with no more than one change of lines.  It costs Euro 1.50 per ride (except to the Expo, that's a longer ride and costs Euro 2.50).  It's not open 24 hours, but it's open until late and starts early.  It's safe, clean, and only crowded at the peak of the rush hours. And if it doesn't go exactly where you want....then I recommend walking.

Having gone on a bit long, the next section with my favorite walking routes (Part 1A) will be posted separately, but it's the best part.

A final introductory note:  any visitor to Milan, to Italy for that matter, needs to be aware of the possibility of a "sciopero" (strike).  The labor unions are strong, and they may call a strike, with little advance warning, at any time.  The general theory of how these work is to maximize disruption, while minimizing inconvenience to the working population.  So, often the strike will start at 9 a.m. and end at the beginning of the evening rush hour, shutting down as much as possible all the public means of transport in the meantime.  Before counting too much on any intra-day travel plans, make sure there is not a 'sciopero', by checking newspaper, Google, International advisories, etc.  I got stuck arriving from Malpensa the other day and had to walk two miles, with my bags, to get to the office.

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