Sunday in Milano

One of our great desires on this trip to Italy was to see The Last Supper. So, on Sunday, we drove about an hour and a half to the outskirts of Milano, parked and took the tram into the city center.

Piazza del Duomo in the heart of Milano
Photo by Debbie Henning

A word of warning if you plan to see The Last Supper – we had heard that tickets were difficult to come by, and you had to reserve them early. We started trying to get tickets about two months ahead of our visit and found they were sold out. We later heard of others who had the same problem starting six months ahead of their visit. We solved our problem by arranging a walking tour of Milano with a guide, which included tickets to The Last Supper.

It seemed like wherever we went in Italy, certainly the popular destinations, we were always in the midst of tour groups of about 20-40 people with headsets on, lumbering behind a guide holding a flag on a pole to keep the group together in crowds. Every time I saw one of those groups, I thought, “That doesn’t look like much fun.” Now, we found ourselves part of just such a group. I still wouldn’t choose these group experiences, but in this case, it was a necessary evil, and nevertheless had some value.

We met our guide across the street from the Piazza del Duomo. Milano is a full-fledged city with all the traffic and congestion that entails, so it’s complicated enough to get around on a normal day. Our guide’s plans were immediately thrown into disarray, because this turned out not to be a normal day. It turned out that the National Alpini Association was holding their annual reunion in Milano this hear, and this happened to be the 100th anniversary of the association. The celebration brought more than 100,000 people to Milano, and this morning, they were having their parade right through the center of the city. The Italian Alpini are much like America’s 10th Mountain Division, a specialized , mountain-warfare infantry corps.

A group of Alpini on parade wearing the traditional capello alpino. The hats bear patches and badges identifying the unit of the Alpini and service campaigns.
Photo by Debbie Henning
The traditional caps are worn with great pride.
Photo by Debbie Henning
The party started early. This was breakfast for this gentleman.
Photo by Debbie Henning

The first stop on our walking tour was Milano’s Duomo, a beautiful, late-Gothic, marble cathedral constructed between1397 and 1812. The Duomo is massive, impressive and beautiful at the same time. Everywhere you look, you find spires, ornamentation and statues. It is apparently the third largest cathedral in Europe and can accommodate about 40,000 people for a service.

Marble facade of the Duomo from Piazza del Duomo
Photo by Debbie Henning
Detail on one of the panels of the massive brass doors. Each of the doors in the photo above has eight or more similar panels depicting different scenes.
Photo by Debbie Henning
Detail on another panel of the Duomo’s doors showing the brass where the patina has been rubbed off by people touching the door.
Photo by Debbie Henning

Also on the Piazza del Duomo, on a side adjacent to the Duomo, stands the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. The Galleria was built as a shopping mall and showcased the most modern design. Glass and iron arched domes cover about a city block on each of the four sides of an intersection. Originally built in the 1800s, it is thought to be one of the first glass and iron buildings in Europe and one of the first buildings in Milano to get electricity. Today, the Galleria houses some of the most upscale shopping in Milano with all of the major fashion houses represented. The current Galleria has been almost entirely reconstructed, as it was destroyed by bombing in World War II.

Central intersection of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Photo by Debbie Henning

Our walk through Milano continued past La Scala and then the Castello Sforzesco. Castello Sforzesco has been used as a defense for Milano’s rich and powerful since the 15th century. It was originally part of Milano’s city wall, set in rich, green fields. Those fields are now just more city, but the castle is still surrounded by lush lawns.

An original part of Castello Sforzesco
Photo by Debbie Henning

We finally made our way to Chiesa di Santa Maria della Grazie, home of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. The experience was well worth the difficulty in acquiring tickets. One reason the tickets are hard to come by is that they have chosen to manage the crowds by controlling the front end. When you arrive, only 25 people are permitted to enter for a 15-minute time period. We found 15 minutes was adequate. There are really only two works of art in the room. Limiting the group size allowed a much more intimate, personal and powerful experience.

Leonardo was commissioned to paint a wall of the dining hall for the Dominican nuns from the convent at Chiesa di Santa Maria della Grazie as a bribe from the ruling Sforza family (the same family as the castle above). It turned out to be a pretty nice dining room decoration. We were told the rectory was destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, but the wall with the Last Supper remained standing.

The Last Supper. In Italian, it’s called Cenacolo Vinciano. Cenacolo means refectory and refers to the refectory where Jesus held the last supper.
Photo by Debbie Henning
Setting of the Last Supper in the refectory of Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie
Photo by Debbie Henning
Rarely mentioned painting at the other end of the refectory from the Last Supper, The Crucifixion by Donato da Montorfano
Photo by Debbie Henning

Asti

We began our exploration of Piemonte with a day trip to the charming city of Asti, a short, 15-minute train ride from Montegrosso d’Asti. Stepping off the train in Asti, you immediately notice the feel of the city is somewhat different from those to the south. While Asti still feels “Italian”, you notice much more French influence in the architecture.

Street scene in Asti
Photo by Debbie Henning
Wrought iron balconies on a street in Asti with the 15th Century Collegiate Church of San Secundo in the background.

We spent most of the day just walking the streets. Asti is a beautiful, small city, just the right size to be eminently walkable. When we got off the train, we found two separate, open-air markets featuring local artisans in nearby piazzas. While walking we encountered a wonderful gentleman, 82-year-old Melio on the street who told us stories. Melio was full of life and spirit and well-versed in current American events.

Randy and Melio
Photo by Debbie Henning

Eventually, we made our way to two of Asti’s ancient cathedrals. First, we visited the Collegiate Church of San Secondo. The original building was probably started in the 10th century and modified somewhat over the centuries. The facade was originally constructed between 1440 and 1462,

Interior of the Collegiate Church of San Secondo
Photo by Debbie Henning

Then it was on to The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, a massive cathedral built around the first half of the 14th Century on the ruins of a previous church. While my knowledge of architecture is almost nonexistent, they say this cathedral is the best example of the Piedmont Gothic style. What I do know is that every church or cathedral we stepped into was stunning in its own way. Each has its own beauty, and while some may be a little ostentatious, and I may wonder about the amount of money that went into building and decorating these facilities, there is no denying that they are sacred places.

Facade of The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption
Photo by Debbie Henning
Side of The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption with bell tower
Photo by Debbie Henning
Interior of The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption
Photo by Debbie Henning
Statue of Our Lady of the Assumption
Photo by Debbie Henning

On our walk back, we stopped off for lunch at La Buta Enoteca in the heart of Asti. La Buta offers a huge selection of wines from the region. Antonio helped us find a couple of wines that were just what we were looking for. Debbie had a Gavi, made from the Cortese grape. It’s a crisp, medium bodied, dry white wine with a floral nose and citrus on the palate, perhaps similar to pinot grigio, but with more body. I chose a grignolino, a brilliant, light-red wine. From its appearance, you might expect it to be thin, light and watery, but this variety has some tanning that provides more substance. Strawberries are evident in the nose, while the taste starts with strawberry/cherry flavors and then lingers with some peppery notes. Antonio told us that grignolino was once known as the wine of kings, as it was favored by the French royalty. Both grapes are indigenous to Piemonte and are grown in the southern portion of the region. Both wines were perfect with the plate of focaccia, salumi and nuts that we shared.

Some of the wine selections available at Labuta
Photo by Debbie Henning
Lunch at Labuta in Asti
Photo by Debbie Henning

Before heading back to Montegrosso d’Asti, we stopped in Giordanino’s Pasticceria. Throughout Italy, we came across outstanding bakeries everywhere we went, and Asti was no exception. The care and pride that go into their creations is evident and impressive. Giordanino’s makes a polentina, a sponge cake made with almond flour and soaked in maraschino liquor, that is pure heaven.

The owner of Gioranino’s Pasticceria. (Note the grappa in the background. You can’t be in Piemonte without finding grappa.)
Photo by Debbie Henning
Goodies at Giordanino’s
Photo by Debbie Henning
More goodies at Giordanino’s
Photo by Debbie Henning