After three days in Greece, my Italian adventures continued on as I got to explore the marvelous city of Milan.
Welcomed by the most hospitable family friends (thank you Rautos!), the first stop on my introduction to the city was the infamous Duomo. Literally the center of Milan, the Duomo di Milano is the cathedral dedicated to Saint Mary of the Nativity, seat of Milan’s Archbishop and the largest church in Italy. Climb to the top and from there you can take in magnificent views of the Piazza del Duomo and entire city surrounding it. Northwest of the Duomo is the artsy Brera district. Housing both the Brera Art Gallery and Brera Academy of Fine Arts, this neighborhood is largely influenced by the creativity and atmosphere born of the bohemian art and artists themselves. Restaurants, outdoor cafes, street markets, antique and art shops scattered throughout this area make Brera a laid-back and picturesque gem. It may just be because I missed American food a tiny bit, but a delicious burger at Baobab Organic Burger only solidified my love for Brera.
Once the sun sets, one of my favorite areas to visit in Milan is the Navigli district. Situated southwest of the city center is this historic neighborhood named for its canals, whose systems once connected Milan to northern rivers and lakes in the Lombardian region used for irrigation and transportation. Today only two canals remain and once aperitivo time approaches, the multitude of canal side bars, breweries, cafes and restaurants come alive with people and energy. This district’s casual, yet trendy atmosphere makes it the perfect setting for a relaxing stroll or fun taste of local nightlife.
Known as one of the fashion capitals of the world, Milan is the place for the high-heeled and tailored-ties. From the famed Quadrilatero d’Oro (“Golden Rectangle” ) to the historic Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele shopping mall, from the luxurious La Rinascente department store to smaller boutiques in Brera, Milan is the place where fashion meets avant-garde, beauty, fun and of course, high prices. Whether you’re an upcoming designer or avid window-shopper, Milan is the ultimate shopping destination for any fashionista.
For being in the right place at the right time, I was able to go the Universal Exposition hosted in Milan.
“Expo Milano 2015 is the Universal Exhibition that Milan, Italy, will host from May 1 to October 31, 2015. Over this six-month period, Milan will become a global showcase where more than 140 participating countries will show the best of their technology that offers a concrete answer to a vital need: being able to guarantee healthy, safe and sufficient food for everyone, while respecting the Planet and its equilibrium.”
This year’s central theme is Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life and it was incredible to see the hundreds of extravagantly constructed exhibitions and countries eager to share their different cultural ideas and solutions on promoting sustainability within the food industry. My equal parts food and traveling addiction drove my interest to learn more about the gastronomy of many countries and was a once in a lifetime experience.
When I think of Milan, the fashionista in me instantly connects Milan to fashion. When I think of Prada I usually think of the shoes or what the devil wears, yet our experience at the Fondazione Prada was far from it. The Fondazione Prada is a cultural art institution focused on sharing projects that analyze ideas and how mankind has transformed those ideas into products such as through art, cinema, music, philosophy, science and so on. As one of the top museums in Milan, this special museum holds a minimalist design to emphasize Prada’s most modern materials and architecture meant for those looking be enriched with art and intellectual reflection. In the midst of city, I always find myself searching for nature and our afternoon walk led us through the charming Sempione Park. Set between the Piazza Sempione and ancient Sforza Castle , one can enjoy the wide array of gardens, fountains or views of monuments such as the Arch of Peace or Palace of Art for a peaceful break from the busyness of the city.
Heading north of the city center is the main business district, Porta Nuova. Clean, crisp and modern architecture make up this new area that is currently undergoing massive remodeling project that will hopes to result in a merge with the old part of Milan. A lovely lunch at La Volta filled us full and off we went to explore more of Milan. For a fun adventure, head over to Viale Monza in the try Gelateria Etnica that serves original flavors from all around the world such as jackfruit, match tea, Japanese sweet potato, or even cheddar cheese (which I learned is very common in the Philippines and actually tastes somewhat good.)
Since I owed her at least one meal for the amazing hospitality and kindness, our last day we had a nice relaxing lunch at one of her favorite local spots. Only a place locals could find, what you might mistake for a garage entrance ends up being Santeria Paladini 8, an adorable café with adjoining shop that serves a delicious brunch and yummy salads perfect for a hot and humid Milan day.
And because I have awesome friends and was in Milan, why not go see a Maroon 5 concert? Though Adam was great to see live, even better in person was “Sunday Morning” when I was reunited with my parents! (Pun intended) Once my parents arrived, smiles were flowing and bags were moving as I jumped in the car and off we went to the start of a great week exploring northern Italy together!
Situated along the Italian Riviera is Cinque Terre, aka “The Five Lands”, compromised of five, vividly colored and beautiful villages set in the Ligurian cliff overlooking the sea. This rugged yet charming coastline attracts millions of visitors every year for its blend of natural beauty and history, beaches and hundreds of hiking trails interwoven through the national park’s breath-taking scenery. From the east to the west, the villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and finally Monterosso each have their own unique character and highlights to be seen.
Rave reviews and suggestions from Rick Steves landed us at Ristorante Miky for a fantastic lunch. This upscale restaurant takes seafood as its freshest and creates delicious and innovative dishes like a salt crusted sea bass or spaghetti al mare baked under pizza crust. Though on the pricier side, its popularity among local and tourists alike is worth the visit and reservations on busy nights are highly recommended.
With this helpful two day itinerary to guide us, we started our hike from the most northern village, Monterosso, and hiked to Vernazza. Starting from Monterosso, you can follow signs to a number of paths which includes our choice of the main path, Sentierro Azzurro. The agonizing amount of stairs and traversing may be enough to ward off any new hiker, but trust me when I say that the hard work pays off that in just about two hours, the rustic rocky steps and gorgeous green of trees turns into a rainbow of buildings and the ocean blue bay to reward you. (And if my parents can do it, anyone can do it!) Note that to hike through the Cinque Terre, you must purchase a trekking card, which we obtained from an office booth at the start of the trail.
When he is not busy running the fancier Mikys , owner/chef Miky is most likely down the street checking up on his other, more casual restaurant, La Cantina di Miky. A beautiful seafront setting with wonderful service, Miky sure knows his food and fans as this was one of the best dinners we had in Cinque Terre. They do not take reservations so plan to stand in line on a busy night, but the wait is well worth it. Local anchovies cooked seven ways, octopus salad and baked sea bream were just a few of the dishes that made for a perfect dinner after a long day’s hike.
The second day, we ran into a few mishaps, but enjoyed our time nonetheless. The best way to travel between these villages is by train with departures and arrivals about every 30 minutes, but be sure to check the train schedule as daily changes or train strikes can occur, as we learned firsthand. Thankfully we had a car so we hopped in and drove down to the eastern most villages, Riomaggiore. We had planned to hike from Riomaggiore back to Vernazza, but little did we know that certain trails were closed due to natural safety hazards. To save yourself some time, check ahead on their park website to be informed of any closures or changes in the trails. So instead we drove to the next town Manarola and my dad and I hiked the Sentiero Azzurro from Manarola to Corniglia. A little less difficult than the path from Monterosso to Vernazza, this path takes you through many switchbacks and traverses vineyards set into the stone to offer equally stunning views of the coast and cliffs. In search of food 11pm , we were lucky to come across Trattoria Ciak La Lampara in the old town of Monterosso for a dinner of delicious mussel soup before bed.
Sad to be leaving our beach paradise but ready for the next adventure, we headed inland towards Cremona. A midday stop in Modena and little online research left us one memorable lunch at Osteria da Ermes. Hidden if you don’t look close enough, this tucked away single wood-paneled room is run by an older couple serving true and traditional Modenese cuisine. No reservations, no menu, no English, you will most likely be greeted by Ermes himself to, if lucky to get in, share a table with a stranger, savor the taste of his wife’s home-style cooking and experience the authentic atmosphere incomparable to anywhere else. We arrived to a packed room and though Ermes told us no to lunch, my Italian skills wiggled their way in, his big ol’Italian grandpa-like hands grasped whatever amount of fat I still have left on my cheeks and shook them with a smile, we sat down to one-of-a-kind food and experience.
Before departing to Cremona, we could not leave Modena without tasting some balsamic vinegar. Modena is where traditional balsamic vinegar has been produced since the Middle Ages. Unlike actual vinegar, traditional balsamic vinegar is not allowed to fully ferment into wine. Rather, it is made from pressed Trebbiano grapes and the resulting liquid (the must) once boiled, is poured into wooden barrels year after year until an acetaio decides it is ready and of quality. With a variety of woods and aging times, the result is a viscous, sweet and sour treat fantastic on appetizers, entrees and desserts alike. A regular staple in our household, we stopped for a balsamic tasting at Acetaia Giorgio where we were tasted delightful century-old, Barbieri family made traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena. Walking around Modena, we discovered cute boutiques, yummy gelato and a town meant for a return. Finally we arrived to Cremona where we ended the night walking the quaint streets filled with late-nighters and a much needed sleep at the Astoria City Hotel
To the land of Shakespeare, our next stop was in Verona. Our location in the beautiful Hotel Milano placed us in the heart of the city, perfect for exploring all Verona had to offer. Located in the center of Verona is the Roman Arena, which built in the 1st century and surviving a 12th century earthquake, is now the city’s legendary open-air opera house complete with its renowned summer opera festival. Through the maze of roads intertwined with the Via Mazzini, we explored the radiant Centro Storico and walked to Verona’s oldest bridge, the Ponte Pietra. On the other side of the Adige River lies Giardino Giusti, a Renaissance garden dating back to the 16th century. Full of flower beds, statues and fountains, footpaths and romantic grottos, those such as Goethe and Mozart have enjoyed this haven as the perfect place to relax, enjoy a stroll and take in great sights of the city.
For dinner, Ristorante Maffei was the restaurant of choice and ended up being one of the best meals of our trip. Sitting outside on their elegant terrace, the chef’s focus on Mediterranean cuisine of land and sea made us want everything on the menu. Shrimp stuffed squid and baked monkfish were my tastes of heaven and if we stayed in Verona longer, we would surely have eaten there again and again and again.
Saving the best for last, we ended our week in the beautiful Lake Como. If I was George Clooney, I’d have a house here too. Located in the foothills of the Alps, Lake Como has been a popular retreat for wealthy aristocrats and now so for many other visitors drawn to its glamorous grandeur. The sparkling blue water reflects its banks filled with lavish villas, rose-laden belvederes, lakeshore restaurants and surrounding majestic vistas to endure a spectacular allure. Located in the center of Europe’s deepest lake is the exquisite town of Bellagio, the center region of the lake’s branches and most beautiful. From there, you can take a boat tour to any of the other main towns along the river such as Como, Lenno, Tremezzo or Varenna.
We had the most magnificent view from our stay at the grand Hotel Dulac right on the river and enjoyed every minute of a most magical place. Rightly named for its panoramic position of the lake’s three branches, dinner at La Punta of fresh “Lavarello” and “Agoni” fish and a wonderful sunset ended the night on a perfect note. Though we unfortunately planned for only one day there, Lake Como deserves its own week and without argument, we planned to return before we even left.
So much seen, so much done and yet, still so much more to do in the beautiful country of Italy! I am continuously amazed by each town’s individual character and the surprises they hold. Just when I think I’ve seen it all, there is always something new to be discovered. To my time in Italy, there is never goodbye, only until next time!