Our first day in Italy, at the Piazza del Duomo in Milan, a pigeon flew into Lindsay’s mouth.
You can pose for as many insta-worthy, plandid, back-of-your-head photos as you like, but an Italian pigeon will still fly into your mouth. This is funny to me. This is possibly my favourite part of travelling. The shitty parts. Because it’s always hilarious! Even when I smoked it down a flight of stairs in Estonia, it was funny (afterwards)! My glasses will forever live in the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean…and Dunns River Falls; I will clearly never learn and it’s comical.
Backtracking a bit… we landed in Milan, got a train to Stazione Cadorna and then proceeded to get lost in this crazy city. Canadians (or a large number of them) are not used to these circle cities. This concept of city design made no sense to me and Lindsay. It’s like looking at the ripples of water from a stone dropped into a lake, except it’s streets and connected streets and oops, we forgot this so add another random street, and oh dear these five streets have run into each other, guess it’s a good spot for another Piazza!
I prefer block cities, laid out like graph paper – solely for the purpose of finding my way around. The organized chaos of a circle city is quite appealing to the eye, less so to the mind. So we wandered around with our backpacks for as long as we could manage, asked multiple people for directions and eventually hopped in a cab. This was a wise decision. Being as Milan was our first stop in Italy, we gave ourselves a break, eventually knowing that we would get the hang of these circle cities over time.
We arrived at our hostel (Ostello Bello), greeted enthusiastically by Frederico and offered a beverage. Lindsay had her first glass of Italian wine and I, a cold beer (which went to my head rather quickly, having travelled all day with little to eat). Forms filled out, WiFi acquired, we were shown to our room. A shared room with about six other guests, but spacious, clean and with lots of secure storage.
Others are often under the impression that well traveled people are immediately comfortable and completely fearless in a new place. Let me say, this is not the case. I am always scared. Every time. Every single time I arrive somewhere new, it is scary. It is disorienting and scary and so what? Am I going to stay home and avoid these adventures because of that? Of course not! But I don’t often know where I’m going once I arrive and, as a female, it is perhaps an even more nerve wracking experience than one would think. I see my male travel friends confidently walk out of a hostel, any time of day or night, and start exploring, with (seemingly) not a care in the world. I don’t have that privilege. There are huge differences between being a female traveler vs. a male traveler. Regardless, I do my best to make the most of my travel time.
That being said, Lindsay and I took the map given to us by Frederico, not that it make any sense to either us (damn circle cities), and headed out to see what we could see. Just to get our bearings and make some plans for the next day. Perhaps we would quell some that initial fear and discomfort.
Turns out the Duomo di Milano was a short walk up the street and to the right. Very easy to access from Ostello Bello. We spent most of our time in Milan around the Duomo and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (essentially a super fancy outdoor shopping area extended from the Piazza Del Duomo). I can only imagine what Fashion Week is like here – how do they manage the pigeons?
We easily located the Duomo and it’s adjacent ticket booth/souvenir shop. Certainly there was not enough time left in the afternoon to check it out now, but we were set with a plan for tomorrow and took some time for a photo op in the Piazza. This where Lindsay got intimate with a pigeon. Posing for a photo, looking happy with a big smile…and wham! Pigeon flies right past her face, full contact, wing in mouth. I just about wet my pants I was laughing so hard. The most unfortunate part of this scenario is that I didn’t get it on camera.
On our way back, we stopped for lunch. It has come to my attention that often my first meal in a new country is from a place with an English name (this pattern obviously applies to non-English speaking countries). I can’t remember the name of this particular shop, but it looked modern and hipstery and easy. So we had a sandwich and a cold pop. The places with English names are almost always a mistake (with the exception of McDonalds – I have no regrets about my McSpicy Paneer in Varanasi). The sandwiches looked big and full and delicious, but in fact, were not. But we had food in our bellies and that’s what mattered most at this point.
We had a bit of a sleep-in the next morning. After getting dressed, we headed out in search of lunch (okay, it was a really good sleep in. Not quite afternoon but too late to justifiably order breakfast). We knew from the start that we wanted pizza and we wanted a cappuccino.
“Oh but Helen, you’re not supposed to order cappuccinos in Italy if it’s after breakfast! That’s a no-no.”
I heard this tidbit from multiple sources and you know what? Nobody cared. We wanted our Italian cappuccino and we got it. Our server was happy to place the order with no (visible) judgement. Honestly, we drank cappuccinos whenever we wanted throughout the whole trip and no one cared. Have your cappuccino, for goodness sake!
We enjoyed our pizza and cappuccinos at a sidewalk table with a direct view to the Duomo, in all its late morning sunlit glory. The server kindly advised us that if we were to choose this table – at the edge of the sidewalk and bordering the street – we must keep an eye on our belongings. No cell phones resting on the table, always one hand on your purse or at least looped around a limb. Standard stuff but always good to be reminded and very kind of her to be concerned.
To the Duomo! Tickets purchased, we lined up and took the elevator to the roof. Yes. You can go on the roof of the Duomo di Milano and it’s worth every extra penny. The views from that height alone are spectacular, not to mention it gave us an intimate look at the unending intricacies of this structure. Layer upon layer of detailed sculptures, archways and carvings. We were in awe. Just about speechless. The decadence and the frivolity and extravagance of this place… I was dumbfounded. Italy is where I realized that the term “extra” comes from “extravagant”. It does, right? Because this country is so extra. We truly did not know how or when to stop taking photos.
Inside the Duomo is far bigger than we anticipated. Like a huge cavern of dark stone and even darker wood, working that gothic style like it knows how good it looks.
For me, the pièce de résistance was the statue of “St. Bartholomew skinned”. Gruesome and macabre, there he stood under a spotlight, wearing his own flesh for robes; face hanging at his back, the skin of his hands and feet still in tact. I could not look away.
The other highlight is the enormous golden representation of the Madonna. Once upon a time this particular figure sat atop the highest peak of the Duomo di Milano. Now replaced with what I suspect is a less expensive but equally effective duplicate, the original sits at the back of the cathedral, hidden behind the pulpit (which in this case, is the size of a house in and of itself).
Lindsay and I decided to make it a tradition for the trip to light a candle at every religious site we visited. And we succeeded with the exception of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, where they do not have this option available due to the mass amount of people.
We lit our candle, Lindsay said a little prayer and we left the dark Duomo for the sunshine of Milan.
Gelato! I must have gelato. What is the difference between ice cream and gelato? Nothing. Same ingredients, perhaps difference proportions. But if you translate the Italian “gelato” to English, you get “ice cream”. The draw is in the gelato culture and variety of flavors. In Italy, it is acceptable to enjoy gelato any time of day, as many times as you like. And you better believe I took full advantage of this custom. By the end of our trip I had certainly come to a well-researched decision as to where the best gelato can be found, as well as having learned the difference good gelato spots vs. the not-so-good gelato spots.
We found a gelato place with a fairly large local crowd, which is one good sign of quality. Lindsay tended to veer towards the chocolate, hazelnut, nutty type of flavors, selecting Sicilian Pistachio and a vanilla and chocolate hazelnut flavor, aptly named Penguin. I seemed to switch based on mood. For my first Italian gelato, I went with one scoop of Stracciatella and one scoop of Sicilian Pistachio. Delish!!
We returned to the Piazza de; Duomo later that night for photos and to dance on some testicles.
My dear friend Rich had asked us if we had spun around on the bull testicles, because apparently that’s a thing to do in Milan. What he really meant was that we should find the image of a bull in the mosaic flooring in one of the hallways branching off from the Piazza. It didn’t take us long and we quickly found some tourists from another part of Italy doing the same thing. The were kind enough to educate us on this tradition. There is a definite spot, as you can see the worn out stone where people have spun on their heel (three times exactly) for good luck. Lindsay was very graceful. I almost fell down (but saved myself). Good luck achieved!
Next stop – Venezia!