Pete and I, with our friends Sandy and Col, had been planning our great European adventure for some time. We’d booked a one-week wine and food cruise with Uniworld in France’s Aquitaine region, and a small group tour of Tuscany, also one week, with Collette. The two sets of dates weren’t contiguous, though, so we decided to base ourselves in La Spezia and visit the Cinque Terre, picturesque villages along the coast of Italy. Unlike our previous travels, this time we were going in August – Europe’s Summer, and the high season. It would be hot, but hey ho – we’re all Queenslanders. It would be fine. And we were all looking forward to it.
For Pete and me international flights usually mean an early morning start. We buy packages flying out of Brisbane and it’s rare that a flight from Hervey Bay to Brisbane makes a convenient connection, so we make the four-hour drive to the city and leave the car in the airport car park. After one of those nights when you doze, checking the time every hour or so, we gave up at about 3am and hit the road. Our Cathay flight to Hong Kong was scheduled to stop at Cairns for a couple of hours to pick up passengers so we flew straight up the coast. That’s always fun, picking out landmarks form the air. We spotted Fraser Island and the Mary River and waved to the neighbours as we crossed Hervey Bay. Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Mackay, the Reef, Townsville… and then we were descending into Cairns.
I expected most of the people boarding the aircraft would be Asian or Indian but that wasn’t the case. This hop from Hong Kong to Cairns must be very lucrative for Cathay, ferrying folks from everywhere to visit the Great Barrier Reef and the rain forest.
From Hong Kong we boarded a Finnair Airbus A350 for the flight to Helsinki. I watched Ready Player One, got a bit of sleep, then woke with sore legs. I couldn’t get back to sleep so I watched another movie (Hugo). Going through Immigration was pretty straightforward. We were on holiday in the EU and we would be leaving on 24th August. This is one advantage of the EU – you only have to go through immigration twice; once when you enter, again when you leave. And there’s only one currency, which is also convenient for us. I’m not too sure the Euro is fair on countries like Italy, but I’m on holiday so I’ll leave that thought.
The flight from Helsinki to Milan was almost on time, not that we cared much. There was a short delay while airport staff checked the runway for a bird the previous take off had apparently hit, and then we were off for the trip to Milan. Helsinki is about a spit away from the rest of Europe, across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn, but we flew over water for quite some time, so I think the plane followed the Baltic for a fair way before turning left towards Italy. Visibility was poor. At the time I thought it was just a heat inversion, but that haze never cleared for the whole three weeks. Europe’s air pollution isn’t quite as bad as Asia’s but it’s getting there.
After flying across neat fields, little towns and mighty rivers we reached the Alps. Steep, rocky mountains, most completely bare of snow, are interspersed with narrow green valleys, winding rivers, and deep lakes.
Then we landed at Malpensa airport. We’d already been through immigration at Helsinki, so it was straight to the baggage hall and then, suitcases in tow, off to find the railway. (Whoever thought up the idea of putting wheels on suitcases deserves a medal) We soon discovered that signs are not a huge priority in Italy. After some faffing about we found the right platform to catch the Malpensa Express. After a short detour to the wrong platform we towed our bags up the non-functional up escalator and joined the other bag-towing travellers at the platform marked as “Malpensa Express”. Then the lighted signs on all the four platforms malfunctioned, displaying gibberish, and a few minutes later a train arrived – at the platform behind us. Somebody must have twigged that this was, indeed, the train we were looking for, and we all scuttled over to clamber on board. BTW, that non-functioning escalator was still non-functioning when we left the country three weeks later.
When I think of ‘express’ I think of a fast commute into the central point. This was an ‘express’ from a certain point of view. The train got up to 126kph for a couple of kms, then stopped at a station. From there, it stopped every three minutes or so. And that is why the bus from the airport takes only a few minutes longer than the train. We arrived at Milano Centrale without any problems. Now we had to find the Milan Visitor Centre to obtain our Milan cards which gives 48 hrs of access to the Metro (the underground rail system) and discounts at museums and such.
Inside the station we stopped for a few moments to admire the architecture, a truly magnificent, airy building, then we began our search. In any other city the visitor centre is prominently marked. But this is Milan. We wandered around, dragging our suitcases, checking signs, looking for the universal i for information. There were ticket vending places, but unmanned. We asked at places where we thought people could speak English, looked up maps of the station. All the instructions were contradictory. Some said one floor up, some said outside, some said one floor down…
Eventually we found a tourist place (the address was on the doco Pete had received when we bought the Milano card). I went in with the app on my smart phone, the guy behind the counter glanced at it and pointed outside. “Out there.” I went outside and saw nothing. I told Pete who went back into the place with the doco in hand. While the clerk was telling him they hadn’t handled the Milano Card for six months I’d gone back outside and noticed a small glass house affair in a corner of the station’s veranda, about the size of four phone booths, marked Milano Visitor Centre. Yippee! We claimed our railway cards and mentioned that ‘this place is very hard to find’. The clerk nodded ruefully. Col and Sandy had done the same thing, wandering around the station like lost souls. After he’d picked his card up Col received a detailed video of how to find the visitor’s centre. Eye-roll.
We’d been wandering around the station for 45 minutes and were both in need of several scotches. But don’t worry. Things could only get worse.
Italians have something of a reputation for laid-back which is sometimes nice, sometimes not. We needed to catch a Metro train, which run underground. Even here at Milano Centrale there were many stairs, and only a few escalators. Several lifts didn’t work. So we were reduced to carrying our suitcases and cabin baggage up and down flights of stairs. I’d always enjoyed line-hopping in London, transferring from one line to another, but in Milan it’s much more confusing. It’s harder when you don’t speak the language and aren’t familiar with the stations, working out which way the lines went etc. But the signs are like something in Alice in Wonderland. You follow one sign pointing to M1 and blow me down, there’s another sign pointing at the place you just came from. We worked it out eventually and lugged our bags up the stairs at a suburban stop right next to our hotel. It was 1:30pm and of course the room wasn’t ready. Gosh, what a surprise. The hotel didn’t have a bar, but the clerk pointed us to a bar over the road, so we rang Col and Sandy, who had already arrived, and went off to inhale a well-earned drink, communicating our requirements to the wait staff by pointing and nodding. Unlike most of Europe, not many Italians speak English.
We’d stopped off in Milan to try to settle the body clock before our cruise, so we avoided an afternoon nap and despite the heat (38/100) went into the city. Milan is known for its fashion, not so much its art but the magnificent cathedral in the central square is well worth a look.
So is the Galleria, a shopping mall filled with expensive brand names – but also some lovely architecture.
By the time we returned to the hotel it was around 6pm and we were ready to eat and sleep, in that order. But in Italy restaurants open at 7:30 at the earliest and don’t close till late. We reconvened at Traffic Lights, the bar over the road (yes, the name is in English), then went looking for an open restaurant. We were turned away at a couple for being too early, but then one owner, standing outside having a smoke with his mate, had the nouse to realise he had four customers in front of his establishment. “Yes, we’re open,” he said.
So we went inside.
The waitress mopping the floor looked up at us in surprise. “We’re not open yet.”
We pointed at the door. “He said you were.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “If the boss says we’re open, we’re open.”
She was lovely, one of the few servers who spoke pretty good English. We ordered pizza, because – Italy – and a litre of the house white. The white wine has a tiny bit of fizz in it, not a sparkling wine but not completely still. We found it eminently quaffable. And the pizzas were delicious, thin, crispy pastry and not too much stuff on top. They were also huge, uncut, and hanging over the edges of the plate. We could easily have shared one per couple and that would have been too much. We took the uneaten portions back to the hotel. Col and Sandy had their leftovers for dinner the next night, but Pete and I went back to the same restaurant and shared one with a bowl of salad on the side.
The following day we went to a visiting exhibition of Leonard da Vinci’s machines. The Leonardo3 group has pored over Leonardo’s writings and designs and actually constructed the machines he designed, including man-powered flying machines, a submarine, and a mechanical lion. It was absolutely fascinating. Check it out here.
Later we caught a hop-on-hop-off vintage tram and visited a park/garden, apparently built around an old ruin. I suspect it was a pretend ruin, because I can’t find anything about it online. It was a nice diversion, though, on what was once again a hot day. They had several off-leash dog areas and even some enclosed parts fitted with dog agility obstacles. Quite a few doggies were socialising, which was nice to see.
In the afternoon we used the Metro to seek out a canal area we’d noticed on the tourist brochures. It’s clearly a popular restaurant area but at mid-afternoon on a very hot and humid day the only people there were a few die-hard tourists and hopeful vendors at markets set up along the banks of the canal. The water is fast-flowing and very clean. It would have been a lovely spot in the evening but the biorhythms weren’t up for that just yet.
Tomorrow we would be flying out to Bordeaux.