The Orient Unexpress: Milan to Mestre
Arriving after dark meant that I hadn’t truly felt like I was in Italy. Sure, I had passed through any number of Italian towns on my way to Milan, but having been on a train for the entirety of the journey meant that the true sense of being somewhere new was somewhat muted.
The previous evening I’d headed straight to the dorm room and chatted to three primary school teachers from Birmingham, apologising all the time for any potential snoring in the night. I used my well-rehearsed jokey line of “feel free to kick me if I annoy you at any time, it’s the best way to make me stop” as an attempt to preempt any disturbance.
As it was, not long after putting my head down to try and sleep, one of the other occupants of the room started a concerto of nocturnal noises. I suspected it was one of the teachers, but there was a very quiet Japanese tourist who seemed like she may have been a secret snorer.
The next morning, following on from an entertaining chat with the male teacher from Birmingham and a rather demanding Cuban chambermaid, I stepped out into the Milanese morning from the Ostello Bello Grande.
I toyed with the idea of taking public transport into the centre, but after 7 hours on a train the day before and another couple of hours coming up later that afternoon, I figured it may be best to stretch the legs a little.
I used Milano Centrale station as my starting point. The sheer size of the building meant that it appeared on every map, could be seen from several neighbouring streets and couldn’t be missed, sitting as it did like a bethroned king at the end of a seemingly unending boulevard leading to the city centre.
I crossed the Piazza Duca d’Aosta on the diagonal and walked onto Via Vittor Pisani. The first part of the walk wasn’t particularly inspiring, with tallish concrete buildings flanking both sides of the wide road with space for six lanes of vehicles. White vans and groups of workers were making their way to employment for the day.
A little further on and the road becomes the tree-lined and grass-verged Piazza della Republicca. Here, traffic seems to merge from every direction, trams ring their bells with sharp urgency and cyclists rattle along on bikes in varying states of repair.
Eventually, the road narrows and becomes the flag-stoned Via Filippo Turati and hints of history start to emerge from the concrete that fringes the city centre’s edge. The first building to stand up to modernity is the neoclassical Palazzo della Permanente, an art gallery dating from the 1880s.
Walking on, the number of tourists was visibly increasing. A number of hotels and hostelries were starting to empty their guests onto the streets in search of what Milan had to offer.
It was here that I wondered to myself, what actually does Milan have to offer and should I be kicking myself for not opting to stay here longer?
I remembered that it is considered as being an industrial hub in northern Italy. It has two world-famous football teams - A.C. Milan and Internazionale. They also have a ‘fashion week’ - admittedly not my scene.
I think that when I finally reached the Archi di Porto Nuovo (lit: ‘new gates’) on Via Alessandro Manzoni that more of the appeal was visible through the restored mediaeval arches, although I was still far from overwhelmed.
I am not a glamorous person. I am more inclined to a form of well-groomed shabbiness with regards to fashion and appearance. I aim to one day be the embodiment of Spencer Short’s poem on the topic. I own no designer wear. My standard attire is black chinos, tan Chelsea boots and whatever shirt still fits me.
In Milan, the tourists and locals were quite easily distinguishable in a manner I hadn’t seen since visiting Nice and Monaco many years before. The tourists scuttle around, mostly in ill-fitting shorts and clutching DSLR cameras with ubiquitous Nikon-branded straps, finished off with one of those travellers’ money belt things.
The Milanese in the city centre, by contrast, walk more gracefully, lighting up the air with fine perfumes and eau de toilettes as they go, all wearing clothes that exude a certain amount of wealth without being in any way flash.
Having walked through the arches I was no longer surrounded by baby brutalist architecture, but instead, I was escorted gently along the road by a succession of boutiques. These were the kind of establishments where no prices are visible - no signs declaring ‘closing down sale’ or ‘money off’ or ‘student discounts’ here.
Just bare windows with simple but very carefully-dressed mannequins that seemed to draw the attention of the passersby more effortlessly than any Oxford Street store in London.
The first real break in the wall to wall boutiques came at the Piazza della Scala, a square opposite the Teatro della Scala opera house. In the centre of the square, looking down on all of the tourists checking their maps or scrolling through their Instagram accounts is a statue of Leonardo da Vinci looking every bit the wise Renaissance polymath he was.
Cutting across the piazza and past da Vinci, I arrived at the monumental large archway entrance of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. The magnitude of the entrance, with its columns reminiscent of classical Greek and Roman architecture, gives a humble pedestrian the sense that they are entering a palace - it is, in fact, Italy’s oldest active shopping mall.
Walking inside, once more that Milanese glamour is everywhere to be seen. Arranged around the central atrium, beneath the large domed glass roof, there were Versace, Louis Vuitton and Prada surrounding me. In need of some new sandals, having forgotten to pack mine, it was clear that this would not be the place to find them.
Inside the shops, there didn’t seem to be many customers. Instead, most people seemed to be there just to have their photos taken in front of the shops, rather than to spend any money in them.
I walked out of the other side of the Galleria and into the Piazza del Duomo. On one side of the square, there was the duomo or cathedral itself. Usually, I would have taken a look but with a queue of about 200 metres to get in, I decided to give it a miss.
Within the square, there was the usual mix of hawkers, tourists and carabinieri. Also, just like Trafalgar Square in London, there were people dressed in atrocious superhero costumes and others painted to look like statues.
Most curiously, there were two sets of newlyweds and their entourages taking photographs. One group was dressed in traditional European-style wedding attire, the other in much more flamboyant West African-style clothes.
For whatever reason, perhaps because I was conscious of having to travel or maybe because it felt a little too similar to a wander in London’s shopping district, I didn’t feel like discovering too much more of Milan. Sure, some of the city centre was architecturally stunning, and maybe, in the right company, some of the restaurants and historical sites would have felt more appealing, but on this particular day, I wouldn’t be discovering it any further - this would work out in my favour later.
I walked around the corner from Piazza del Duomo to Via Santa Margherita. From here I took the No. 1 tram in the direction of Greco Rovereto and towards the hostel.
If the language and warmer climate wasn’t enough to create a continental European ambience, then being on a 1920s-built tram, with its wooden floors and low rattle-rumble sound, passing between the tall commercial buildings and rows of parked Vespas definitely did. For a small fare of maybe €2, this was a nostalgic way of getting around, shielded from the tourists and hawkers of the city centre.
A bit of cursory research told me that around 135 of these 90-something-year-old trams were still in service and that when some of the original 500 were sold off, they ended up as far away as San Francisco, USA and Melbourne, Australia.
After getting off the tram at the intersection of Via Vitruvio and Via Luigi Settembrini, I walked back to the hostel and collected my things. The morning’s sunshine has gone and instead ominous clouds could be seen gathering in the distance.
Within twenty minutes, almost at the moment I left the door of the hostel, the heavens opened and for the second time in 24 hours I was running along the roads trying to avoid slipping in the run-off.
I had booked onto the 14:34 Italo service from Milan to Venice. Having saved money on accommodation and not taking the sleeper service directly to Venice, I opted for a first-class seat.
Departing the station, the train took the curves slowly as it skirted the periphery of Milan and then opened up as it headed out along the line of northern Italian cities and towns that hang like a string of fairy lights along the bottom of the Alps.
The sky grew increasingly dark and around 3 pm it looked as if it could have been twilight. The gothic gloom was punctured only by the intermittent bolts of lightning, hitting the ground in the distance at first, but then gradually creeping closer.
Just a few miles outside of Verona, the train came to a halt.
An announcement, firstly in Italian, then in English for the benefit of the hundreds of tourists on board said, “We’re sorry, but due to the storm we will have to wait here.”
And wait we did.
By the time the train arrived in Mestre we were two hours behind schedule, the rain was still pouring, everyone seemed a little harassed and I was starving.
I found the first pasta and pizza restaurant I came across, imaginatively named ‘Pasta & Pizza e non solo’ (lit: ‘Pasta and Pizza and more’), and dived in. The food was cheap, but tasty, and included a drink in the price.
Being booked into the virtually brand new Wombats Hostel just a short walk away from the station, I felt reassured by the fact that I could sprint there if the rain and thunderstorm didn’t relent.
Reflecting on my brief stopover, I know that I didn’t give Milan a chance. I could see that it could be a bit of a draw for some people, but for me, I just felt like a guy passing through. In the days to come, by contrast, I would have much more interesting days and evenings the further east I went.
You can’t find cheap sandals in a Versace shop.
It’s not worth beating yourself up about not giving cities a real chance, especially if you have seven more countries to get through.