Milan and Lake Lugano
18.08.2011 - 28.08.2011 -32 °C
Milan - as far as I was concerned the city of A.C. and Internazionale and the San Siro. However, a little research prior to travelling helped me realise there were other things to see and that there were probably two full days worth spending. So, we flew into Milan’s Linate Airport and caught the shuttle bus to Milano Centrale Station which we knew was reasonably close to the Zurigo Hotel where we were booked in for three nights.
Milano Centrale is a bit like Waterloo (with shops!!) until you take a look at the destinations and arrivals boards. And it makes you appreciate that travelling by train is a real alternative to flying for people living in mainland Europe. Our intention was to spend three days and nights in Milan before catching the train to Lugano in Switzerland and spending a week there. In comparison to some of the journeys taking place in and out of Milano Centrale this is no distance at all. Zurich, Paris, Venice, Munich etc; they were all there.
Anyway, for the time being and whilst we were at the station, we decided to buy our return tickets to Lugano before finding our way to our hotel in Corsa d’Italia. A quick journey on the Milano Metro – five stops – took us to Missori and, with the help of a very kind lady, we quickly found Corsa d’Italia and the Hotel Zurigo.
It was late afternoon when we arrived and, for a major city, Milan seemed so quiet. Not much on the roads, the occasional tram and a few people wandering around. We knew we were within walking distance of the Duomo, Milan’s Cathedral and the focal point of central Milano and surely that would be much busier when we eventually got there.
For our first evening we didn’t venture far. It was almost time to eat and had been a long day. We were recommended the Manhattan Restaurant which was just around the corner from the hotel and this turned out to be fine for two of the three nights that we stayed in the city.
We had planned what to see and had already booked and paid for a Milano Card (to get us around the city on public transport) and tickets to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’. So, first thing on the Friday morning we made our way to the Castello to find the office to collect the Milano Card. With this in hand we would then be able to work our way down the list, starting with the San Siro!! But getting the Milano Card turned out to be more difficult than we had hoped. We got it eventually but only after convincing the Agent that the Voucher we had been provided with to exchange for the Milano Card was correct and valid. He wasn’t 100% happy but we got the cards and off we went to find the No.16 tram to get to the stadium.
As football stadiums go, the San Siro is probably as famous as most. It is also different in that two of Europe’s most successful teams share it and so there are three changing rooms (one for Milan, one for Internazionale and one for the visiting team), the seating is segregated in certain areas for the two sets of ‘home’ fans, and the stadium museum and the shop are segregated right down the middle with Milan on one side and Inter on the other. And Silvio Berlusconi’s influence as owner of ‘A.C.’ Milan was plain to see compared to the more conservative nature of everything ‘Inter’.
Back on tram No.16, we returned to Castello and spent some time in the grounds of Sforza Castle and Sempione Park leading up to the Arch of Peace. There was also somewhere convenient to have lunch in a shaded café in the middle of the park so we sat and fended off the small birds that were intent on stealing every falling crumb.
We walked back down Via Dante towards Duomo and took refuge inside, out of the heat of the day. It’s a huge cathedral and has been recently cleaned so it stands out, gleaming White at the end of Milan’s main Piazza. Alongside is the Galleria Vittoria Emanuelle II – an ornate shopping centre which has some very impressive architecture but fewer shops than you would expect (although all quite exclusive – except McDonald’s, cheapest bottled water in town by the way!!) and which basically serves as a crossroads to four directions from central Milano.
From Duomo, it was about a ten minute walk back to the hotel or one Metro stop. We took the Metro. It had been a hot, energy sapping day and it was time to freshen up before hitting the Manhattan restaurant again and the free pizza bread with olive oil and the complementary bottle of Limoncello at the end of the meal.
After breakfast on Saturday morning we had already pre-booked to go and see Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”. Tucked away a short distance from the centre of Milan in the Santa Maria della Grazie church, in a temperature controlled room, you pass through an air lock before being permitted inside in small groups. You are then allowed a very strict fifteen minutes to look at Da Vinci’s work.
Back out in the heat of the city we made use of our Milano cards to once again get back to Duomo from where we could walk through the centre and out to the opposite side of Galleria Vittoria Emanuelle II where we would easily find La Scala, one of the world’s premier opera houses. When we arrived we discovered that it was shut and wouldn’t reopen for about another hour so we killed some time by looking round the Brera Art Gallery. Back at La Scala, entry to the Opera House was via the Museum where the route took you into some of the boxes where we could see people busy at work around the stage, presumably preparing for whatever the next performance may be – La Boheme, Romeo & Juliet, La Traviata etc.
Once we had stocked up on our daily dose of culture we returned to McDonald’s for more water and another stroll around the Galleria.
Saturday evening was our final evening in Milan and we wanted to go back to Duomo to see the square lit up so we decided to forego the Manhattan Restaurant and find somewhere to eat in Via Dante. It wasn’t difficult!! In fact, we were almost dragged off of the precinct to a hurriedly prepared table with two ‘soon to arrive’ chairs. All of the restaurants in Via Dante were busy and the Head Waiter in ours appeared determined to fight off any competition. Anyway, we had a laugh, a meal and a bottle of wine and, compared to what was to follow in Switzerland, the price was reasonable.
Sunday morning and we had to get ready for our 1:30 train from Milano Centrale to Lugano. We made certain to have a good breakfast and gave ourselves plenty of time after seeing one of the local churches to get the Metro to the station. Milano Centrale is not just a railway and bus station; it’s also a shopping mall so it was easy to spend time there and also spend money!! We both ended up buying something in Zara before climbing aboard the train which, without any air conditioning doubled as a sauna for the thirty minutes that we had to wait before departure. When we did leave, the air conditioning made very little impact on the tropical environment that we had found ourselves trapped in. Thankfully, we were asked to change trains at Chiasso (on the Italian/Swiss border) and we were grateful that we could as the replacement train was both newer and an awful lot cooler and made the second half of the journey a lot nicer.
Lugano, Switzerland (21st to 28th August).
On arrival in Lugano, finding the Continental Parkhotel couldn’t have been simpler. A 250 yard walk across the car park and it was right in front of us. The town of Lugano and the lake sat below us at the bottom of the hill with either the funicular or a ten minute walk (twenty coming back up!) being the options.
The sudden realisation that I booked the hotel when the exchange rate was 1.6 Swiss Francs to the £1 and that I would be paying after it had dropped to 1.1 was balanced at least a little by the surprise upgrade that we received to our room. Key 54 opened a room on the third floor that had a good sized bedroom with fridge, t.v., sofa, chairs, double French doors and a double balcony overlooking the lake and the mountains plus a bath, separate shower and a separate room with toilet and wash basin plus. It was worth in the region of £550 more for the week than we were paying although some of that benefit would disappear from my wallet thanks to the exchange rate having dropped so much in a short space of time.
We ate at the hotel on the first night, not knowing much about the town and without the energy or inclination to venture down the hill and back up again until the following day. So, after stocking the fridge with one or two things from the supermarket by the station and having a look around the hotel grounds we sorted ourselves out in the room and headed for dinner. The potential financial damage that was to ensue over the next seven days was starting to hit home. Menu of the Day = 35 CHF …….. or about £32!! Further experience would also soon tell us that a portion of chips would be £8, a beer £8, a bottle of water £4 and a donut £3. Oh well, we were here now and it was too nice a place not to enjoy it.
Our original plan was to buy a Regional Lugano Pass that would provide us with all of our transport both in and around the lake. However, the cost of this was now a bit prohibitive so we compromised on a 3-day Lake Pass plus a day at Monte Generoso. Having bought the Boat Pass we immediately made plans to visit both Gandria and Morcote with a boat leaving early in the afternoon. Just like in Milan, the sky was cloudless and the sun shone brightly with temperatures creeping into the 30’s and to an extent it had already turned into a bit of a race to find the shade on the boat.
Gandria was just around the first corner on the lake from Lugano but every boat that we were to use during our stay headed first for Paradiso (Lugano’s other port) to collect passengers before setting off for Gandria or any other destination. Gandria was both pretty and hot. Perched on the mountainside we walked to the top of the village only to be denied a drink and a seat by the only café being closed. So, we walked back down again and found a lakeside bar where we watched a few more small, fearless birds in search of crumbs. Half an hour later we boarded the next boat and this took us to Morcote which was back past Lugano and under the railway/road bridge that crosses Lake Lugano near Campione d’Italia, a small Italian enclave surrounded by Swiss territory that has become famous for its large but architecturally disastrous Casino. Morcote is another pretty, lakeside village but unlike Gandria, Morcote has a proper waterfront with a road running along it. This makes it easier in some ways to walk around but doesn’t disguise the fact that it is still perched on the mountainside and once you drop back behind the lakeside road it’s a steady climb to see the rest of the village – but it’s worth it.
It takes about an hour to get back from Morcote to Lugano, stopping at the various villages along the way on each side of the lake. This gave us time to think about how to plan the rest of the week and when to do what. Tuesday could be spent in the town and by the pool, then on Wednesday we could get a ticket for Monte Generoso, Thursday we could be back on the lake and by the pool, on Friday there is a free trip to Monte Bre (and anything ‘free’ has to be grabbed with both hands in Switzerland!!), and then on Saturday we could spend some time at the hotel by the pool and also get back on the lake and go to Porlezza for the market. That was the plan. Unfortunately, a stomach bug prevented me doing much at all on the Tuesday so Jan ventured down on the funicular in the morning and did the walking tour of Lugano (She said that I would have been bored and I think she was right). In the afternoon she spent time reading by the pool while I struggled to move, eventually getting up late afternoon to join her. Food was definitely off of the agenda on the Tuesday evening apart from some bread and cheese which in hindsight may also have been a mistake! However, energy levels were low and I needed to eat something if we were to get to Monte Generoso the following day – which we were – and we did.
I really wanted to get up into the mountains while we were in Switzerland and the trip to Monte Generoso gave us the chance. The boat from Lugano took us to the far end of one stretch of the lake to the town of Capo Lago. From here we took the Cog Railway and climbed the 5,500 feet to the top of Monte Generoso. The views stretched as far as the Alps and you could see Lakes Lugano, Maggiore and Como from the top. We had a couple of hours at the top of the mountain; enough time to climb to the very top and then walk back and have lunch. Prices again dictated things and we ended up having a drink each and sharing a sandwich. The journey each way by cog railway took about 45 minutes and at the bottom we made our way to the main station platform at Capo Lago to get the train back to Lugano and our hotel. I was pleased to have survived the trip after the experiences of the previous day.
By now the camera was becoming fairly well loaded with images although obviously not to the extent that I captured in Vietnam. The views across the mountains had been fantastic even with the slight haze that the sun had created – it would have been colder but better in April or November – but we would have some decent photographs to look back on.
We self catered in the evening and bought a bottle of wine from the supermarket which meant that we could eat in and, if we had the energy, go down into town for a couple of hours. We didn’t.
Thursday was going to be an easy day. Time spent around the pool reading and then a boat trip around the lake, taking in all of the other sections of the lake that we hadn’t yet visited with the exception of Porlezza which we would do on Saturday. We were aboard for about three hours on another very hot day so the breeze as we sailed plus any shade that was on offer were more than welcome. And the sky was broken up with a few clouds which made it much better for photographs than it had been earlier in the week.
Back on land at Lugano we wandered through the old town and bought an ice cream before eventually setting back off up the funicular to the station and then the hotel. Later that evening we headed back down into town and found a restaurant to eat at prior to the start of the Lugano ‘Blues to Bop’ 2011 Music Festival. Five or six stages had been set up at various points in the town and from 21:00 until 00:30 bands would be playing on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It was good to see the town filled with people; eating drinking, and listening to the bands. Probably because of the exchange rate, tourist numbers were down (which suited us) so it was nice that the locals came out to support the festival. Food and drink was available from stalls and was marginally cheaper than elsewhere so eating there either Friday or Saturday night was probably an option.
Friday was set aside for our freebie (!) - the trip up Monte Bre and to see the village; supposedly fairly exclusive and home to a number of famous but unnamed people. We had to meet at the foot of Monte Bre by the funicular so this gave us the opportunity to walk along the promenade in Lugano and through the park where we found yet another stage that had been set up for the music festival. It took about twenty minutes to get there and we then had a few minutes wait until the guide arrived to organise the tickets. We were clearly in the new part of Lugano as it felt much more like a modern residential town than a lakeside holiday retreat. Monte Bre is around 900 metres high and the funicular is in two parts. When you arrive at the top there is a short walk to the attractive and very quiet village of Bre and you are surrounded by views of Lake Lugano. The village of Gandria sits immediately below Bre at the base of the mountain but isn’t visible from the village. It’s easy to see the appeal of a place like Bre if you need or prefer somewhere a little isolated but at the same time its very classy and civilised.
We met Nathan and Sarah Rowe (a couple from Glastonbury) while we were in Bre and started talking about travelling so when we got back down the mountain to Lugano we stopped and had a drink before going our separate ways. The plan that evening was to get back to the hotel, spend some time by the pool and then change before going back into town for the festival again. It didn’t work out that way. By the time we had got back to the hotel having called in at the supermarket to buy a few things the thought of going out again was just too much so we stayed around, got ourselves something to eat and drank wine on the balcony watching the lights come on around the lake. Oh and counting the trains of course. It had become a bit of a hobby – train-spotting almost ….but not quite that sad! Jan had taken a liking for counting the number of commercial trains that were being pulled by the front engines. I think we got up to 32. And you couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor motorist who reached the rail crossing just as the gates were coming down because they stayed down for an awful long time as one but more often two and occasionally three separate trains made their way through busy Lugano railway station.
Saturday was our last full day of our stay in Lugano and also the holiday; Sunday would be spent almost entirely on the move making our way home. We had one day left on our Lake Pass and had already decided to walk down the hill and catch the boat that would take us to Porlezza at the far end of the lake. Porlezza was officially in Italy and held a market every Saturday so we caught the boat from Lugano knowing that it stopped for about an hour before starting the return journey to Lugano. As it turned out, an hour was plenty. Porlezza is nice enough but the market consisted of five or six waterfront stalls selling very little of what we would even think of buying so instead of browsing we headed off to a café for coffee and cake. It was the cheapest café-stop that we had for the whole ten days. Just over 6 Euros felt very cheap!
Back on the boat we hid from the sun again as best we could but spending time on the lake was a lovely thing to do and a great way of seeing some of the surrounding villages and countryside.
It was about 5:30 when we arrived back at the waterfront in Lugano so, after a quick wander around town and an ice cream, we headed back to the funicular and up to the hotel again. Tonight we would eat in town at the festival. We chose to walk down to town again and planned on getting one of the late funiculars back up. The bands had already started by the time we got down into the square and, with it being the weekend, it was already busy. I quickly found somewhere to grab something to drink and then to eat as I was starving after not eating much during the previous three or four days. We spent time around the different stages and also a while around the waterfront where the road had been closed to traffic. It was a really nice time to be in Lugano and at that precise moment not very expensive either!
It was a good ten days. Not as cheap as I would have liked and certainly the trip cost more than we had estimated (thanks to the exchange rate) but we enjoyed both Milan and Lugano. Milan was a typical city break and you know what you’re going to get from most cities whereas Lugano was as relaxing as any holiday we’ve had recently, even though we saw and did a lot. Switzerland is a very pretty country but for the Brits it simply isn’t good value for money at the moment and generally there were fewer tourists around than you would expect in August. As for the weather, I always expected Milan to be hot but didn’t anticipate the same for Lake Lugano - it was regularly between 30 and 35 degrees. I should imagine that March/April and October/November could be really nice. Colder but clearer days with great visibility across the mountain ranges.