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  • Writer's pictureDonna Zabel

It's Christmas and We Are All Italian--Christmas Week in Milan 2019

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

It is only a little more than an hour by train from Lugano to Italy’s commercial and financial capitol. The bustling but organized train station exudes the confident, elegant, and business nature that defines Milan. There is none of the gritty, disheveled appearance of Rome’s Termini. Here everything is efficient and organized. The train station is devoid of debris, the office to purchase our transportation passes efficient (if a little hard to find given the size of the station), our hotel relatively easy to find with well-marked streets (although Google maps did help).

Our hotel, the Doria Palace, was closer to the train station than I thought. Close enough that I was concerned about safety in the too-quiet neighborhood with iron shutters on some of the buildings. However, I needn’t have worried. The nondescript exterior and check-in desk—using old fashioned big metal keys-- opened to a charming hotel with the slightly faded elegance of an older dowager. The furniture in our “suite” was all matching patterns, although with worn edges. The living room had a couch, chairs, refrigerator, TV, dining hutch with a coffee maker and complimentary snacks. The bathroom was huge, with both a large old-fashioned tub and a modern shower, plus more counter space than even two women with all their toiletries needed. In addition to the bedroom was a large walk-in closet with drawers, hanging racks, and cupboard space and a large dressing mirror. It might be old, but everything was well maintained.

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

Exploring Milan is easy on the color-coded metro, even easier with the multi-day metro pass sold at the main train station. There are four major lines, but the most important for sightseers staying in the heart of Milan and mostly looking to visit the main sights is the Red Line. From the metro stop closest to our hotel it is only four stops to the heart of Milan—the magnificent Duomo.

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

The Duomo is, or should be, everyone’s first destination in Milan. Exiting up the stairs from the metro station, the full force of this magnificent cathedral, the second largest in the world, is almost overpowering. Its complexity defies description, the culmination of over five centuries of work, combining both Renaissance and Gothic styles. Even the crushing crowds—on the Sunday before Christmas—cannot diminish that first impression of awesome splendor.

With everyone crowding the plaza for that perfect selfie or gaping at the fashionable windows of the Galleria stores and elaborate Christmas decorations, it took a little hunting to find a place for a proper Italian lunch that was not horribly crowded, but we did, and the wait was worthwhile. Good food, good wine, a beautiful sunny day—perfecto!!

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

If the Duomo is the one building every visitor to Milan must see, Leonardo’s Last Supper is the one painting that to be experienced. With subway passes, it is not too hard to find, and arriving early meant there was time for a Campari at a local café across the street from the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Grazie, home of Leonardo’s masterpiece.

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

The restored masterpiece has become so popular visits are timed and admission is only through an organized group. There are rooms detailing the elaborate research and reconstruction that involved international teams over years. The untried technique Da Vinci used, paint on dry plaster instead of the time-tested fresco procedure of paint mixed with wet plaster, failed so badly the paint was flaking within a few years. Some scholars claim with so much restoration necessary over the centuries, there is very little of the original left to see. Still, the painting is glorious, its perfect symmetry and multiple symbolism a testimony to Da Vinci’s genius. And when I remember how it looked during my first visit in the early 1990’s, covered in scaffolding and very dark, I think the master would be pleased.

(December 23)

A sunny warm Sunday morning is the perfect time to explore Milan’s neighborhoods, and make some personal discoveries. The pop-up markets on a side plaza of the Duomo were bustling with last minute holiday shoppers, and full of very tempting local fashions and goods. A multi-colored, hand-made shawl was very tempting, as were some very elegant looking hats. Knowing my little suitcase was already full undoubtedly saved my credit card from further damage.

As busy and commercial as the area around the Duomo and Galleria can be, it is only a short walk to quiet tree-lined residential neighborhoods. Instinct more than Google maps guided us as we wandered past apartment buildings, little store-front cafes, and tiny pizza take-outs not yet open for late lunch business. The search was for a certain house, an important house. The house where my friend spent her early childhood. With nothing planned except a mid-afternoon tour of La Scala, we ambled along almost-deserted streets, hoping there would be some reminders, some landmarks that survived the intervening years.

And there it was: first a street that looked familiar, then the shape of a building. A side street, not much bigger than an alley, with a familiar name. The sun hitting the building in such a way as to illuminate a rooftop garden with space enough for young children to play. The large front windows with movable shutters facing the street. It all fit together with the excitement of finishing a 1000-piece puzzle, but with more permanent, lasting memories.

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

A long-remembered clue to finding the house was the nearby synagogue. The original façade of the 1892 structure remains, but the rest was reconstructed after WWII. Now it is most famous for the stained-glass windows full of many symbols. Like many other synagogues in Europe, entrance is monitored and controlled through a side gate. Without a reservation, admission is not guaranteed, but after a few questions and an examination of my passport information, the guard let us inside for a few special minutes.

The one scheduled appointment for our Sunday was an afternoon tour of the legendary La Scala. From first viewing the outside many years ago, I’d always wondered what glories were within, what it would be like to see the most famous of Europe’s grand opera houses.

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

The tour entrance to La Scala is through a nondescript side door that belies the splendor inside. Once past security, it is up a carpeted staircase to the grand parlor lined with life-sized photos of past celebrities, politicians, performances, all underneath a huge chandelier. It is easy to imagine the beautiful and bejeweled few who came to see and be seen, dressed in elegant designer gowns.

The view into the theatre itself is no less thrilling. From the extensive renovations following WWII, the seats are now covered in a brilliant red. With the contrasting gold and central glass chandelier, the effect is of ultimate glamour. The six or more stories of boxes ringing the main floor seats and anchored by the Royal Box evoke images of history and wonderful past performances.

Our tour continued through artifact filled rooms, through displays of gowns and props, past priceless old instruments, all brought to life by our guide entertaining his group with stories and legends. By the time we left, it was very clear why La Scala is considered by many the worlds’ greatest opera hall.

(December 24)

Christmas Eve

After taking advantage of the local grocers last night to relax in our little living/dining room, there was no need to get up early on a day when all Italy would be preparing for their Christmas celebrations with family and friends. Besides we needed to rest up for our afternoon eating marathon.

With a recommendation, an address, and Google maps we set out to find the restaurant that would be our Christmas Eve feast. After a few wrong turns we found the Ristorante da Oscar. If Christmas Eve is the time to be home and cooking for the family, someone forgot to tell everyone crowded into this small restaurant where the tables are so close together that trying to get up creates an instant relationship with the adjoining table. Or a wish we had not eaten so much of the huge portions.

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

Because eat we did. First a display of meats and cheeses while we ordered. Then a zuppe da vongole that was a meal of tender clams in a buttery wine sauce, not the expected little bowl of soup. Penne arrabiata and gnocchi ala Oscar was enough to feed the entire neighborhood. Ordering insalata mixta out of habit turned out to be the only time I can ever remember leaving something green on my plate uneaten. Of course, all that delicious food had to be washed down with Oscar’s local red wine. To aid digestion, or course.

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

Maybe the sin of excessive gluttony made our next stop, our farewell visit to the Duomo, more important. Besides, how better to experience Christmas Eve than a private tour of the magnificent cathedral, including the incredible rooftop with its sculptures, gargoyles, 135 spires, flying buttresses? And the crowds below, adding to the festive, celebration of the moment? It was a special experience, one to be remembered for many years.

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0


· Purchase a Metro Card, available at the main train station and other locations. Load it for 24, 48, or 72 hours as needed. This will make sightseeing using the well-marked subway system easy, plus it can be used to travel to the international airport, saving an expensive cab ride.

· Sign up online for a private tour of the Duomo, including the rooftop, to learn little know tidbits of information about Milan’s beloved cathedral and architectural wonder.

· Window shop the Galleria but venture a few blocks away for wonderful food at reasonable prices.

· Learn some Italian or carry a translator. Small shop proprietors may not speak English.

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