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Sacred Beauty (With a Side of Sweat)

It’s Monday, and today was our first full day in Milan.  We all slept like bricks last night. Good, solid sleep. And for the most part we’ve gotten over our jet lag.   We got up, had a nice breakfast at home, and headed out to the beautiful Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral).

By the way, I realize that the purpose of this blog is to share our travel experiences in pictures and words…to share the beauty and interest of the places that we visit.   But I also think that in order to tell the whole story, you have to include the good with the bad.   Thus far, the only negative experience we could gripe about is the intense heat.  No matter what we do, we can’t seem to prepare ourselves for this heat.  It’s the kind of heat that when you open the front door, it drags you out, throws a heavy wet blanket over your head, kicks you in the stomach and then bakes you into a slimy (yet sticky) dehydrated mess.  But what can you do?  We just soldier on.

So… what better way to deal with the heat than to climb onto the roof of a massive cathedral and put ourselves even closer to God and the relentless Sun!!  We made our way to the Duomo di Milano this morning to avoid the crowds and midday sun.  The lines weren’t so bad and soon we were inside.

You know me,… at this point, I have to give you some background on this cathedral. For starters,  this is the 5th largest in the world and THE largest church in Italy.  Construction began on the Duomo in 1386.  It was placed on a site where several churches had existed earlier (one of which we will see a little later).   The building of this cathedral was fraught with difficulties, as is the case with most cathedrals throughout history.  Over a number of years, 72 different architects and engineers worked on the Duomo between 1386-1988 (including Leonardo da Vinici and Bramante).

Many, including myself, would assume that an Italian cathedral would take on a more Renaissance style and not look like the Gothic churches you find in England, France and Germany.   But the Archbishop of Milan, Visconti,  had ambitions to follow the newest trends in European architecture. In 1389, a French chief engineer, Nicolas de Bonaventure, was appointed, who decided to design the church in a Rayonnant (Flamboyant) Style.

The Duomo’s perimeter is decorated with an amazing array of beautifully sculpted statues and spires. There are more statues on this cathedral than any other in the world, 3,159 in total. 2,245 of these are on the exterior together along with 96 gargoyles and 135 spires.

Interestingly,  on May 20, 1805,  Napoleon Bonapart, was crowned King of Italy, at the Duomo.

So now that the history lesson is complete….I have to offer my own opinion and say that of the major cathedrals that we have visited (Notre Dame, Chartes, Westminster Abbey and Bath Abbey) this is now my new favorite.  I always thought my taste leaned towards the more austere style…like at Chartes.   But this cathedral takes your breath away.  It’s massive, marble- (the columns and floors and ceilings are all marble) and is more majestic than anything I’ve ever seen.

It should be known that the Milan Duomo is supposedly in possession of some very famous relics which they keep tucked away.  They are said to have the nails which were used to crucify Jesus on the cross.  They are stowed up in a dome and lowered to public view only once a year.

One of the highlights of the interior of the church is a statue of Saint Bartholomew. He was skinned alive, so is often shown in religious artwork as holding his own skin. In this case, he stands with his skin draped around him. The Flayed San Bartolomeo by artist Marco d’Agrate dates from 1562.

I don’t know a lot about it, but at some point they were doing work on the piazza in front of the church and they discovered the archeological footprints of an Early Christian baptistery dating from the 4th century.  They have excavated quite a bit and tourists are able to go down and view the foundations of the building. Very interesting.

This photo is looking down on the piazza. The front of the duomo is on the bottom and you can see how they unearthed the baptistry.

Of course, if there is an opportunity to climb a tower, the Jones Trio is right there.  So, in the blazing heat, we climbed 412 stairs (total) up to the top of the cathedral where we got to see the amazing statuary up close while being baked by the sun.  Baking aside, the sort of opportunity to hang out and see the spires and to take in an amazing view is rare at these old cathedrals (they usually have very steep roof lines and narrow little passages around the towers).  The Milan Duomo has essentially a flat roof…so you are able to walk and sit freely.

Afterward the cathedral tour, we headed across the piazza to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which happens to be one of the world’s oldest shopping malls.  The shopping space is made up of a four-story double glass arcade, which is open on all sides to the elements.  It’s always open!  The Galleria is named after Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of the Kingdom of Italy and was built between 1865 and 1877.

All of the top Italian designers have stores here…Armani, Prada, Versace, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana and the list could go on and on.  There are also a lot of chic, over-priced restaurants and cafes, all of which are on the main level of the Galleria.

Obviously, the Gucci/Prada kind of shopping is not in our price range (and you can get all of it in NYC anyway), but we did go into an adjacent store called La Rinascente which is similar to Macy’s/Bloomingdales in New York.  We decided to cool off and have lunch on the top floor in a cafe overlooking the Duomo.  We just sat and relaxed, had a very nice lunch, a delicious iced cappuccino (yes, we ordered an iced coffee again) and about 4 or 5 bottles of sparking water.

Their food court had some very decadent and over the top treats for sale.

Yes, those are chocolate high heels

We chose a gelato popsicle. Josette got a lemon one and Lena got a Nuttella one with dark chocolate. As is usual, they promptly switched popcicles.

It was time to visit another church.  But this time, we headed WAY back in time to a church started between 379-386!  We visited Sant’ Ambrogio which was built, remodeled and reconstructed over the years and much of what you see in my photos is from about 1082 to 1120.

There are very decorative chapels that flank the nave, all of which date from the 13th c. to the 1800’s.   Having just come from one of the most decoratively over-the-top cathedrals in the world, Sant’ Ambrogio was a bit on the plain side, but you could sense the many layers of history and literally see how the church grew and evolved over hundreds of years!  In the crypt below the church are the remains of Saints Ambrose, Gervasus and Protasus.  While this was interesting for me and Josette, it kind of freaked Lena out a bit and she promptly high-tailed it out of what she called “the creepy Vampire cave”!  Aside from that little episode, it was a fascinating place to see such an ancient site and it reminded us that this is just the tip of the iceberg….we are in store for two weeks worth of antiquity!

The remains of the Saints.

On our way home, we meandered our way through the oldest part of Milan,which is actually close to our apartment.  The next set of pictures are just random things that I found interesting.  I have no idea what anything is…it just gives you a slice of Milan.  One thing that I forgot to mention is that as soon as we stepped out of the door this morning, after being smacked by the heat, we noticed the big difference in energy.  We arrived on a quiet Sunday.  Pretty much everything was closed.  But this morning, the city was alive.  Milan is known as the business capital of Italy…and today you could feel that.

Before we stopped to pick up groceries for dinner, we did a little retail damage at a local department store.  FYI,  we saw in Paris last year that July is the big sale month in most of Europe.  In Milan all of the store windows have big signs that say “Soldi”.  Everything is on sale.  So we took advantage and picked up a few things.  For the first time ever, even Lena was up in the clothes racks finding herself a few outfits.

The day ended (yes, I am rushing this along as I am about to fall asleep writing this) with another simple dinner at home.  Some folks might think it’s weird to cook on vacation…but we enjoy cooking and the ingredients in Europe are fresher and taste better than what we have stateside. So it’s fun.   We watched the sun set over the city and we planned for our next big move in the morning!  Tomorrow we are making our final rounds here in Milan and then jumping on a train to Venice!  See you back here tomorrow.

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