Titian and Tiramisu in Venice

I’m so glad that I visited Venice with my friend Maria when we both had the chance to. She knew a smattering of Italian, much more than my meagre ‘Capuccino’ and ‘Pizza’ abilities anyway. So, she was in charge of booking accommodation at a modest three-star bed and breakfast family run hotel, and figuring out the transport basics to get us there by train from Marco Polo airport.

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Venice was one of the top ten cities on my bucket list. Ernest Hemingway was a regular at the city’s popular Harry’s bar, author Henry James wrote ‘The Aspen Papers’ here and poet Robert Browning’s last home was a palace in this little lagoon. If that wasn’t enough for this writer to dream of rocking gondolas then watching movies like ‘Summertime’ and ‘The Wings of the Dove’ clinched it. There’s nothing quite like the beguiling backdrop of Venice to bring out the best in tragi-romantic storylines.

As our train slid past deluged sandbars scattered around the city before crawling into St. Lucia station in Venice, I couldn’t help wondering how such a tiny lagoon of a city, apparently drowning in the Adriatic Sea, had managed to become the seat of financial, trading and religious power for so many centuries.

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Church of San Giorgio Maggiore

With 160 canals running through and around Venice, one can’t help but realise that it’s the delicate latticework of its 400 or so bridges that keeps the city stitched together. Thank God for the solid foundation of larch pikes drilled into the muddy seabed, mounted by thick marble slabs on top of which the brick and wood structures of Venice are built. The candy striped and plain wood markers outside house entranceways and windows help residents mark the level of rising waters every year, when Venice has seasonal flooding. That’s how they keep track of danger points when they know they have to evacuate their homes to higher ground. I can’t even begin to imagine the level of water damage that ground floors in all homes and hotels have to suffer often during the year.

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Note the seasonal water damage on beautiful, old buildings

There are only two ways to explore Venice – by foot or by boat. Vaporettos, or water buses, are an effective way to get to all the major attractions and a much cheaper option than the black and blue Gondolas sliding their way up and down crowded canals. Venice is the first place where I learned that waterways get clogged up with traffic too.

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Tourists boarding a gondola for a ride

You can buy a ticket on the vaporetto or get anything from a three-day to a week’s pass from one of the launch stops dotting the city’s main waterways.

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A vaporetto stop

Of course, the only way to see the city’s guts is to slip on your most comfortable shoes and traipse up and down those bridges of Venice, which will make you wish you had spent another half hour on the stairmaster at home. Right away, Maria and I decided to walk around the city and promptly got lost after an hour. But, it was only our first day there, and everything was sign-posted so we wandered around enjoying the atmosphere and the spirit of Venice all around us.

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Church of dei Frari in the background, containing Titian and Canova’s imposing tombs

It’s a haunting city, besieged by a host of moods from melancholic fogginess to sun-drenched optimism. You’ll find yourself picking up the city’s ever-changing mood of the moment. Whatever you do, don’t miss taking photos on Rialto bridge…

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That world famous view of the Grand Canal from Rialto bridge

…and the Bridge of Sighs (Ponti dei Sospiri). When we visited, unfortunately the Bridge was being ‘renovated’ and was almost entirely covered in tarpaulin with Chopard advertising on it. By the way, the reason for its name is because this bridge connects the Doge’s palace which was the seat of justice, to the prison. Prisoners convicted and sentenced at the palace court were led across this bridge into incarceration and legend says that their sighs were the result of their last view of Venice before they entered the prison.

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The Bridge of Sighs shrouded by advertising while renovation work was being done

Whether it’s agony or ecstasy you’re feeling, make sure you don’t miss the art and architecture of Venice that brings students and established professionals of the same over to this soaking city time and time again.

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The multi-scalloped basilica of St. Mark’s

From the decadent Baroque folly that is St. Mark’s basilica to the neo-classical lines of the Doge’s palace, both at San Marco’s Piazza, you’ll be transported to a place that no picture postcard could have prepared you for. Track down Tintoretto’s ‘Stealing of the body of St. Mark’ in Venice’s museum of art ‘Accademia’ which illustrates the story of how the city of Venice came to adopt St. Mark’s Lion as its own emblem. If you look closely at the detail on one of the basilica’s entrances, you’ll find a painted etching of the story.

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Painted detail of St. Mark’s body being smuggled out of Alexandria

The story goes that in 828AD two merchants smuggled the body of St. Mark out of Alexandria by covering it with pork to get past Muslim custom officials. When the body arrived in Venice a chapel was built to house the saintly remains. That chapel was gradually built over into St Mark’s Basilica where the saint’s remains are apparently buried under the altar.

Paolo Veronese was brought before the Inquisition in 1573 to answer the charge of irreverence in a painting intended to represent the Last Supper. Instead he changed the name of the masterpiece to ‘Feast in the House of Levi’ which can also be found at Accademia.

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Veronese’s painting ‘Feast in the House of Levi’ in Accademia

This museum also has a great collection of Titians, Tintorettos, Canalettos and Canovas. If you’re an early bird who wants to avoid the jostling crowds, take advantage of the early morning opening hours of the museums and galleries. By 11am all of Venice is coffee-ed up and pounding the cobblestones in search of their own Muses.

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Late morning crowds of people at St. Mark’s plaza

A couple of interesting sightings for us included Tintoretto’s humble house along the canal in Canareggio and Canova’s tomb in the Church dei Frari.

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The Italian sculptor Canova’s massive tomb facade at the Church of dei Frari

If the inundation of Italian Renaissance art and architecture leaves you longing for something more abstract, expressionist, realist or surrealist instead– visit Peggy Guggenheim’s collection of 20th century modern artist’s works at her palatial home in Venice, now converted into a museum housing her own personal art collection of Brancusi, Picasso, Duchamp and Max Ernst (her husband). Peggy was a patron of Jackson Pollock – the American abstractionist most famous for his series entitled ‘One’ and you’ll find two rarely seen Pollocks on display here.

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Jackson Pollock’s ‘Alchemy’ at the Guggenheim in Venice

We even found Peggy Guggenheim’s grave in the palace garden where her ashes are interred, next to the graves of her dogs.

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We were tired of walking around all day and through Peggy’s palatial home turned art gallery, so we refreshed ourselves at the museum café with home-made Tiramisu and freshly pressed Italian coffee.

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Fresh Tiramisu at the Peggy Guggenheim museum cafe

If you’re looking for something special to buy as a memento beyond postcards of the incredible sights you will have already seen, the information point opposite the Vallaresso boat stop past the gardens facing the canal of the Piazza San Marco will have books on Venice aplenty, translated into English. You could grab a carnival mask to adorn your wall at home – they’re available to suit any budget, or pick up a wad of Venetian paper, famous for its quality and raw texture. Then again, you could easily take a boat trip from Piazza San Marco to the island of Murano to watch the art of glass-making and pick up a set of exquisitely blown, Venetian glass goblets for your dining table.

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A shop that sells nothing but Venetian masks for carnival or as mementos

You can’t go wrong with Venetian coffee, keeping in mind that this is the real, full-bodied, sun-soaked flavour of Italy infused into every sip you take. But, you must have it Venetian style, standing up at a coffee bar.

If you must sit down at a cafe, then do it in style at Cafe Florian on the Piazza San Marco. Around since 1720, some claim it is the oldest cafe in Europe and was a favourite hunting place of Casanova. Be prepared to pay an exorbitant 10 Euros for a cup of coffee with more on top if the musicians are playing. For the cheapest and the best coffee, stand up at the St. Lucia train station’s bar for the best espressos and cappuccinos at 1.50 Euros (2009 prices) a pop.

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Coffee at the train station

While in Venice, we decided to stop and relax over long, leisurely dinners only, trying out some of the restaurants in Canareggio and Castello, and avoiding tourist traps as much as possible. Keep in mind that you’ll only find Italian food in this city – like a Panini lunch at one of the sandwich bars dotting the city.  But infinitely preferable is a slice of pizza and a coke for all of 4 Euros (2009 prices) – not the healthiest option but definitely filling when you need to replenish all the calories spent waiting in lines to get into the Palazzo Ducale, the Basilica San Marco or the Campanile on the Piazza, which I was told has the best views of Venice from its bell tower.

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Lucky to get a seat at the hole-in-the-wall pizza stand

We went in search of Venice’s five hundred year old Jewish ghetto, mostly because I wanted to see the seat of so much intrigue in medieval Venice. Shakespeare’s work was influenced by this Venetian community, which had a reputation of its own in his time. Read the ‘Merchant of Venice’ if you want to know what I’m talking about.

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Square in the Jewish Ghetto

After visiting Academia, I finally understood why people make such a fuss about Titian, after seeing his grandiose, large-scale paintings on display.  Here’s his first Venetian commission that forms the altarpiece inside the Church dei Frari…

Assumption of the Virgin by Titian (his first big Venice commission)
Assumption of the Virgin Mary by Titian

…which incidentally also houses Titian’s tomb, grand-arch included, not far from Canova’s.

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Titian’s imposing tomb

Venice is one of the few places that I’d love to visit again, along with Florence, Washington DC and Bali – all of which are on my list of top five places I’ve ever visited.  I’m glad I got to go when I did, and the next time I’ll make sure to spend more than just 3 nights there, so that I can take in more of the city.

Visited in May 2009

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Some of my favourite artworks at the Smithsonian

Washington DC is one of my top five cities in the world to visit.  It isn’t because it’s the home of power-mongering politicos, journalists and spies, but because it’s the home of the largest group of museums and artefacts on display FOR FREE.

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Posing in front of the Castle, the first Smithsonian building, completed in 1855 which is now a Visitor’s centre

This is the home of the 19-strong museum and research collection of the Smithsonian.  Each museum has a selection of timed, free tours led by experienced, knowledgeable docents, most of whom are art historians or cultural curators themselves.  It’s one of the best ways to learn about art and certainly how I began to explore collections.  I knew little to nothing about art for the first two decades of my life and didn’t have much of an interest in it.  Now, I know that that was because of a lack of understanding and context.  I started to learn about artists and their work after visiting the National Gallery in London (another free institution) where I tried to make it to as many free gallery tours as possible.  Next, I visited the British museum – one of my favourite places in the world to be, after the V&A. The Victoria and Albert museum is where I still go to dream.  The William Morris room in their Canteen is where I go to revel in something beautiful while feasting on tea and their scrumptious lemon tart.  But, I digress.  The point is, I started to learn about artists and their work from free gallery tours at these museums.  So, by the time I visited the Smithsonian, I was in awe at the size of the collection and the variety of themed museums on display.

Besides having its own theme, each structure has its own unique design, interior space and attractive personality.  If I had to venture a guess, I’d say the National Air and Space Museum is probably the most visited and it’s easy to understand why.  The building is shaped like a large square block hangar, and once you’re inside, you’ll see why.

 

The ceiling is loaded with dangling airplanes from when the Wright brothers began to fly and speaking of the Wright brothers, there’s a room with their story and one of their original gliders (the one that didn’t crash, of course!) is on display along with the chronological story of their success displayed in a room.

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The Wright Flyer – the first heavier-than-air plane with a successful flight at Kittyhawk, North Carolina by The Wright Brothers

The ground floor is full of Astronaut suits, Mars probes and photographs, the Apollo 11 command module and lunar samples.  There’s a permanent special exhibit where you can squeeze through a narrow space and walk around a Skylab and view the actual insides of a space rocket – gym, kitchen and research lab included.

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Posing in front of the Apollo 13 capsule

But, I confess, its not my fave museum.  Whenever I visit the Smithsonian I tend to spend most of my time at the National Art Gallery, American Art gallery and the Museum of the American Indian.  A few of my favourite highlights from the art galleries are here:

American Art Gallery –

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Alexander Calder mobile in the East wing lobby of the National Gallery of Art
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Two stunning Mark Rothkos.
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Andy Warhol’s ‘Green Marilyn’ – 1967
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Edward Hopper’s ‘Cape Cod Morning’ – 1950
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‘Cape Cod Evening’ by Edward Hopper – 1939
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Childe Hassam’s ‘Allies Day’ – 1917
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Georgia O’Keefe trio
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‘Sailing the Catboat’ by Winslow Homer – 1875
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‘The Last Supper’ by Salvador Dali
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Pandora by Odile Redon
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Marcelle Lender dancing the Bolero in Chilperic by Toulouse-Lautrec

 

Visited in 2009, 2013 & 2016

My London Loves

A sunny Summer’s Saturday in London is precious purchase when you live on a landmass oft-swept in mad maritime climate. Here’s a visual representation of one of my favourite Saturdays, from when I lived in London aeons ago:

1) There’s nothing that quite comes close to spending a couple of leisurely hours of brunch with one of my closest friends – someone whose creative spirit and sense of joie de vivre always seems to stimulate me. I strongly recommend the Huevos Rancheros at Giraffe, with fried egg, chorizo, black beans, avocado and jack cheese to line your stomach for the rest of the day.

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Huevos Rancheros for Brunch at Giraffe restaurant on South Bank, Waterloo

2) A stroll along Southbank especially when its sunny, is always a lovely treat. We had to stop by the second-hand bookstalls in front of the National Theatre, of course and spotted prints of old maps and some lovely old editions of books.

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3) One of the things I love so much about Southbank is that it is full of surprises. We were treated to a display of the Red Arrows spurting Britain’s glorious colours.

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4) The sun was feeling a bit shy that morning, so occasionally the grey vista of London’s skyline exposed itself to us. We walked to Temple station where I bade my friend farewell and decided to go exploring on my own. I wasn’t far from the Templar church, made famous by the Da Vinci Code so went in search of it. I came across the magnificent Royal Courts of Justice in The Strand.

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5) And found myself on Fleet Street, which was the established collective name for British broadsheets for about four hundred years until the 1980s when their headquarters began to shift to cheaper locations around London.

 

6) While taking photographs I spotted the easy-to-miss alleyway entrance to the Templar church’s courtyard

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7) Unfortunately it was closed for a private event. I’ll definitely come back again though.

 

8) I then caught a bus back past the Strand to Trafalgar square and the National gallery

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Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square

9) Where I spent way too much time (actually not enough) ogling the Impressionists that I love so much.

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‘Powerless structures, Fig 101’ by Elmgreen and Dragset

10) I remember the first time I walked into this particular room in the gallery and saw my first living, breathing Van Gogh painting. It was sunflowers.  Over time though, I grew to fall in love with these two little fellas below:

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Two Crabs by Vincent Van Gogh

11) And my first Monet – the Waterlilies. I couldn’t believe that I could walk into this gallery any day for free and sit in front of the actual paintings of Great Masters, meditating on how close I was to them, although separated from them in life by centuries.

12) I strongly recommend taking the free tours offered at museums.  I decided to go on the 2.30pm one where you are taken around the gallery for an hour, learning about 4-5 key paintings in the collection. Here’s a little about the National gallery –

  • Built in 1838
  • Contains only Western European paintings from the mid-13th to early 20th century – all modern paintings (ie 20th century onwards) are housed at the Tate.
  • has a collection of about 2300 paintings on display at one time.
  • Sainsbury wing (newest wing) opened in 1991 to house the early Renaissance collection

Here are a few tid-bits from the tour for your reading pleasure:

Why was Caravaggio considered so avant-garde for his time?

We looked at the example of The Supper at Emmaus, painted in 1601. Unlike paintings at the time, Caravaggio put the two disciples in this painting in tattered rags, dressing them like peasants instead of in regal robes. Jesus himself was portrayed without a beard, appearing almost effeminate. The open arms showing broad gestures and emotion were too controversial for Caravaggio’s critics and gained their dislike. But, the most surprising element of all was the artist’s ability to structure the perspective of the painting so that the viewer felt like a participant in the painting.

What’s Michaelangelo’s style doing in every other Italian painting?

Sebastiano del Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus was drawn from original designs by Michaelangelo. Art historians know this only after discovering the drawings in archives. This is how they came to realise that, at a time when Michaelangelo and Raphael were the most sought after artists in Rome, Michaelangelo was probably producing drawings for a number of great artist’s works, without getting the credit for it. There are certain giveaways, like the muscular nature of the figures and the sometimes odd perspectives of the figures and how they are laid out in the picture. For example, Lazarus in this picture, if he stood up, would be abnormally taller than anyone else in the picture because of the extended length of his legs and torso.

How did the French painter Claude (Gellee, not Monet) make it big in Rome?

Claude came to Rome, like so many other artists, to make his name. But, he first began as a chef to earn a living while he built up his career. Over time, he became known for his landscapes and seascapes. At the time, pictures of landscapes and seascapes weren’t valued above historical pictures, which required a certain amount of learning and education plus understanding of the world from the artist. It was believed that any fool could paint a landscape. Claude couldn’t paint figures well, but he kept on doing them so that he could convert his land/sea scapes into historical paintings by including figures from biblical stories and myths in them. His paintings became so prized in their time that fakes were reproduced at an incredible rate. Claude began keeping a diary of his drawings so that, if asked, he could confirm whether he had actually painted something or not. Turner and Gainsborough learned about elements of light in painting from studying Claude’s paintings.

Why does England have so many Canalettos in the country?

There were so many brilliant artists in Venice at the time that Canaletto decided to specialise in order to make a living out of his art. He painted scenes of festivals and big events in Venice to sell to a particular audience: young, English gentlemen who were completing their Grand Tour in Venice, to round up their university education.

So, there you have it, a few of the things that makes one of my favourite London weekends.

June 2012

Romance of #thepinkcity #jaipur in #rajasthan

For two years I’d wanted to attend the #JaipurLiteraryFestival. Ironically, when I lived in Delhi, I was so busy with my job that I couldn’t make the time to go there. Only after I moved back to Goa I was able to have the mind space to plan a trip there. My Jaipur visit was part of a long-held dream of wanting to visit the Pink city anyway. So, it made sense to couple my visit with a literary-festival-author-talk binge. I’d been to Jodhpur years before, but again, for work. And everyone knows a work visit isn’t quite the same as a holiday visit. There’s a different kind of focus.

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At Jaipur Lit fest 2015

I booked a room with a heater (it was a cold, windy January in the Rajasthan desert at the time) in an old haveli that was kept together by a few family members and some strutting peacocks. They were all over the place, the peacocks, that is.

The literary festival itself was fun, though packed full of people. I managed to get a seat to most events I wanted to attend and learned about a few new authors that sounded interesting. I listened to Jeet Thayil interview Will Self, heard Hanif Kureishi talk about his writing, watched a fascinating presentation by Simon Singh about the show The Simpsons and where all the mathematical principles presented in the show come from (the show’s writers are all Ivy League graduates in Maths), heard ex-president Abdul Kalam speak to a packed audience that almost caused a stampede. I saw travel writer, Mark Tully, and Welsh novelist, Sarah Waters, strolling around the grounds and attended the launch of Granta’s ‘India’ edition, presented by Urvashi Butalia, founder of Zubaan books.

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Simon Singh’s presentation on Maths in The Simpsons at JLF

I took two days out to rent a cab for a tour of the city and saw these gorgeous highlights, in photo form below:

Hawa Mahal (the palace of winds): 

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Amber Fort:

Exterior views –

Interior views –

Jaipur city Palace:

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If you have time to only see one thing in Jaipur, its the Four Seasons doors at the City palace.  Pay the entry fee and wander deep into the palace till you find the courtyard with the four doors.  You’ve got to get close-up to each one to spot the unique detailing and vibrant colouring of each one, that tells a story of its own.  These photos below barely do it justice.

Blue Pottery:  

Ok, I openly admit that I have a fetish for Blue (and Iznik) pottery.  I spent a couple of hours at the place below buying soapfishes, coaster tiles, bowls and toothbrush holders.

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The Albert Hall museum (state museum of Rajasthan): 

They had a LOT of beautiful objects that I whisked past due to limited time, including an armoury with medieval weapons and lots of interesting earthenware.  There was a floor of fascinating folios from a version of The Panchatantra that I loved.

And I spent an entire afternoon at the Anokhi showroom, buying ethnic wear in print block patterns (yes, yes, another thing I have a fetish for!) and stocking up on their gorgeous blank diaries.

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Block print pattern journals from Anokhi

Visited Jaipur in Jan 2015

Falling in love with #Florence

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Amber Tuscan dessert wine Vin Santo with traditional biscotti, at Il Latini restaurant

After Venice, Florence is one of the top five cities that I absolutely love, love, love. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about the city that I love. The gentle light that spreads over the city bathing it in a soft yellow glow every morning and at the Golden Hour in the evenings? The first view of the stunning Duomo as you stroll round the street corner and see it for the first time? The sweet stickiness of a cornetto filled with jam that wedges itself into every molar in your mouth?

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Golden Hour at Firenze’s Il Duomo

It helps that before setting off for a long weekend (3 nights) there with my brother, I went online to check out what we absolutely had to see and do. A friend of a friend happened to be renting out the decrepit one bedroom flat she’d inherited from her grandmother, located in the heart of Florence, complete with framed vintage pictures of horse-riders and their racing horses. The rent was just right and besides the double bed, we were told there was an extendable sofa-bed. Their neighbour, who didn’t speak a word of English, gave us the key and pointed to the bed in the bedroom, the coffee in the kitchen and the switch for what I presumed was the hot water in the oddly shaped bathroom, and then left. The bathroom was narrow and had the odd shape of a coffin – wide at one end and tapering into a narrow end at the other. It was papered with dull 70s design wall paper from floor to ceiling. The bathtub was clean enough and as long as there was hot water coming out of the small hand-held shower head attached to the tap, I didn’t care. We were in Florence.  I didn’t plan on staying in much.

We woke up early our first morning and wandered out in search of a café for breakfast. A rather dark, poky, empty one hidden in the recesses of an alleyway caught our attention. Caffeine and one ham croissant later, we walked down a street that turned straight into the imposing, stunning façade of the Duomo, the most popular sight to see in the city that’s world famous for its architecture and art.

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First view of the Duomo complex

The 13th century Gothic style church with Brunelleschi’s 15th century dome has become the most iconic structure in Florence immediately associated with this great, vast city nestled in the Tuscan countryside. I have to admit, that a first sight of the church façade integrating white, pink and green marble together, is pretty jaw-dropping. The interior is imposing and beautiful, though stark by comparison. Vasari’s famous frescoes of The Last Judgement are a 16th century addition that definitely liven up the interior.

The Il Duomo di Firenze complex consists of the Baptistry and Giotto’s campanile (bell tower), along with the church. If we’d had more time in the city, we might have joined the long lines to get to the top of the campanile. But we didn’t, so we didn’t. As it is, we had to stand for about twenty minutes in line, early in the morning, to get into the church!  I can only imagine how long the lines got later on as more tourists strolled in from their late breakfasts.

Don’t miss seeing the East doors of the Baptistry. The panels are in gold and represent the Gates of Paradise. This is one of my favourite things to see in the city.  The scenes come alive in exquisite detail, with faces coming out of the panels in vivid scenes embossed on stretches of gold. You won’t be the only one queuing up for a selfie with the door.

My brother had downloaded a DK Eyewitness app on his phone, that indicated all the eateries in whichever area we were walking in, as well as their reviews and starred-rating. That’s how we came across the arched doorway of ‘Il Latini’ one evening for dinner. Sure, it was supposed to be a popular tourist haunt, but one that everyone assured we would love. It had lots of rooms inside and we were led to an available two-person table.

We ordered a la carte and in all, must have been there for 3 hours eating primi piatti, secondi piatti, dessert and the staff gave everyone a dessert wine and a plate of biscotti for free. We had no idea about the portion size when we ordered and asked for whatever was most popular. We ended up labouring through getting hunk after hunk of meat brought to us on a platter. True, it was succulent and tasty, but our bodies would take months to digest all of it! Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit.  But, vegetarians, be advised.  This is NOT the place for you. This isn’t the place for a quick meal either. We thought we’d be done in an hour and a half tops. Nope! If you visit here, be prepared to slow yourself down to Tuscan time. It’s got a great communal atmosphere. You’ll find yourself chatting with others under the dried hams hanging from the ceiling, and laughing at the waiters who seem determined to make you eat as much as you can manage. Chalk it down to them wanting you to have the true experience of eating at a Tuscan family table, and you’ll be guaranteed to enjoy yourself at ‘Il Latini.’

The next morning, we decided to head to the world class, world famous Uffizi museum.  It’s where Western classical artists go to have a religious experience.  To get tickets at the Uffizi, without waiting in line for close to an hour, pre-book them online and join the much shorter queue which should take you inside within ten minutes. Yes, there is a LOT to see and I was struck by the rather modern 15th century renderings of some of the lesser known Italian artists using vivid colours in the style of Titian but combining them with modernist designs – favouring fine geometric design though picking romantic style subjects and scenes.

I didn’t know that Botticelli’s iconic ‘The Birth of Venus’ was in the Uffizi and was thrilled to see it centered in one of the museum’s vast rooms. This museum, of course, is THE place for fans of all the great Italian renaissance artists from Bellini and Piero della Francesco to Titian and Mantegna. I quite enjoyed Caravaggio’s Medusa which isn’t easy to spot, as it’s placed in a small room on your way out.   After a couple of hours (hardcore fans will need a full day at least) of walking through corridor after corridor of greats (including Leonardo da Vinci, by the way) we got out, had a quick lunch and then kept on sight-seeing.

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Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’

Which brings me to the Basilica di San Lorenzo. There are lots of churches you could visit in the city, but there’s only one that contains the grandest tombs of the infamous Medici family in the apse of the chapel – multi-coloured marbles and imposing grandiosity in one of the best ever examples of Pietra Dura style.

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Medici tombs – Pietra Dura style in San Lorenzo’s chapel

Then, there’s the Laurentian library designed by Michelangelo, in the church cloister. The library is an interesting study in the Mannerist architectural style that was popular in Italy at one time, both in its painting and its famous buildings. The red and white terracotta floor of the Reading room is supposed to demonstrate the principles of geometry. The library was built to house the Medici’s private collection of manuscripts and printed books, collected over centuries and was supposed to establish them as an academically-inclined, scholarly and educated family to extend their status beyond the power-hungry image they were known for.

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Laurentian Library – San Lorenzo church

If, after wandering around the city, you feel the need for a bit of space and greenery, stroll through the romantic Boboli gardens, which is littered with sculptures, walkways, grottoes and has a wide, landscaped terrace with a fantastic view over the city that’s great for scenic photographs.

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Panoramic views of Florence from Boboli gardens

The Ponte Vecchio is an arch bridge over the River Arno, known for having shops built along it in typical pre-medieval city style. If it wasn’t for the 1666 great fire of London, there might still be shops lining London bridge as well. We tried to find out how to gain access to the Vasari corridor, which is an aerial walkway built by the famous architect Vasari for the powerful Medici family so that they could walk safely from their Palazzo Pitti to their Palazzo Vecchio without the threat of assassination in the open street. It’s only open at certain times and through timed guided group tours, I read online at the time. Thanks to limited time, we gave up on that, but got to walk directly under it instead.

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On the Ponte Vecchio

Not far from the Ponte Vecchio bridge in the city’s historical centre, is the Galileo Museum. I have to admit that I’m a fan of this guy ever since I learned that he was asked by the Inquisition to recant his scientific claim based on observation and evidence, that the earth revolved around the sun, instead of adhering to the religious view that the earth was the centre of the universe. He stuck to his view, inspite of being threatened, and was under house arrest until his death. The museum has Galileo’s main telescopes on display and a variety of other instruments both used by him and from the Medici’s vast collection of astronomic instruments. There’s also a great display of the prevailing theories and how the instruments work.

I can’t quite put my finger on why, but the Piazza della Signoria is probably the best square I’ve seen in all the cities I’ve been to. It’s an L-shaped ‘square’ (?!) in front of the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, which was once the political hub of Florence. Among the most famous statues there are ‘Judith and Holofernes’ by Donatello and ‘David’ (a copy, but…still) by Michaelangelo. There’s a gorgeous fountain of Neptune…. Then there’s the rather odd Loggia dei Lanzi, that seems rather out of place with the rest of the area but makes for a very interesting little corner of the Piazza with Cellini’s ‘Perseus holding up the head of Medusa’ and ‘The Rape of the Women of Sabine’ by some guy called Giambologna. It’s like a parade of the grotesque on display in the tucked-away corner of a prominent place.

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The Rape of the Sabine Women – Loggia di Lanzi
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Perseus holding up the head of Medusa

What I love so much about this Piazza is probably the great location for people-watching and the fact that it connects so many significant structures together in one place. The Palazzo Vecchio, which is now the town hall, the Uffizi and the Loggia. Then, there’s the fountain of Neptune in the centre of the L-shape. It’s not a massive fountain, like Rome’s impressive Trevi, which almost, sort of, arches across the street corner where its wedged in. But, I do love the theme of the Roman god Neptune and his nymphs coming out of the water and looking down and over the people in the street as they walk past. It’s just cool.

Now, let’s be honest. We’re in Florence, in Italy. So the chance of coming across bad gelato isn’t that high anyway. However, there are some gelaterias that are better known than others and the locals swarm there, swearing by the creamy texture of the ice-cream. The Vivoli gelateria in Santa Croce, is just one such place on a not-so-easy-to-find side street. It is narrow inside and a popular tourist and back-packer hang-out, with ice-cream lickers pouring out onto the sidewalks and just lounging in the side street happily licking away at one flavourful scoop before ordering seconds. Personally, I think locals choose their favourites based on their favourite flavours, which are exotic and even extreme, like the Cheesecake flavor or the radical stinky Gorgonzola (yes, you read it right!) flavor. And no, I didn’t try either!

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Tempting choices at Vivoli’s ice cream bar.

All I can say is, extreme gelato aside, I cannot wait to get back to that city for a longer visit someday!

Note: These are just a few of the highlights from my trip in 2011.

Fruity liqueur Jenevers in Rubens’ Antwerp

Antwerp was a city of many firsts for me: my first Rubens, the first time I tried fries with mayonnaise instead of ketchup, my first Red Light district.

One warm, summer evening, when we were both living in England, my brother asked me if I wanted to tag along with him and two of his university friends, Steven and Hans-Georg, on a road trip from the East Mid-lands region in England to Antwerp, in Belgium, for a couple of nights. I was 21.  I put clean underwear, a toothbrush and toothpaste, one change of clothes and a hairbrush into a small bag and threw it into the car with the rest of the stuff. We drove across border control onto the ferry at Dover and at some point, many many hours later, were parking in Antwerp. I probably would never have visited the gorgeous city if it wasn’t for local Belgian Steven wanting to see his girlfriend, who worked at the Sofitel hotel in Antwerp.

My memories of my time spent in that city are few, but distinct. I remember being in awe inside the hallowed, deeply Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady, which has four large Rubens paintings inside it. I only learned much later that Rubens, the famous 17th century Baroque artist, lived in Antwerp and had his home here. Now, if I ever returned, I’d visit his house and amble through his gardens.

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A triptych of Rubens paintings inside the Cathedral of Our Lady

We didn’t visit any museums or such, being poor university students (I was an undergrad and they were post-grads) we preferred to see what we could for free and save up for a nice meal and drink somewhere before we spent the night somewhere warm and cosy. Steven’s girlfriend was able to get us a couple of rooms for an overnight stay.  I do remember enjoying my first taste of fries parcelled up in a brown paper cone with dollops of mayonnaise on top to dip into.  That was my first experience of a ‘fritkot’ (takeaway fries shop).

Not far from the cathedral was the town hall and an impressive statue of Silvius Brabo, a mythical Roman soldier who supposedly ripped the hand off of a giant that was tormenting the locals here and threw it at him.

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Berry, plum, cherry, peach and lemon jenevers

I do remember strolling along some canals and insisting on visiting the red light area after drinking lots of fruity Jenevers and getting quite ‘happy’ on them.

I’d never seen anything like it before. Sandwiched in between the usual dimly lit residential streets was Antwerp’s red light district. Prostitution is legal in Belgium, which means that the woman have access to some protection and can exercise their rights if they dare to. But nothing quite prepared me for the reality of streets lined with box windows, where young girls – some probably still teenagers – were dancing and twirling in said windows and men were cruising down the street in their cars, yowling at the girls. It brought a whole new meaning to the word window-shopping. I had been the one who insisted, so the guys kind of formed a protective cocoon around me as we walked down the street. Almost at the end of the street, when we were in the clear, the guys broke away and walked ahead. Just then, a curvy dark skinned woman reached out for me from a doorway, wrapped her hand around my wrist as I walked past and tried to pull me towards her muttering something with a smile on her face. I pulled away and ran towards the guys. I thought it was ironic that walking down the street I thought I might be accosted by men, but it was a woman reaching out for me that had scared me.

Still, if you do visit Antwerp, the Red Light district is something to behold because of how organized it is. However, don’t be fooled by its glitzy lights in the windows. They’re still covering up the sheen of sixteen year old girls wearing tired old faces.

Manila traffic

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My first introduction to the country was in 2006 where I got to stay over at a Christian guest house, ate homely, simple food and had not much else to do but shop when we weren’t working, in one of the many malls there .  I bought pearl necklaces, scarves, fake brand bags and watches (just a few as gifts) and that was my first introduction to buying cheap accessories in Southeast Asia. Years later there’s still a t-shirt or two lying around, hippy necklaces that I still have.

We went for a walk along the promenade, had seafood out – our host knew where to take us.  What was disturbing to see was very young, beautiful women walking hand in hand down the promenade with older, unkempt, obviously middle class white men – some had children.  The myths aren’t myths and the reality of white Caucasian men finding submissive, pleasing wives was everywhere around me.  Maybe they’re both happy.  Who am I to judge what they’ve each given up for this arrangement?

Exactly ten years later I visited again for work and this time the traffic was the introduction.  It took two and a half hours to get to a place about half an hour of a drive away from Aquino airport.  I didn’t have time to shop or budge out of the hotel this time.  Luckily, Go Hotel Ortigas, where I was staying, was right next to a little restaurant called B&P where I had breakfast, lunch and dinner while I worked.  Mornings were of an eggy-bacony type breakfast with cappucinos and the Ruskin Bond book, Landour Days, that I was reading.  I recommend the book, by the way!  Great sense of place and very simple style of writing, though very much of the British Raj tone, it must be said.

 

I still saw older white men strolling around with beautiful, young Filipino women on their arm. And frankly, was relieved to leave the city when I did.  It’s not my cup of tea, but that’s just me.  The country is known for its hospitality and its coastal tourism is picking up slowly but steadily.  Many people visit the Visayas, for example, just one of the scenic places to visit in this country of over 7000 islands with a rich and varied heritage that makes it one of the more intriguing places to visit in South East Asia by many a tourist.

 

Ottoman dreams in Istanbul

I was in Istanbul for a 3-day work-related convention with Provention Consortium (now dissolved) in 2009, and stayed an extra day just to see the city properly.  The convention hosts organized a dinner and riverside boat trip along the Bosphorus by night for the whole group.  I saw Galata Tower and Dolmabache Palace lit up from the riverbank.  But I wanted to see more of the historic city. The quickest way to do this was to sign up for a tour based on a hotel leaflet.  The small mini-van consisted of me, a good-looking Asian girl in her early twenties and an older American gentleman with broad shoulders and a bit of a gut on him.

The girl turned out to be a niece of the owner of the Harvey Nicols department store empire.  She was a spoiled, entitled, cliché staying at the Four Seasons hotel.  The man turned out to be a contracted security agent working for the US military in Iraq, on R&R.  He was cagey about who he was and where he was posted, and for good reasons.  Security forces in Afghanistan or Iraq were required to take R&R and they often deployed themselves to Dubai, North India or Istanbul for short weekends for general drink and debauchery to let off steam.  Home was too far away for a short visit, in most cases.

 

The guide was an archaeology student at the university.  He knew good English and relied on tips.  We visited the Aghia Sophia church, Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace.  I also stood about 100 metres from the Blue Mosque, but on that day outside visitors weren’t allowed in so didn’t get to visit it properly. I bought a couple of Iznik bowls from Grand Bazaar that I absolutely love.  A blue one and a Red-orange-white one.

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Aghia Sophia blew me away.  The church has large black discs suspended from the ceiling with golden Allahs inscribed on it.

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The original church structure is believed to date back to 325 AD during Emperor Constantine’s time and the current structure was rebuilt by Justinian.  The church is made of white Marmara marble, yellow marble from Africa, gold and silver from Ephesus Greece and red porphyry columns that some speculate have their provenance in the Temple of the Sun at Baalbek Egypt.

In the 15th century, Mehmet the conqueror took over the church and its surrounds and converted it into a mosque, adding a brick minaret to the church.  Later, 3 more minarets were added.  The grand cavernous interiors strike you immediately as you enter and you can imagine the place once lit up in gold with the reflection of candlelight reflecting off of golden mosaics and silver candelabra.

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Topkapi Palace was a sprawling set of buildings across landscaped lawns.  Buildings included the Court of the Janissaries, Court of the Divan, the Harem, the Imperial kitchens, Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs, Apartments of the Sultan’s mother (the most important woman in the Harem) and Apartments of the Sultan himself.  Of course, it’s the Harem that most captured the imagination and fantasy of the Western world once they became familiar with the term and adapted it into textual and visual representations that reflected their own perceptions of the Orient and the Other.

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The Topkapi museums are interesting and include relics of St John the Baptist (part of his hand and skull!) and the infamous Topkapi dagger which has four huge emeralds embedded in the hilt and in a hidden part of the dagger.  The Pavilion of the Holy mantle has relics of Prophet Mohammed (hairs of his beard) and is considered a place of pilgrimage.

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Topkapi Dagger on display

As we walk briefly around the Old city, we are shown a few  reminders of the Hippodrome that once existed here including the Egyptian Obelisk.

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The Hippodrome itself was built during Emperor Constantine’s time, modelled after the Roman circus and could seat 100,000 people.  It was destroyed during the Sack of Istanbul during the fourth crusade and was stripped of its marble statues and seats.  In the 17th century, it was quarried for stone that was used to build the Blue Mosque.

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Next was the Grand Bazaar.  I entered through a small, narrow, unassuming gate into the bowels of a rambling series of stalls and cafes.  Lanterns, ethnic designed bowls and sacks of spice powders surrounded me.  Men called out to tourists, begging for their custom.  One doesn’t realize the size of the sprawling extensive maze that forms this bazaar.

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It has over 4000 stalls, cafes and restaurants under its series of roofs and rambles through a grid of 66 narrow streets all protected from the hot sun.  Jewellery, copperware, brassware, carpets, silver, ceramics, bargain clothing, antiques and curios are all on sale.  Try not to get creeped out by the thousands of evil eye motif curios following you wherever you go!

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I understand why so many students of archaeology have to visit Turkey and Greece as a part of their basic training and understanding.  Istanbul is just one city littered with archaeological gems and steeped in such a rich historic background of crusades and wars.

One can understand why its still a geo-political hotbed of strife and unrest even today.  Riots were threatening to break out as civilians striked in 2009 and bombs are going off across the country even today.  Izmir has bad a bomb explosion only two days ago.  Hard to imagine things were any better under the Ottoman empire which lasted well into the 20th century before the Sultanate was abolished in 1922 and Attaturk was elected President.  There was a time when I would have considered another visit to Istanbul, at least to see the Blue Mosque close up and get to the insides of Dolmabache palace.  Then maybe visited Capadoccia and Izmir.  But the truth is Istanbul, though considered more modern and Westernized than the rest of Turkey, was still a city of men and for men.  Sure, women walked around freely, smoked, wore what they wanted and walked confidently on their way to work but everywhere I went, I was still filled with the unease of a woman being stared at, sized up, evaluated and summarily dismissed.  Women moved around, but felt absent from engaging with society.  It was a Middle Eastern city after all.  And I have no niggling urge to return to that rich, interesting city especially considering the long bucket-list of travel to other places I have yet to visit.  My once in a life-time visit there is officially done.

Art at the Smithsonian & the Philips collection, in DC

I’m crazy about the Smithsonian, which has 19 themes museums and 9 research centres spread across acres of land in the heart of Washington DC.  The best part?  They’re all absolutely FREE to visit!  When I visited in 2013, I couldn’t resist popping into the Cocoran Gallery of Art and the American Art Museum.  I remember as a teenager I was filled with a deep longing to see art work I had only seen in pictures or read about in magazines and books.  It’s a dream to be surrounded by Salvador Dalis, Van Goghs and others.

Salvador Dali’s ‘Last Supper’, Monet’s ‘Westminster Parliament’ and Marc Chagall’s ‘The Dream’.

Then there are works by American artists like Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keefe and Mark Rothko that just take my breath away. And of course, a Warhol of Michael Jackson. (The Rothko below is from the Phillips collection, also in DC).

Above: ‘Cape Cod evening’ and ‘Cape Cod morning’ by Hopper and a bunch of ‘Untitled’ paintings by Rothko.

A copy of this Renoir (Luncheon of the Boating party) used to hang in our flat and I grew up sitting at our dining table, staring at the lady with the dog to the left of this painting.  I was pleased to find this Renoir also at the Philips collection DC.

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I’m in a dreamworld, but then I decide to visit a museum I haven’t seen before, simply because I’m curious.  I know nothing about Native Americans or their cultural history, so I enter the Museum of the American Indian.  I find myself hooked in no time.  I write about it in a published article here entitled Guns, Bibles and Gold.

 

I love the building, the layout, the stories, the displays, the shop, the canteen…basically absolutely everything.  My brain in exhausted and overstimulated.  But, I’m hooked and return two more times during this DC visit.

La Dolce Vita in Milan

It’s not as romantic as Venice, as full of history as Rome or as captivating as Florence, and it’s notoriously difficult for tourists who haven’t done some advance planning. But Milan should definitely be on your Italian itinerary. Keep reading to see why.

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If you’re not into fashion and you’ve already visited Italian gems like Venice, Rome and Florence, you might struggle to find Milan diverting. At your most positive, you’ll say: ‘Well, I’m here now. I might as well make the best of it. ‘ That was my attitude when my friend Maria and I arrived late one night at Milan airport. We had just taken the train in from Venice and I was still suffering withdrawal symptoms of having left the stimulating lagoon city too soon. The walk from the train station to the hotel seemed to prove my reservations right – graffiti on the wall cursing Berlusconi and grey buildings. I was glad to be in the sterile hotel room instead of on the quiet streets where whiffs of trash hung in the air from overflowing garbage bins, as we passed by.

The next morning proved to be much more promising. Sunny skies welcomed us and after a much-needed cappuccino I was ready to face the day. Milan is made of money and that’s how the city comes across. No charm, no welcome – mostly business. But don’t cut it out of your Italian itinerary because the city does have some gems. Warning: plan in advance or Milan’s best kept secrets will stay that way.

1

Tickets to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, popularised by the bestseller The Da Vinci Code must be booked in advance either online or through their call centre. When da Vinci painted the seminal moment in Christ’s life when he revealed to his 12 disciples who among them was going to betray him, the artist ignored the convention of the time to paint on wet plaster and applied paint directly onto dry plaster instead. This gave him more time to get the painting done but, the painting began to flake and fade even in da Vinci’s time. This famous painting is currently maintained at a precise temperature and humidity level. Only 25 visitors are allowed to view the painting for 15 minutes at a time, after passing through acclimatisation and de-polluting chambers. This compelling work of art is spread across the refectory wall of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie and is truly worth the visit.

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Milan is home to the third largest church in Europe after Seville Cathedral and St Peter’s in Rome. Milan’s gothic Duomo roughly spans 12, 000 sq m and contains 3, 000 statues, 135 spires and 96 gargoyles. Entrance to the cathedral is free though admission charges apply to view the Baptistry, Treasury and roof. A view of the Duomo’s 135 spires from the roof terraces is a must, either by lift or the cheaper option of climbing up 158 steps. The interior of the Duomo has plenty of art and stunning stained glass windows on view. What I found most amazing was the discovery that its vault contains a nail said to be from Christ’s cross. A permanently shining red light in the Duomo’s vault marks where the nail is kept.

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Milan’s famous Duomo

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Near the Duomo is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a pedestrianised, surprisingly light and airy shopping arcade made of iron and glass dated 1878. Its floor is decorated with mosaics representing the four continents of Europe, America, Africa and Asia. There are also mosaics representing the fields of Art, Agriculture, Science and Industry. But its finest feature by far is the central dome;an impressive display of how to use metal and glass to decorative effect. Look out for the mosaics depicting the zodiac signs where you’ll most likely find tourists rubbing their heels in the poor bull’s worn out testicles, for good luck.

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Tourists rub their heel into the bull for luck

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The National Museum of Science and Technology has a dedicated collection of Leonardo’s models and reproductions of his designs, drawings and descriptions of various inventions.

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The Pinacoteca di Brera houses Milan’s finest collection of art and an excellent collection of Italian masterpieces. With 38 exhibition rooms, it could take you more than a day to stroll through the entire collection but for a shorter visit some of the highlights on show are Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin, the 15th century Dead Christ by Mantegna, Francesco Hayez’s The Kiss (1859) and Modigliani’s Portrait of Moise Kisling painted in 1915.

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The Quadrilatero d’Oro or Gold Rectangle is where fashionistas will want to be. This cosy fashion district is where you’ll find fashion houses Armani, Gucci, Prada, Versace, Ferragamo, Valentino, Trussardi and Dolce & Gabbana to name a few. Though prices are sky-high, the shops reflect affluent Milan’s marriage to chic, understated style rather than Parisian flamboyance.

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Performances at La Scala, one of the world’s most prestigious opera houses, tend to be packed. So, if you’re in Milan for only a day, book your seats months in advance. For information on how to book seats, refer to their website.

8

If you’re into brunches, you’ll be happy to know that they’ve become very trendy in Milan. On weekends, between 10 am and 2 pm, cafes put out a rich American/Italianstyle buffet of brioches, croissants, muffins, eggs, bacon, pastas, risottos, cold meats and cheeses. A few fashionable venues, for a bit of celebrity-spotting, are the Hotel Sheraton Diana Majestic garden and Tribeca Lounge.

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Castello Sforzesco is one of the largest citadels in Europe. This monumental structure once housed Milan’s most powerful dynasties. Today, it houses a number of museums. Look out for the fountain that locals named ‘the wedding cake’ after the way the water jets out, layer upon layer.

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Once used as a navigable waterway, the Naviglio Grande canal now forms a quiet backdrop to art galleries, workshops and quirky shops that form the bohemian quarter of Milan. From September to June, the last Sunday of the month heralds the Antiques Market with around 400 antique dealers selling jewellery and bric-a-brac along the canal banks. You’ll find cheaper pizzerias, trattorias and bars here, as also a thriving nightlife, compared to the historic city centre.

AT A GLANCE

Getting there:

International flights go to Milan’s Malpensa airport. From there get an express train (45 mins) or bus shuttle service (1 hour) to the city centre

What to bring back:

Reproduction posters make good souvenirs or pick up an espresso cup set from a homeware store

This article appeared in Times of India Crest on 24 December 2011.