Select Page

We did not set the clock – we are on vacation after all – and this morning we woke up very late. I have noticed that we have a tendency to do this by about day three or four of our mini city vacations which involve lots of walking, because we are absolutely knackered. The result was that we got to the Church of San Bernardino alle Osse two minutes too late to get into the chapel which is notable for the walls being covered in skulls and bones. J was not bothered – he does put up with quite a lot in the way of being dragged off to see church architecture – but I was, because the story is straight out of a tale by Edgar Allen Poe. The skulls and bones are believed to belong to people who died in Brolo hospital which used to be next door. I know ossuaries are popular in many parts of Europe, and skulls and bones are quite often to be found on old gravestones to remind people of the ephemeral nature of earthly life, but who came up with the idea of using them as wallpaper in the chapel?

The Last Supper, as it was in 1928

Now that we had missed the skulls we set off for La Vigna di Leonardo, a renaissance palazzo opposite the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie which is where Leonardo’s Last Supper is located. We took the metro which is fast and efficient and even has all the announcements in English – but by the time we got our two-day pass and walked to the palazzo from the metro station, we realized we did not have enough time to do the tour and get back to Navigli where we had reserved lunch for 1:30 pm at El Brellin I couldn’t believe we had just done this twice in a row and I was exceedingly grumpy about it. I brightened up by the time we got to Navigli though the weather hadn’t and it remained a gray and drizzly day. (Incidentally if you want to see the Last Supper you must reserve far in advance because these days everyone wants to see it and the tickets are snapped up quickly by tour groups. We tried right up until the last minute but could only get one last-minute ticket and not two.) The closest I got was this old photo taken by my ‘German family of the photograph album’ and I think the fresco has been cleaned up a bit since then.

Gentrified area of restaurants, bars and cafés along the Naviglio Grande 

Lunch was again delicious and we both stuck with typical Milanese dishes; I had saffron risotto and osso buco and J had cassoeula, a Milanese version of cassoulet except instead of beans they add cabbage to their pork bits and serve it with polenta. The place was absolutely packed with Italians having Sunday lunch, so again if we had just turned up we would have been out of luck, although there are lots of places to eat along the banks of the canal.

Naviglio Grande

Construction of a 150 km long network of canals (navigli means ‘navigable canals’ in Italian), began in the 12th century as a safer, faster means of connecting goods and people to Milan from the rivers and lakes and towns of Lombardy and the Alps. The oldest canal was begun in 1179 and was so successful that others soon followed, until by the 15th century Milan was one of the largest inland ports despite it not being located on a main river. Local lore says Leonardo da Vinci himself was called upon to design locks to overcome the difference in elevation along the canal network. Until the mid 19th century the canals were in constant use and were an integral part of the city – the marble used to build the Duomo was transported via these canals from Lake Maggiore – but by the second half of the 19th century, road transport had improved and canal traffic dropped away, until all commercial trade came to a halt in 1979. Some canals were later filled in for sanitary reasons and today only three survive: the Naviglio della Martesana in the north-east and the Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese in the south-west of the city. The latter two are part of the neighborhood now known as Navigli, which for years was a poor working-class neighborhood but which has been gentrifying since the 1980s when artists began to renovate houses along the canals. Today the towpaths alongside the canal where horses and oxen once towed the barges, are lined with bars, cafés and restaurants, as well as antique, art and design stores. El Brellin sits on the corner of tiny, picturesque Vicolo dei Lavandai where women used to do their laundry with water from the canal. Large, angled stones next to the ditch that runs through the vicolo look as if they were used as scrubbing boards to clean clothes.

Artists’ studios in the Vicolo dei Lavandai

After a stroll around the neighborhood we took the metro to Fondazione PradaDeveloped by Miuccia Prada and designed by celebrity architect Rem Koolhaas in a former distillery, the exhibition space consists of 19,000 sq ft of contemporary art installations and pieces owned by the fashion house. The site is pretty amazing but there was hardly anyone around and I am not sure if it was just the time we went, but there seemed to be very little to actually see. We had already been told at the reception that the Haunted House was closed, which was a pity as the work of Louise Bourgeois we had hoped to see is there and we did descend underground to see a large permanent installation called Process Grottesco by Thomas Demand, a surreal work based on a cave in Majorca that he recreated using 3D technology. A nearby building houses a cinema but we were not there to see film, so we continued walking towards another building marked Sud on the map, only to be warned off by people behind us who I think were telling us it was administrative offices. I don’t know what was in the Cisterna building because it seemed to be closed, as was the Deposito. Or it could just be that we couldn’t find the way in, which has been known to happen to us. So we went to the tower which the website says is six floors of installations, although there were only things in four of them when we were there, unless an empty room is an installation which is definitely a possibility. In any case, at the risk of sounding like a complete philistine, aside from one piece by Mona Hatoum, I was underwhelmed. I may be in need of a visit to the re-education camp but some of it seemed like pretentious twaddle to me. J was even less impressed. We ended up at the Bar Luce which was designed by the film director Wes Anderson where we had an aperol spritz and some nibbly things. And then we went back to the hotel.

Bar Luce, Fondazione Prada

Old distillery buildings, Fondazione Prada

Exhibit tower, Fondazione Prada