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Italia '23 part cinque: Milan

I was going to edit this picture of our Catania-Milan overnight train to have a big red triangle in the top right corner, but decided that was too obscure a callback.[previously: June 14-18, June 18-20, June 21-23, June 24-26]

Tuesday June 27

Just after we go to bed in our train compartment, the aircon in the ceiling starts making a noise like the entire train crew have crawled inside it and are beating their way out with hammers. The BBG wakes up briefly, reassures herself it’s not an alarm, and goes back to sleep for the rest of the night. The amount of sleep I get in the same period can, I think, be measured in minutes. Still, at least things can’t get any worse.

At 7am the train guard knocks on our door, hands us two coffees and says ‘ritardo’. That's a bit rude, I'm just tired. But we eventually realise he's telling us that the service is running late. How late? Opening the window we see we’re parked up in Roma Termini station. But this train doesn’t stop at Rome. By now we should be at least in Florence, several hours further down the line.

Then we spot the large numbers of police outside. Then the guard comes back with a box full of snacks and water.

This is looking ominous.

Eventually, word comes through from an English speaking passenger that someone’s been found dead in the next carriage along from us, and the cops have been brought in to establish foul play or otherwise. At this point, I start considering the theory that all the banging in the aircon was the ghost of the dead passenger asking us to avenge them. I don’t get much further into this line of thought before the next development – the train is officially taken out of service, and we’re all told to get off it and find alternative methods of transport.

To be fair, Trenitalia handle all this with some aplomb, despite their platform staff being mobbed by dozens of sleep-deprived passengers, the loudest of which is old and half blind and can only communicate with violent arm gestures and yelling. The guy on the platform gives us an alternative service to join, with enough time to be able to get a stand-up coffee beforehand (and I seriously need one by then). We don’t have seat reservations, but we find two free places fairly quickly, and the guard helpfully finds us a couple more that are free to the end of the journey. It’s a fast train – to be fair, most trains are fast compared against what The BBG snarkily points out is advertised as a night service rather than a sleeper service – so we get into Milan a mere 90 minutes later than planned.

“You got the full Italian experience,” says the delightful receptionist we explain all this to at the Starhotels Anderson. And for once we’re in a proper hotel, not an apartment block with B&B facilities – just like we were in London nearly two weeks ago, and for exactly the same reason. Milan is effectively a short break in our two day journey home, and we’ve got a hotel that’s over the road from Central Station so we can catch an early train first thing tomorrow. The Anderson may be the most standard hotel we’ve encountered on this trip, but its shower is incredibly welcome at this point.

Love Mi concert audience on the left, Duomo on the right. (Maybe I should have been paying more attention to the excellent museum we were inside when I took this photo.)Feeling moderately human again, we hit Milan for the rest of the day, in an itinerary partly informed by our previous visit in 2007. After a surprisingly decent lunch at the Mercato Centrale food court inside the station itself, we go full tourist and catch a Metro out to the Duomo. Our amusement at the network’s breathless announcement that it’s just introduced touch-in-touch-out credit card payments, years after most of the rest of the world, is tarnished by our train barrelling through Duomo station without stopping, like we’re in Catania or something.

We walk back towards the Duomo and discover what the problem is: all the streets surrounding the cathedral have been sealed off, giving us once again the chance to see how fucking angry Italians get when they can’t do something they want to. There’s a free gig this evening in the main square called Love Mi, and the area is full of thousands of kids queueing up to be squished into an undersized open space in 30+ degree temperatures. It’s fun to watch, but a little frustrating when you want to see the Duomo and all its approach roads are closed.

Except we accidentally find a hack. One of the other places we want to visit nearby is the Museo del Novecento, which to be fair was saying on its website that it was closing an hour early this evening for ‘public order reasons’, so we really should have got the hint. We persuade a guard that we’re trying to visit the museum and not just jumping the queue for the gig, and he waves us through. And once we’re inside the Museo, we discover several floor-to-ceiling windows giving us a terrific view of the cathedral and the crowds outside it (though not the stage itself). This is the cherry on top of a cake made out of an excellent collection of largely Italian futurist art, built around a zig-zaggy route that keeps you baffled as to how much more you’ve still got to see.

We decide against trying to crash Love Mi and instead go on a mini aperitivo run, something that we didn’t quite pull off successfully when we were last here 16 years ago. We start off by revisiting the bar of our hotel from that stay, Straf, and grab a quick spritz. With all the stuff going on nearby at the Duomo, it’s fun and buzzy, but we’re a little alarmed to discover that the bar has picked up a cockroach since 2007. Putting the offered nibbles to one side with a small shudder, we take a Metro out to the Naviglio Grande canal area where we had a slightly disappointing experience last time. It’s possible that was down to our previous visit being on a Monday night, when everyone was still on their comedown from the weekend. On a Tuesday night in 2023, it’s much livelier, with a nice warm evening adding to the feel. We’re pretty certain that a bar like Navigli Craft Beer wouldn’t have been there back then, but it’s a terrific addition to the area, and their taplist has a rather fine collection of Italian brews on offer.

Sticking with things we tried to do 16 years ago, we wrap things up with a tram ride out for a late dinner at Pizza OK. I remember being highly amused at the time by a restaurant name as understated as that in the middle of all the Pizza Magnificos and Pizza Fantasticos this city is full of, but not so amused that we made any attempt to eat there. Magnificently, Pizza OK turns out to serve what's probably the best pizza we have all fortnight: an ultra-thin crust, more like a flatbread, acting as the base for over 100 possible topping combinations. For dessert, we call into the Iconico gelateria to make absolutely sure we’ve had an icecream in every Italian city we've visited on this trip. By this point, the sleep deprivation of earlier in the day is a distant memory, so it’s a surprise to get back to the hotel and realise it’s gone midnight.

'A toute heure' is apparently the French for 'closed for nearly seven hours in the middle of the night'. Who knew?Wednesday June 28

And five hours later, the alarm clock goes off again. By 6.25am, we’re on a train that’s pulling out of Milan and taking us as far as Paris. It’s more successful than our last Trenitalia trip, in that we don’t see any evidence of people dying on it. We do, however, end up getting delayed anyway – by Turin we’re half an hour late, which has extended to one hour by the next stop, and we never really make up for the delay. It’s not a problem, though: our schedule for this final day has huge amounts of slack built into it, and we get to enjoy the sight of a different set of Alps from the ones we passed on the journey out, without an annoying family getting in the way.

We have an early afternoon lunch booked at the massive Parisian travel cliché that is Terminus Nord, which we cancel while on the train once it’s apparent that we’re going to be late for it. On arrival in Paris, we take a chance on a walk-in for a late afternoon lunch there, and get shown to a table straight away. Despite my ongoing qualms about it being a massive tourist trap simply due to its location across the road from the main station, it’s as enjoyable a meal as ever: it's only slightly spoilt by their insistence now on making people leave their suitcases by a counter in the middle of the restaurant, rather than keeping them by our table. Sure, it’s tidier, but we spend most of our lunch worrying about our suitcases getting nicked and us losing two weeks’ worth of sweaty underwear (plus, I guess, the snazzy outfits we got hitched in). But that doesn’t happen.

After that, it’s plain sailing (wrong metaphor) on the Eurostar and the rest of our trains home, getting us back in London just over two weeks after the ceremony that started it all. As ever, despite the fun of travelling between multiple places in a fortnight, it’s a delight to be able to sleep in our own bed again. Even though my dreams for the next couple of nights will be based around non-existent imaginary Italian cities that we were either staying in, planning to stay in, or forgot to stay in. It's like having an extra few days of travel bolted on to the end of the stuff you've paid for, and I'm choosing to view that as a happy bonus rather than a symptom of mental decline. Being a monkey, and all.

Coming soon: The Belated Birthday Girl's roundup of the best food and drink from our trip


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