Updated: Oct 21
From the Bernina Express which left Chur, Switzerland to deliver me about 6pm to the station in Tirano, Italy, I walked down the street a few blocks to my overnight lodgings. Check-in was easy, requiring showing my passport, before I rode up a level to room 102. Single bed, no floor space, I requested a second pillow as I departed to explore.
Hitting an ATM as the cash in my pocket was low, I found where I’d stashed my euros when I’d entered Switzerland. Into a market, I got bananas, chocolate bars and dried ginger bits. I passed a CBD dispensary, which included a 24-hour option mounted in the outside wall!
At Cafe de la Gare, I started my dinner with insalate verde con pomodoro and followed it with fettucine al ragu. To drink, vino rosso, a Bardolino, but only 25cl, plus twice as much water. The tomatoes tasted better than Florida’s typical tasteless offerings, but not as good as I remember those from New Jersey. The wine was pleasant. For dessert, tartufo alla nocciola: a hazelnut semifredo with liquid chocolate core, coated with hazelnut and meringue praline.
Tuesday morning (historic Memorial Day in the USA) I had the morning planned for seeing more of Tirano before crossing west. After a light included breakfast, I parked my luggage and headed out. Tirano doesn’t have a cathedral, but there is the Basilica dell’Apparizione della Beata Vergine, which I had planned on visiting. As it turned out, it was the church at the point the train entered the town, the tracks making a slight turn to parallel the main drag. Sun-dappled shade covered the sidewalk as I strolled to the opposite side of town, observing storefronts on my way to the church. The white church with 3 gray domes, there is an 8-story bell tower alongside. Inside, there probably isn’t a square foot of unadorned space. The vault is beautiful. I was able to offer prayers at the altar of the Black Virgin statue. The organ pipes were in a black cabinet, and on the high altar I experienced the first of many occasions where four silver statues of bishops and/or popes (shoulders up to miters) are placed on the altar. The largest dome was octagonal inside, filled with coffered sections with rosettes at their center.
Leaving the basilica, I returned into town, getting a few shots of the mountains on one side, and a channeled stream (Adda river?) on the other.
Passing the Chiesa di S. Agostino, I was intrigued by the relief art in plates on the front door. After pictures, I entered and found another beautiful, albeit less ornate, church.
The bug had bit, and the nearby church of St Martin with its bell tower beckoned. Bas relief medallions (in plaster?) of saints, rather than the elaborate frescoes of the two other churches gave me a welcome break from overkilling ornamentation. Still, marble abounded in the altars, columns, walls.
Deciding to catch an earlier train, I collected my bags and headed to the station. Although I was early for the scheduled train, the train had been rescheduled to an earlier slot and pulled out as I was hauling my second bag up the stairs to the platform. Aggravated, I had more than another hour to wait, so left my bags (for an 8CHF fee) at the SBB office and crossed the river into the old town, wandering old streets and stone buildings as I found two of the old portal gates for the town.
Back to the station, with my luggage I was again faced with multiple trips down and up stairs to reach the platform, as the lifts were not functional. The train was bound for Milano, although I planned on exiting at Monza. A landslide had occurred the previous Friday, blocking the tracks as they ran along the Lake Como shore, so all passengers had to switch to express buses from Colico to Lecco. We passed through 16 tunnels, had occasional brief views of the lake, and required my hauling luggage a few more times than I’d planned. Aboard the bus, some American travelers were voicing concerns about which train station in Milano they’d arrive at, not wanting to haul luggage too far. I could sympathize.
Monza had a lift down from the arriving platform, but only stairs for me to use to get to the local train to Como. At the Como station, Maps suggested using the stairs down through the park in front of the station, and I decided to try the bus option. Armed with a ticket, I stood with a group as the scheduled bus never appeared. When the next would be 30 minutes later, I decided to find my way and walked the roads as they gently sloped down, and then worked my way into the center city.
At the address I’d been sent, the receptionist was waiting on me, as I was last to check in. They had tried contacting me (yes, once again, Expedia failed to forward important booking information) and we hauled the bags back down the cobbled streets about 2 blocks to a different building. Up a single flight of stairs, Juliette and I gained access (I was taught two sets of doorpad codes) to my suite. Sweet! From the entry door, ahead was a decent size bath with toilet, bidet, shower, towel warmer and sink, and enough counter space. To the left, a futon couch filled a wall looking into a kitchenette, with a small 2-person table next to a window overlooking the garden below. Through a doorway, twin beds, a desk with chair and a closet. There were two windows to view the garden. Plenty of floor space, so the 3 nights there would be most comfortable.
We’d passed a Carrefour market on the way, so I headed out to get supplies: more bananas, juice boxes, wine, cheese (asiago and gorgonzola), stale bread, 2 boxes of frozen appetizers, a jar of jardiniere, and a truffle-infused bottle of olive oil. (The latter was divine!) After putting the food away, I headed out again, this time to view the cathedral. I immediately recognized that with the plaza it faced filled with umbrellas for the numerous cafes, I was going to be trying all sorts of angles to capture the facade.
Checking the mobile phone case stores (there are numerous all over every city and town), I still couldn’t find protection for the replacement phone. I walked into TIM, a service provider, and got an Italian SIM, removing the German SIM which had expired. And it gave me an Italian phone number. I’d passed a takeaway storefront offering fresh pasta, but I couldn’t locate it when I backtracked. (It closed early evenings, and I was searching too late.)
Back to my flat, I used a frying pan to heat the mini pigs-in-a-blanket and the pizza rolls. Placing the cheese and charcuterie on a plate, slicing the bread (crumbs all over the floor) and pouring a bit of oil to dip into, I had a feast to savor. Opening the wine, it was adequate.
Once I was finished, I did dishes, cleared the dinette table, and set up to proof the Amsterdam blog, pushed it to the website with pictures. The photos from the Bernina ride and Tirano needed space, so clearing the crossing and Netherlands folders to an alternate SD chip gave me enough room for the current pictures.
My last notes for the day documented some of the fellow travelers I’d met that day. On the first train ride leg, a Sacramento couple who would take the ferry across the lake when we were switched to the bus. On the second train leg were the elders: a couple from San Antonio, who traveled with their son, his wife and daughter from southern California. While at the cathedral plaza in Como, a pair of Istanbul-based doctors (she a dermatologist focused on plastic surgery, he a physical therapist) visiting for a conference in Milano with a 4-year old daughter, who asked me to snap a few pictures of them.
The last day of May, after a thunderstorm-filled night and early morning, I needed an alternate activity to visiting churches for photography. Checking the internet, I packed up my dirty clothes and headed to a laundromat. Surprisingly, the machines could be paid for with a credit card, and had English instructions. Local women assisted, so I paid it forward and help a young married couple from Cleveland. Ian and Anna were trailering around Europe for 1-2 years! Two hours later, after reading more of Dan Brown’s Inferno, rolling the clean items back the half-mile, the sky had cleared. And I found that clean and folded, I had much more space.
My research had four churches to visit: the cathedral, its predecessor, and two basilicas.
Starting off by heading to the marina, I first arrived at San Giorgio after photos of the lake, the marina, memorials and a floater plane hanger and flying school. The facade has a grayish pallor, with four columns in front and a yellow stucco covered single bell tower to the side. Frescos fill the vault and arches between the aisles, while side chapels have paintings or statues, some with crystal coffins below the marble altars.
Leaving and following the train tracks, I eventually found the duomo vecchio, Basilica Sant’Abbondio.
A tall imposing stone building, two thin towers bracket the east end. Inside, the columns are constructed of cemented stone, in the round with simple capitols and curved arches. The double side aisles are paired to the narrow central main aisle.
The apse is tall with a half dome of pale blue, and filled with numerous paintings. The simple wood throne is either the Pope’s seat or a cathedra - I couldn’t tell. Empty, the simplicity of the bare walls and unadorned columns concentrated the sense of spirituality. This was emphasized by the presence of several glass-fronted reliquary tombs placed in the nave.
Returning into the city proper, my next destination was Basilica San Fedele, which had been the bishop’s seat when it moved from Sant’ Abbondio in 1007. However, it was closed from midday until 3:30, so I went to the Basilica Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta.
With a square stone bell tower separated by a colonnade for the cloister, the actual church building has an ornate western facade with three doors. While there is a piazza in front, it is not particularly deep, and the far side is filled with large square umbrellas shading dining patrons, hence a difficult photography subject.
The cathedral basilica has three aisles, with a gothic ribbed vault filled with geometric mosaics in blue, white, light gray and gold. Large tapestries hang high between the aisles. Inside the entrance on its south side aisle is a large gilded shrine framed by two large paintings. Other side aisle altars are adorned with murals and statues. The apse half-dome is mostly gold, with an image of the assumed Virgin Mary at the center. A baldachin with twisted black marble columns is raised above the main altar. While an impressive church, I was left with the feeling of being at a museum rather than a House of God.
When I was ready to leave, it was still early, so I headed to the funicular which climbs to the top of the hill overlooking the lake. No direct route, a railroad crossing gate blocked a track transit while the train sat a smaller local station 200m away. Once lifted following the departure, the crowd streamed into the non-tourist rest of the city. At 6,10€ for a round trip, the gondolas hold 50 and run every 15 minutes, with the climb/descent taking 7-8 minutes. I waited in the queue with a couple from Houston who were heading to Interlocken afterwards.
At the top, the attractions were hikes of 30 minutes or more, to which I had little interest. I visited the Chiesa Sant’Andreas (y Tomas), found locations to take a few pictures and then queued up for the return ride, just missing the first trip as they were full.
At the base of the hill, I tried to find a better route to San Fedele, and wound up walking almost as far back as the marina to re-enter the Centro. After passing the cathedral piazza, and a quick stop at TIM to get an answer about a marketing text message, I got a few pictures from the outside and entered the (former cathedral) Basilica San Fedele.
The nave and apse were dark, baroque in ornamentation. I didn’t find a throne, but a sign out front stated it had been a cathedral. I found the painting, statues and murals to be interesting, and noted that the galleries were very deep. In the early centuries of the second millennium, men would be on the nave floor, while women (and children) were consigned to the galleries above them.
Heading back to Residenz Diaz, I found the fresh pasta store front open, and after much hemming and hawing, left with lemon ravioli, green pesto and a side of veggies (string beans, cubed zucchini, roasted fennel.) Before setting the water to boil, my appetizer was the remainder of the charcuterie: sliced meat, cheeses, giardiniera, nuts with the truffle oil and the wine. After a pause and a brief laydown to rest my back, I finished dinner. After sorting and arranging the laundry from the morning, I packed up the large roller and read emails before bedtime.
My third day in Como, a Wednesday, I’d planned a day trip back to Switzerland to the city of Lugano. Off to the train station, a three-quarter hour ride deposited me at the hillside bahnhof which had views of the city and the cathedral down below.
One of the four tram lines in Lugano is alongside, and I learned that it would be 1,40CHF to ride, planning my return. I took the stairs down, arriving at the cathedral to find the entire western facade under wraps.
Inside is baroque, filled with murals and mosaics. The cathedra sits evident on the edge of the sanctuary, but a second throne sits to the rear of the apse. Initially I had the benefit of lighting, but when the cleaning crew completed their task, the lights were turned off.
I enjoyed the decorated vault. I found the building to be on the smaller side, and noted that the facade seemed to be added as an afterthought. My Swiss cathedral count incremented to eleven.
Descending further into the city, it was filled with tourist shops and high-end retail and restaurants. After window shopping, I wound up at the lake’s edge, and then began climbing back up the hill beside a defunct tram, sipping on the box of pomegranate juice (which was too tart for my taste.) At the top, I needed to walk along the road edge with the overlook view, until I arrived back at the bahnhof.
After the three hour visit, I caught the train back into Italy, munching on a chicken and avocado pretzel. Again at the border, we stopped while agents walked through looking at tickets but no other paperwork. Heading into Como, I tried to determine an approach to the station that I could walk with the luggage the next day. Heading to the flat, I packed up stuff in the T-Mobile box and walked around the corner to the shipping station to get rid of more accumulated papers, chocolate, excess clothing. I left the box and paperwork there to return after I had a roam. Discovering a winebar, Enotecada Gigi, I had a rosé, La Flery ‘22 Piedmonte DOC Pescaja (Barbera) and a real red: Lagrein Sudtirol Alto Adige DOC ‘21 Tiefenbrunner Turmkof. The latter was stunning! I had a plate of spreads and breadsticks to accompany.
After a bit more window-shopping, I dropped into a second winebar for a ‘20 Sicilian red, along with bread sticks, ham and olives. The barkeep and I got into a conversation where we agreed that churches can often feel more spiritual than the large cathedrals.
Back to the postal service, I found a 150€ charge to ship my packages via DHL, resolving to try to curtail my purchasing. Once it was squared away, I headed to my flat where I finished off the (heavy glass bottle) of Alsatian whisky (purchased in Strasbourg) [Welche’s Whisky, Single Malt Tourbe, Distillery G. Nichols, 68650 Lapatroie.] Continuing with leftovers, I had the gorgonzola, a slab of foccacia, and the pizza pockets.
In my notes I made the following observations: in the old city of Como, there are very few kebab places, and fast food joints are very infrequent, mainly pizza takeaway. Gelato places abound, as did high-end retail. I liked Como, and would return, but would prefer to stay over near the funicular.
Friday morning I was up before 8 to finish packing, clean up the flat and take the trash out. Off to the station, the walk took about a half hour, and then I waited and took the 9:36 train to Milano Centrale. The central station in Milan was a madhouse, but I cleared it about 11 and began walking to my hotel. After passing the roundabout at Loretto, I had another 4-5 blocks to go to reach the hotel. My room wasn’t ready, so I grabbed my camera, leaving the rest of my gear, and headed back to Loretto. There I picked up a 3-day metro pass and headed towards the center. I had a GetYourGuide ticket to collect (their instructions had the exit address, Cripta di San Sepolcro) for access to the Pinoteca. I probably should have ridden one more stop, rather than exiting at the cathedral stop. Once I collected my ticket, I figured out it was for an unguided access to the museum.
The Pinoteca is well organized with a planned route to follow through this world-famous museum, albeit there are rooms off galleries which might be missed. Portraits and religious art filled the first floor, dating the art to pre-Renaissance. On the second floor, landscapes and statuary are featured. For me, the highlights were the works of Brueghel and then, in a special section, pages from daVinci’s Codex Atlanticus. The latter captured my attention, and I studied the notes and sketches of this polymath, recalling the displays of the physical realizations of his inventions - but seeing his actual handwriting (in mirror writing) and drawings! Chills.
[I've posted a separate photo album with some more of the 200+ photos I took at the Pinoteca Ambrosiana, including some of the pages from the Codex Atlanticus.]
Once I had my fill of the Codex Atlanticus exhibit, I continued the tour of the building, visiting the church portion, Cripta di San Sepolcro, which had a crypt and a tableau of Charles Borromeo praying at a tomb for the safety of the Milanese during a time of plague. Canonized, he had been archbishop of Milan in the late sixteenth century and was a significant figure with Ignatius Loyola and Philip Neri in the Roman Catholic Church's counter-reformation efforts.
Upon exiting, I walked to the Duomo, but checked my schedule and found I had a guided tour scheduled in an hour. (I’d been in the museum 3 hours!) A stop at a corner cafe, I had a glass of Chianti, which came with green olives and potato chips.
Returning to the cathedral piazza, I found the coordinator for the guides, and was assigned to a group, and our female guide arrived exactly on time. She had a set patter, talking about the facade of the Cattedrale di S. Maria Nascente - Duomo di Milano before we entered the narthex. After a bit more narrative, we walked down the right (north) aisle to the transept.
This is one huge building. As a service was due to start imminently, we ventured no further, exiting to street briefly to join the queue to the lift to the roof.
On the roof we walked around the dome of the apse, having viewed the buttresses along the exterior of the nave and then those for the apse. On the south side, we were able to actually climb onto the roof from the path along the edge. We learned that the buttresses were cosmetic! The walls are structurally sound to stand without those arches. As the roof space was being closed, we were moved to the stairs down, and found that the interior was closed, so no one could return. (Fortunately, I had a second tour planned in two days.)
Conveniently, a TIM storefront was near, so I could deal with the problem that the A14 “Italian” mobile wasn’t accessing the Internet. Of course, once there, it worked, but they had me add 5-euros worth of data access. Then I descended into the metro and rode the M1 line back to Loretto stop. Back at the hotel I was assigned room 18, which had a window fronting onto the tree-lined shaded street. The room was quite narrow with a single twin bed and the AC set to 22C, which I killed. Only a top sheet on the bed, I requested a light blanket.
My stomach rebelled, since I’d been going on a banana and some water since rising. The receptionist recommended that I get a simple dinner at Nonsolo Pizza.
Starting with an insalata primavera, a birra alla spina grande and bottle of water to wet my whistle and the custom pizza was ordered: artichoke, salami, garlic, gorgonzola, tomato, mozzarella, sausage and oregano. The salad was quite large, and included tuna; I only ate half. The pizza was divine, particularly the garlic and artichoke; there wasn’t enough gorgonzola for me. At the waiter’s encouragement, I had tiramisu for dessert before heading back to settle in for the night.
From my notes, I slept like a babe - one trip at night, and I woke to the alarm at 8! After my banana and water to wash down the vitamins and supplements, I decided to try a different metro line, and walked to the M2 line and rode 8 stops to the central train station. I caught the 9:45 train for the 15-minute ride to Monza. The “duomo” was nearby, so I walked in and Mass was being said, so I found a pew and attended. I put duomo in quotes because, while locally referred to as a cathedral, there has never been a bishop seated in this church.
Basilica di San Giovanni Battista; "Duomo di Monza" has a dark interior, with the side altars being either gated or dark. I descended into the crypt, where photos are not permitted. An Interesting use of the extensive crypt, it housed a museum and treasury. I found the ancient statue of the patron saint awesome (and snuck a few photos.) The cloister was a peaceful, silent space.
Walking back through the Monza streets, I wound up at a different train station at Porto Garabaldi, where I was able to take a different metro line to the stop nearest La Scala, the opera house. It still was a 15-minute walk. I had a tour booked at 2:30, so I sat down at Cafe Verdi and ordered spaghetti carbonara with two glasses of rosé.
Unlike how it is prepared in the States with a cream sauce, in Italy only the egg yolk, parmesan and oil are used to dress the pasta, which I didn’t expect. After another tiramisu, I headed to the square opposite the opera house.
A team of guides separated us, handing out radios as groups were formed. While a tour in English, we were a mixed crowd, with a French couple leaving midway as they solely spoke French. Our guide was Renata, who began outside the rather bland facade with a history of the building. Then up two flights of stairs to the promenade, the location of the “crush bar”. This larger space had busts of musicians along the walls and several stunning chandeliers. We had the opportunity to view the stage from the boxes, briefly observing the interior of the auditorium.
We moved from the opera house to the museum next door, where each salon represented a different period of time (century) in La Scala’s history. Portraits of then notable singers, busts of conductors and composers filled the walls and surfaces: it was a study in attire and hair styles. Verdi and Toscanini feature strongly in these timelines. Finishing in the space with the fixed exhibits, we moved into the space for the current special presentation, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Franco Zeffirelli. Videos of excerpts from telecasts of operas, his movie productions, the costumes and sets and plenty of photographs. I was surprised to find very few mentions of the singers in his productions!
Exiting to the street, nearby was an exhibition of the works of Leonardo daVinci, which, after viewing the Codex Atlanticus the day prior, called strongly. I purchased the audio guide with my entry (which I rarely do) which worked well, except when the Italian group guide entered the room and used his (very loud) outside voice. I noted he was also an actor and ham. I found ways to get around his group and visit other rooms of the exhibit after 5 minutes of his “show”.
There were many models at 1:16 scale, and were sourced from the various Codex. The audio was informative and thorough, although near some of the interactive features, it was difficult to hear. The exhibit also displayed information regarding the digital reproductions of the Last Supper and La Gioconda (Mona Lisa). They had used other, better preserved surviving works of daVinci to “color correct” the faded and damaged portions of these well-known works.
The entry to the DaVinci exhibit was at the corner opening into a huge commercial gallery. I walked through it back to the Cathedral metro stop and went back to the hotel. Who knows what urge hit me, but I went into Ristorante Sapori et Cucina, a steak and fish eatery. Over processing emails (including an inquiry to my homeowner’s insurance agent regarding snail mail back home,) I started with bruschetta della casa. The main was called a diablo hamburger: 100% hamburger di manzo Black Angus americano allevato al pascolo, insalate iceberg, pomodoro amato, fontina, crema di cheddar stravecchio, bacon croccante, rucola, jalapeno.
With patate friti and a birra alla spina media plus a bottle of water, I had a good meal. The fries were crispy, the burger pink with lots of lettuce. Picante! The place was bright, paper table covers and the beer served in a San Miguel glass mug.
Sunday June 4 was a very busy day, and I never found time or energy to journal! The morning started with my rising before 8, cleaning up and packing, checked out but leaving my gear in the hotel conference room. Back to the M2 stop, I rode to the stop nearest the rendezvous point for a walking tour I’d booked. Arlo had my name on his list; we waited on another six. The Tasmanian couple showed up next, soon followed by a couple from Italy. Finally, after a bit of delay, a mother-daughter pair from near Newcastle, England. My assessment of the guide was he was barely fair: he led with little discourse, walked faster than the 7 of us. He took us to canals and bridges, then to the city walls and gates (portos). We were being led around the city center before walking through a gate and into a large plaza. Beside the Sforza Fortress/Palace, the space is well-tended and quite impressive. Our next stop was the front of La Scala, where he seemingly dismissed it by rattling off dates of the building’s additions. We walked into the Forum, that shopping gallery I’d walked the day before, and as we emerge to look at the Duomo, it began to rain. The tour was to visit the cathedral proper, as well as visit the roof. He declared the tour over (not even getting the prepaid cathedral admission tickets) and left on the metro.
While we’d probably not be able to visit the roof due to the heavy rain and thunder bursts, his disappearance irritated us all.
Close to the Duomo metro station, I headed back to the hotel. At Loretta, I advanced underground to as close as possible, finding a gathering of locals watching the heavy downpour at the stairs up to the street. We all waited as most were unprepared for the weather, and when it finally moderated, I covered the camera and hugged the building walls as I raced to the San Francesco. After using the offered towel, I tucked the camera away, the string backpack into plastic, pulled out the windbreaker and asked them to call me a taxi. Prompt, it cost me 14 euros to get to Milano Centrale, where I caught an earlier train than planned to Bergamo. The lift to the subway had a serious queue, so I used the ramp. At the platform lift, I found it under repair, so made the two trips up stairs and waited for the 13:05 train. Only to have an announcement that it would be delayed 40 minutes, and there was another train leaving sooner, but on a different platform. I moved and headed to the head of the train, as the rear was packed with fellow passengers. In the front car, I had a 4-seater to myself. That train was on time, and the rain stopped while I was underway.
You can purchase your own copy
(or have me send it as a gift) of
Cathedrals to the Glory of God
by clicking this link: