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Italy I: 29 May - 4 June - Tirano, Como & Milano

Updated: Oct 21, 2023

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.

View from train of Lake Como
View from train of Lake Como

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.

Antipasto platter, bread and wine: dining at home
Dinner at "home", Como

Garden view from kitchen, with trees, ivy-covered wall, cars
Garden view from kitchen

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.

Enry facade, Basilica Sant’Abbondio, Como former cathedral  ?-1007
Basilica Sant’Abbondio, Como cathedral ?-1007

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.

Hilltop view of rear of Basilica Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, Como
Basilica Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, Como

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.

Front facade, Basilica San Fedele (former cathedral), Como
Basilica San Fedele (former cathedral), Como

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.

Train view, south end of Lake Lugano
Train view, south end of Lake Lugano

Stairs down from station to Lugano city center
Lugano City stairs, station to city

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.

Facade wrapped in netting and scaffolds, Cathedral of Saint Lawrence / Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, Lugano
Cathedral of Saint Lawrence / Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, Lugano

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.

Front & back of bottle: Welche’s Whisky, Single Malt Tourbe, Distillery G. Nichols
Finishing up the Alsatian Whisky

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.

Front of building and Entry, Pinoteca Ambrosiana, Milan
Entry, Pinoteca Ambrosiana, Milan

Cripta di San Sepolcro, Milan
Cripta di San Sepolcro, Milan

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.

Front facade, Cattedrale di Ssnta Maria Nascente - Duomo di Milano /  Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica of the Nativity of Saint Mary
Cattedrale di Santa Maria Nascente - Duomo di Milano

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.