Frommer's Shortcut Milan and the Lakes by Michelle Schoenung by Michelle Schoenung - Read Online

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Frommer's Shortcut Milan and the Lakes - Michelle Schoenung

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Sforza Castle in Milan.

Milan is the glitzy capital of Lombardy (Lombardia), Italy’s most prosperous region. Its factories largely fuel the Italian economy, and its attractions—high fashion, fine dining, hopping dance clubs, and da Vinci’s Last Supper —have much to offer the visitor. But there’s much more than a sophisticated city to Lombardy. To the north, the region bumps up against craggy mountains in a romantic lake district, and to the south it spreads out in fertile farmlands fed by the mighty Po and other rivers.

Lombardy has a different feel from the rest of Italy. The Lombardi, who descended from one of the Germanic tribes that overran the Roman empire, and who have over the centuries been ruled by feudal dynasties from Spain, Austria, and France, are a little more Continental than their neighbors to the south; indeed, the Lombardi are faster talking, faster paced, and more business-oriented. They even dine differently, tending to eschew olive oil for butter and often forgoing pasta for polenta and risotto.

The Italian lakes have entranced writers from Catullus to Ernest Hemingway. Backed by the Alps and ringed by lush gardens and verdant forests, each has its own charms and, accordingly, its own enthusiasts. Not least among these charms is their easy accessibility from many Italian cities, making them ideal for short retreats: Lake Maggiore and Lake Como are both less than an hour from Milan, and Lake Garda is tantalizingly close to Venice and Verona. Each of these world-renowned resorts––Como (the choicest), Maggiore (speckled with elegant islands), and Garda (a windsurfing hot spot, and microcosm of Italy, with the Mediterranean lemon groves and vineyards of the south gradually shading to Teutonic schnitzel and beer on the north end)––can make for a great 1- or 2-day break from Italy’s sightseeing carnival.

Don’t Leave Milan & the Lake District Without . . .

PAYING HOMAGE TO DA VINCI AND MICHELANGELO    You’ll find The Last Supper in Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie and the Pietà, Michelangelo’s last work, inside the medieval Castello Sforzesco.

CLIMBING TO THE ROOF OF THE MILAN DUOMO    Wander amid the Gothic buttresses and statue-stopped spires for a citywide panorama.

SEEING THE BRERA AND AMBROSIANA PICTURE GALLERIES    Tour these Milan museums packed with stunning works by such Old Masters as Raphael, Caravaggio, and Leonardo da Vinci.

TAKING A WINDOW-SHOPPING SPIN    Walk past the high-end boutiques in Milan’s Golden Rectangle, then go on a budget shopping spree through the stock shops and outlets of Corso Buenos Aires.

The town of Menaggio on Lake Como.

INDULGING IN THE NIGHTLIFE    The converted warehouses along Milan’s Navigli canals are always hopping after dark.

FERRYING BETWEEN LAKE MAGGIORE’S BORROMEAN ISLANDS    There you can tour the palaces of one of Lombardy’s last remaining Renaissance-era noble families and watch the peacocks wander their exotic gardens.

Lake Como.

As with any destination, a little background reading can help you to understand more. Many Italy stereotypes are accurate—children are fussed over wherever they go, food and soccer are like religion, the north–south divide is alive and well, bureaucracy is a frustrating feature of daily life. Some are wide of the mark—not every Italian you meet will be open and effusive. Occasionally they do taciturn pretty well, too.

The most important thing to remember is that, for a land so steeped in history—3 millennia and counting—Italy has only a short history as a country. In 2011 it celebrated its 150th birthday. Prior to 1861, the map of the peninsula was in constant flux. War, alliance, invasion, and disputed successions caused that map to change color as often as a chameleon crossing a field of wildflowers. Republics, mini-monarchies, client states, Papal states, and city-states, as well as Islamic emirates, colonies, dukedoms, and Christian theocracies, roll onto and out of the pages of Italian history with regularity. In some regions, you’ll hear languages and dialects other than Italian. It’s part of an identity that is often more regional than it is national.

This confusing history explains why your Italian experience will differ wildly if you visit, say, Turin rather than Naples. (And why you should visit both, if you can.) The architecture is different; the food is different; the important historical figures are different, as are the local issues of the day. And the people are different: While the north–south schism is most often written about, cities as close together as Florence and Siena can feel very dissimilar. This chapter will help you understand why.

Italy Today

The big Italian news for many travelers is the recent favorable movement in exchange rates. Last year’s edition of this guide listed the US dollar/euro exchange rate at $1.37. At time of writing, it’s $1.06. Everything in Italy just became 22% cheaper for visitors from across the Atlantic. (The Canadian dollar has moved less dramatically, but still in the right direction—from $1.51 to $1.33.) So, congratulations: You picked a good time to visit.

Many Italians have not been so lucky. One reason for the euro’s plunge is a stubbornly slow European recovery from the global financial crisis—known here as the Crisi. It had a disastrous effect on Italy’s economy, causing the deepest recession since World War II. Public debt had grown to alarming levels—as high as 1,900 billion euros—and for more than a decade economic growth has been slow. As a result, 2011 and 2012 saw Italy pitched into the center of a European banking crisis, which almost brought about the collapse of the euro. By 2015, many Italians were beginning to see light at the end of their dark economic tunnel—a little, at least.

Populism has become a feature of national politics. A party led by comedian Beppe Grillo—the MoVimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement)—polled around a quarter of the vote in 2013 elections. By early 2014, in the postelectoral shakedown, former Florence mayor Matteo Renzi became Italy’s youngest prime minister—at 39 years of age—heading a coalition of the center-left led by his Democratic Party (PD). Among his first significant acts was to name a governing cabinet made up of equal numbers of men and women, a ratio unprecedented in Italy. Opinion polling through mid-2015 showed Italians still favoring Renzi’s reformism over rivals’ policies.

Italy’s population is aging, and a youth vacuum is being filled by immigrants, especially those from Eastern Europe, notably Romania (whose language is similar to Italian) and Albania, as well as from North Africa. Italy doesn’t have the colonial experience of Britain and France, or the melting pot history of the New World; tensions were inevitable, and discrimination is a daily fact of life for many minorities. Change is coming—in 2013, Cécile Kyenge became Italy’s first black government minister, and black footballer Mario Balotelli is one of the country’s biggest sports stars. But it is coming too slowly for some.

A brain drain continues to push young Italians to seek opportunities abroad. The problem is especially bad in rural communities and on the islands, where the old maxim, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, applies more strongly than ever in these straitened times. By 2015, however, indicators suggested the worst of Italy’s economic turmoil might be behind it. From top to toe, highlands to islands, fingers are firmly crossed that the good times are coming round again.

cuisine in Piedmont & Lombardy

Italians know how to cook—just ask one. But be sure to leave plenty of time: Once an Italian starts talking food, it’s a while before they pause for breath. Italy doesn’t really have a unified national cuisine; it’s more a loose grouping of regional cuisines that share a few staples, notably pasta, bread, tomatoes, and pig meat cured in many ways. Probably the most famous dish of Piedmont and Lombardy is cotoletta alla milanese (veal dipped in egg and breadcrumbs and fried in olive oil)—the Germans call it Wienerschnitzel. Osso buco is another Lombard classic: shin of veal cooked in a ragout sauce. Turin’s iconic dish is bagna càuda—literally hot bath in the Piedmontese language, a sauce made with olive oil, garlic, butter, and anchovies, into which you dip raw vegetables. Piedmont is also the spiritual home of risotto, particularly the town of Vercelli, which is surrounded by rice paddies.

The Making of Italy

Prehistory to the Rise of Rome

Of all the early inhabitants of Italy, the most extensive legacy was left by the Etruscans. No one knows exactly where they came from, and the inscriptions that they left behind (often on graves in necropoli) are of little help—the Etruscan language has never been fully deciphered by scholars. Whatever their origins, within 2 centuries of appearing on the peninsula around 800 b.c., they had subjugated the lands now known as Tuscany (to which they left their name) and Campania, along with the Villanovan tribes that lived there.

From their base at Rome, the Latins remained free until they too were conquered by the Etruscans around 600 b.c. The new overlords introduced gold tableware and jewelry, bronze urns and terracotta statuary, and the art and culture of Greece and Asia Minor. They also made Rome the governmental seat of Latium. Roma is an Etruscan name, and the ancient kings of Rome had Etruscan names: Numa, Ancus, and even Romulus.

The Etruscans ruled until the Roman Revolt around 510 b.c., and by 250 b.c. the Romans and their allies had vanquished or assimilated the Etruscans, wiping out their language and religion. However, many of the former rulers’ manners and beliefs remained, and became integral to what we now understand as Roman culture.

Meanwhile, the Greeks—who predated both the Etruscans and the Romans—had built powerful colonial outposts in the south, notably in Naples, founded as Greek Neapolis.

The Roman Republic: ca. 510–27 b.c.

After the Roman Republic was established around 510 b.c., the Romans continued to increase their power by conquering neighboring communities in the highlands and forming alliances with other Latins in the lowlands. They gave to their allies, and then to conquered peoples, partial or complete Roman citizenship, with the obligation of military service. Citizen colonies were set up as settlements of Roman farmers or military veterans, including both Florence and Siena.

Etruscan bronze of a she-wolf suckling twin brothers Romulus and Remus.

The stern Roman Republic was characterized by a belief in the gods, the necessity of learning from the past, the strength of the family, education through reading and performing public service, and most importantly, obedience. The all-powerful Senate presided as Rome defeated rival powers one after the other and came to rule the Mediterranean. The Punic Wars with Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia) in the 3rd century b.c. presented a temporary stumbling block, as Carthaginian general Hannibal (247–182 b.c.) conducted a devastating campaign across the Italian peninsula, crossing the Alps with his elephants and winning bloody battles by the shore of Lago Trasimeno, in Umbria, and at Cannae, in Puglia. In the end, however, Rome prevailed.

No figure was more towering during the late Republic, or more instrumental in its transfor-mation into the Empire, than Julius Caesar, the charismatic conqueror of Gaul—the wife of every husband and the hus-band of every wife. After defeating the last resistance of the Pompeians in 45 b.c., he came to Rome and was made dictator and consul for 10 years. Conspirators, led by Marcus Junius Brutus, stabbed him to death at the Theater of Pompey on March 15, 44 b.c., the Ides of March. The site (at Largo di Torre Argentina) is best known these days as the home to a feral cat colony.

Ancient Roman ruins on the Capitoline Hill.

The conspirators’ motivation was to restore the power of the Republic and topple dictatorship. But they failed: Mark Antony, a Roman general, assumed control. He made peace with Caesar’s willed successor, Octavian, and, after the Treaty of Brundisium which dissolved the Republic, found himself married to Octavian’s sister, Octavia. This marriage, however, didn’t prevent him from also marrying Cleopatra in 36 b.c. The furious Octavian gathered western legions and defeated Antony at the Battle of Actium on September 2, 31 b.c. Cleopatra fled to Egypt, followed by Antony, who committed suicide in disgrace a year later. Cleopatra, unable to seduce his successor and thus retain her rule of Egypt, followed suit with the help of an asp. The permanent end of the Republic was nigh.

The Roman Empire in Its Pomp: 27 b.c.–a.d. 395

Born Gaius Octavius in 63 b.c., and later known as Octavian, Augustus became the first Roman emperor in 27 b.c. and reigned until a.d. 14. His autocratic reign ushered in the Pax Romana, 2 centuries of peace.

By now, Rome ruled the entire Mediterranean world, either directly or indirectly, because all political, commercial, and cultural pathways led straight to Rome, the sprawling city set on seven hills: the Capitoline, Palatine, Aventine, Caelian, Esquiline, Quirinal, and Viminal. It was in this period that Virgil wrote his best-loved epic poem, The Aeneid, which supplied a grandiose founding myth for the great city and empire. Also in this prosperous era, Ovid composed his erotic poetry and Horace wrote his Odes.

The emperors brought Rome to new heights. But without the checks and balances formerly provided by the Senate and legislatures, success led to corruption. These centuries witnessed a steady decay in the ideals and traditions on which the Empire had been founded. The army became a fifth column of unruly mercenaries, and for every good emperor (Augustus, Claudius, Trajan, Vespasian, and Hadrian, to name a few) there were several cruel, debased, or incompetent tyrants (Caligula, Nero, Caracalla, and many others).

After Augustus died (by poison, perhaps), his widow, Livia—a shrewd operator who had divorced her first husband to marry Augustus—set up her son, Tiberius, as ruler through intrigues and poisonings. A series of murders and purges ensued, and Tiberius,