Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Milan, a rediscovery playlist

Arrival Day
The auspicious day of your arrival in Milan should be an easy one, I suggest holding off visiting the big sights today because you are not necessarily going to have the energy to appreciate them. Instead I recommend that you take the time to refresh yourself with a bout of shopping or perhaps an Aperitivo (the Milanese happy hour) and spa.

Shopping - If you have the money then I can suggest you nip to Via Montenapoleone or Via della Spiga for your high end shopping needs, But if you are watching your Euro Cents and want to be able to shop on a budget then take a leisurely stroll down Corso Buenos Aires. It is a long street so it might be advisable to catch the metro through some of it if you need. You can pair your shopping trip with a mini architectural tour as the strip is studded with some fantastic buildings and a rather large park for lunching in.

Aperitivo - Follow up your shopping trip with an aperitivo! The concept is essentially "after work drinks", the Milanese twist is that the venue will throw in a bountiful spread of nibbles to replace the dinner you won't be having by drinking. The food is free as long as you purchase a beverage and the venue will usually finish it all up at a sensible hour! Not only can it be quite a good night, but you get a free feed and have time afterwards to visit the spa! If this combination interests you, and why wouldn't it, I suggest you sample the aperitivo at "Friends" (10 Via Ludovico Muratori) or if you fancy the classic sit down meal, try the nearby "Casa Tua" (Corner of Via Ludovico Muratori and Via Bernardino Corio)

Spa - At the end of a long day, there is nothing more relaxing than a spa ...right?! Whilst researching things to do in this fair city I discovered QC Termemilano. It is essentially an inner city spa retreat (no funny business) in the heart of Milan. There is an amazing array of inclusions in your modest entry cost (€32-€59 depending on time of entry and extras) including saunas, steam rooms, relaxation rooms, aqua massage, pool, a wellness path and included buffet! Plus you get to walk around in a plush white robe and snazzy flip flops. This particular spa is quite close to my above mentioned aperitivos as well as the Porta Romana Metro stop.

Day One
Sightseeing ahoy! Today we meet some of historical Milan. Visit these sights in whichever order works best for you and spend as long or as short a time at each.

Duomo di Milano - This beautiful gothic cathedral is at the heart of Milan and is an absolute stunner! The exterior is an intimidating 65 metres high and opens up into a beautiful plaza full of pigeon feeders, tourists and rushed locals trying to get through to the other side as quickly as possible. (This is prime pickpocket territory so keep your valuables safe when taking your thousands of photos of this photogenic behemoth). If you have the energy I highly recommend you climb to the roof of the cathedral! It is open to the public and it gives you an amazing view over Milan, whilst getting you up close and personal with some of the 135 intricate spires and statues that make this building so beautiful.

Some of the stunning sights you will see if you climb to the roof of Duomo di Milano (known locally as Il Duomo).

Galleria Vittorio Emanuale II - The worlds oldest shopping mall is certainly a sight to behold! Behind it's grandiose entrance can be found the likes of Ferrari, Prada and Gucci as well as an array of overpriced eateries. Shop if you have the funds but, perhaps more interestingly, there is a beautiful mosaic at the crux of the cross shaped mall featuring four distinct crests. These crests represent the capitals of the four kingdoms of Italy; Milan, Rome, Florence and Turin. Legend has it that if you spin three times with your right heel on the testicles of the Turin bull then you will be bestowed good luck!

Teatro Alla Scala - When you stumble across this unassuming building, you would be forgiven for thinking it is nothing more than an uninteresting stock standard government building. Thankfully it is much more than it seems as it houses the stunning La Scala opera theatre! With €5 museum entry and an optional guide book in hand, you can feign aristocracy and peer across the stage from a luxurious booth or perhaps sip an imaginary flute of bubbly in the chandelier laden function areas. Whatever your chosen fantasy, La Scala is a great place to take a break from the hustle and bustle of Central Milan and absorb some theatre culture.

Panzerotti - Now since you are already in Central Milan, take a short stroll from the Piazza to the unassuming "Luini's". Here you will find a long deli cabinet stacked with a delicious array of pastry treats and just general deliciousness! The selection will have your mouth watering but I suggest you try the traditional Mozzarella e Pomodoro Panzerotti first for a traditional Milanese snack... Then go wild!

Day Two
Castle Sforza - This castle museum almost seems more like an odd piazza than a traditional castle. The open hours vary from season to season but if you miss out on getting inside the building then don't be alarmed! The courtyard is always open and show cases some beautiful frescos and plenty of shade. The pockmarked exterior tells volumes about the castle's almost constant re-adaption based on who was ruling at the time. The castle does provide some amazing photo opportunities and the rust coloured interior walls really do remind you that you are in an ancient Italian city. An amazing place to wander, just mind the gypsies and stray cats.

Last supper - this is probably why you came to Milan, da Vinci's famed fresco on the refectory wall of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie Is certainly a talking point. Access to this artwork will cost about €8 and is timed so it is best if you book in advance and maybe base the sightseeing order of your day around this time slot. The experience is actually quite hilarious, due to the delicate nature of the fresco there can only ever be a certain amount of people in the room at one time for only a few minutes and there needs to be a small break between viewings to allow the moisture to be removed from the air. This means that you slowly plod through glass doors and vacuum seals like cattle in a science fiction slaughter house and then once in the room you get yelled at by an irate attendant over a loud speaker as though you are on "Big Brother". Possibly the most strictly archived piece of history in the entire of Italy! Oh and there is another fresco on the other side of the room too, just as good but not by Da Vinci.

Departure Day
I never advise booking in to see anything on your day of departure... Simply because Personally, I end up stressing about checking out, left luggage, missing my flight or not making it to the train in time! If you have a late night departure then I suggest you take some time to relax in one of the many restaurants, cafes and eateries that stud beautiful Milan or alternatively, the age old tradition of shopping always goes down a treat (and that spa is open all day too...)

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Milan Darling, Milan!

On my first visit to vivacious fashion capital Milan, Jade and I had the fortunate pleasure of arriving to pouring rain in the decidedly more suspicious evening light suffering an exhaustion that is known all too well by long haul travellers. We had also just come from a disappointing experience in Pisa (A word to the wise, use a map to find the leaning tower or you might end up wandering the streets of this small town lost and a bit stressed, consequently leaving without having actually seen said tower). This combination is never a good one when discovering a city for the first time... Nor any subsequent time after that really... But fortunately by this stage our sheer laziness had taught us that it was easiest to stay at hotels around the main train station and we only had to schlep our bags (numbering five by this stage thanks to Jade's penchant for shopping) a short way.

This time around was my second visit and thankfully the weather upon arrival was lovely and mild. In my mind, because I had graced the pavement of this fair city once already, I was a seasoned Milano expert (insert sarcastic rolling of the eyes) so I boldly traipsed mapless through the streets, suitcase tumbling begrudgingly behind. To be fair I did basically know my way around the city and I was feeling quite well versed in the Italian way of life at this point, so my confidence was not all together misplaced. Once again our chosen accommodation was as near to the beautiful station as I could get so that there was minimal lugging. Side note here, The main station of Milano Centrale is actually quite magnificent to look at and I suggest you take time to look back as you traverse to your hotel, you might even like to take a picture or two (weather permitting).

My visit consisted of only mild sightseeing and focused more on activities like eating, drinking and shopping, with only a fleeting visit to La Scala and Il Duomo mixed in for cultural good measure. We didn't catch the Last Supper as it was completely booked out and we hadn't had the forethought to book this earlier in the week. But, perhaps most importantly, I did manage to catch a panzerotti at my favourite Milanese panzerotti house Luini's (let's be honest it's the only one I've been too, But it is really good)... This leads me too...

Shanwah's tasty tip: Luini's is a small delicatessen style eatery specialising in what is possibly Milan's best cultural export... Panzerotti! These flavorsome morsels are small half moon shaped savory pastries filled with various forms of deliciousness... Imagine a calzone, now make it smaller and tastier! Although Panzerotti aren't strictly Milanese, Luini's has made such an impact that they've been somewhat adopted as such. I actually insist (unless dairy or gluten aren't your friends) that you drop in for a visit and try this traditional fare, go for the cheese and tomato version to begin with and then let loose on one of the other countless taste sensations!

The stunning Gallerie Vittorio Emanuele II! The world's oldest shopping mall and possibly the prettiest too! One entrance leads into Milan's main Piazza and Il Duomo, one to La Scala Opera house and another to Luini's Panzerotti! Make sure to take a spin on the mosaic bull's testicles in the centre of the mall for luck!

Milan is definitely the fashion capital of the world, and it is quite evident from first glance that it is very different to other Italian cities, but I don't think people actually realise how interesting a city it really is. Those who do visit tend to only stay long enough to see the Last Supper or to relieve themselves of a few Euro at the shopping streets before disappearing to Florence or Rome, upsettingly I think most people feel it is void of traditional Italian culture and as a result it is left off most Italian itineraries. What we need to remember is that the cultural city of Milano was here long before the skyscrapers and there are plenty of enriching experiences smattering the Milanese sidewalk. I have decided to take some time to prove to the naysayers that there is much more to see and experience in Milano... so heres what I'm going to do! With a bit of research and some fortunate fieldwork, I am creating a sightseeing playlist that I think showcases some of the great things Milan has to offer in a short three night stay (come on you can handle at least three nights right!?)...

So stay tuned...

Sunday, 14 April 2013

A note on train travel...

In all honesty I didn't knowledgeably choose train travel as my preferred method of transportation around Europe. Instead it came about as a direct result of my sheer ignorance of budget airline carriers and the shiny advertisements for Eurail passes (they promised maps and fancy looking tickets okay!). Despite not having researched it fully the first time around, let me tell you now that it is certainly not a bad thing. I have since discovered that although train travel can be a bit arduous and not overly comfortable, it is decidedly more pleasant to spend 5 hours on a high speed train than 2 hours traveling super economy in a flying tin can.

Traveling by rail allows you time to read, write, play a few games of solitaire or poker and best of all it allows you the freedom to get up and stretch your legs whenever you want! Air pressure ear pops are limited to trains that pass through tunnels or climb up mountains, the seats are bigger and usually less cramped plus you get to see some absolutely amazing scenery along the way.

If you get the right combination of deals (Eurail, railpass etc) you can also very easily make train travel the most cost effective solution for your grand tour. Investigate how many times you will be traveling within one country, how often will you be using international rail services, how close are the stations to your hotel, how frequent are the trains? You can use these questions to ascertain whether or not a rail pass is best for you or if its better for you to buy your own point to point tickets.

I talk about this now because it was at this point of my journey that our painfully disrupted train trip from Nice to Milan, involving faulty train carriages, canceled seat reservations and angry Italian mothers, led to a chance meeting with two lovely ladies, a deck of cards and a train trip of raucous card games and laughter. It reminded me of how much fun I have had on my train trips. What it boils down to is simple, you have nowhere else to be and you can't help what time you arrive, so you can just sit back and enjoy the journey (Remind me to tell you about some of my ...Err... less relaxing train journey's sometime).

Two final points...

Buying your tickets in advance through the local rail company (Trenitalia in Italy, TGV in France, Renfe in Spain or Deutsche Bahn in Germany etc) is usually cheaper than leaving it until the last minute or going through a third party provider. So if you have the nouse I suggest you attempt it yourself.

Be aware of your alternatives and try not to hinge your entire journey on one train leg being on time. You are well aware of how the trains in your home town are frequently delayed, so be aware that it is the same in the new city you are visiting and it is no one else's fault but your own that you only left yourself 10 minutes to change trains.

Train travel around Europe is by far the most comfortable and satisfying way to get from amazing A to beautiful B! (Yep I came up with that one all by myself) and who knows, you might end up sitting opposite a new friend*.

*Disclaimer: New friends are not guaranteed. I take no responsibility if you are seated next to a... less than desirable... train buddy. If you are seated next to an undesirable, I suggest you swiftly occupy whichever senses are being assaulted (I have been known to shove my nose in a bottle of orange juice to achieve this).

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Boats, beaches and babes!

Welcome to the French Riviera! This beautiful cluster of unique cities and towns on the sunny south coast of France has recently decided to become a regular stop over on my (increasingly frequent) trips to Italy. This is partly because it provides me with more than a fleeting glance at the ocean and partly because it is actually a pretty long trek from Paris to Rome. On this particular visit I was especially excited because it was the fortunate location of a much anticipated rendezvous with my good friend Nikki!

Right! Lets start with the aptly named city of Nice. This town reeks of that old school 1920's charm that throws your imagination back to the glitzy upper class soirées of yesteryear! The promenade showcases some fantastic examples of delicately aging architectural beauty from that era so I highly recommend a leisurely late afternoon stroll (in the warmer months of course) along the promenade. I also advise this for those who appreciate the rhythmic crash of waves and the tangy scent of ocean air whilst marveling at the sparkling art deco gems that puncture the seafront. Once you are done strolling, a dip in the sea never goes amiss. Nice's famed pebble beach will be jam packed in the heat of a summers day but if you can steal yourself a spot on the rocks then it is worth the hassle. The pebble beach was certainly an adjustment for me (Australians are notoriously snobby when it comes to beaches and I am no exception) but the sound of water washing against pebbles was surprisingly relaxing... Even if it did take a few attempts to get comfortable on the rocks. If a leisurely stroll or tanning session on the beach aren't you're thing, then you can always spend your Euros on the Avenue Jean Médecin. With a lovely collection of high street labels and a Galeries Lafayette, my shopping needs were all satisfied. The seaside is always a big draw card for me so Nice will always have this going for it... Even if there is a lack of sand.

The "Conversation à Nice" statues that line the Espace Massena lighting up at night to guide people on their shopping adventures!

Day tripping to Monaco is probably one of the easiest and touristically (is that a word) rewarding day trips I have ever done! A short (barely half an hour) train trip along the stunning coastline from Nice and you are in the quirky Principality of Monaco. This is a whole different country so make sure to add it to your count (because everyone will ask how many countries you went to and you want to impress). Despite being such a small country it really packs a tourist punch! A visit to the Prince's palace is a must If only to add to your photo album of stunning vista views and uniformed guards ceremoniously changing shifts. Next on the "to see" list is Monte Carlo Casino. Having experienced the intense neon chaos of Las Vegas casinos, I expected something just as affronting when I entered Monte Carlo Casino. What I found instead was an exquisitely crafted building with tall ceilings and elaborate furnishings. The shiny slot machines that line the walls and alcoves provided some low level sparkle but essentially it is the building that grabs you by the face and spins you around in gawping circles. I found that all the modern gambling paraphernalia looked out of place in the casino despite the fact that this was the building's original purpose. Even if I did feel a little classless wearing flip flops and a singlet, I found the experience to be incredibly exciting... I was even excited by my inevitable €20 loss to the one armed bandits.

Although Monaco is small enough to walk around, keep in mind that it is very hilly (avoid learning this on a stinking hot summers afternoon) and there is no metro system to speak of so confusing buses are your only real public transport option. To avoid the pain of near vertical footpaths, I definitely recommend that you utilise the tourist bus. An adult ticket costs €18 which is on the more pricey end of the cost spectrum, but consider the time and energy that would be consumed if you walked from steep incline A to painful hill B... (Yes this is my lazy side talking). The small open top bus takes you to all the big ticket destinations including the Monte Carlo casino, Place du Palais, Musée Océanographique and the Jardin Japonais, with the added bonus of a tour guide giving you fun facts about the city and helpfully pointing your camera towards things you didn't even know were important (sort of).

The mist rolling in over the cliffs onto an otherwise sunny Monaco, the main town of Monaco and the beautiful gardens in front of the Monte Carlo casino.

St Tropez is a strange place... It is essentially a smaller, more expensive version of Nice... Boats, shopping (strictly window if you have any type of budget) and a surprisingly small amount of decent eateries in the lower end of the budget are a plenty in this town. St Tropez is definitely a place to visit when you aren't still struggling from your shopping blowout in Las Vegas and New York. If I'm honest I didn't find a lot to do in St Tropez this time around so I probably can't comment on it from a tourist perspective... But it certainly provided a lovely backdrop for my holiday hangout with the beautiful Nikki and a great location for the shooting of the girls' music video (featured below).

The streets of St Tropez filled with designer labels, keen shoppers and art aficionados... Also boats...

An extended trip to France should include a trip to the sunny southern city of Nice... And conversely, any trip to Nice should include a day trip to Monaco! St Tropez and Cannes are of course optional... But not advisable if you are on a budget.

Shanwah's lovely links:
Check out the babes I mentioned earlier (and my filming technique) in St Tropez!

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Hola! Hablas Español?!

Okay so I am going to sound like a complete idiot here... But I have to be honest with you. Growing up I had always imagined that Spain was somewhat of a third world country full of crime and poverty. Blame it on my lack of attention in geography classes, poor representation in the Australian media or my childlike ignorance... but I had always imagined a dusty desert landscape filled with a ramshackle collection of cheaply made buildings strung together by washing lines and dodgy power poles. How wrong I was...

Spain was a destination that I had wanted to visit on my first trip to Europe but, unfortunately, it was one of the first places to get the cut due to its awkward placement in our timeline and the poor train connectivity into the country. The poor Spaniards almost got cut a second time but I fought vehemently to keep tapas in the mix and rejig the schedule so that we had a grand four days in the country... This meant that we got to visit one city...And the lucky city was... (insert drum roll) BARCELONA!

If we take into account my earlier musings on my preconceived notions of Spain you can understand that when we arrived in Barcelona I was suitably impressed! The city is a thriving metropolis with a sturdy underground system and a good (if sliding) infrastructure of services. The streets are full of people and the tourists almost outnumber the locals. There is a veritable bounty of attractions (most of them architectural), shopping opportunities and eateries! To top it off the weather is usually stunning. Barcelona swiftly shot its way up my list of favorite places!

When we talk about Barcelona, I would be remise to ignore its fantastic collection of architectural gems! Spain was the home and principal work place of the famed Neo Gothic/Modernist Architect Antoni Gaudi, whose creative gems lie scattered across the lands. To experience Gaudi's work first hand we made our way through the beautiful Passeig de Grácia to the popular Casa Batlo. Feeling suitably like I was inspecting an open home, I partook in the Audio Guide (because let's face it, I know naught about architecture) and was soon rolling through the dragons innards in an upward spiral. The building is stunning and its references to nature and the natural world made it somewhat relaxing, despite being a tourist destination heaving with visitors. What impressed the most was the beautiful views once you reached the top. It might not be the highest viewing platform in Barcelona, but it was certainly the most interesting journey up.

The stunning parts that make Casa Battlo a magnificent whole. Such a fantastic work of art.

Barcelona's most celebrated skyline contribution is most certainly the unbelievable Sagrada Familia. This towering creature is probably the most intriguing house of worship I have ever visited. First things first, visit this attraction on a weekday and early in the morning. The line gets huge and if you are there in summer you will spend most of your time queuing in the sun with a swarm of gypsies and "entrepreneurs" trying to sell you crap. The cathedral itself is a sight to behold, the audio guide will explain the entire building at an intense level of depth, but it is just as rewarding to wander around aimlessly and take in the grandiosity of the structure. The walls and doors are covered in unusual puzzles and riddles full of symbolism, the towers are adorned with elaborate stonework and the stained glass windows let in some absolutely magical light. Probably one of the most extraordinary parts of the cathedral is the fantastic views from the towers. You can't go up all the towers but the ones you can scale offer extraordinary, if a little disconcerting, views of the city and some up close and personal studies of the tower detailing. Extraordinary to think that this amazing piece of history is being built right in front of our eyes!

An example of one of the unique riddles found at La Sagrada Familia, all the columns and rows add up to 33 (the age Jesus was at his death). One of the elementally themed stained glass windows lets in a shock of beautifully coloured light. The branches of the pine tree that perches high above the cathedral doors on the "Nativity Facade".

The city of Barcelona owes a great deal of its current infrastructure to the Olympics and its inevitable revitalisation of the city in 1992. As an Australian I have an innate interest in sport, even if only very mildly, and my favourite sporting event is certainly the Olympics! This inevitably ended up with me wanting to pay homage to Barcelona's bygone Olympic era. I must say that having now visited the site, a visit to the city would be a bust if you didn't spend some time admiring the Olympic arena on Mont Juic. All the tourist buses go there and you can even catch a ride on the cable car if you want some supreme views over the city! The arena and surrounds are a surreal ghost town of aging athleticism and former glory. Giant pillars lining the promenade show a pathway that would have once been teeming with excited revelers for a brief few months in 1992. Nowadays the area has become a well maintained wasteland awkwardly punctured by the odd tourist taking jumping photos by the giant water features. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the Olympic park is certainly a breathtaking place worth spending some time at. While you are up there I suggest you take a quick look at the fantastic pools used for the olympic diving events. The pools have some of the most amazing views over the city! If you cant make it to Barcelona just watch aforementioned pools draped in scantily clad dancers in Kylie Minogue's music video for "Slow".

You can see the beautiful Olympic flame cauldron in detail and sitting perilously close to spectator seats under the clock. The telecommunications tower reigns supreme on the hill whilst the giant columns line your path to victory... Well they line your path to the stadium anyway...

Shanwah's tasty tip: One thing I missed out on when I was in Barcelona was traditional food. Now I'm no stranger to Spanish cuisine, but it is always a pleasing experience to indulge in a country's traditional fare whilst you are actually in said country. My biggest tip is to search out some grub at a small family run establishment (I am not telling you something new here I know) and this is true of all counties. The difference here is that because Barcelona has a large tourist population, it has a high concentration of bad eats in easy to find locations. I suspect that once you feel comfortable with exploring local side streets in the evening hours (please be aware of where you are and how common muggings are in this country) you will be presented with a veritable smorgasbord of tasty treats at a reasonable price.

Shanwah's tipsy tip: I may not have had the chance to explore Spain's culinary offerings, but I certainly managed to find an amazing bar! The story goes like this... After a month and a bit of traveling I decided that a massage was in order (a perfect way to revive you after lugging around your belongings for a month or two). Some intense googling and an email or two later, I secured a well priced rub down at a reputable nearby establishment (I can only say wonderful things about the massages we received there). The only catch was that there was only two consecutive appointments available... So Ross took the first appointment and I took the second. I bet you are wondering "When is he getting to the bit about the booze!" Don't worry it's coming... Whilst sorting out the massages, I took the liberty of asking our masseuse Nunu if there was anywhere to fill my time while I waited. Nunu kindly suggested a small cafe and a nearby bar. Well as it was stinking and I had no interest in a hot beverage, I chose the bar. The establishment in question was actually a bar/museum/brewery just a few doors away called Moritz. The brewery was set up here in 1864 and was used for more than a century until production moved elsewhere and was eventually shut down altogether. This particular piece of the Moritz story was revitalised in 2004 and has been turned into an absolutely amazing place to explore, learn and sample some fine Spanish beer! While I was there I was served up some fantastic in house brews and spent the remainder of the time exploring their beautiful maze of beer inspired art installations and glass fronted brewing facilities. If you do drop in, I recommend a visit to the bathrooms as the trip there is worth it.

The amazingness that is the Moritz brewery!

My piece of advice for Barcelona, and Spain in general, is to ensure it doesn't get cut from your itinerary! The train connections may be a bit ragged and the reputation can be a bit worse for wear, but the destination is well worth the journey! Just be sensible about your surroundings.

Shanwah's lovely links:
For a fabulous (and well priced) massage whilst in Barcelona visit Nunu at The Vital Touch

Click for more information about Moritz... This may require translation...

Just because we love Kylie...