The Duomo di Milano

The Italian word duomo means cathedral, but when you hear the word, your thoughts would automatically go to the Duomo di Milano and with good reason: it is the fifth largest church in the world and second largest cathedral, and perhaps the best known cathedral (or duomo). It also took almost 500 years to complete, with contruction started back in the late 14th century. We actually have to thank Napoleon Bonaparte for speeding up the completion of its facade, since he wanted the cathedral completed before his coronation as king of Italy – to this end, he proclaimed that all expenses will be shouldered by the treasury of France. Needless to say, with the guarantee of reimbursement, construction was completed in less than a decade.

The duomo stands out from other churches I’ve been to because of the Candoglia marble facade. Plus, it has many turrets and spires instead of towers, and many marble statues adorning its walls, entrances, and many corners. However, you can tell that construction was never really finished as there are still blank blocks waiting to be carved into gargoyles or statues.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is a very beautiful building whether you visit it early morning with little light coming from the sun just rising from the horizon, or midday with the full light of the sun almost making the church too bright for the naked eye, or evening with the soft light from the nearby lampposts rendering it almost ethereal against a backdrop of dark skies.

It’s quite romantic, minus the crowd that never seems to dissipate.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI used to think that those movies showing tourists feeding flocks of pigeon at the piazza were exaggerations until I got to experience it myself. There are many sellers who will try to sell bread for you to feed the pigeons with but my friends and I brought our own and this made them a bit upset and some of them got quite rude. It’s a good thing there were five of us so we just huddled together and walked away whenever the sellers would try to approach us.
IMG_4073The side of the duomo reminds me of the Notre Dame in Paris, maybe because of the similar window panels.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMassive as it is on the outside, it feels even bigger inside given the floor to ceiling height. And the thick marble pillars all contribute to the Gothic theme of the cathedral.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABuilt in the early 20th century, the organ of the duomo is the largest in Italy, and one of the 15 largest in the whole world. It is made of several organs scattered inside the duomo.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARecognized as the most famous statue in the cathedral, this artwork of Marco d’agrate (circa 16th century) shows St. Bartholomew with his flayed skin over his shoulders. As per tradition, St. Bartholomew was martyred in Albania, skinned alive and then crucified. I can’t imagine how much suffering he must have endured to have the skin stripped off his body and then crucified. The status itself is quite disturbing enough without you knowing the history behind it.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are various sarcophagi inside the duomo, especially of former archbishops. While I am fine loking at sarcophagi and marvelling at their usually intricate designs, I can’t help but be creeped out by glass coffins.
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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are well-maintained crypts under the duomo and oftentimes, private masses are being held there.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn one of its crypts, underneath the main altar itself, is the sarcophagus of Saint Charles Borromeo, a member of the Medici family, one of the most powerful families during the Renaissance. Though born an aristocract, he was actively involved in the reformation of the church, helping establish seminaries during his time.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe duomo was undergoing restoration works during our visit – all that marble probably needs a good cleaning what with hundreds of years worth of pollution. Austerity measures implemented by the government included budget cuts to the city’s cultural funds, and this probably forced the duomo’s administration to get creative: they launched this adopt a gargoyle initiative where patrons can “adopt” one of the gargoyles and have their names carved underneath, in exchange for donations. This donation will then be used for the maintenance of the gargoyles they’ve adopted. In fairness, the duomo is one of the best kept churches I’ve been to in Europe (a lot are really old and felt abandoned). I am quite saddened though that beautiful old churches such as the duomo, which are great treasures not just of Catholics but of the entire human population, now have to fend for themselves and beg for alms just to survive.

I didn’t get the chance to go up the duomo and see the Madonna statue up close and get a 360-degree view of Milan, but hey – that just means I should include it in my next trip, right?

Brera

On our second day, we visited the picturesque neighborhood of Brera, considered by some to be the Milanese equivalent of the Montmarte. In short, it’s the artsy side of Milan.

A lot of websites say it’s walking distance from the Duomo but judging from our map, it looked quite far (or at least more than thirty minutes) so we decided to take the metro and save our energy for actuall sight-seeing and museum hopping.

There are a lot of old buildings and even a castle (the Sforzesco Castle which I will blog about separately) in the Brera district, which got its name from the Lombardian word brayda, or land without trees (either naturally or cleared of it) but it took us quite awhile to find the actual Brera street which is supposedly the heart of this district. Fortunately, a kind old lady helped us and after a few minutes, we found ourselves on a pretty stretch of narrow cobblestone roads and pastel colored houses. It reminded me of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, for some reason.

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So picturesque, isn’t it? Too bad I don’t have a photo here (my face was starting to swell a bit by this time and I avoided close up and solo photos).

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There are many shops and restaurants in and around Brera Street. We found a couple of nice shoe stores selling the cutest ballet flats so we decided to do some retail therapy.

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And that purple seat? I want!

We were quite famished roaming around; fortunately, the entire district has rows and rows of decent looking restaurants . The entire stretch seems popular with locals as  well since we found groups of them, some obviously out on their lunch break, crowding around the nicest restos in the area.

Since we were in Italy, we decided to eat authentic Italian pasta and pizza. Cliche, I know, but that’s what makes it fun, right? Surprisingly, there wasn’t a big tourist crowd in Brera, and we quickly found an almost empty place off the main Street – the Ristorante Il Kaimano Brera.

The staff at the restaurant were also quite funny and friendly, and they spoke English well enough for us to order the exact food we wanted! The place was really small, and they didn’t have an al fresco table good for five; to our surprise, one of the waiters brought out a chair with the two back legs sawed in half – so that it could fit comfortably on the steps! Quite ingenious! OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Okay, I wonder why I look so happy in this shot? Perhaps this was after we realized that the can of tomato sauce was being given to us for free (after we gave a generous tip at the prodding of the waiter – I honestly would have been offended if he weren’t so funny).

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Anyway, I was already fighting a really bad case of allergies so I had to make do with just salivating over the pasta with lobster, mussels and clam.  But I did enjoy the pizza, ossobuco, and fried zucchini flowers (which we developed a liking for, since having some for dinner the night before).

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We would have ordered water since it was a hot day but it was so expensive! So yes, we ended up having wine again…

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…and then we drank our bottled water as soon as we stepped out of the restaurant – travel tip #1: always have bottled water with you; water is very expensive in restaurants/cafes/fast food chains in Europe).

Sapori Solari

If there is one place you simply must visit in Milan, this would be it. Heck, I would go to Milan just to eat here.

But we almost never made it to this place.

The first problem we had was logistics: the deli (it is, strictly, NOT a restaurant, nor even a cafe – think Santi’s except that they let you eat your cured meats and cheese right there at the store) was very small so reservations are a must. But, the owner/proprietor/all around staff Giuseppe, doesn’t speak English – so we had to ask our landlady to make the reservations; except that our landlady also couldn’t speak English. Yeah, imagine the sign language we had to employ for her to understand us and communicate it to Giuseppe. I never thought that knowing the Italian words for dinner/reservations and the hour of day and number of people can be very useful. My friends were actually very proud of me. Hahaha!

Finding this place was even trickier that we almost gave up were it not for the fact that it was highly recommended and we were so hungry and there were barely any other restaurants along the way. The deli was located in a not so touristy part of Milan, and while riding the tram was confusing, the taxi fare was discouraging. We walked 30 minutes from the train stop before we finally caught sight of its signage (and the anxious Giuseppe almost thought we’d ditched him).

Pardon the blurry image - I was so hungry (it was past 8PM), and tired (we walked more than three kilometers in 30 minutes), and a bit scared that we'd gotten lost in Milan.

Pardon the blurry image – I was so hungry (it was past 8PM), and tired (we walked more than three kilometers in 30 minutes), and a bit scared that we’d gotten lost in Milan.

Giuseppe was the only one manning the deli so we had a bit of time to just take photos and enjoy the rustic appeal of Sapori Solari. It’s exactly how I would have imagined my neighborhood hangout: small and intimate. Not intimidating at all. The best part? Everyone seemed to know each other. That, or they were just plain nice. We even met a very lovely couple – the girl looked like Teresa Loyzaga and the guy looked like Andrew Garfield, except that he’s hotter than the actor. They were so gorgeous and so kind to act as our interpreter that night that we wanted to have our photos taken with them!

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My travel buddies.

We drank some red wine while waiting for the surprise feast Giuseppe was whipping up for us in the kitchen. Now, I am no expert in wine but I do know when I like it or not, and this one? Definitely like.

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The Milan Crew!

Sorry, no close up photos of moi, because by this time, my face had swollen as if bees had stung me and my eyes were almost shut tight – my allergies were acting up because of all the wine and the weather, plus, I haven’t been sleeping very well during the trip so that contributed to my skin problems.

There were only about five tables in the 30 or so square meter place and while it was empty when we got there, pretty soon, it was full of people – Giuseppe had to prepare a makeshift table to accommodate another group!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven though he couldn’t speak English, Giuseppe had animal figurines on hand to show us where the meat was coming from, and a booklet (below) to show us what parts we were eating that night. There’s no menu, by the way; he whips up the menu on the spot, based on the meat and cheese available that day. If you’re a picky eater, then this place isn’t for you. But, if you are okay with meat and cheese – this place is perfect. Everything was superb!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe were first given different kinds of bread, which tasted so fresh (and we were so hungry) we finished the entire basket in a few minutes.

Different kinds of bread. From what I understand, everything in Sapori Solari is made by Giuseppe.

Different kinds of bread. From what I understand, everything in Sapori Solari is made by Giuseppe.

After a few minutes, Giuseppe served our first tray of thinly sliced prime beef with chunks of ricotta cheese drizzled with olive oil. The beef was perfectly smoked and tasted oh so delicious – not too salty and not pungent at all which is what I hate sometimes when eating cured meat. I am salivating just writing that down and recalling the taste from memory.

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This plate tasted almost too good to be true. It was so good we finished it off before Giuseppe even managed to prepare the 2nd plate.

Our second plate (it’s kind of incorrect to actually say plate, because it was more of a tray – think of a family sized pizza pan), was all about pork. The outer rink in the picture below came from a regular pig (you know, the cute pink ones, like Babe?) while the inner rink came from a local pig (I forgot the exact type which I’m pretty sure I studied back in grade school, but it was a black type of pig). This one was like eating fresh ham and salami, except that it’s fresher, saltier and yet sweeter at the same time. The meat also had a little slimy texture to it that made it feel slippery on my tongue.

By this time, we realized that the bread and cheese (which came with the first plate) Giuseppe served us earlier was meant to be eaten with the meat. Too bad, we already ate them! Probably why Giuseppe almost raised his arms in alarm when he saw us stuffing our mouths with all that bread and cheese. Hahaha!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next plate had this fatty part of the pig which reminded me of glazed Christmas ham, except it was a hundred times better. The dark red meat with white fatty edges was goose breast. Everything was bathed in honey and olive oil and I just died and went to gastronomic heaven.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA As I mentioned, there’s no fixed menu. Giuseppe will keep serving plate after plate after plate as long as you want. I’ve read of some tourists lasting up to the fifth plate but my friends and I were too full by the 3rd plate we actually had to beg Giuseppe to stop. Hahaha!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter that, he served us biscuits with nuts (reminded me of Starbuck’s biscotti) and some very sweet, nectarine juice. The biscuits were a bit on the hard side and took some getting used to but it had an aftertaste that I kept chasing after – like when you eat something good but the flavor is too fleeting that you want to just eat more so you can figure out what that flavor is? I had several moments of those.

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The Milan Crew with our host, Giuseppe.

What I loved most about Sapori Solari was that it not only served good food but Giuseppe was just about the most unassuming and most accommodating host. It actually felt like visiting your grandparents’ house and being treated to all those family recipe specialties.

If only it wasn’t so late and we didn’t have a long day the next day, we would have stayed and ordered another round. I would gladly have gone back but this was our last meal together in Milan (I went to Switzerland the next day while my friends went to Verona to pay their respects to Romeo and Juliet).

I would give this place five stars out of four. And I will definitely include a stopover in Milan in my next trip just to eat it. Yes, I loved it that much!