France & Italy March 2022

Our friends and family in Australia probably think we’re crazy to be returning to Europe at this time. For the previous two years they thought it was too risky because of Covid. This time the Russia/Ukraine situation is added to the mix. But we’ve felt just as safe in Europe as we did when we returned to Australia, as far as Covid goes and thought we’ll be able to manage our travel plans around world events. So, off we went on our merry way as vagabonds again.

We arrived in Nice after an uneventful flight, with no problems with the paperwork we had prepared. For us, that’s the most nerve-wracking aspect of flying these days: the worry that you’ve overlooked a required piece of paper or electronic pass or that rules have changed since you last looked.

Before we left Europe in November last year, we arranged to sell our camping car through our friend Patrice at Nice Caravanes. It was sold while we were away. We had already ordered a new van last August and were expecting it to be delivered in March, so we could drive off when we arrived back in Nice. However, that was before Covid wrought devastation on supply chains and before the number of people ordering vans skyrocketed.

So we found ourselves back in Europe but without a camping car, probably until the end of August 2022, even later than we first thought. We became ‘backpackers’ of sorts, planning on travelling mostly by train and some cheap flights and on staying in apartments. We had always planned to do this in our last year of European travel, so really we were just changing the order of things. We needed to drastically downsize our luggage and get used to a whole different type of travel experience. We even needed to change the apps and websites we used.

The first week of our new vagabond life was spent in Nice, a city we really do love. We enjoyed our usual pursuits of walks along the Promenade Baie des Anges and through the town. Michael was really surprised that the marina was so empty of super-yachts, compared to our previous visits. A chap at the Marina explained that a whole lot of Russian-owned yachts had left suddenly in the middle of the night two weeks earlier, to avoid being impounded. Even the local French people were surprised at how many boats were Russian-owned. Apparently there is lots of Russian money in Nice, both in yachts and in apartment ownership.

Of course, no visit to Nice is complete without a visit to Le Frog restaurant. We went twice, once on our own for a ‘back to France’ celebration and ate their delicious escargot. The second time we again went with Patrice to deliver our gifts from Australia and talk about all things camping car.

While in Nice we stayed in a very nice apartment located between the old quartier, the Promenade and the Fontaine du Soleil and Place Massena. Talk about ‘Location! Location! Location!’

We got our new French Bankcards delivered, thanks to Steve and Mo in Jarnac and Laurent at Le Frog. It then took about three days and four trips to the FREE mobile phone shop to update our credit card details and activate our phone accounts. Welcome back to France! We also updated our EU Covid Vaccination certificate – called a Health Pass in France and a Supergreen in Italy – that is so necessary for visiting restaurants, museums and even on public transport.

We caught the train from Nice to Milan, taking about 5 hours and costing 40 euros each. It travelled along the edge of the Mediterranean past Genoa and then turned inland through rich farmland, largely of grain. We didn’t see any animals.

The Milano Centrale Station was a bit of a shock – so big and busy! We were swept along in the crowd and suddenly found ourselves next to a taxi and heading to our AirBnB, before we’d done so much as get a map of the city!

Milan is the second largest city in Italy, known of course for its design, fashion and manufacturing and for therefore being relatively wealthy. Spring had sprung and there were flower stalls on every corner. One day was an unseasonable 23 degrees.

Our AirBnB was in a non-tourist area 5 Metro stops from the Duomo. We were initially a bit dismayed as the whole area was covered in graffiti and we thought we might be in the dodgy part of town. But it turns out that our place was just an area of local workers and we enjoyed eating in a restaurant where we were the only non-Italians and the grandchildren were trotted out to translate the menu for us! 

 

Milan certainly has gorgeous architecture. In the central area there are beautiful buildings wherever you look, not just the famous ones and the churches, theatres and academies but just normal buildings such as banks are adorned with marble carvings and statuary.

Our first forays into the center were on a Saturday and we were overwhelmed by the crowds - and we're here in the off season!. We couldn’t get a decent view of the Duomo square because of the crowds. We looked at the important things – the Cathederal, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele 11- then we started walking in the direction of our BnB. We stopped at a lovely trattoria for a primi piatti of pasta on the way that was very delicious. But it was a good hour’s walk and we decided the Metro was the go after all.

On Sunday we took the Metro to the Navigli area of Milan, home of the last of Milan’s system of canals. Apparently once upon a time there were lots of canals in Milan and Da Vinci even designed a series of locks that made some of them navigable canals – what didn’t he do in his 20 years in Milan? Many of the canals were paved-over in the 20th century. Now the area is full of trendy bars, restaurants and shops. Once a month they have an antiques market that was meant to be pretty special so we went to have a look.

It was huge, lining both sides of the many canals and having everything from buttons to furniture to artwork.

Once we finished browsing the stalls we caught a tram part of the way back to town and explored a more affluent area of town before strolling around the ‘Golden Quad’. This is the square of cobbled streets that house all the famous fashion brands. Wealth unlimited! The window-shopping is exquisite. Michael was talking to an Italian gentleman who said that Italy is worried that their big fashion brands will be badly affected by the Russian economic sanctions, because Russian money contributes hugely to their bottom line.

It was time to get serious about being a tourist in Milan! We booked a timed visit to the Duomo, including a rooftop walk for Sue. On Monday we were up bright and early and caught the metro into the Duomo-and there was hardly anyone there! Just early or just Monday? Whatever, we took full advantage of being one of the few inside the cathedral. The outside is impressive enough, with all its carved marble and soaring spires with statues on top. (There are more than 3000 statues in the cathedral) The inside is amazing as well, with very tall stained glass windows and a mosaic floor of 12,000sq metres. It has 5 huge naves surrounded by countless little ‘chapels’. Like the outside, every inch of marble is carved in some manner.

Sue thought she’d be OK to go on the rooftop walk and paid for the lift ticket rather than taking the 271 stairs up. Michael didn't even consider it! It was a wonderful experience to be up close and personal with the fabulous marble carving that adorned the cathedral, even in the sky. But, holy shit, it was scary! At one point, when you were meant to walk across a sloping roof in the sky, Sue thought she was going to have to get down on her hands and knees and crawl, but did make it to the stairs going down. Still, it was worth it to see the magnificent views and get such a look at all the flying buttresses, and the statues on top of the spires.

One of the things we have liked so far in Italy is ‘Seniors’ Discount’. Many of the train tickets, museum and gallery prices are halved if you’re over 65. There’s got to be some consolation for getting old!

Sue did a visit to the La Scala Opera House. Unfortunately, although Mozart’s Don Giovanni was being performed that night, all the available tickets were way too expensive for non-opera buffs. But it was still fascinating to see inside the theatre and its museum. It just has one flat level of floor seating and then everything else is tiers of boxes along the three sides. The boxes were incredibly narrow and quite deep, so visibility of the stage would be limited for some. Then across a very utilitarian passage there was another red velvet box for your coats. 

We walked down some delightful boulevards of beautiful buildings and big trees just coming into bud to the Castello Sforzesco. This was an impressive defensive fortress that housed the military and had several red-brick towers as well as two moats. The defences were originally designed by Da Vinci and later modified by Napoleon. You walked through its two rectangular coutyards and came to the delightful Parco Sempione. It is huge, with winding pathways, ornamental ponds and ancient trees.

On Wednesday we were lucky to get a booking to see the original of Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper”. Usually you need to book weeks, if not months in advance. We booked a tour and a workshop visit that lasted 90 minutes. The groups visiting the painting/fresco are limited to 35 people every 15 minutes, due to the extreme fragility of the work. Da Vinci chose to try a new ‘dry’ medium that gave him more time to paint, rather than the wet and fast painting of normal frescoes. Unfortunately it wasn’t a successful experiment and as little as 20 years later, in Da Vinci’s own lifetime, the painting was already showing signs of extreme damage. Many years and many restorations later we got to see the closest iteration to Leonardo’s actual work.

It was a very interesting painting, so luminous and with so many layers of symbolism and hidden meaning.

During WW2 the church holding The Last Supper (the Basillica di Santa Maria della Grazie) was extensively bombed. God bless those who had the forethought to put up metal scaffolding and sandbag the entire walls at both ends of the refectory, so that these priceless paintings were saved. No-one knows why it was bombed because only the outskirts of Milan were touched, where all the big factories were.

After our guided tour and 15 minutes in front of the magnificent fresco wall, Sue went to the ‘workshop’ part of the tour. She was expecting this to be about the restoration work, but it was actually about the sketches da Vinci made and how they relate to the finished work. There were lots of his sketches to look at and then we experimented with using the same red charcoal as he did and trying to capture the light and shade in the same way he did.

Sue completed one copy of his sketch of the face of Jesus – although hers looks more like Mary – and she did have a ‘cheat sheet’ to copy. Still, it was a fun way to understand that Leonardo took 4 years to complete The Last Supper, as opposed to the traditional fresco on the opposite wall that was completed in less than a year.

After a week in Milan we were a bit weary of crowds and starting to wonder about our plan to spend the next six months in big cities. We decided to ‘chill’ a little and visit the Lakes region again. In September 2019 we had visited Lake Como and Lake Garda, so this time we went to Lake Maggiore. We chose the delightful village of Stresa, an hour’s train trip from Milan, for just 8 euro each.

What a gorgeous little village! It was made up of small, winding, cobbled streets opening on to four piazzas.  Our AirBnB was perfect – quiet, comfortable and full of kindly little ‘extras’. We settled in for a relaxing week exploring the lake and its islands.

Our next stop will be in Verona to go to VinItaly, one of the largest wine shows in the world. We're meeting Thomas Hardy. Michael will be like a  kid in a lolly-shop!

Watch out for our April vagablog for photos and stories of our adventures.