1 Comment

  1. rabia garib January 3, 2008 @ 11:58 am

    Hey! Keep reading the posts and things STILL sound fascinating to the extent that I still cannot believe you are actually making the trip happen!

    iLabs, eh? I don’t see how you could tear yourself away from it!!

    Stay safe, Athar! Godspeed!

Day 3 – Greetings from Milan – the City of Leonardo Da Vinci

Travels Comments (1)

Milan (Italy), December 28, 2007 – 1900 GMT – on Board a EuroStar from Milano to Venice (Venize)

I am currently sitting in a Eurostar train – one of those trains that run all through Europe and provide fairly fast – although not the fastest service – between cities. I’ve just left Milan which was the third stop on my European journey and I wanted to write about it. The train journey from Lausanne to Milano was quite uneventful. The train was really pathetic and reminded me of our own trains in Pakistan. Because I was travelling at night, there was hardly any scenery to enjoy either. Even the train stations appeared quite dilapidated and deserted at night–much like Lala Musa, Cheechoon ki Malyaan, and Mian Channoo do if one passes through these on a journey through Pakistan. Perhaps the effect of the train itself was taking its toll on my aesthetics. For most of the travel, I shared the 6-seat compartment with a young woman from Switzerland who was going to Milano to see a friend. There was nothing even remotely remarkable about the woman and she didn’t speak much English to enable me to strike a conversation either…

I arrived in Milan quite late at night – around 11pm and anticipating that I had booked a room at a hotel right across the street from the Station.

The pattern has now been somewhat established. Given the size of my backpack, it is almost impossible for me to carry it along with me all day. I try to get a hotel near the train station or airport to save that hassle. It also saves me the taxi fares either way. I go to my hotel room, crash into the bed, sleep through the night, check out early morning, leave my backpack in the luggage hold, spend all day sightseeing, and pick it up just before I leave for the next city. By the time I arrive at a hotel, I am so tired that the hotel  hardly matters as long as it is safe and has an internet connection …and cheap, of course. As you can already see, I’ve stopped complaining about the hotel part by the third city! I figured I could probably do this once–while my wife and child are away–and so I am trying to make the best of it. Not only am I sleeping like a horse at night, I am also walking like a horse during the whole day.

Not to complain about this but Hotel Duca was supposedly a three-star hotel just outside the Milano Centrale. The website described it as a hotel with that “something special” to offer. The description of that “something special” that seemed to appeal to me at the time was that it was located on the sixth floor of a old building that provided a great view of the city. The three stars didn’t really ring an alarm bell in my mind. Avari Towers, after all, is a three-star hotel as well. This three star was different, though. The outside appearance of the building that promised to offer that something special was enough to make you change your mind. I had paid up for the night and was left with little choice. Dark and gloomy and suspicious would be the words that would be describe the place. The room was too small for my comfort. I spent the whole night dreaming of the rooms in stories such as Arthur Canon Doyles’ speckled band or the that scary tale in which the roof over the bed begins to come down at night and the protagonist barely escapes being crushed under its weight. Nothing of that sort happend, though, and I was probably so tired that I ended up sleeping until 8am.

After breakfast, I went to Milano Centralo to pick up a city guide and ask the tourist information office about places to visit. Another pattern has been established by now. I look for the three most important places-monuments to visit within each city. I figured thats probably the most time would allow me. If I am lucky, I get to see a fourth and sometimes a fifth but three is the magic number. In between, however, I do keep my eyes and ears open for some unexpected delights. The tourist guide gave me the directions to the Duomo – Milan’s cathedral and the World’s third largest. As I walked into the subway station (Metropolitano) I began noticing a few things.

After the very organized Switzerland, one could begin to see beggers in Milan. There were also people selling woolen caps and scarfs on the station floor–just like they would do so anywhere else, including Pakistan. One can also see con artists in Milano. As I was trying to figure out the way to pick and pay for my ticket to the subway, a young lady approached me. She seemed ethnic – not pure italian and offered to help. Of course, she was hoping that I would pay for her services. “You have ten euros? The machine can only take upto 10 euros” she said. I searched through my wallet but only found a ten pound note. As I was searching through my pockets and then wallet, she is almost bent over it and looking through all the stuff I have in it.

Suddenly, my mental alarm began to ring. We’ve all heard about Italian gangsters and strongmen, but to be robbed by an innocent looking harmless girl? I hadn’t thought about that eventuality. “Here is one”, she almost put her hand inside my wallet to touch the 10-pound note. “No, it isn’t”, I pulled my wallet back, expecting her to snatch and run any moment and thinking of how I’ll deal with it. It didn’t happen, though. After meddling with my wallet for a few moments, she gave up on the idea of trying to get the ten euro note that wasn’t there and snatched the twenty euro note that I had, got me some change and the ticket, and took her two euro tip and moved on to the next person.

The trains were OK. Not as good as London’s, probably more close to Paris. I got off at Duomo and climed the stairs of the station. The first sight that you encounter when you step out of the station is really breathtaking. Duomo is probably one of the most magnificant structures I’ve seen so far (I will probably say that about every other building!) Duomo is the one the largest churches of Gothic architectural design in the whole world. What is really interesting about this church, if you read the historical facts displayed on the posters outside is that it was built over a period of several centuries. Its construction started in the 14th century AD and did not fully finish until the 19th century AD. During those 500 years, several rulers tried to influence the design of the church. Today it represents a mix of Gothic, Baroque, Milanese, Renaissance, and Neoclassical architectural types thus giving this building a unique appearance.

The inside of Duomo presents an altogether different picture. The church was dark and I nodded in agreement with Bill Bryson that it was initially hard to even spot where the roof began. This was a far cry from the more colourful Sr. Pierre Cathedral in Geneva – colorful and very well maintained. Despite the overall dark and gloomy atmosphere, the church is full of history. I took an audio tour and learnt quite a lot of esoteric facts about this piece of equipment, that statue, this picture, or that window, details that I forgot with equal convenience as soon as I got out. Walking out of the Duomo, I turned right and entered the Galleria Vittirio Emanuele.

Milan is Italy’s capital of everything about fashion and commerce. Names like Campari, Benetton, and Armani all have their origins in Milano. Milan and the surrounding area of Northern Italy is also the country’s and perhaps Europe’s richest areas. Galleria is represents that commerce and fashion much more than anything else. This is a wide shopping arcade, 4 storeys high, built in the grandoise style of the 1860s, and lined on both sides by shops representing the highest symbols of fashion and culture. Bill Bryson descirbes this as “still probably the most handsome shopping mall in the whole world…Every shopping center should be like this…”

The Galleria was a woman’s dream come true as long as she had somebody to pay for her desires. It was also the man’s worst nightmare. Secretly, though guiltily, I felt relieved that I wasn’t here with my wife. We could have easily ended up spending a whole euro-trip’s worth of cash at any of these stores. Women have their strange way of making you realize that you haven’t bought them this year’s piece of jewelery so far and their year starts quite ordinarily mostly from the moment you had bought them their last. My wife loves diamonds – the rich tastes of a poor man’s wife.

There seemed to be a shop for everything at the Galleria and the best ones at that. All the brands in the world were represented. Gucci, Louis Vitton, Prada. You name it. There were specialized shops that only sold one type of items. There was Rizzoli for books, RICO for leather, Mejama for Calligraphy instruments, Luisa Spagnoli for women’s high fashion and accessories, Centermis for art, Piecemelly for Gloves (!), and Church for shoes. Ties seemed to cost 18 euros per piece in almost every shop which I found unexpectedly affordable. Is that a Milanese equivalent of $9.95? I asked myself. I did an eyefull of windowshopping and then decided to do the safe thing. I entered a bookshop – something that I won’t be able to do so freely with my wife around me.

All the sections were marked in Italian. Narrativa, Classici, Moderno, Adventuri…I looked around for a section on English books. Then I thought I found it. Aha! – Best Sellers. This should be it, I thought. Not so. Even best sellers  had every book in Italian. I am once again amazed at the amount of translation activity carried out in these countries. Earlier this year, I couldn’t find a single book in English in Paris’ Charles De Gaulle airport. That, being naive, I thought was because french was such a widely spoken language. But it certainly is not. Every conceivable book that is ever written in English is almost instantaneously translated into each of these European languages. I could find the Italian version of every possible new book that I could think of – even the one written by the two Chicago academics about the hold of Israeli lobby on US foreign policy. The only emotion that I have for the translation operations of these countries is admiration, awe, and envy. Learning, learning from everything and everywhere is the only way countries – nations – can legitimately rule over the world and keep pace in today’s fast moving world…

Galleria was a different world altogether – a glitzy world where you wanted to be left atleast for a little while. I was rudely shaken out of it by the sight of a MacDonalds. This is probably the only brand the whole world for which even the Italians don’t have an answer. Or perhaps they would rather let the Americans profit from the high art of flipping burgers as they concentrate on other less worthy activities.

Coming out of the Galleria, I started looking for directions to Castello Sforzesco – the Grand Castle in the middle of Milan that built in the 15th century the Visconti family. The access to the Castle is from another walk through a fashion street called Via Dante that is today lined with nice posters on various themes related to environment and energy use. The original Castle has undergone several shifts in its fortunes having been destroyed several times by invaders and occupiers and most recently during the second world war when it was used as the headquarters of the Austrian troops and several of its room, as a stable for horses. Today, this Castle is dedicated to Francesco Sforza who made the latest major buildings as as a Renaissance Palace. The structure huge – bigger than some of Palaces I’ve seen in London but it is in quite a state of disrepair and not as well maintained as London’s. Besides, you could see the effect of the invaders’ misuse despite the considerable restoration work that has recently gone into it.

The Castello is also home to a huge antique arts exhibition – the Civiche  Roccolte d’Arte Antica – that contains coins, arts, furniture, and paintings from times immemorial till the present day. There wasn’t an audio guide available at this exhibition and so I quickly glanced through the various artifacts and tried to make sense of the italian descriptions. The collection of furniture items was particularly impressive as you could see how our furniture has evolved over time. My time was quickly running out and I still wanted to goto the last stop on my list – Museo Nazionale della scienza e della Technologia Leonardo da Vinci or The Leonardi da Vinci National Museum of Science and Technology in Milan whose description sounded particularly exciting.

Finding the Science and Technology Museum turned out to be slightly more difficult than I had anticipated. I boarded the Milan Metro and utlimately overshot by one station. As I walked out of the Metro station, I got a glimpse of where real Melanese lived. This was a residential neighborhood – very much like any other place in Pakistan like Gulshan-e-Iqbal for example with a “Juma Bazaar” across the street and lines of fairly run down apartments all over the place. Making note of that, I stepped back into the Metro and arrived at the right stop to find the Museum.

The Museum of Science and Technology was one of the best that I’ve seen. The Museum is divided into several sections and the exhibits are displayed through several buildings. Over all, there are more than 10,000 objects including original artifacts and models in the Museum. Most displays are organized by a timeline so one could see the evolution of science and technology over time. In the electronics and music technology, for example, one could the entire evolution process of musical technology – players and recording materials – that have evolved over time and culminated today into the DVD today. There were sections on pure sciences, on railway, materials, aviation, marine, robotics, genetic – you name it. Everything from real world aircrafts and submarines to actual prototypes of coal mining technology, goldsmith’s and watchmakers workshops were on display.

The Museum also had iLabs in each section that allows children to engage with scientific objects and carry out experiments under the supervision of trained demonstrators. That was designed to encourage creativity among the younger lot. There were dedicated times for students and classes to be held in these iLabs. This was all very fascinating. I could only feel envious of the Milanese kids who would have such a resource available to them. There is not even a single Museum of this sort in the entire of Pakistan – although some of our railway engines and boggies would qualify to be placed in these Museums. There is something to be said about nations that place such an emphasis on the creative and the scientific pursuits. Of course, it helps if Leonardo da Vinci — to whom this Museum and an iLab within it are dedicated — is one of the most prominent citizens of your city and individuals and children are inspired by the spirit that he signifies.

As I started my journey back to the train station, I started thinking about the state of science and technology in our country. Not only is science and technology not a profession that the country and its people put a premium upon but also we don’t make heros out of scientists and engineers. There is no glamour around science and technology in Pakistan in the 21st century and Leonardo was such an icon during the times that he lived. We would hardly know – and I can challenge all of us on this the names of 5 best scientists — any scientists of some repute whatsoever– in Pakistan. With that thought, I picked up my backpack from Hotel Duca and walked across to Milano Centrale to take my train to Venice. My 24 fruitful hours in Milan had come to an end. Life had to move on…

[I will add photos to this boast in a few days. For now pictures are available at: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=6733754861&ref=mf]

admin @ January 2, 2008

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