Europe 2023 - Part 3
Updated: May 23
Milan – May 20
Milano to Zurich – May 21
Zurich – May 22
Zurich – May 23
Milan – May 20
With our multiple experiences with Venice is behind us we now transition toward Switzerland but not without a short visit to Milan. We had planned for the highlight of this stop to be sort of celestial: to attend an opera at La Scala. Sadly, nothing is on the boards today. We are doing the next best thing, however, a guided tour of the theater. There is a museum which attempts to carve the glory into stone, so to speak.
But first things first. Our hotel is nice but again, the towel rack is stone cold. The bathroom has no heat. The energy problem is causing civilization to take it in the ribs, I think. The wizards really need to get the nuclear fusion thing on board. Breakfast is sumptuous but nothing quite like we’ve seen. We are now spoiled beyond redemption, I’m afraid.
We only have this full day in Milan. Our movements will be limited by our energy and we only have enough to hit the city center. We grab a taxi instead of making the 30 minute walk. As the cabby attempts to get past the hotel’s security gates they misfire, temporarily trapping us. I learn a 4 letter word but in Italian it has 5 letters. The cursing seems to work and we are loose. A few blocks down the road two other cars converge together with our cab toward the same spot in an intersection. Squealing tires and horns result. We narrowly escape a fenderbender and our adrenaline glands get a free squeeze.
At the Piazza della Scala there are umbrellas everywhere. It will rain all day. Sunny Italy! Our hot weather clothing remains in the suitcase.
We find ourselves at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. This is the famous covered shopping district of Milan, one of shrines of high fashion in Europe. If you are in the fashion business and you don’t have a shop here you don’t exist. Some of them have stern looking guys in suits standing at the door who may be there to scare away the riff-raff and also to check your credit score.
Nearby is the Leonardo Museum. Here they have constructed actual models of many of Leonardo’s most interesting ideas that he left in his sketch book, which they possess. Fascinating stuff. Photos are prohibited, the sign says, but it isn’t enforced. Half the people are snapping away, selfies and all.
The big Duomo, the cathedral is there on one side of the Galleria but we decline to examine the interior. Our appointment with the La Scala guide is coming up too soon. We simply have no time.
La Scala’s website is well done but I had to ask Google to translate it. There's even a map designed to display the names of people who owned the box seats since the place re-opened for business in the 18th century, and not just names but their social status such as nobility, businessman, or civic leader.
This opera house was one of the first of its kind. I'll guess it was widely copied in various European cities. I know for a fact that the opera house in Leipzig looks very similar to Teatro alla Scala here in Milan. The theater is a replacement for one that was destroyed in a fire in 1776. The re-build was financed by the sale of box seats which the owners lavishly decorated. At the time there were no seats on the ground floor, referred to as the pit. Patrons had to view the performance standing up. There were also a variety of activities going on at the theater that had nothing to do with opera, including but not limited to gambling. Here are Mary Shelley's comments following a visit in 1840:
"At the Opera they were giving Otto Nicolai's Templario. Unfortunately, as it is well known, the theatre of La Scala serves, not only as the universal drawing-room for all the society of Milan but every sort of trading transaction, from horse-dealing to stock-jobbing, is carried on in the pit; so that brief and far between are the snatches of melody one can catch."
It was Arturo Toscanini who wrestled the issue of trashy behavior to the ground in the 1920’s. He insisted that patrons dress elegantly, be silent during performances except when it was appropriate to applaud, and no gambling or other monkey-business whatsoever. He would open the theater for a show and then chase everyone out when they misbehaved. A few days later he would try again and again close the theater in mid-performance. This went on for several weeks until the patrons finally accepted his terms.
Our guide shares with us some of the most lurid legends. Verdi gathered two lovers, one to whom he owed his career break and another he picked up later. At one point he arranged for everyone to live together in a manage-a-trois which caused enough friction for him to write “La Traviata” to make peace with one of them. Another story has Napoleon attending a performance and stealing away the prima donna as his lover. This was also awkward as he already had a wife. They were both named Josephine. This got even better when he had portraits of each of them commissioned. The wrong portrait was delivered to each Josephine and then the fun got fizzy.
The theater was renovated in 1907 (ground level seats installed) and 2004. It was damaged by bombing in World War II and required substantial repairs. It has one of the largest prosceniums in Europe nearly 70 feet wide and 53 feet deep. In 2004 they completed an enormous backstage complex where several full productions can be produced individually. This allows the theater to mount over 300 shows per year. I wish I could have had a tech guy run me through a tour back there. There are 900 people working for the theater in shifts, 24/7/365. Show business isn’t business here, it’s religion.
Our evening meal is at Il Tavolino, a ristorante about a block from the hotel. No reservations. It just looked like it might be a good joint and could seat us. Turns out that it was quite nice. Our waiter is Jack, a handsome lad with a dark complexion and a big smile. CK has a salad and lasagna. I go for a pasta with squid and prawns. Very well made. Dessert is tiramisu and this version turns out to be our favorite so far in Italy and we’ve sampled probably a dozen of them.
Tomorrow morning will count down our last hours in Italy. We catch a train north before noon.
I think I know how mosquitoes get into our room on the 12th floor: they take the elevator!
Milano to Zurich – May 21
The UNA Hotel breakfast room is filled with chattering college kids from Utah at 7:30 am. There must be a hundred of them. I scarcely find a place to sit with my coffee. They are on a schedule, fortunately. A 40-something cruises the tables telling them to move out in 2 minutes. Thanks for that. The room empties and peace replaces them. Our train leaves from Milano Centrale at 11:10. This station is a monumental pile of stone and concrete intended to impress and oppress. Completed in 1931 under Mussolini's fascist regime, it has that look of a Roman dictatorial empire seeking to convince everyone that resistance is futile. Nowadays it is the busiest train station in Europe. Luckily our train is on time. Arrivaderci, Milano.
Milan is very close to the Swiss border. We're out of Italy in a jiffy. The weather turns pleasant as we roll north. We are treated to gorgeous Swiss scenery, rocky peaks and sparkling lakes. The Alps! In Zurich we check into the Wellenberg Hotel. There is a jolt of culture shock as we shift from Italian to Swiss German. Danke shone, bitte shone, guten Tag, alles gut, I'm sorry we don't speak German. The young lass at the desk speaks perfect English and checks us into one of their freshly remodeled suites. Very posh with two BRs! There's a coffee & tea service! Haven't seen that in a room for 18 days. There's one item I don't grok. The toilet seat is heated and I don't need that. I'm hot enough already! No, seriously, I don't need an annoying butt warmer. I find the controller (I think) but my manipulations have no effect. A call to the desk isn't productive, either; they don't know how it works. They promise to refer the issue to housekeeping tomorrow morning. Stay tuned.
A short walk in the old town, restaurant & bar district takes us to the river. Soon we stumble into an arcade favored by buskers. A concert quality violinist is playing a Bach Cantata accompanied by an accordion. They are outstanding. Joni Mitchell tiptoes into my head:
"I was standing on a noisy corner Waiting for the walking green Across the street he stood And he played real good On his clarinet, for free."
She, in this case. She played real good.
CK spots the Grossmünster, big church, as we walk along the river. It is open so in we go. This had its opening day in 1220 but as I walk around I see that only a few bits of that old structure still survive intact. Most of it has been restored, re-built, or added on. It is from the Romanesque period so it should have a Green Man somewhere in the molding or pinched around the capital of a column. Nope. I see other things up there such as lions eating what I presume are Christians, other lions eating their tails instead of this guy sitting between them, soldiers fighting, and a large figure of somebody in the crypt. No Green Man. Bah. This is Protestant church so it doesn’t have any fun stuff in it like the baroque Catholic churches do. It does have a couple of creative windows, though.
For our evening meal we take the advice of the young lass at the reception desk: Zeughauskeller, short walk across the river. Originally an armory in 1487 it was made into a restaurant in 1926. It is bustling and loud, waiters rushing madly about with food and beer mugs. We feel a flashback to the Munich Biergartens. We’re also reminded a bit of Auerbach’s Keller in Leipzig except the food is better here. CK goes for a pork roast, potatoes, and a generous side of applesauce. I have asparagus soup. Both excellent. The waiter brings a genuine chunk of seriously good bread. I haven’t tasted good bread for 3 weeks, other than the crust of an Italian pizza. Which brings to mind another question: why, when pizza crust is so good, do the Italians put really boring bread on the table in restaurants? Clearly, they know how to make decent bread but they just don’t serve it. It may be because we are too much inside the tourist zones but I really don’t know. This is a mystery.
Two Chinese gentlemen at the adjoining table order the Specialty of the House:
Mayor's Sword - 400g of marinated baby-beef steaks, pounded thin, wrapped around the sword blade and grilled lean, served with a bowl of mixed salad, Rösti or French fries, served with a curry-garlic and barbecue sauce.
Of course, we get photos and chat them up. The one fellow lives in Texas, his daughter an attorney in NYC. His childhood pal is visiting from China. They come to hang out in Switzerland for a month every year, probably because it is halfway between Texas and China.
A slow stroll back to our hotel on a warm Zurich evening is a pleasant end to a long day. Drat. The gelato shop I spotted earlier is closed. All for the best, says CK.
Zurich – May 22
This is the largest city in Switzerland, about 450,000 population. Turicum was the name given it by, guess who, the Romans who founded it 2 millenia ago but people have been living in this region for more than 6,000 years. Zurich's political history is a fine weave of complexity that makes my poor head spin, so long story short, Zurich became the fifth member of the Swiss Confederacy in 1351, a thing that endured until 1848 when the Swiss Federal State was hatched.
We're here to catch an Iceland Air flight back to Seattle. But since we've never visited Switzerland before we added an extra 2 nights just for the giggle. There isn't much we'll be able to do in 60 hours or so but it's better than nothing. We're here in May, said to be the busiest month for tourism here.
Today is Monday. Zurich is getting back to work after a nice spring weekend. A warm day is on tap. We have no tour schedule, no sight to see, no box to punch on the bucket list. After a lazy breakfast at Hotel Wellenberg on a sun splashed patio CK grabs a map of the city and we start walking. Enjoying the warm, dry air and sunshine is our chief occupation.There's a big lake here, Lake Zurich. The city presents a promenade which stretches around the entire lake and we propose to explore a small part of it.
As we proceed we see that something called Chinagarten is ahead. Curiousity guides us. We find it but it opens at 11am. We have 35 minutes to kill so we walk up to the nearby Botanical Gardens.
Along the way we happen to pass by a most unique restaurant, Blindekuh or “Blind Cow”. The thing here is dining in the dark. Founded in 1999, this restaurant became the first restaurant to employ visually impaired staff in the world. I'm not sure we'll do this. Not being able to see what I'm eating would be an odd sensation. I would also need a rather large bib to avoid wearing my meal, especially if it came with sauces. Photos would be a hoot and rather easy to edit. I dunno. I’m tempted.
Arriving at the Botanical Garden we find a Zurich University Campus and a carefully labeled planting around several acres. We agree that this garden is not managed for beauty, particularly, but more for study and practical reasons. We stop in the University cafeteria for a refreshment, then skip back to the Chinagarten. We are greeted by a friendly, uniformed fellow at the gate who wants to know where we come from, switches to English, informs us that the entrance is free, to stay on the path, not walk on the grass, and to behave ourselves, have a nice day. For the next 45 minutes we enjoy one of the best maintained formal Chinese gardens we’ve seen since the Sun Yat-Sen gardens in Vancouver, Canada. Nice discovery.
Strolling back to town we stop for a bite of lunch at a shady outdoor bistro before continuing our exploration of Altstadt, the Old Town. We stumble across a couple of new tiny platz we missed last night. One features an interesting restaurant in the Hotel Bourbon. We may investigate it later.
Hot and a little tired after the walking we opt for a rest in the hotel. Later, CK luxuriates in a soaking bath and I light out for a pint. I find a local dive bar, Oliver Twist, that happens to be set up English Pub style. I grab a Guinness and settle down to edit some photos. I’m also wanting to engage the bartender in a chat, the main question being, “What’s the number one thing a tourist must see or do in Zurich?” The bartender happens to be a British lass and I’m about to get the info I’m looking for when a dozen customers take her away. More stream in and I never get another word in. Rush hour. Drat.
Back at the hotel I collect CK and out we go to find dinner, no reservations. The Storchen looks nice with a covered balcony overlooking the lake and river but no, it is not possible. They are fully booked, sorry. A few blocks away we spot a French establishment that looks like it may have some tables for us. Restaurant AuGust. This is a restaurant that has its own farm and specializes in pork and beef. There isn’t any fish or chicken on the menu. Only one pasta. Many of their items are cold cuts or tartare variations. CK orders asparagus soup. I try their hamburger, which isn’t ground beef but shredded roast beef. CK likes everything about the soup but the wild mushrooms. I volunteer to make them disappear. And the burger is odd but quite good. Vive la difference!
Our after-dinner walk is cut short by a flash of lightning and rumbles of thunder. We scuttle back to the room just in time. Moments after we settle in, a downpour hits the neighborhood.
We really didn’t do much today and we say that is a good thing. We feel like we’re due for some lazy, relaxing city life and we managed that. Tomorrow is our last full day in Europe. It will likely be another lazy one. The weather looks to be wet.
Zurich – May 23
By some twist in the fabric of space-time we are booked into the Tower Suite at the Hotel Wellenberg, the largest suite in Old Town Zurich, they say, and freshly updated. In 1940 this building became a Cinema, one that also had guest rooms for VIPs. I shall now commence the name-dropping: Steve McQueen Sean Connery Marilyn Monroe Audrey Hepburn Cary Grant James Dean Elizabeth Taylor Aristotle Onassis Sophia Loren Gina Lollobridgida Roger Moore Mikhail Gorbachev Elvis John Lennon Johnny Cash Al Pacino Twiggy Pacino, Sophia, and Twiggy are still alive. The hotel library features a collection of their photos.
This is too deluxe for our peasant souls although the sensation of the splurge is kinda worth it. We have a commanding view of the square below, an enormous bedroom and lounge area plus closets and two large BRs more than suitable for anyone's home. The master BR has an enormous, tiled shower with an overhead rain panel and two side jets. There are side by side sinks & mirrors plus shaving mirror. The heated towel rack works (the last one that functioned for us was in the UK). The toilet has an internal bidet system. When the receptionist walked us through, she pointed this out with a comment, "It's fun!" I've been too cowardly to try it. I did have an intellectual battle with the heated toilet seat. I wanted to turn it off because I don't need my butt toasted. Problem was, I couldn't figure out the controls. The thing has a remote control and no amount of poking it had any effect. An inquiry at the front desk resulted in a call from the manager informing me that he didn't know how it worked either. For 24 hours it defeated me until I discovered the control panel, prying it open. This revealed the on-off switch. Victory! I think I'll leave it off for the next victim to figure out.
Our walk today around the Altstadt results in a visit to a restaurant to inquire about a reservation, two churches, a park, and an art museum.
We are thinking that a last evening at the Storchen Hotel restaurant would be nice since they have a lovely 2nd story balcony overlooking the river. We ask at the reservation desk but sorry, it is not possible, they are fully booked. No problem. This place is bursting with restaurants.
CK is on a mission to visit the Fraumunster. This church began as a convent in 853 and grew from there. The church as it exists today is mostly the result of redesigns in 1732 and 1898. This is a reformed church, therefore it is quite plain and undecorated. As a nod to history a few 13th century deco pieces are kept on display. There is a crypt which has the exposed foundations of the original abbey. People pitch coins into one of the tunnels for whatever reason. The most remarkable features are 5 stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall.
Next CK finds the route to Lindenhof Park. This is a leafy place in the Altstadt overlooking the river. We have some nice views.
Nearby is St. Peter Kirche. We must go in, of course. This is another reformed church and therefore quite empty of artwork. There is an organist practicing a very complex, unmelodic piece. It is interesting, nonetheless. We get about 10 minutes of dense arpeggios before she folds up her music.
Kunsthaus Zurich is next on our list. This is Zurich’s home of modern art. It’s quite vast and very well done. We spend 90 minutes in it and we only cover maybe 1/3 of it. We see lots of familiar pieces among the not so well known ones. Monet’s Water Lilies are here along with several other of his pieces we saw in a show in London a few years ago. Other artists we recognize: Picasso, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Cezanne, Dali, Renoir, Toulouse-Latrec, Kandinsky, Klee, Miro, and Sisley.
Having absorbed all the art culture possible in one day we turn our attention toward lunch. There's an Italian style café, Motta, on the riverside where CK wants to linger. Moments after settling in, thunder bounces off the city. Rain shortly follows. We're feeling smug with our antipasti and caprese sandwich under a solid awning. Again we just get under cover ahead of the rain by minutes.
Back at the hotel room for a rest ahead of dinnertime, CK asks the desk for recommendations for the evening meal. They give us Haus zum Rüden, just a few hundred meters away. The dining room is unique with a barrel vaulted wooden ceiling. This place was once a venue for city government centuries ago. Service is top class and fare is typical Zurich Swiss but not Raclette. They don’t serve the fondue here. CK has veal in sauce plus noodles. I have a marvelous asparagus salad and a spinach ravioli swimming in butter sauce. We wash it down with an Italian Pinot Grigio. We toast our health and luck to have come safely to the end of this long Bucket List Trip. It has been amazing.
Tomorrow it’s off on an Iceland Air flight for a long day of being flown across an ocean and a continent. We’ll be home soon.