October 2015: Hidden Italy October 2015: Michelangelo, Monet, the Dolomites, cycling in Milano

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Hidden Italy October 2015:

Welcome to the October issue of the Hidden Italy newsletter, this month includes an exhibition of Monet masterpieces in Turin, El Greco masterpieces in Treviso, the reopening of the cathedral museum in Florence (with sculptures by Michelangelo, Donatello and many others), autumn rites in the Dolomites and a lovely 50 km bike ride along a medieval canal into the centre of Milan.

Hidden Italy in October 15:

Hidden Italy in October 15:

We had a marvellous time with the autumn guided tours this year: the eight adventurers on the inaugural Trails to Freedom hike all arrived safe and sound on the Swiss border without even a blister after climbing through the Alps for 9 days; we had wonderful weather for both the Trieste and Friuli tour and the Verona and the Dolomites tours (including a foot of snow at the end which added a real touch of magic); and Carmelina successfully lead her group from Venice to Lake Como and Lake Maggiore, with great reviews at the end.  Most of the guided tour in 2016 are fully booked although there are still places on the Sicily in the Spring tour (29/4 to 12/5/16) and the Venice and the Italian Lakes (2 to 14/9/16): full details, please see the website:  www.hiddenitaly.com.au.

Exhibitions in Italy in October:

Exhibitions in Italy in October:

Monet, Galleria di’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (GAM), Via Magneta 31, Turin, until 31 January www.mostramonet.it.  Prepare to be immersed in a wave of colour.  This wonderful exhibition includes over 40 works by the French Impressionist master on from the Museo d’Orsay, many of them not seen before in Italy, including the iconic Le dejeuner sur l’herbe.

Grand Palace Hotel, Via Veneto 70, Rome (www.grandpalacehotelrome.com).  Sitting on the Via Veneto in the heart of Rome, this elegant Arte Deco hotel was immortalised in Federico Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece La Dolca Vita.  It was designed by Marcello Piacentini (Mussolini’s preferred architect) in the 1920s, and is a celebrated example of Roman Modernism.  It has recently re-opened after faithful renovations (closely overseen by the Sovrintendenza ai Beni Culturali), including the extensive Arte Deco frescos painted by Venetian artist Guido Cadorin in 1926, so scandalous that they were covered up three months after the inauguration.  The 7th floor bar has unrivalled views of Rome and is an excellent place for an aperitivo or night cap.

El Greco, the Metamorphosis of a Genius; Casa dei Carraresi, Treviso (Venice) www.elgrecotreviso.it.  El Greco was the original troubled genius whose art had profound influence on Manet, Cezanne and Picasso.  He was born in 1541 in Crete, made his name in the Spanish court and died in Toledo in 1614 but he spent his formative years in Venice.  This retrospective (the largest of its kind held in Italy) explores the transformation of the artist through.

Events in Italy in October:

Events in Italy in October:

The Arab-Norman Itinerary, Palermo, Sicily.  Two years ago it was Mt Etna, now another part of this fascinating island has been UNESCO World Heritage listed.  The unlikely fusion between Arabic and Norman culture that occurred in medieval Sicily was one of the high points of the Middle Ages.  An extraordinary collection of seven buildings and their mosaics (including three cathedrals) in and around Palermo that somehow survived the vicissitudes of eight hundred years of violent history, have been collectively declared part of the Patrimony of Humanity.  These include Roger II’s wonderful Royal Chapel in Palermo, the cathedral commission by his father in Cefalu and the cathedral of nearby Monreale commissioned by his grandson William II, whose interior is covered by over 7500 square metres of mosaics containing nearly 2000 kilos of gold, arguably the finest in Europe.

Autumn in the Dolomites, Merano, until 26 November.  Autumn is a fabulous time to be in the Dolomites – long mild days under blue skies, the valleys awash with autumn colours.  Being south oriented, the district around is particularly blessed in this period.  It’s harvest time, celebrated with the Torggelen, when many farms open their gates to the public to show-off their seasonal products especially the new wines accompanied by handmade cheeses, speck, roasted chestnuts and other regional specialities.  Festivities around Merano include Golden Autumn in Lagundo (til 15 Nov);  Keschtnriggi (chestnut festival) around Foiana (til 1 Nov) and the famous Merano Wine Festival (til 10 Novembre)

Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, www.ilgrandemuseodelduomo.it.  After five and a half years of restoration, Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (the cathedral museum) has reopened to visitors – three floors with twenty-five rooms holding over seven hundred sculptures by some the greatest artists of the Renaissance including Michelangelo, Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Luca della Robbia, Antonio del Pollaiollo and Andrea del Verrocchio.  Amazing!

Hidden Italy October weekend Itinerary: cycling from the Ticino River to Milan

Hidden Italy October weekend Itinerary:  cycling from the Ticino River to Milan

One of the most delightful legacies of the 2015 Expo is the creation of a 50 km cycling trail that follows the Naviglio Grande (the grand canal) across the plains of Lombardy and into the heart of Milan.  Begun in 1157 and completed 100 years later, this medieval waterway linked land-locked Milan to the Ticino River in the south and the Adda River in the north connecting the city to the great trading routes on Lake Como and the Po River. 

The canal starts at the Oleggio Bridge and winds its way across the flat lands, through the Ticino National Park and poplar forests, under brick bridges, past ancient villages, water mills and noble villas to Abbiategasso, where it hangs a left left (a second canal, the Naviglio Pavese continues south through rice fields to Pavia) and heads for the great city, eventually passing abandoned industrial sites, rowing clubs and apartment blocks before arriving at the Darsena di Porta Ticinese, the old port in what is now the fashionable ‘Navigli’ district, its narrow streets and lanes crowded with bars and fashionable restaurants, a short walk from the centre of the city.

The newly created and clearly marked trail is in excellent condition and follows a car free course all the way along beside the canal, with virtually no climbs.  A great way to get out into the country, far from the madding crowd and enjoy the pleasures of Lombardy, particularly in autumn.

How to do it:

Being a linear trail the best solution is to put your bike on a train from the Trenord line in Cadorna station (in the centre of Milan near the Sforzesca castle) to Turbigo and ride back into Milan from there.  The route can be easily done in a day, however, as it passes through some lovely villages and towns with excellent accommodation, restaurants, trattorias with some interesting side trips (including walks in the Ticino National Park) so we’d suggest taking your time, overnighting along the way and making a weekend of it. 

Hiring a bike:

There are a number of commercial bike hire services in Milan which can be booked online (eg Rossignoli, a 5th generation cycling shop that has operated from the shop in the Brera district in the centre of Milan since 1900, probably the best option:  www.rossignoli.it).  Bikes can also be hired for one or two days through the council operated ‘city bike’ bike-sharing service, BikeMi.  Registration for this service can be done online and payment made using a credit card.  Bikes can be hired for one or two days.  They are picked up and dropped off at depots outside fifteen different railway stations throughout the city.  The most convenient way for this adventure would be to pick up the bike at Cadorna station (in the centre near the Sforzesca Castle on the green and red Metro lines) and then drop it off at Porta Genova, a short walk from the Darsena, where the ride ends (which is on the green Metro line).

How to get there:

Trains leave regularly from Cadorna station (which is in the centre of Milan on the green and red Metro lines).  If you want to start at the very beginning of the canal, you’ll need to take the Novara line to Vanzaghello-Magnago and then ride on roads for 6 kilometres to Ponte Oleggio.  If you prefer to avoid the roads, get off at Turbigo station, 3 kilometres south of the Ponte and pick up the trail directly here. 

Where to stay:

There are a number of wonderful places to stay along the way, including these below:

Agriturismo La Galizia (Cuggiono, Strada Provinciale 127; www.agriturismolagalizia.it).  Next to the cycling trail at the beginning of the route, this lovely agriturismo was opened in 2014 in a restored 14th century farmhouse.  It has 14 rooms and 1 suite and its own restaurant.  Doubles from 130 euro; dinner 30 euro per person.

B&B Ospiti di Anna (Via Verga 13, Abbiategrasso; tel: 331 9046205; http://www.bed-and-breakfast.it/it/lombardia/ospiti-di-anna-abbiategrasso/28688.  A quality and welcoming b&b with 4 rooms in the centre of Abbiategrasso, a small town halfway along the trail.  Serves an excellent homemade breakfast.  Doubles from 40 to 50 euro.

Hotel Morimondo, Corte dei Cistercensi, 6; Morimondo; www.hotelmorimondo.com.  Morimondo is reached by a short detour down the cycle trail which goes south to Pavia from Abbiategrasso.  The Abbey of Morimondo is one of the most important religious foundations in Lombardy, established by Cisterian monks in the 12th century.  It is now surrounded by the Ticino National Park.  The lovely Hotel Morimondo is in a restored 17th century farm complex overlooking the abbey and was opened in 1999.  Double rooms start from 99 euro.

Where to eat:

You are in the heart of the Lombardy’s rice and cheese producing district of Lombardy (in fact, gorgozola cheese was first ‘invented’ in Caseficcio Arioli near Ozzero, between Abbiategrasso and Morimondo) and there are many excellent restaurants and trattorias along the Naviglio Grande where you can enjoy an excellent lunch or dinner, often looking out over the canal:

Osteria della Ripa, Robecco sul Naviglio, Via Ripa Naviglio 33; tel: 02.947 0296.  This family-run osteria is famous for its ‘timballino’ (a molded rice dish) prepared from locally grown black Venere rice and gorgozola, as well as duck breast millefoglie (the Italian version of the French pastry mille-feuille) and its homemade gelato.

La Pirogue (Castellettto di Ciggiono, Via al Ponte 10.  A modern ambient in a lovely restaurant with dining room and terrace overlooking the canal well known for its antipasto and mixed grills.

Azienda Agricola Rosaspina, Pontevecchio di Magenta, Airoldi; tel:  02 979 4203.  With a jetty on the canal this classic restaurant proposes traditional dishes including zucchini flower risotto and meats from the restaurants own farm.

Il Ristorante di Agostino Campari, Via Novara 81, Abbiategrasso; tel:  02 9420 329.  An elegant family-run restaurant, where dinner can be eaten under a pergola in the warmer months, specialising in traditional Lombard cuisine. 

What to do:


Pick up your bike, which can be hired from one of the services we have noted above.  As also mentioned above, the trail is easily done in a day but, it is a holiday after all and I’d suggest taking your time and staying overnight somewhere along the way.


Catch an early morning train from Cadorna station in Milan to small town of Turbigo (about 50 minutes away on the Novara train line).  You will need to buy a ticket for both you and your bike before boarding and please remember to stamp both tickets before getting the train (fines for travelling without a stamped ticket can be heavy, ignorance is no excuse and the ticket collectors can be nasty!).  Store the bike in the baggage section or the vestibule of the carriage.

Get off the train at Turbigo, leave the station and go straight up Via Stazione.  Turn left into Via Roma – the canal is four hundred metres down.  Go left and pick up the clearly marked trail.  Turbigo itself is a very attractive little town with houses lined up along either side of the canal.  The trail takes you north following the waterway, passing stone footbridges and small shrines along the way.  The canal winds across farmlands, through forests and past houses with boat ramps overlooking the canal.

At Castelletto di Cuggiono you come to the first grand villa: Villa Clerici, a large 18th century palazzo with stairs lined with nymphs sweeping down to receive guests arriving by water from Milan.  Beyond Castelletto are the quarries of Rubone, from where gravel for construction was once carried up the river to the city on large barges (these were also used to transport the endless tonnes of marble from the Ossola valley needed to build Milan’s cathedral, a project that took over six hundred years to complete).

The next stop is Cassinetta di Lugagnano, a stretch of the canal that became popular as a country retreat for Milan’s rich and powerful in the 17th and 18th century because of the ease and safety water travel offered.  The canal here is lined with a series of grand villas that belonged to bishops and abbots as well as great Milanese families such as the Visconti, the Sforza and the Borromeo.

The town of Abbiategrasso is approximately half way along the route to Milan.  I’d suggest breaking the ride here and taking the short detour down the southern branch of the canal (Naviglio di Bereguardo) to visit Morimondo, a 12th century abbey set in the Ticino National Park (cycle trials down to the Ticino River).  You could either stay in the wonderful Hotel Morimondo or head back to Abbiategrasso for the night.


Back in the saddle for the ride along the Naviglio Grande towards Milan.  The country you side you pass through on the other side of Abbiategrasso is pure Lombardy, the set for many movies, including Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic ‘Chronicle of a Love’.  At Gaggiano the trail crosses over the canal and continues the other side until you start approaching the great metropolis passing through Trezzano sul Naviglio first and then Corsico until you hit the periphery of Milan, cycling past vacant industrial zones waiting to be re-discovered. 

Milan is no longer a ‘city of water’ but heading into town you’ll pass remnants of this past (old hand-washing laundries, the remains of tow paths, handsome old rowing clubs, derelict barges moored to the sides of the canal). 

As you approach then end of the trail, five story apartment blocks, built at the end of the 19th century to house workers, crowd in on either side of the canal.  Once you have past the charming 11th century church of San Cristoforo (once a point of departure for pilgrims heading to the Holy Land and believed to have been built on the ruins of a Roman temple) your are almost there. 

The Darsena, a kilometre further on is the end of the canal and then end of your journey.  Not so long ago it was literally a neglected backwater but after recent restoration, the Darsena has become one of the social hubs of the city, a place to hang on a balmy evening with plenty of bars and restaurants nearby.  In the past, the Darsena was the city’s port - goods were off-loaded here and distributed around the city on a series of canals. 

The extraordinary thing is that these canals still exist branching out from the Darsena.  Milan is ringed by a series of underground canals that were closed over only in the 1930s.  After the success of the restoration of the Darsena there is serious discussion to have these re-opened, which I think would be a would be wonderful – transforming the city into a type of Amsterdam and reconnecting it to its hinterland and rich history.

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