Nov 17, 2014

The Italian Chef

Having visited Turin twice last weekend and sat out a week of rain in Santhià, on Friday I decided to take advantage of a break in the weather ‎and head to Milan. At one time, this northern Italian city was the capital of the western Roman Empire, and according to WikiSherpa, is home to the oldest surviving churches in Italy. It has always been a major centre for commerce and politics, which prominence explains why it was so badly damaged by Allied bombing raids in WW II. (It was also central to the Italian Resistance.) As with so much else on this trip, I could not possibly spend the time or the money to explore the city thoroughly, but I decided to catch a train Friday morning and see what I could see. (If you'd like to learn more about the city, here's the Wikipedia article:

I arrived at the main train station at around 10:30. I surveyed the neighbourhood from the impressive portico of the station, but this is primarily a business district. I learned later that the station had originally been situated several hundred metres to the south and was relocated in the Fascist era. The facade of the current building ‎is dated 1931. The former site is now a large green space, with commercial buildings and office towers built up around it.

Heading back inside, I bought a coffee and a ticket for the Metro (subway) and headed to the Duomo. This is probably Milan's most distinctive landmark, unless you're a fashionista. The massive Gothic cathedral is only four stops away from the train station, so I arrived by 11-ish. When I emerged from underground, I discovered the vast square in front of the Duomo was filled with people wearing red t-shirts and waving red flags. There was a stage set up and a loud PA system was broadcasting some very "enthusiastic" speeches. My Italian has improved in the three weeks I've been in Santhià, but not enough to follow rapid-fire political rhetoric. Many of the flags bore a black hammer and sickle, and as I moved through the crowd towards the cathedral, I noticed many people wearing union patches on their jackets and caps.

Once I reached the cathedral steps, I saw that sturdy police‎ barricades had been set up along the perimeter of the church porch. A few people were leaving through the front doors, so I waded through the crowd towards the south side, where I saw a gap in the barricade and police officers standing by. I was told by one person that it was closed for maybe 15 minutes, and to just wait. He also pointed me around to the side, so I walked past a ticket office and found another doorway. This was also under guard, but without the barricades. The officer there told me it was closed because of the labour demonstration, and it might be a few hours. What are you gonna do?

In my case, I crossed the square on the south-west corner of the cathedral and walked into the grounds of what was once the palace. It now hosts several museums and art exhibits. I paid for admission to the special Van Gogh ‎exhibition and made my way up a grand staircase to the second floor (or as they call it in Europe, the first floor).

Most of the pieces were on loan from a gallery in the Netherlands, and were arranged chronologically. The free audio guide provided a good overview of his life, as well as commentary on particular pieces and the stages of his artistic development. Van Gogh was unusual, in that he only set out to become an artist when he was 27, after having tried his hand at several other careers. It was fascinating to see his earliest sketches, produced by following teach yourself manuals.‎ The rough work was in stark contrast to the apparently effortless Leonardo sketches I had seen in Turin five days earlier -- although to be fair, those were the products of a mature and accomplished artist. There were a number of his works featuring peasant life, including a lithograph of his most famous early work, The Potato Eaters. I wouldn't have needed the audio guide to notice the radical changes that occurred once he moved to Paris and came into contact with the Impressionists. Suddenly, his work was full of vibrant colour, and the swirls and thick layers of paint I'd always associated with him appeared. 

While I was making my leisurely way through the exhibit, I heard helicopters overhead and wondered how the demonstration was progressing. Before entering the palace, I had noticed a few dozen Carabinieri in riot gear standing by, although none of them were wearing their helmets at that point. I figured that if I found a full-scale riot underway once I was done, there were probably few places as secure as a former royal palace in which to take refuge.

I needn't have worried. When I entered the square again, the protesters were gone and the stage had been disassembled. I saw some broken glass, but nothing on the scale of a typical Friday night in the club district of any city worldwide. (Not that I've gone clubbing in decades!) 

The ‎cathedral was still closed, but across the square I spotted a red double-decker city tour bus. I decided that would be money well spent, so I made my way over and climbed on board. Milan actually has three tour bus routes, and purchasing a single ticket entitles the rider to go on all three over a 48 hour period. That wasn't much use to me, but at least I got a good seat for a drive through part of historic Milan. We also drove past the train station I'd arrived at a few hours earlier, which is when I learned more about it. Having acquired a tourist map of the city centre and a sense of the city's layout, I hopped off at the Duomo. It had finally been re-opened.

Admission to the cathedral itself is free, but to gain access to the archaeological display beneath the square and ‎the rooftop, a ticket was required. I gladly purchased one, opting to save a few Euros by climbing the stairs to the roof instead of taking the elevator.

The view of Milan‎ from the top of the Duomo is fantastic. By the time I'd climbed the 249 steps, the light had started to fade. The cloud cover was complete, so there wasn't much of a sunset, but it was very peaceful watching the city light up through a faint haze.

The Duomo‎ is one of the largest church buildings in the world in terms of surface area. It is a very wide church, having five large aisles with widely spaced pillars. Perhaps because of this width and the almost unobstructed view of the interior, it didn't seem as large as some of the grand Gothic structures in Paris. The columns in the Parisian churches are much closer together, accentuating the height of the nave while hinting at unseen vastness to either side. 

I didn't venture past the transept because the real draw for me was the archaeological exhibit below the square. There has been a Christian place of worship in this part of Milan since at least the third century, and possibly earlier. Before construction on the Duomo began, there were three large churches and a sizeable baptistry located in the centre of the city. Significant portions of the main apse of St Thekla's were discovered during excavations for the subway. The ‎church of St Maria Maggiore had been used as a source of building materials for the Duomo, and nothing remains of it. 

The other ancient Christian building preserved beneath the pavement is the Baptistery of San Giovanni alle fontia. Its mosaic floor remains, as does the baptismal pool itself. This is octagonal and (if I recall correctly) measures ‎some 5.5 m in diameter with a depth of 80 cm. It is believed that this is where St Ambrose of Milan baptised St Augustine of Hippo as part of the Easter Vigil in the year 387. That's some history.

On the way back to the train station, I stopped at a supermarket to pick up ingredients for my next two dinners: a tin of some very delicious fava bean soup, some bread, some cheese, some tuna. When I stir the tuna into half a tin of soup and heat it up, it's tasty and satisfying, especially with a generous dollop of hot sauce.

When I arrived back at the hostel in Santhià, I discovered I had company. ‎My first clue was the bags lined up in the entry way. Not backpacks, as one would expect to find in a pilgrim's hostel, but shopping bags, garbage bags, a nice leather portfolio -- a rather puzzling collection of luggage.

The mystery was soon resolved. Salvatore emerged on my greeting of "Buonasera!" While I was expecting two pilgrims to account for the sheer volume of possessions, it all belonged to him.

Salvatore has embarked on a long distance walk from his home near Sanremo‎ to South Korea. While doing online research for my own 4000 km trek to Jerusalem, I'd come across a few extreme walkers who travelled with pushcarts rather than backpacks. (And by "extreme walkers" I mean people who routinely walk the breadth of a continent.) Salvatore has a homemade three-wheeled steerable cart, seen in the photo. It's got a flat bed about 1.5 m long and 1 m wide, and with that he's able to carry a month's worth of food, at least four changes of clothing (including a winter jacket), a two-person tent, three tarps, several litres of drinking water, spare inner tubes, a substantial first aid kit, a butane stove with extra cartridges, candles, blankets, a pillow, and I don't know what all else. He is travelling in style!

This is the exact opposite of the approach I took in selecting and packing my gear. "Everything weighs something" and "Everything takes up space" are the two key precepts for lightweight backpacking. I don't have a tent or a rainsuit, I have a poncho which can be rigged as an A-frame lean-to. My ground sheet doubles as an extra heat-reflective poncho while walking. My foam sleeping pad, with the ground sheet appropriately folded, serves as a dry, insulated seat when everything around me is cold and damp. My walking stick is also the main ‎structural support for my tarp shelter (and potential defense against hostile, unchained dogs).

Pushing the cart is MUCH easier than carrying even a tenth of the weight in a backpack, so he can pack just about anything he may need.‎ (I was surprised he didn't have an insulated picnic cooler for his dairy products.) The drawback is that this requires a relatively smooth path, free of rocks, snow, mud, and steep inclines. Salvatore routinely walks 40 to 60 km per day, but he is limited to following roads or relatively level footpaths. He did acknowledge that when he did the Camino de Santiago, it would have been impossible with his current set up.

The great advantage of travelling like that is that the weight and volume of one's supplies become irrelevant. My rough estimate is that he has 40 or even 50 kg loaded on his cart. (I took it for a short spin, and it is delightful!) I'm carrying 12 kg, and have been waylaid three weeks with an indescribably painful set of blisters.  

The corresponding advantage of travelling like this is that one can buy supplies in bulk. Because Salvatore needn't worry about weight or volume constraints, he is able to buy cheap supplies and prepare all his own meals and camp out in comfort (if necessary) for a tenth of the daily cost that I've been averaging.

A significant part of the culinary resources my friend has is food that his family has grown and prepared on their farm. It won't last the six years he'll be walking, but right now he has olive oil from the trees on the family farm; the marmalade was prepared by his mother from the peaches they grew; the pickled  eggplant and pepper‎ appetiser was likewise grown, prepared, and preserved by his family.

Friday evening on my return from Milan, I was famished. While Salvatore was in the shower, I dug out the leftover portion of bean soup and tuna (plus bread and hot sauce) rations that I'd  ‎prepared the night before. It was tasty and satisfying, but I wouldn't necessarily offer it to anyone else. Once he was at the dinner stage, he offered to cook enough for me, but I declined.

Saturday it rained steadily all day, so rather than continue on to Vercelli through the damp misery, Salvatore stayed on an extra day. Saturday night I took him up on his offer of dinner, and it was such a simple, delicious, and inexpensive meal that I was in awe.‎ Breaking down the costs, it took about €2 to feed both of us well. (Salvatore estimates that his costs average about €3 per day. Something for me to consider if I ever undertake another long distance trek.)

On Saturday, we also spent a lot of time in conversation - mostly in English, but Salvatore was also happy to help me with both vocabulary and grammar when I asked. It was my pleasure to be with him when he received the phone call telling him that his baby sister had given birth to a healthy baby girl and that he is now an uncle. It's been a long time since I've witnessed that much joy radiating from someone.

We also got to talking about our respective journeys, and the reasons for undertaking them. I didn't ask his permission to share these peronal details, so I will just request your prayers for Salvatore's  younger brother Paolo, who perished in a motorcycle collision four years ago.

Sunday morning we got a break from the rain, so we both set out for Vercelli  - me by train to attend Liturgy at St Stephen's, and Salvatore on foot, pushing his wheeled cornucopia. We agreed that when he arrived‎ in the city, he'd give me a call and we'd meet for coffee. After Liturgy I found a dry park bench in the sun in a public square and settled in to wait for his call. (That's when I began typing this update.)

I'm glad that I waited, because not only did I get to see my friend again, but I also learned that the only hostel in town had moved. We ascertained its whereabouts, had coffee, and then I returned to Santhià for my last night in the hostel which has been my home for most of a month.

Yes, after three weeks I am finally moving on! The fine folks who run the café across the square have agreed to forward my long-delayed package from home to the address in Rome I provided them.‎ A friend of a friend has agreed to hold the package for me, so now there is nothing else holding me back. I said one round of goodbyes last evening at the café (they're closed Mondays), and before I leave town I'll visit the two shops which I've been frequenting to bid the proprietors farewell. 

As I write this conclusion Monday morning, it's a raw, grey day. The ground is wet and the cloud cover is both dense and low, but it's not actually raining at the moment. Time to pack up and roll out!

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