Since we moved in and got a little settled in Freiburg, we’ve been able to travel a bit. We’ve visited Strasbourg and Colmar, two border cities in France, and we went to Berlin with our class. When we found out November 1st was a holiday in Germany, and since we have no classes on Friday, we decided to take off for the long weekend. At first we wanted to visit Paris, but we started planning a little late (about 2 weeks ahead) and by that time the train tickets were 150 Euros each, round trip. At the right time of year and by booking in advance we can travel to Paris for less than half that, so we decided against it. We looked at Zurich, but figured it’s so close and it’d be nice to go somewhere a little further since we had 4 days off. Then, I remembered looking up discount airlines last summer and coming across German Wings’ “blind-booking” offer. For 66 Euros you get a round-trip flight from Stuttgart, Cologne-Bonn, or Hanover, but the catch is you don’t know where you’re going until you’ve paid and it’s too late to change your mind. You can select different groups of cities, for example there’s “Metropolitain Western Europe” with Barcelona, Brussels, Milan, Rome, Berlin, London, Manchester, and Vienna. There are couple others – the one we chose was “Party”, with Barcelona, Berlin, London, Manchester, Belgrade, Budapest, Milan, and Vienna, mostly because it had the fewest German cities (which we can relatively easily travel to), and because we figured there was the smallest chance of seeing somewhere we’ve already been. This trip was the first time we’ve ever done a blind-booking, also the first time we slept in an airport and our first issue with bed bugs! Milan was neither Mike’s nor my first choice on the list, but it ended up being one of my favourite cities we’ve been to so far. Everything worked out and I loved it there! I can’t wait to go back.
Since we booked the flights only about 2 weeks in advance, we had trouble finding a room. Little did I know both November 1st and 4th are holidays in Italy! We tried couchsurfing and waited hoping someone would be available, but I guess if you have a spare room in Milan, you rent it out for cash, not travel stories. We eventually booked a room with airbnb.com, which is usually a great site and a cheap place to find decent accommodations, but this time it didn’t work out so well. We checked in early with no problems and our hosts even gave us an Italian breakfast – coffee and a buiscuit. Things seemed to be going well but after the second night we noticed we both had mysterious red spots – which is definitely when we should have taken off – but we tried to stick it out for one more night and ended up covered in bites, most likely bed bugs… yikes! We quarantined our bags and washed and dried almost everything we own in the hottest water, so we’ll wait and see whether we start an infestation here in Freiburg. Here’s hoping “no”. The one good thing about that place was the location – only a 5 minute walk from one of the metro lines.
Those weren’t the only interesting accommodations we had this trip. With a blind booking you get to choose the date of your outward and return flight, but not the time. It ended up working out really well for us since we got to leave first thing Thursday morning come home late Sunday night, just in time for class at 9:30 on Monday. The only thing is that our flight from Milan to Stuttgart was delayed about 45 minutes. We figured something was up when there was still no boarding gate listed 25 minutes before the scheduled departure time. It turns out the plane was coming from Rome and there someone had left a bag on board. They called the police and everything else, double checking everything and sweeping the plane. It’s all for safety’s sake, I guess, but in the end we took off almost an hour late which meant we missed the last train to Freiburg for the night! We weren’t keen on staying in an airport hotel for almost $100 for about 6 hours, so we decided to sleep in the airport. It turned out to be a great experience. The cleaning staff were considerate, the bathrooms were clean, and we found a quiet corner with some arm-rest-free chairs to nap on. It wasn’t the best sleep I’ve ever had, but honestly not that much worse than the bug-infested bed we had the previous night. We caught the first train to Freiburg, slept the whole way, and made it to class.
Anyway, it might sound like this trip was a total disaster, but overall it was actually one of my favourite experiences. I loved Milan. In terms of everyday life, it was definitely my favourite city we’ve been to so far. It has great transportation, food, coffee, and shopping, the people are very friendly and laid back, it felt really safe, and it was absolutely beautiful.
One of the first things I noticed about Milan was how laid back and friendly the people were. I think living in Germany for the past two months really made this stand out more for me, but it completely blew me away the first morning we were there when a stranger said good morning to me on the metro rather than pushing me off of it. The general feeling is also just a lot more laid back. For example, the street lights are just a suggestion here, so when there are no cars, the people walk. Of course people in Germany jay-walk, too, sometimes, but it’s completely normal to see people waiting for over a minute at an intersection where there is absolutely no traffic for the light to turn green. Walking before the light, in Freiburg at least, is the “weird” thing to do, not just what you do. Everywhere we went we were greeted with smiles and “hellos”, it was really great.
It’s also a really easy city to get around. Like most big cities they have regional trains, metros, suburban trains, trams, and busses. Sometimes all of these different ways to get around can get confusing, but in Milan we had no problems. There’s a rail connection in the basement of the Malpensa airport which connects directly to the city centre, and from there you can get on the city transit. The public transportation was reliable, cheap, and ran often. One of things I’m going to miss the most about Europe is just being able to go somewhere – you never have to consider when or where the metros or trams are running, because you never end up waiting more than 6 minutes. Another bonus about Milan was that there were tons of (free!) public washrooms which were surprisingly clean for a city of its size. It also felt really safe. Around the main attractions there was a huge security presence, and surprisingly also military. I found that a little odd, but it may have just been something going on that day. All over the city, though, there were police patrolling and SOS stations. Other than these basic things you would want in any city, Milan had tons of bonuses, like great food and drinks!
The food was amazing here and the coffee was delicious. The whole dining culture was really interesting. The coffee and gelato were of course delicious (and cheap – around 2 euro for a cappuccino or a cone with two flavours), but the rest of the food was unbelievable. The best part of all of our eating-out experiences was the Italian happy-hour. It starts around 6 and goes until 10 in most bars, and the drinks are still the same price (7-10 Euros!), but you get a free buffet! Or, you get a buffet for 7 Euros and your first drink is free – depending how you look at it. And it’s not just a buffet, it’s delicious Italian cooking. One of the more expensive ones we went to was 10 Euros, so we each got a cocktail, which usually cost 8 anyway, and the buffet was amazing. They had saffron risotto with mussels, gnocchi with a leek-cream sauce, cous-cous with veggies and nuts, and of course a few pasta dishes. Our last night we did this again, and for 16 Euros we each got a cocktail and another delicious buffet. This time with penne and tomato sauce and hot meatballs. You really can’t go wrong eating out in Milan. The coffee was also delicious, we never had a bad cup – the Italians really have this life figured out.
The other great thing about Milan is of course the shopping. You always hear about all the designers and big names, which are everywhere, but when they say Milan is great for shopping they don’t just mean for the wealthy. In a city as trendy as this one, clothes go out of style pretty quickly, which means you can get “last-season’s” fashions for flea-market prices. I got two silk blouses and two pairs of pants from the summer and fall collections for 23 Euros! Luckily the people in Freiburg don’t seem to follow the runway as closely as the Milanese. There were tons of sales like the one I found and tons of stores selling really affordable clothing, so if you’re going to Milan, don’t worry about having to spend a fortune shopping – you’ll definitely be able to find some great deals.
You could easily spend your whole time in Milan eating, drinking, shopping, and wandering around, but if you want to see historical sites or galleries, there are tons of those, too! On our first day we visited the Duomo, which is one of the biggest churches in the world (3rd-5th, depending on the list), and it is stunning. There are over 3400 sculptures decorating the cathedral and some of the stained-glass windows are over 500 years old. From there we walked through the “Galleria” which is kind of like an extremely fancy hallway, leading out to the Teatro alla Scalla. We didn’t see a show this time around – the only one on during our time there was a Wagner Opera with 6 seats left in a box selling for 180 Euros each! Maybe next time around. Another thing we missed this time was Davinci’s Last Supper. It’s in a church here, Santa Maria della Grazia, but by the time we found out we were going to Milan, the regular priced tickets were long gone. You can still get tickets for a 15 minute viewing of the fresco from various tour agencies, but they sell them at about 6 times the price you would pay normally. For a trip to Milan it would definitely be worth planning well in advance so you could do things like the opera and the Last Supper, because these things sell out months in advance.
Even though we didn’t get to do these two top attractions in Milan, we still had a great time. We did get to see the Brera art gallery, which houses some absolutely beautiful pieces. There are also so many other churches and galleries; this is definitely the place to come if you appreciate religious art. My favourite part of all of it was how beautiful the churches look amid all of the modern city buildings. Milan was mostly destroyed by an air raid in 1943, but some of the churches and monuments were spared. Today the city looks completely modern and new, but you can still see the odd church just sitting between two concrete and glass office buildings as if that’s the way it always was. I think it looks so cool. There’s a castle right downtown, surrounded by new city buildings. These old brick buildings look so out of place yet fit right in to the Milan cityscape.
Even though there were more than a few screw-ups, this was probably my favourite trip we’ve taken so far. I would have loved to have planned it further in advance and have been able to get a decent room, see the Last Supper and maybe an opera, but I don’t think you really need to see these things to appreciate the city. Milan was like all of the best things about all of the cities I love all in one. It had great music and tons of really delicious cafes where you could find locals drinking coffee or wine any time of the day – like Zagreb. Like Berlin, it has world class galleries and a really interesting history, also involving an air raid at the end of WWII. One of my other favourite cities was Strasbourg because of its beautiful cathedral and other religious sites, both of which Milan also has. And of course just like home, the people are friendly and relaxed, which makes it much easier to have a good time. I can’t wait to come back to Italy, and hopefully back to this awesome city, someday.
Here are some pictures!