Tuscany — it’s impossible to say it without sighing romantically, impossible not to envision ridges of Cypress trees, rolling hills of grapevines and olive groves, fields studded with bougainvillea-covered farmhouses. Even in winter, Tuscany is still supremely beautiful.
The grapevines are bare, their shapes starkly human.
Fog-filled valleys reveal themselves in layers in the angled light of the winter solstice.
Everywhere are signs of the holidays — twinkling lights, a Christmas tree in every square, Santa climbing through windows and over balcony railings….
And of course, the reason for the season in this Catholic country, the Nativity.
Despite the insanity that has been 2016 — a big move for me, and continuing legal and political strife for Oysterman — we jumped on an amazing off-season travel deal to Tuscany (through Gate 1 Travel via TravelZoo), which fell perfectly in the few weeks of downtime for the oyster business (if there is such a thing).
So in the second week of December, instead of flying west to Hawaii or south to Mexico, like any waterlogged Washingtonian would be expected to do, we bundled up and flew off in the other direction.
We arrived in Milan’s Malpensa airport after 18 hours of door to door travel, on a cold but sunny Milanese morning.
After a smooth glide through customs and a bit trickier stop for our rental car (NTS: next time verify in advance that your credit card covers the Loss Damage Waiver deductible), we were on our way to our lodging for the night, the Hotel Berna.
A Rick Steves recommendation (and a big thumbs up from us), we chose the Hotel Berna for its walking-distance proximity to Milan’s Centrale train station, where we would be able to catch the Metro to the city center. (Many city centers in Italy have restrictions on non-resident drivers — I expect any day to receive a photo-issued ticket from a wrong-turn misadventure into the heart of Parma).
After ogling the station’s impressive but domineering architecture, we ventured below ground to an ATM kiosk, (ATM is Milan’s transit system, not to be confused with a cash machine), and after a bit of off-the-cuff translation, purchased two one-way tickets for 1,50 Euros each. Four stops later, we emerged into Milan’s central square, to this pretty little church.
Milan’s “Duomo” (which means cathedral, not dome, as you might think — although some cathedrals are also domes) is the fourth largest cathedral in the world, and savoring its every delicious detail could have taken up the rest of the afternoon.
But our ultimate goal while in the city was to visit the Santa Maria Delle Grazie, the convent home to Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous painting, the Last Supper.
And before that, well, WE would have to eat, as the almond cookies in our hotel room were the only thing sustaining us since breakfast on the plane eight hours earlier.
We elbowed our way through Christmas crowds to find Luini Panzerotti, a local favorite just off the square that some well-travelled friends had recommended. The holiday lines were out the door and around the block, so we chose to pass on the hot, fresh calzone-like panzerotti that everyone else was savoring.
Instead, we wandered through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II — a sort of Rodeo-Drive-ish shopping arcade, if Rodeo Drive was covered with 19th-century arches of steel and glass — and my sharp-eyed traveling companion spied a bustling winter market down the street.
The expansive market led to a mysterious (to us) stone wall, and the sightseeing opportunity overwhelmed our hunger.
Here, in the middle of the city, is the Sforza castle, a 15th-Century fortification built by the Duke of Milan. It now houses several museums, including the Museum of Ancient Art and the Museum of Musical Instruments, as well as one of Michaelangelo’s last sculptures, the enigmatic Rondanini Pieta.
But time was becoming an issue — I’d purchased tickets in advance to view the Last Supper, and we had but an hour to find our destination, another short Metro ride away. (I highly recommend securing tickets in advance to all museums on a site like italy-museum.com. Not only will you save time standing in line, some sights like the Last Supper require reservations and you are likely to be disappointed if you don’t reserve a spot well in advance.)
After picking up our entry tickets at the box office and admiring the exterior of the church, once home to monks of the Dominican order, we finally had time to relax with pastries and our first Italian cappuccinos across the street at the Caffé Le Grazie.
The Last Supper is one of the most famous paintings in the world, and the anticipation of viewing it is magnified by the strict control of admission.
Because of da Vinci’s technique of painting directly onto the stone wall (as opposed to fresco, which uses wet plaster), the mural is fragile and faded, having survived several centuries of the elements, restorations and even an Allied bombing in World War II. A maximum of 25 visitors at a time may enter the room where the mural is located, and the viewing is limited to 15 minutes.
The group first gathers in an antechamber with an excellent overview of the painting’s history, and then is ushered through a series of “airlocks” (which also provide a tantalizing view of the convent’s courtyards). Finally, the last seal is broken, and you enter the cenacolo.
I remember when I first visited the Taj Mahal, I was afraid to look at it directly. I wanted to tease it out, let it reveal itself as a slow, seeping discovery. I walked the fringes of the grounds, peering through the trees, then finally stepped out to take it all in. It enriched the experience for me, and I did the same with the Last Supper.
The (very large) mural occupies on one end of what was once the monk’s refectory — their dining hall. I entered and peeked to my right, the iconic image in my periphery, but first looked to left wall, which bears the impressive Crucifixion by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano.
It was rich and textured and powerful, but when I turned to the right, I understood why the painting of Montorfano’s contemporary became iconic.
Besides the luminous depth and detail (and the dramatic subject matter), the Last Supper feels like a living extension of the room. Da Vinci painted it to follow the chamber’s perspective, and even sourced the light according to the direction of natural light spilling from the east windows.
The mural has a vitality that is difficult to describe, not least because of the tangible presence of the millions of souls who have gazed upon it for centuries (though not all had the same reverence — in the 17th century the monks decided to carve an arched doorway into the wall through the bottom part of the painting, destroying Jesus’ symbolically-placed feet so that, as the Oysterman puts it, “the monks could get to their dinner faster.”).
Despite what we’d read, non-flash photography is allowed. But if you do ever have the opportunity to experience this seminal work of Renaissance art, do yourself the favor of spending your 15 minutes “in the room” — feeling the connection with the painter and the past — and take your snapshots on the way out.
I’m sure the docents are used to it, but we all had to be urged out of the room when our 15 minutes was up. We decompressed by immersing ourselves in the church, which was the first of the many we would step into during our short six-day visit.
For me, one of the many gifts of Italy at Christmastime was to feel fully the scope of reverence of one man’s life, from his celebrated birth, to the darkness of his final days, and the implications of what would follow.
We hadn’t even arrived in Tuscany (Milan is in Italy’s Lombard region), and yet I would have been satisfied had our trip ended in Milan. We strolled on into the chilly evening, through the market and bustling neighborhoods. And we finally stopped for a meal — Prosciutto and truffle butter sandwiches and Prosecco — before returning to our hotel for a deep sleep.
We were in love with Italy already, and tomorrow we would be on to Tuscany.