Armpits to Awesomeness–From Milan to Monterosso

A Tale of Armpits and Awesomeness–Trekking from Milan to the Italian Riviera

For the average workaholic American who has to shove as many sights into a one or two week time frame in Italy, tough choices will plague you. When you visit a place where you can’t eat a bad meal, can’t take a bad photo and everything around you is oozing with thousands of years of art, magic, and history– How do you cram all that into a week or two without going home feeling like it was all a blur?

Three weeks is really the minimum time you need to be there. Ideally one to three months would be the perfect trip to Italy. But you’re laughing now, right?  Hey, 3 months in Italy might seem like an impossible dream, but this is the age of the digital nomad. If you can work at home, you can work from anywhere in the world with a phone, an iPad, and some toilet paper.  I spent the first of three weeks in Sardinia just unwinding at the beach till I remember how to take my time doing things like eating, reading, and being in the present moment– not thinking ahead into the future or about the past. You know, slow down and smell the garlic.

When I’m traveling I feel like I have to be in the “now” as much as possible. If your brain cells aren’t perceiving everything that’s “right now” trust me–you won’t remember the details of your trip. Time will seem like it flew by at 100 miles an hour.  As I enter the second week, I feel like I was in Sardinia for a hundred years. Time to go to Milan.
I was supposed to meet up with my friend, Kat who invited two of her friends whom I never met, and those two friends never met each other.  We were all meeting at the Espresso Hotel that’s a short walk from Linate airport. When I go to Milan, I fly into Linate –not Malpensa.  It’s a much smaller airport, not crowded and only 8 miles from the city center. Malpensa, the huge insane airport is a 1 hour jet lagged ride to the city. I like the Espresso Hotel because you can walk there from the airport, and the vibe is informal and friendly–very generation X.  The guys who work there are an assortment of attractive looking underwear model types, dudes with beards and man-buns, and a few lesbians.

Oh, and there’s a fuzeball table in the entryway, like what you would see at the Standard Hotel in Downtown LA. You never see any humans playing with it. It’s more like a MONUMENT to remind you that you’re not old and boring if you enter these doors. My friend, Kat was supposed to arrive early enough to introduce us all—but her flight got canceled, so we were three women who had a mutual friend who wasn’t going to arrive till the next day. This was either going to be loads of fun or the vacation from hell. The first friend, Melanie was a low maintenance and likeable chiropractor from Arizona who laughed at my jokes.

The other lady, who I’ll call “Norma Desmond” was a whiney, fussy , bitchy, narcissistic tantric healer from Florida. A refugee from the “Summer of Love”  I assumed. For you younger readers, the Summer of Love was in 1969 when people were all about “discovering themselves” ” and “letting it all hang out” –which means they can saying anything they feel like and do whatever they want — even if it’s rude and annoying for others. They rebelled against their parents and ignored their children and had a lot of random sex while tripping on acid.  These self obsessed egotists were called Hippies. Some made a valiant effort to change the world. But most of them were just assholes. Norma Desmond was a little bit of both.

One thing you have to know about  Milan–it’s Italy’s most fashion forward, innovative design- oriented city. If Milan were a human, it would be a speaker at the TED talks.  (TED,  an acronym for Technology, Education, Design is an expensive conference where people pay $6000 just to hear people who are NOT assholes talk on stage)
When you only plan to be in Milan for a short time short time you have to avoid the mediocre and go straight for the awesomeness.
I dragged everyone to Linate airport where we took the local 73 bus to Piazza Del Duomo. Ignore all the shiny stores and cafes and go straight to the Duomo– the massive white Cathedral that dominates the ancient cobblestone square.
The initial sight of the Duomo takes your breath away, and you just have to stare at it — because IT is staring at YOU.  This enormous cathedral is covered in thousands of statues hewn from granite. Thousands of eyes on thousands of faces gaze at you from everywhere on the building.

That initial silence that sweeps over you even shut Norma Desmond up. For a minute she stopped complaining about muslims and gluten.
You don’t need to go inside the church, but you have to go up to the roof and walk on it.  We have to pay 10 euros to take the elevator to rooftop. All of the funds they collected are used to restore this 14th  century’s masterpiece to its original wedding cake white and pink granite color. I was there 25 years ago when the whole facade was black as a barbecue grill. I used to imagine what it looked like without the soot. Now that it’s being restored, all I can say is WOW.  On the rooftop, I have to  take my shoes off off and give myself a holy reflexology treatment by taking a barefoot walk across the cool slabs of stone. Say hello to all the statutes of saints.  Take a shitload of pictures. No matter how many times I go to the Duomo, I’m still smitten by all that hard rock shaped into soft, flowing curves.
I had to use a lot of impulse control. IT was hard to stop taking pictures. And it was REALLY hard not to throw Norma Desmond off the roof.
As I snapped away, She rambled about evils of pasteurized cheese, ranted about how you have to “sage” the hotel room before you use the toilet, and how everyone who doesn’t detox in an infrared sauna is going to die of gluten poisoning and how it’s terrible that people are killing themselves with cigarettes and junk food and not having enough sex. “Did you KNOW that a person with cancer has the same vibration as a person who doesn’t have enough sex.??” She exclaimed in the elevator.
In that moment, I learned something about myself. I learned that I will never end up in an Italian prison. Because I will not strangle Norma Desmond. I will not punch her in the face. And when she moans about her fear of gluten, I will buy her a slice of pizza.
Directly facing the Piazza Del Duomo, next to the money exchange, there’s a pizza place where you have to stop and just binge on tomato and cheese covered carbs. We said ” OMIGOD” a lot. And “holy shit! This is awesome!”
Next, we jump on the red “Hop on Hop off ” bus and see all the neighborhoods from the top level while listening to gobs of history facts spew from the earbuds you wear to find out where you are and who conquered it in the 5th Century.
The best thing to do for dinner, is NOT a restaurant. We got off the bus in a bohemian flavored neighborhood called the Navigli where hordes of locals go to sit in cafes on the river bank and smoke cigarettes while they drink spritzes and consume unlimited quantities of appetizers for 9 euros. We grabbed a table — and in a cloud of outdoor cigarette smoke thicker than the smog in LA– we ate little plates of eggplant Parmesan and salads, roasted potatoes, and all kinds of veggies till we had our fill of Milan.

The next day we lugged our suitcases up a zillion flights of train platform stairs to go Cinque Terra to overdose on photo snapping and gelato…and take a ferry to each of the five villages clustered on the Italian Riviera.
This was my second visit to the Cinque Terra, but this time I discovered a beach I didn’t know about in Monterosso. There’s a bunch of cafes, stores and restaurants snaking along the cliffs, and down below there’s the turquoise sea with a nice sprawl of sand and beach chairs. Sure, we’ve all been to a beach before. But in Monterosso, while you’re laying under the raging purple sky, you’ll hear church bells clanging on the hour. You’ll gaze at the colossal carving of a guy who looks like the Incredible Hulk jutting out from the mountain rock and looming over your head. A chubby cat from the neighborhood might wander near you and give you a friendly meow. It’s a whole different vibe.
We took the ferry to as many of the little towns as we could possibly walk through. The  great thing about Cinque Terre is that there are no cars. Everybody has to walk to their houses which are usually at the tops of a steep cliff or a hill. I guess the locals are used to it. I even saw an old grandma trudging up a hill with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.

The bad thing is that there are too many tourists crammed in small places like the town of Vernazza which is kind of an armpit.  It’s as if there was pipeline from New Jersey that dumps obnoxious douche bags straight into the center of town. Although a lot of people go there to hike along the cliffs, I go there to sit on my ass and sip cups of thick as mud hot chocolate, and wander through the tiny shops, hoping the hot chocolate won’t make my ass too big to fit into the interesting clothes I’m buying. With the exception of Vernazza, most  of the Cinque Terre is pure awesomeness. Luckily we picked the perfect neighborhood to stay in, right by the beach in Monterosso where the only armpit I encounter is the one that belongs to the colossal muscle man that’s carved out of a mountain.

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