italy 8: verona, milan, and lake maggiore

Romeo and Juliet in Verona

Verona dates back to the Romans when their soldiers used it as a stop to rest and exercise a bit on their way up north. They built an arena here to train on how to fight the Germanic tribes, east of the Rhine, whom they were never able to conquer. This arena still stands in impeccable condition and is used for matches and concerts today. The economy of Verona is heavily food based; the annual national food fair is held here.

The Middle Ages was a time of rivalry and intense fighting between Italy’s many city-states. There were two main groups, namely, the guelphs [supporters of the pope] and ghibellines [supporters of the emperor]. In 1302, the backdrop for the most beautiful and poignant love story in history, rivalry between these two groups was at an all time high. Romeo belonged to the Montagues, the Montecchi family who were guelphs, whilst Juliet Capuleti was from the Capulets, and ghibellines. This rivalry extended along all lines: economic, political, et al. Shakespeare took this 14th Century tale and immortalised it in his play. I visited Juliet’s house, a roomy establishment of three floors with painted walls and roofs. The famous balcony from which she had looked down at Romeo on that momentous day overlooks a courtyard in which a statue of her stands. Legend has it that rubbing her hand brings good fortune in love. So I obliged. Even though Juliet’s luck was pretty badly timed. Both she and Romeo died before they could do much about their affections!

United Colours of Benetton

In the 1950s a brother-sister team [Luciano and Juliana] started off their business by making sweaters. Today, the Benetton group has 7,000 shops in 120 countries worldwide. Eighteen years ago the company hired a publicity manager who created Benetton’s unique hard-hitting PR strategy—bill boards which would be up for only three months and carry a social message that would make people think rather than display the product itself. The most controversial campaign conceived was the one with a priest and nun kissing on the lips. The Pope was furious. The bill board stayed. Later on in another campaign, three identical but differently coloured hearts—white, black and yellow—gave out the message that the same heart beat in all of us, immaterial of race.

Till recently, all highway stops were owned by the government. When the state decided to privatise them they were bought over by the Benetton group and converted into self-service stops called AutoGrill. They dot the whole country and have even been opened in France and Spain. Sweaters and pasta? United colours of life. 🙂

Things to see in Milan

With a population of 2.5 million, Milan is the capital of the state Lombardy and the second largest city in the country. Lombardy is named after the lombard tribe who came from Europe and settled in the first plain after the mountains. It is the biggest, wealthiest and most efficient state in the country. Milan has over 400 banks and houses head offices of international companies based in Italy. International trade fairs are held throughout the year. However, though buzzing with the thrill and excitement of the world of finance and international business, Milan’s soul still lies in the opening and closing nights of the Scala and in the ceremonies held in the cathedral of Milano.

Milan had a slow start compared to other Italian cities. The Romans came to Milan as late as the 4th Century. In 313 AD the first Christian emperor Constantine established the edict of Milan which proclaimed freedom of religion. Led by religious leaders, Milan housed the first Christian council under the bishop Ambrose. During the Middle Ages religion fell into decay. The wealthy landowners, dominated by three main families, took over the city for the next 600 years. Despite the city’s rich history little survives. Three times in the city’s past, partial or total destruction has followed conflict, namely, in 539, 1157, and 1944.

The Duomo, Milan’s glory, is a Gothic marvel in white marble decorated with incredibly beautiful belfries, gables, pinnacles and statues. Building began in 1386 on the orders of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, who came up with the idea of coronating himself as the king of the world and needed a cathedral to be the venue of the ceremony. He, however, caught the plague and died before building could be completed. Work continued under the direction of Italian, French and German master masons for the next 400 years. The facade was finally completed between 1805-09 under the orders of Napoleon. The overall design is the work of French architect Nicolas de Bonaventure. One hundred forty-eight meters wide and 91 meters high, the cathedral contains the relics of Jesus Christ’s cross. Saint Carlo and Saint Bartholomew are also buried within.

Shrouded in dim light, the inside is comparatively bare, severe and imposing; the high Gothic roof supported by 52 pillars. Wonderful 15th and 16th Century tracery and rose windows depicting the life of Jesus decorate the walls. Shelley swore this was the best place to read Dante; indeed, with 135 spires and 2,245 marble statues, it is one of the most awe-inspiring [as well as one of the largest] churches in Italy. As I walked through the spires on its roof, the stone-hewn saints seemed suspended in mid-air, looking down at the square where thousands of Italians cheered their team playing the World Cup in South Korea/ Japan. Italy lost the match though, that day.

Milan has numerous other cultural treasures as well. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, a great glass-topped, barrel-vaulted tunnel, is a spectacularly extravagant late-19th Century shopping mall that is rivalled in Belle Epoque splendour only by Moscow’s GUM department store. The Castello Sforzesco is a huge quadrilateral building and was the seat of Sforza, the Duke of Milan. In Santa Maria delle Grazie, dedicated to Maria “the mother of God” is one of the greatest and, alas, one of the most damaged masterpieces of western art: Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. And finally, the imposing Teatro alla Scala stands at the site of a church built by Regina de la Scala who was married into the Visconti family. She had tried for very many years to have a son. When she finally did have one, she built a church in his honour. With time the church fell into neglect and a theatre was built here in 1776-78, retaining the original name. Every year 16 different operas are held at the Scala, of which at least six are the biggest acclaimed international hits. Deceptively simple on the exterior, the inside on the other hand is magnificent with six levels of boxes and a seating capacity of 20,000.


Known also as CH, the Confoederatio Helvetica, or Confederation of Helvetica, Switzerland traces its origins back to 1 August, 1291 when the local tribe Helvetica grouped itself to protect their land from colonisation and invasion by other Europeans. Switzerland is home to 20 percent of the Alps which cover two-thirds of the country. Approximately 100 peaks are close to or higher than 4,000 meters. The highest mountain is Monte Rosa at 4,634 meters. All major European rivers [Po, Rhine, Rhone, Inn] have their source here. The country has nine glacier lakes 400 meters deep.

In early times, Swiss boys were sent out as mercenary soldiers to other European countries, for instance during the French Revolution and as Swiss guards of the Pope. These soldiers stitched a white cross on their uniforms to distinguish themselves apart. This cross against their blood spattered clothing gave rise to the Swiss national flag. The current population of the country is around 6.5 million, with 12 percent Italian, 65 percent German, 18 percent French, 1 percent Romansh [a people that speak Latin] and 4 percent comprising refugees.

Switzerland’s current economy is firmly based on its banking system which is “secret” and dates back to 1934, built around Hitler’s currency restrictions; its other main economic pillar is its ski resorts. During the world wars the country’s 567 banks suffered severely. Since then they have made a turnaround with their asset base increasing by 4,000 percent. Information regarding a Swiss account is only known to the account holder and one director at the bank. The account is known not by name but by its number. All transactions are completely confidential and cannot be revealed to anyone, unless a crime is done by the account holder in Switzerland itself. Anybody can open an account in any currency. There are many notorious accounts held in Switzerland, including those of the ex-President Marcus of Philippines. Switzerland made an application to enter the European Union, but was rejected, and offered entry on condition that they changed their banking laws. A referendum was placed in front of the people who refused. Thus, though surrounded by the European Union, Switzerland is not a member.

A Swiss is not a citizen of Switzerland, but is in fact a citizen of one of the 23 communities or cantons. The most powerful institution is the executive authority consisting of seven members, of which one is the president for a period of one year. Women have been voting in Switzerland only since 1971. Women of two cantons still cannot vote. It is very difficult to get citizenship in Switzerland. One must have stayed for a minimum of five years, have contributed positively to the well-being of the community and be voted for by the community itself.

Lastly, for this blog post, Switzerland is a neutral state. However, this goes hand in hand with a firm belief in self-defence. By law, all Swiss men have to be involved in military affairs throughout their lives. Covered with mountains, it has also been imperative for the country to develop a transport system that is fast and cost-effective. The Swiss tunnel system, cutting through mountains provides both transport routes and nuclear shelters with food and medical necessities encased in them. Residential houses contain underground nuclear shelters as well.

I visited Lugano in the Italian speaking region of Switzerland. The air was crisp as I strolled through the gardens edging the lake. Modern works of art in bronze lay scattered in the squares and road sides. The mountains a fuzzy blue green, the water calm as silk … a hot cappuccino in a little cafe in a side street with check table clothes. Nothing quite compares to just being alive.

Some interesting Swiss

In 1862, the Swiss gentleman Jean Henri Dunant set out to help other nations, irrespective of which side they were on, taking the Swiss flag with him. His initiative led to the formation of the Red Cross in 1864 which now has its head office in Geneva and branches throughout the world. In Muslim countries the red cross is replaced with a red moon. In 1875, a Swiss named Daniel Peter together with a chemist mixed chocolate powder with milk, creating the first ever chocolate in the world. Known globally for its confectionery, the average Swiss only consumes an average of 22.9 pounds of chocolate annually. The country is also famous for its inventions: the Swiss army knife and the first ever self winding and water proof watches. Rolex is a Swiss make.

Lake Maggiore

Sixty-five kilometres long, 5 kilometres wide and with a depth of 12,075 feet, Lake Maggiore was my next stop. The lake is fed by melting snows from the mountains. One-third of the lake, towards the north, lies in Switzerland while two-thirds is in Italy. I stayed at Baveno. A private launch took me to the world renowned islands of the lake to view Isola Madre, Isola dei Pescatori and on the Isola Bella I visited the palace of the Borromean princes. A large section of the lake had been given to the Borromeo family in the 15th Century. In the 17th Century, Charles III established a residence on Isola Bella, and named it after his wife, Isabella. The palace is in Baroque style and has several state rooms. Its most unusual feature are its grottoes or cooler rooms which were used by residents to cool off during the hot summers. 🙂


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