When we think of Milan (besides The Last Supper, La Scala and the Duomo) we think of large and urban. After all, Milan is Italy’s second largest city and a major financial, industrial (and fashion) center. What we don’t think of is quiet parks and bike trails…unless we take a SideTrip!
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A Look at Milan’s Naviglio Grande
Lying in the middle of the Po River Plain, on the map Milan does not look like a port! Yet since the Middle Ages a sophisticated system of canals has connected Milan to Lake Maggiore and Switzerland to the north, as well as Pavia and the Po River to the south and eventually to the Adriatic Sea.
The largest of these canals is the Naviglio Grande (nah-VEE-lyo GRAN-day). It begins to the north of Milan at Lake Maggiore and follows the Ticino River, turns east towards Milan, and ends at the darsena – now the trendy Navigli quarter of Milan, with its lively nightlife of restaurants and bars.
Irrigation canals are known to have dotted the Lombardy region since the Middle Ages; navigation on the Naviglio Grande began in 1270 and ended in 1972 – 700 years!
In 1482 when Leonardo da Vinci first arrived in Milan, he was asked by Duke Ludovico il Moro to improve the canal. The ingenious Leonardo devised a system of locks to compensate for the change in level over the course of the canal – all the while painting The Last Supper in Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie church!
The canals played a significant role in Milan’s development into an important commercial and industrial city. The Naviglio Grande served as a transport link to bring coal, wood, cheese and cattle from the north to Milan in exchange for salt, wheat, manufactured goods, cloth and other goods.
It was particularly useful for connecting the quarries north of Lake Maggiore which supplied the enormous quantities of marble needed for building the Duomo (cathedral) of Milan, known for its elaborate carved spires and over 3000 statues. Construction began in 1386 and took several centuries to build.
Today the old towpath along the naviglio is a well cared for cycling and hiking path, called Alzaia Naviglio. Part of the canal flows through the Parco del Ticino, a scenic nature preserve a few kilometers west of Milan.
You can easily get there by taking a train from Milan’s Cadorna Station to the town of Turbigo. (Look for the train going in the direction of Novara.) From the Turbigo station a short walk takes you to the beautiful stretch of the Naviglio Grande which goes through the Parco del Ticino.
When you get to the canal, whether you turn right or left, either direction is beautiful!
While taking these photos a plane heading for Malpensa flew overhead, a reminder that the busy airport is only 5 miles away from this tranquil scene!
(Please wait for the slideshow to upload…)
SideTripZ Guest Contributer: A native Californian, Julie Guicciardi is a longtime resident of Italy.
Photos: Julie Guicciardi
Link to map showing area; Turbigo is halfway between Milan (lower right corner) and Lake Maggiore (upper left corner):
Link to map of Turbigo, showing train station and Alzaia Naviglio: