On my last trip to Italy I used the tour company Walks of Italy for most of our Italian walking tour experiences and loved every minute of them. In recent years I’ve become a convert to the importance of a high quality walking tour in helping me unlock the secrets of new cities. Guide books are fine, but nothing beats the expertise and knowledge of a professional guide. I heard great things about Walks of Italy so when they approached me with the idea of highlighting some of their tours as their guest I couldn’t wait to try them out. In Venice they helped me discover a city I never thought I’d like but in Milan the experience was a little different. I had been in the city for a week but purposely avoided most of the touristy sights so that my Walks of Italy tour would be fresh and new. What we couldn’t count on was the weather; December is not the city’s best weather month but I found that the fog and mist not only suited the tour but made it all the more memorable.
It was freezing in Milan when I found myself waiting outside the Santa Maria delle Grazie church for my private walking tour. Winter had come to stay and while we had enjoyed unusually clear weather, that Saturday morning the fog rolled in with a vengeance. A cup of espresso at the cafe across the street warmed me up though and I was ready to go. Thank god my guide was on time otherwise I may have become over caffeinated to the point of hospitalization, but I was luckily rescued by the fact our first stop was also one of the most important – The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci.
I was fascinated to hear the real story of the famous work of art, learning things I’d never before known. The process to actually see the fresco in person is well coordinated by the church and a serious of hermetically sealed doors only allow 15 people in at a time. I’m no art critic and I usually feel a little out of place when standing before great works of art; I know I should be appreciating them but I’m not always sure why. My guide filled those gaps though and for once I felt like I had an edge over the other tourons.
The Last Supper and Santa Maria della Grazie was a great starting point for the tour. Hidden away in this small church in a part of town not known for its sights or museums, I got to see more of the city and experience what it’s like to call one of the most beautiful cities in the world home. As we walked through the continually freezing and foggy Milan I didn’t just learn about the sights, I learned about the entire city. I asked all kinds of questions and my guide was good enough to put up with even the most ridiculous of them.
We went from church to church, neighborhood to neighborhood. Past famous opera houses and even toured the Sforza Castle. As we walked down the the pedestrian street towards what I consider the heart of the city, the Duomo, I couldn’t help but feel energized. The city had begun to wake up and people were scurrying around doing last minute Christmas shopping and loading up on espressos and pastries. On a nearby corner a busker was playing ‘Eye of the Tiger’ on an electric guitar and the great Piazza del Duomo spread out behind him. Even though I had by that time been to the plaza on a daily basis, I felt like I was seeing it again for the first time and couldn’t help but marvel at its size and scale.
In the 19th century medieval streets and buildings were razed to make room for this great square with the already present Duomo as its centerpiece. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II rose up to my left and all around the square tourists, locals and street artists were engaging in their urban ballet.
Did I learn a lot on my tour? You bet, but as a former tour guide I can tell you that’s not really what makes a good tour. Most people don’t remember anything they learn on a tour, but they do remember how they felt. They remember if they were happy or bored, if they laughed or yawned. They remember only if they had a good time, not necessarily what the guide did to create that moment for them. My guide created that moment for me, that unforgettable time during my trip that allowed me to be awed by Milan and to enjoy it as only a newcomer can. Now that is what makes a great tour.