Milan is a peculiar city. It does not seduce, it does not conquer its visitors at first sight. Many times you can be surprised by discovering an unexpected profile, but after a few steps this magic atmosphere seems to disappear. It is difficult to understand Milan because of its many “secrets”, often hidden in private courtyards, which remain unknown even to native Milanese. Its richness can be admired, for example, inside a building that apparently looks like any other. Milan history is often hidden behind a small invisible door and you have to read between the lines in order to discover it.
Here you can find a fascinating itinerary, suited both to those people who visit Milan for the first time and to those who have been living in the city all along. Our guide will be the Italian poet Alda Merini and our destination, the Navigli canals.
The Navigli. They can be considered the heart of Milan. The first miles of Naviglio Grande were constructed in 1179, while Bertola da Novate began developing the Naviglio Martesana in the 15th century, under the commission of Milan Duke Francesco Sforza. The inhabitants of Milan are very proud of this system, because the creation of 90 miles of canals took only 35 years. The works were completed in 1475, and just a short time later, Leonardo Da Vinci ideated a system of locks that would enable navigation between Lake Como and Milan.
There were many other works during the centuries, up to 1805 when Napoleon completed the Naviglio Pavese: a network of fully navigable channels was created that linked Milan with Lakes Maggiore and Como and the Mediterranean sea. Milan Cathedral owes a great deal to the Navigli: the marble used to build it was carried through the canals. In the second half of the 19th century, the canals lost their key role in transportation. The final blow came when cars began to be used. During the Fascist period, the internal section was covered with asphalt and the new roads took the name of Cerchia dei Navigli. Today the Navigli area (with its still visible canals) is a dynamic social center for the city, with many cafés, pubs and restaurants lining the canals.
Alda Merini. All throughout her life, this poet was very close to the Navigli, whose slow flow was a faithful companion for her poetical works. Alda Merini was born in the Navigli area and lived most of her life there, especially from 1986 to her death in 2009; the final period of her life was characterized by significant public recognition and an extensive artistic production.
Forget for a moment the typical Milanese Happy Hour scene or the Saturday night atmosphere along the Navigli; rather, come here in the morning, possibly a foggy one, to experience the canals as they once were. Visit one of the bookshops, where you can purchase – for 7-20 euros – one of Alda Merini’s poetic collection such as L’altra verità (Bur ed.), Superba è la notte (Einaudi), Canto Milano (Manni) or Eternamente Vivo (Frassinelli).
The Navigli are a few minutes walk from the Porta Genova subway stop. You can enjoy a very pleasant stroll from Naviglio Grande to Ripa di Porta Ticinese, visiting the characteristic narrow streets, and stopping somewhere to read a poem. You can wander, discover the antiquarian bookstores, the craft shops and the typical old houses of the canal area.
Along the itinerary you can reach via Mangone, where the poet was born, and in Ripa di Porta Ticinese, you can stop in front of the building at number 47. Beginning in 1986, Alda Merini lived at the second floor of this house, full of old books and cats. Just a few meters beyond is Chimera – a favorite café-library haunt for the poet, the perfect spot to read some of her poetry.
“Returning to Milan at night is so beautiful. I would only leave the city to go to heaven. But perhaps, even from there, I would miss my home.” (Alda Merini from Corriere della Sera, 2003)
Last but not least, you can reach via Magolfa 32 and enter the former tobacco factory recently turned into Casa Merini – Atelier della parola giovane. Dedicated to the great poet, this museum recreates her house at Ripa di Porta Ticinese, with her personal objects, her piano, desk, cigarettes and ever-present lipsticks. Here one can make a real journey through her life and verses. The ground floor of the Atelier is often used for youth poetry workshops.