It is none other than the islands of Venice. Take one step into Venice and you find yourself caught up in a fairytale world disconnected from everyday reality. Go in February, and the fantasy becomes even more intense—with the entire city dressed up in costume for the Carnevale di Venezia, one of the top three carnivals in the world. It’s as magical as a trip to Disneyland.
It’s difficult to imagine today, but long ago, Milan was actually a prosperous water city crisscrossed by a network of canals as well. The waterways that flowed through Milan were manmade canals that drew their water from several rivers that branched off the Lombardy.
The romantic gondola was born in canals of Venice, and it’s the perfect vehicle for a town dressed up in costumes and masks. The history of the gondola is fascinating as well. In the beginning, for example, every one of them was decorated to show off its might—with owners striving to create the most flamboyant and ostentatious designs. Everyone with wealth and power poured money into their gondolas, commissioning famous artists and openly competing to have the very best.
Some 10,000 craft were built during the golden age of the gondola. Considering that there are only about 400 of them today, you can imagine the headache of the constant traffic jams clogging the canals back then! Plus, given that these watercrafts were not designed with the rowers in mind, they must have been terribly difficult to navigate as well.
The Milanese, on the other hand, were decidedly more practical than their counterparts in Venice. They were purely focused on making the canals practical and functional, allowing merchants and boats carrying building materials for the duomo cathedrals to travel back and forth. After the city had become prosperous by maximizing the use of its canals, the Milanese came up with a different way of doing business that was even faster and more efficient than waterborne travel.
The canals were filled in and turned into roads. By focusing entirely on the utilization of vehicles, Milan again underwent tremendous development both commercially and industrially.
Today, there are three canals remaining in Milan. The areas along each canal each have their own unique features, but they are all ideal settings for a stroll. There are of course the shops and street stalls to visit, but you can also see canoers practicing for competition or peek into the gardens of the lovely homes along the water. You might even get to enjoy a family of geese swimming in the water. Each day offers new sights to see.
If you charter a boat, you can get an entirely new perspective on the Milanese cityscape from the water. When the breeze passing through the canals hits your face, it calls up images of a time when boats carrying marble for the duomo ran silently up and down these same channels.
If you have an opportunity to compare photos of modern Milan, without the canals, with photos of the way it looked back then, it’s a fascinating experience—and one that leaves you with a feeling that’s difficult to describe. On one hand, it’s a shame that the city’s lost the romantic look that the canals created; on the other, the thoroughly practical modern infrastructure is also quite impressive.
So the other day I became completely transfixed by one of those old photos of Milan. I’ve seen all kinds of photos of the long-lost canals in the twenty years that I’ve lived here, but I ran across one black-and-white image that was unlike any I’d ever seen before. I thought I knew everything about the old waterways, but what I discovered in the photo was that a canal once ran through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in the heart of the city. This new fact was suddenly plain to see.
How could I have lived here for two decades and known nothing of this critical fact?! On one hand, it was a bit embarrassing. Meanwhile, however, my heart leapt at the great discovery.
Sadly, though, it all came to nothing. Apparently, someone had created a composite photo that was circulating in order to hoodwink unsuspecting people like me on a recent April Fool’s Day. And I completely bought it!