Milan in the Lombardian region of Italy was once a city of waters and in the past just as rich of canals as Venice. The majority of these canals are drained or covered today, while a few are left untouched and visible – mainly in the area of Porta Ticinese, where the two great Navigli start: the Great Naviglio and the Naviglio Pavese.
In its heyday, the canals formed a 150km long network that connected the city with the rivers and lakes in the region. The canals were used for irrigation; they provided the city with water and were ideal to transport people and goods to and from remote areas as far as the Alps and even the sea, reached via the river Po. The marble used for the construction of the Duomo was transported via these waterways from the Lago Maggiore near the Alps to the centre of the city.
I was there while attending CEPIS Council Meeting and our host AICA invited us to a walk and boat trip on this historical ground. I gladly take you along and let’s start with a collage to set the mood:
Two long streets run along the Navigli and walking along the banks of the Navigli is certainly worth it, the visitor has the feeling of walking down the streets of Venice.
A bit of history:
Construction of the oldest canal – the Ticinello – started in 1179, quickly succeeded by a number of other canals. A series of locks were built to overcome the differences in elevation which at the time posed a serious technical challenge. It is said that Ludovico di Moro, Duke of Milan at the end of the 15th century requested the help of Leonardo da Vinci to design an innovative system of locks.
Thanks to this network of canals, Milan had one of the country’s largest inland ports, despite the absence of a main river. The canals were so much part of the urban fabric that some areas of the city resembled Venetian neighbourhoods. With the growing importance of road transportation, traffic on the canals dwindled quickly and many were filled in during late 19th and early 20th century until the activity came to a complete standstill in 1979.
The most interesting of the few remaining canals is where we were: the Naviglio Grande. Here you’ll find iron pedestrian bridges, a small church – the Santa Maria delle Grazie al Naviglio – and the picturesque Vicolo dei Lavandai. Here women washed their family’s clothes with water from the canal. Many women also took in laundry as a business while there husband worked mostly as sailors or fisherman and together they supported their families. The mostly pedestrian-friendly streets along the canal were once tow-paths, from which horses and oxen towed the barges. Again a collage to sum up:
A boat trip along the canal:
While on the boat trip, I took the chance of filming with my mobile phone and if pictures say more than a thousand words, what do you think of this : -)
My wife and I had a four days stay in Milan when I took the advantage of combining business with pleasure. This town has of course much more to offer and we have more to share. So stay tuned for a historical roundtrip as well as a gourmet adventure in a local restaurant with the Lombardian regional specialties!