Milan travel- mighty Sforza castle and Roman-era basilica

Sforza Castle, Milan, Italy
Milan might be Italy’s most prosperous and modern city but it also boasts several impressive historical sights. These include the massive Duomo cathedral, Sforza Castle or Castello Sforzesco, and the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, a 1,600-year-old Roman church.

Sforza Castle is a handsome brownish-red castle that was built in the 15th century by the Duke of Milan that was one of Europe’s largest citadels at one point. The great Leonardo da Vinci decorated part of the interior. It boasts a central tower that looms high above the walls of the castle, which is built in a quadrangular shape. Inside, the castle is divided into three courtyards, the main one, and the smaller Ducale and Rocchetta.

Nowadays, the castle is also a giant museum complex, housing several connected museums that feature paintings, medieval weapons, musical instruments, tapestries, antique furniture, prehistoric artifacts, and even Egyptian artifacts. There is even the last work of the great Michelangelo, an unfinished marble sculpture of the Virgin Mary carrying Jesus’ dead body.

It is an impressive diverse collection of exhibits that lets you explore the castle, while appreciating great art and artifacts and learning about Milanese history. I do find having museums inside a castle is a great way to make use of such a historic building while allowing visitors to double up on their enjoyment. Even if these museums weren’t in this castle, they would be worth checking out.

The castle is also used as venue for events like a vintage car show that was going on when I visited, which included sports cars from the 1960s and 1970s and antique pre-World War II cars. The castle is in Sempione Park, that also features an aquarium and a modern museum, which unfortunately I didn’t visit.
Milan, Italy

Built in 379–386, the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio is a Roman-era church that is also brownish-red, similar to Sforza Castle. As befitting one of Milan’s main churches, the basilica is quite elegant with a smooth exterior, which again is similar to Sforza Castle. It features a triangular roof and a portico with arches with an enclosed open courtyard in front of it, flanked by two bell towers on either side. The shorter tower was built in the 9th century while the other one was built in the mid-12th century. Inside, the crypt features the remains of three saints – Ambrose, who the church is named after, Gervasus and Protasus.
Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan

How to get there: For Sforza Castle, get off at Cairoli Castello subway station on the Red Line or Lanza station on the Green Line.
For Basilica of Sant’Ambroglio, get off at S. Ambrogio subway station on the Green Line.
Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan
Inside the basilica Continue reading “Milan travel- mighty Sforza castle and Roman-era basilica”

Rome travel- eternal sights


Rome is famous for great historic sites such as the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, but what makes it a fantastic city is that there are many more sites across the city. A lot of the sights are close to each other, such as the Colosseum and the Roman Forum and Capitoline Hill, and there are entire neighborhoods or districts that are full of landmarks. A lot of other cities have famous sites but when you visit those sites, there isn’t much to see in the immediate vicinity. In Rome, the famous sites are often next to other interesting sites, and the surroundings are filled with beautiful and historic buildings.

Besides the Colosseum and the Forum, two of Rome’s most well-known tourist attractions are the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. Both are east of the Via del Corso, a straight street that was built by the Romans (from the Roman empire, not the present) and within 15 minutes from each other. Unfortunately, they were both undergoing renovations when I was there so it was underwhelming, but still crowded.

The Pantheon is to the west of the Via del Corso, while not far away is the Piazza Navona, a superb square built by the Romans in the 1st century AD and surrounded by historic buildings with an obelisk and beautiful fountains in the center. The Pantheon is a former Roman temple, from 126 AD, with a domed ceiling with an occulus (central hole in the middle of it). It is incredibly well preserved, simply because it has been in continual use as a place of worship.

Crossing the Tiber took me to the Castel Sant’Angelo, a castle built by the Emperor Hadrian in 129 AD. The top of the castle gives you fine views of the River Tiber and the Vatican, with St Peter’s Basilica visible.


The Trevi Fountain, fenced off for renovations but still a crowd-puller

Parthenon, Rome
Pantheon

Outside the Pantheon is the Piazza della Rotonda
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France travel- Chambéry


When I visited France, I went to a place not many people have been to, the small town of Chambéry, located in the southeast near the French Alps. The reason I visited Chambéry was because it was between Paris and Milan and I wanted to stay somewhere in the middle. While it is obscure, Chambéry used to be capital of the House of Savoy, way back in the Middle Ages from 1295-1563, which ruled a region covering southeastern France and northwestern Italy. However when the Duke of Savoy moved the capital to Turin in Italy in 1563, Chambéry steadily declined in terms of political importance.

Chambéry is still pleasant, with a heritage area that has a castle, lanes with attractive buildings, and the Elephants Fountain, built to honor Benoît de Boigne, a military officer from Chambéry, for his feats as a general with the Maratha Empire in India in the late 18th century. Apparently he served in the French military, then went overseas to India. The castle or chateau was a large, formidable grayish building which houses administrative offices and a chapel. You can only visit on guided tours held at certain times so I didn’t do that.

The town is a nice place to walk around since there isn’t much traffic and there are a number of lanes to pass through and see interesting old buildings and houses. One can also visit the nearby Lake Bourget in a neigbouring town or enjoy mountain views by cycling on the outskirts of the town. However, since it was a little rainy and cloudy, it was hard to see the mountains and I decided to stay in town.


Elephants Fountain, a local landmark built in 1826 to honour a local war veteran who served in India


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Germany travel-Frankfurt finale

Frankfurt might be better known as a business hub than a tourist hotspot, so not many travelers visit this city, unless they are on a business trip. For me, I was flying back to Taiwan from Frankfurt at the end of my Europe trip so I had to visit Frankfurt. And it wasn’t bad at all. The city, where Germany’s financial sector and stock market are based, has a good modern skyline, one of Europe’s best, located next to the Main river, and the Römerberg, the historic old town center where the Römer, a medieval complex that has been Frankfurt’s City Hall for over 600 years, and several reconstructed, picturesque old houses are located. The reason they were reconstructed is that the original ones were destroyed during World War II. The Römerberg was undergoing renovation when I was there, so the appearance may have changed now.

With over 1,200 years of history and being a major city in the Holy Roman Empire starting from the 9th century AD, Frankfurt has been important for a very long time. In the present, as Germany’s financial center, as well as the European Union’s, Frankfurt has one of the most numerous collection of skyscrapers in Europe, including the EU’s second and third highest skyscrapers. However these were modest compared to Asia. European cities don’t seem to have too many skyscrapers and the ones they have are not too high. I wonder if this is because of disdain for ultra-tall buildings, a lack of need, or simply building regulations. Anyhow, I liked that European cities didn’t feel crowded or cramped and were very walkable and pleasant. Frankfurt was no different.

As with most major European cities, Frankfurt has a large cathedral as well as a pedestrian shopping street that was still busy on an early weekday night. The cathedral (technically not a cathedral but it is still called one since it was used for the election and coronation of Holy Roman Emperors) is not that large, but you can pay to climb up the tower for sweeping views of the city and river. I also visited a couple of the city’s major cultural attractions. The great German writer Johanne Wolfganng Goethe was from Frankfurt, and his childhood home is now a museum, an elegant house where the rooms are well preserved and personal belongings show visitors how Goethe grew up (a book about Italy given by his father helped inspired a fondness for Italy and travel for Goethe, who would later visit Italy himself). The Senckenberg Natural History Museum features great collections of fossils and stuffed animals, but the highlight was the numerous dinosaur and mammoth skeletons including the tyrannousarus rex and marine shark-like dinosaurs.

I stayed near the main train station or Hauptbahnhof, in a supposedly rough part of town, but it was very convenient for getting around as well as to the airport, less than 20 minutes away on the subway. If you find yourself in Germany and want to try a new city, give Frankfurt a chance.



The skyscraper with the strange side spire, the Commerzbank Tower, is Germany’s tallest building and the second-tallest in the EU. At right, you can see the Frankfurt Cathedral.

Römer, City Hall since the 1400s

Opposite the Römerberg is the Römer


View of Frankfurt’s business district from the cathedral’s tower

T-rex at Senckenberg Natural History Museum
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Rome travel- Roman glories


It might be long gone but the glory of the Roman Empire still lives on in Rome. Mostly in the form of the city’s most famous attraction, the mighty Colosseum, where gladiators and wild animals fought each other, and the Forum, where Roman senators and leaders used to meet to run their empire, but also numerous other buildings, ruins, castle, and even a 1.5 km road that is still very much in use.

I found the Colosseum impressive as it was built over 2,000 years ago as the Roman equivalent of today’s football stadiums but it was still quite as large as modern stadiums. Obviously, it’s been extensively renovated but it was good to see that the Colosseum is very much still intact. Once inside, you get to walk around the inner bowels and the spectator stands where you can imagine watching gladiators fighting in front of tens of thousands of bloodcrazed Romans.

The Colosseum is next to the Forum, which was the centerpiece of ancient Rome where the government used to meet, but which now exists as an impressive collection of ruins including towering columns, halls, and statues. Next to the Forum is the Palatine Hill, where many rich Romans used to reside.
After you leave the Forum, one can walk straight up the Capitoline Hill to the Piazza del Campidoglio, designed by the great Michaelangelo. A statue of Marcus Aurelius (one of Rome’s greatest emperors and who was in the movie Gladiator) mounted on a horse stands in the middle of a piazza surrounded by three exquisite buildings which house the Capitoline Museum.

My next stop was to fast forward over a thousand years in history to visit a giant hall that pays tribute to the first king of modern Italy, Vittorio Emmanuelle II, who ruled a unified Italy from 1861 to 1878. This massive all-white building fronted by columns looks impressive though apparently some locals feel it looks very out of place and is too extravagant.
From the Vittorio Emmanuelle memorial, one can walk across the roundabout to the Via del Corso, a 1.5 km road which the Romans built. On either side of this straight shopping street are elegant low-rise government and historical buildings, stores, and many lanes. To the east of the Via del Corso are historical structures like the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. I know Rome was full of history, but actually being in the midst of all these historical structures that still existed as part of modern neighborhoods and not as isolated sites was a memorable feeling.

It was notable that Rome’s subway was the grimiest and dodgiest one I’d ever taken (Toronto’s TTC subway was previously the dodgiest I’d ever taken). The trains were covered in graffiti and the platforms were slightly dark, which made me feel a little uncomfortable. Fortunately, I encountered no problems.
All in all, this was a fantastic first full day in the Eternal City.



From the Palatine Hill looking over the Forum. The Colosseum is in the back next to the tower.

Piazza del Campidoglio

Some Romans consider this monument to Italy’s first king Vittorio Emmanuelle II a little too grandiose.
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Civilization- book review

Why does the West dominate the world today? Why did the West become so successful in advancing from a chaotic backwater 500 years ago to overtaking Chinese, Indian, Ottoman, Arab, and other civilizations? Niall Ferguson attempts to tackle this major question in a fascinating and informative book. Despite its provocative subtitle – The Six Killer Apps of Western Power, the book is nuanced and not some form of propaganda advocating Western supremacy. According to Ferguson, six major factors allowed the West (Europe and later, the US) to become the world’s leading region: competition, science, property, medicine, consumption, and work.

Competition arose from compact populations that led to a multitude of kingdoms and city states that eventually became the dozens of countries in Europe today. China, for example, is equivalent to most of Europe in area and has a far greater population. As a result, while Chinese emperors put a lot of effort into administering and securing their giant empire, European states constantly fought and competed.

Science is self-explanatory. Europe experienced the age of Enlightenment and Reformation that led to the questioning of old dogmas and religious ideas that were erroneous or nonsense, like the earth being flat. In contrast, in civilizations like the Arab world, religion became a central force and dominated thinking and education.

Property rights meant people could own their own land and be assured of ownership by ensuring the state or other people could not simply seize it. Ferguson compares North America to South America, which were colonised by different countries and had vastly different experiences. Hence, North America had a more “liberal” experience (not trying to excuse slavery) in which private property rights payed a key role in legal, political and economic liberalization, while South America had a more feudal colonialism in which land was concentrated in the hands of the few.

Similar to science and also a result of it, a lot of medical advances took place in Europe in various fields (surgery, dentistry, psychology etc) and led to things like the eradication of smallpox, rabies, polio etc.

Consumption refers to materialism. Simply put, this was a big part of the West’s economic success over the last century (and East Asia’s in the last few decades). Industrialization meant both more goods produced and more wealth generated, which would be spent on goods and hence lead to greater demand, in an ever-growing cycle. For the US, this helped it become the world’s most dominant economy due to a vast domestic consumer market and because it made goods that the world wanted like jeans, Coca Cola, and planes.

Work might sound strange, because people everywhere work, but Ferguson’s main point is that Protestantism, which originated in Germany, helped promote economic development. That’s because its emphasis on hard work and prosperity encouraged people to focus on economic activities by making generating wealth seem sanctioned by the Lord.

There is much, much more than what I’ve summarized up here. There is a lot of facts, arguments, and examples in Civilization that make it a very compelling book, whether you agree with its points or not.

One might argue that China, as well as India, Southeast Asia, and Russia, is challenging Western dominance and Ferguson addresses this directly in the conclusion. In this, he says the West’s problem is not the rise of China, India etc but that it has lost faith in its own advantages. That might be true but it remains to be seen whether the West can regain its dominance or shrink from the challenge of China, Russia, and the developing world.