On my three days in Milan I used the BikeMi shared bike scheme for most of my transportation, always my preferred way of getting around.
But it was really hot and humid and the bikes are heavy and sluggish on the cobbles. That’s quite tough going for a non-acclimatised escapee from the North, and the locals saying “you are so lucky it’s not hot today” didn’t really help. That’s my excuse for my mood on late Friday afternoon when I was slumped in my accommodation after biking back from work and I moaned to my wife on Skype that I not terribly inspired to get up and take advantage of being in a great city.
She was clearly bemused by this, offering only the comment “but you have a bike don’t you?”
Ah how well she knows me, and how muddle-headed I must have seemed. I should be doing what I always do, get into shorts and a t-shirt, grab a bike again and if at all possible get onto a leisure route. That seemed a bit challenging, I wasn’t sure that I could find anything close to my location except an urban ride, the mayor of Milan may have grand ideas to open up the city’s medieval canal network, but that’s an idea on paper just now.
But then the joy of the internet presented itself, because looking for the Milan Cycle Map on line I came across several uploaded tracks from other cyclists that seemed to follow the same 10 km route south east from my location into a green area and river valley.
I had discovered The Valley and the Way of the Monks, (Il Cammino dei Monaci) and it looked like I could navigate a ride at least as far as the Abbey of Chiaravalle even on a BikeMi.
On my ride I found a tourism and environmental project connecting a series of historical religious sites along the valley of the river Vettabbia including restoration of the quality of the agricultural and wetlands around the 900 year old abbey of Chiaravalle. A new sewage plant in the area had cleaned up the water and the Vettabia Park was created as a recreational and wildlife habitat, previously it had become a stinking sewer for water leaving the city.
I didn’t know my route had a special identity when I set off, it revealed itself when I started to find a series of information boards along the way. Instead my first steps were a series of historic buildings closer the heart of Milan.
I went to the square of San Stefano to collect my bike, a really scenic spot to start any ride. I took a few minutes to wander into the Ossuary of San Bernadino (Santuario Di S. Bernardino Alle Ossa) on the north side of the square because the rounded ceiling was prominent outside my apartment window and I wanted to check it out.
From there I passed by the former hospital of Milan which had been splendidly restored after bombing in WW2 and now provided a stunningly beautiful courtyard for the University of Milan.
I pushed on relatively quickly down Corso di Porta Romana, past the old Roman gate and along the excellent cycle path on Corso Lodi because the route was familiar from my daily rides to the FIAB office.
Then I began my new discoveries as I swung south and joined a wide paved area which was the centre strip of a much wider tree lined street, in effect a linear park, with children’s play areas and strollers taking the evening air and just chilling on the seats. It had a nice feeling of evening relaxation.
The cycle path was also clearly signposted to Chiaravalle which gave me encouragement and as I got further out from the city I started to feel more light, more open spaces and the bike path became almost Dutch in its ambition to offer a joined up cycling highway. (I may exaggerate, but my mood was lifting by the minute so I was very tolerant at that point)
This route took me to the entrance of the Vettabbia Park where I had to trade smooth tarmac for gravel paths, but I upgraded to green space, clean air, tranquillity and glowing evening sunlight.
Ahead of me a splendid tower poked its head above the landscape and told me that I must be approaching Chiaravalle, although it was actually a ride of at least two kilometres through the park and I made numerous diversions around the networks of paths around the site.
I had few hopes that Chiaravalle would be open as I was well into the evening when I got there but I was very pleased to discover I could wander into its inner courtyard and see the extent of the restoration which was bringing the many buildings of the monastic community that had been on site since 1135 back to life.
The complex system of drains, dykes, bridges and canals that spread through a huge area and created my ride all had their origins in the management of irrigation and farming by the monastery, a very impressive operation.
Chiaravalle village showed its origins as an extension of the abbey community, it too was like a little Venice with watercourses wrapping themselves under and around every corner, always under the gaze of the abbey tower.
I found myself wishing this was a full day tour and I could carry on and explore much more of the Walk of the Monks because the maps showed it connected sites, towns and villages to the south that would eventually connect up with the Via Francigena pilgrims’ route to Rome and beyond.
But the sun was beginning to drop so I took the sensible option and began to make my way back to the city through the park. Despite the prospect of a cool beer and some fine Italian food I stretched my time in the park to a maximum because the light was glorious and some of the photography just excellent.
A few late cyclists clearly had the same view as they circled around with the joggers.
The cycle paths back to the city captured the final rays of the sun until I arrived back at Piazza San Stefano to deposit my bike.
Then the choice was easy, a restaurant with terrace on the beautiful piazza was the perfect end to a very pleasant evening.
Thanks (again) to my wonderful wife for the kick up the backside a few hours earlier – without her nudge I might have missed this completely, instead I was restored by my short tour out of Milan.