While walking around the centre of Milan, it is hard to believe that the city was, in Medieval times, an important port, with a whole network of canals used to transport goods in and out of the city and the surrounding region of Lombardy. As canals became less important as a method of transport, many of the Milan canals were filled in, and were covered over and replaced by roads during the 20th Century. Now, just two main canals, the Navilgio Grande and the Naviglio Pavese, are still navigable, with the Naviglio Grande being the oldest navigable canal in Europe. Recently the Istituto per i Navigli has been campaigning for the return of navigation on the canal. The project, called ‘From Switzerland to the Sea’ promotes the restoration of the canal as part of a long distance waterway linking Lake Maggiore to Venice.
Typified by its traditional old wash-houses with wooden beamed roofs and humble workshops, the area was long regarded as an impoverished and neglected part of the city but, a little like the Canal St Martin in Paris, it has been transformed over the past 20 years into a lively, vibrant and artistic neighbourhood. Many of the houses lining the canals have been renovated and the old workshops replaced by trendy boutiques, art galleries, cafés, restaurants, and old moored barges fitted out as bars.
The area has also become renowned for its monthly antiques’ market, held on the last Sunday of every month, except for July, on the banks of the Naviglio Grande. Spreading a distance of two kilometres, there are stalls selling everything from furniture, porcelain and silver, jewellery to games, books and old prints. During the Sunday of the event, all the shop-owners of the area, and the numerous restaurants and art galleries remain open.
For those in Milan during the first ten days of June, a not to be missed event is the Festa dei Navigli, an event held each year to officially welcome the arrival of Summer, with street artists, live entertainment, concerts, markets, cooking demonstrations and more. With the canal illuminated in the evenings, it is a great way to wander the streets and discover some excellent local restaurants, and enjoy the torch parade on the last evening. Moreover, from the beginning of June, traffic is stopped in the evenings until September, allowing the bars and restaurants to spill out into the pavements between 8pm and 2am every day.
Bars and restaurants worth a visit
Arguably the best venue on the Milan jazz‑club scene is Le Scimmie, which has its own bar‑boat moored in the Naviglio Pavese canal. It operates Monday to Saturday, with shows starting between 10 and 10:30pm and also features rock, blues and reggae music.
A cosy, welcoming restaurant Tano Passami l’Olio (‘Pass me the oil’) reflects the great passion of its owner, Gaetano Simonato, for extra virgin olive oil. The light, creative cuisine is based on a wide range of olive oils, personally selected by Tano every year.
A small two Michelin starred restaurant just off Naviglio Pavesi, which has been operating since 1995. It offers simple, healthy Italian food, sometimes with a subtle Japanese influence (there is another Sadler restaurant in Tokyo).
Susie Marquis is Owner of The City Apartment Book Ltd.