When I was a student earning my Master’s degree, I lived in Milan, in its picturesque canal district in the city’s south: the Navigli.
I loved my time there, I loved the busy nightlife as the bars and restaurants came alive after dark. I loved the silence of early weekend mornings, and even the way Milan’s famous fog clung to those canals on early winter mornings.
It’s not surprising that I feel a touch of nostalgia when I return and make a point of staying in Navigli.
I did so again recently on a visit with my older son. It’s a great location, easy to walk into the center – Piazza Duomo can be reached in a little over twenty minutes, but it feels a world apart.
The Navigli were once part of a complex canal system for shipping – making Milan (perhaps surprisingly) a bustling port city.
The entire city was once filled with canals, busy ferrying wares and providing transport to the large lakes in the north and from the Po and Ticino Rivers. This manmade network of canals date back to medieval times, and they allowed ships to travel right into the heart of Milan.
A recent exhibition in Rome showed that Leonardo Da Vinci himself designed some of the locks installed in Milan’s canals, which were collectively known as the Navigli.
Busy washerwomen used the water of then Navigli to do their washing. Their seats are still there, and now a place for ‘characteristic’ tourist photos rather than the site of backbreaking labor.
In modern times, the cost of canal upkeep became to much of a burden. By the 1930s, when Milan’s public transport was being expanded, most of the canals were filled in to meet the need for space. Today, only two canals remain – the Naviglio Pavese and Naviglio Grande, with the Darsena at the edge of the two.
But I love this neighborhood of Milan, and remembering it as a Lombard Venice.