A Night Along the Navigli

Once upon a time, there was a time when Milan was a city of water. It seems incredible today with the busy avenues and skyscrapers that now characterize the profile of the city that is increasingly projected into the future. And yet, the canals were and remain an engineering masterpiece that the genius Leonardo da Vinci worked on.

What are we talking about, first of all? We are talking about the Navigli: a system of navigable canals designed to connect Lake Maggiore, Lake Como, and the Ticino with the River Po and the Adriatic Sea as the final destination, in the dream of creating a great “aquatic highway” where Milan could be a fundamental crossroads in Italy and Europe.

For some time there has been talk of reopening the canals and only the idea seems to awaken a certain nostalgia among the citizens of Milan who grew up with their grandparents’ stories about when Milan was still crossed by canals. It should be noted, however, that this idea has not yet become reality and it is not yet known whether the canals will once again be uncovered. For now, the biggest intervention has been the modernization of the Darsena that is frequented by young people and tourists in the mood for a walk or looking for a good aperitif with a view of the Navigli.

Today, when you read this article, the indisputable truth about the present is that the Navigli area of Milan is one of the liveliest and most appreciated when it comes to nightlife. There are many places where you can enjoy an excellent aperitif, a cocktail, and spicy delicacies that will make your mouth water.

Movida is one of the great refined meeting points on the canals. It has a charming decor and a rich aperitif, able to satisfy even the most demanding customer. The famous Sacrestia, nicknamed the Alcoholic Pharmacy, near the Conchetta, follows closely when we talk about quality. A mythical place, in which all alcoholic beverages have medicinal names, to tickle your imagination and fun.

Vista Darsena is one of the most popular venues for an unforgettable aperitif with an enviable view of the canals, not to mention the delicacies cooked by the staff that blend well with its unique atmosphere. It is also worthwhile to mention Luca e Andrea on the Naviglio Grande, who in all these years have been able to gain the trust of an increasingly large clientele, both for the quality of the aperitifs and for the evening dinner proposals. Very high level in both cases, without wanting to overdo it.

If we talk about history, in the Ripa di Porta Ticinese there is Rebelot, a bit hidden but always on top of their game when it comes to drinks prepared as tradition dictates. Yes, because there are many new ones on the canals where you can breathe the history of the city. There is no other location in all of Milan where the encounter between past and present appears so evident. On the other hand, there are no other works, except perhaps the Duomo, in turn linked to the canals, which have shaped the image of Milan so deeply and are so deeply rooted in the collective memory.

Returning to the canals, construction began in the 12th century and ended in the 19th century. The Navigli, with the homonymous circle, in the old black and white photographs have imprinted an indelible and unmistakable image of the city of Milan. A metropolis that in addition to the architecture of clear Central European inspiration, allowed visitors to take exciting walks along the banks of artificial canals.

Among the many loved places, which many Milanese citizens still admire, it is worth mentioning the Ponte di Corso di Porta Romana or the Ponte delle Sirenette on Via Visconti di Modrone today moved inside the Sempione Park. Not to mention Via Fatebenefratelli, along the Cerchia dei Navigli, where the boats loaded with fishing reels often arrived for the editorial staff of the Corriere della Sera, located nearby, not far away, on Via Solferino; or even the small pier where fishermen on Via Senato used to lurk to catch some river fish.

It seems unthinkable, yet Milan’s past has its roots in stories of this type. Just remember that even Brera, today an artists’ quarter and home to the famous Pinacoteca, was once just a small islet lapped by the waters of the Navigli.

The history of the Navigli is intimately linked to that of the construction of the Basilica of the Duomo. Gian Galeazzo Visconti, at the time head of the Duchy of Milan, ordered its construction in 1386. The structure was entirely covered with Candoglia marble, coming from the quarries located on the western shore of Lake Maggiore.

The large canal was then used as the main channel to transport the marble from the lake to the city center, where a pit was made navigable that later took the name of Santo Stefano pond. Here, now you’ve heard them all. In front of the Duomo, there was a small lake.

The Naviglio Pavese, instead, was born from the city’s need to be connected to the sea. The old Milan-Pavia tramway, which was active until 1936, followed exactly the same course of the Naviglio Pavese in parallel. The Darsena, built under the remains of the ancient Spanish walls, became one of the most active merchandise ports in the world and contributed to making the city of Milan a thriving place in terms of industry, commerce, and transportation.

The history of the canals came to an end towards the end of the 19th century. The first regulatory plan of the city, which bore the signature of Cesare Beruto, established that the canals should be buried. In the city, travel became easier, but the disappearance of water in the historic city center was a blow to all those who over the years had become accustomed to imagining Milan as a city of water. An image, almost pictorial, that perhaps one day will return to shine if the municipal administration were to decide to bring to light those underground channels that carried so many hopes and dreams.


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