It was 2006, and my husband and I had carefully planned our trip to Milan. We had tickets to see the opera at La Scala, and we were going to explore the city and the surrounding area. One thing I was determined to do was to take the train to a nearby Carthusian monastery, the Certosa di Pavia.
Off To A Bad Start
The trip had already been a bit of a disaster. We arrived in Milan in a rainstorm, only to find that the metro was on strike and our hotel wasn’t expecting us. Then, on our long-awaited visit to La Scala, we discovered that our seats — chosen to be next to one another — were in fact separated by a large pillar.
However, we were looking forward to a day at the Certosa di Pavia, a stunning complex of buildings dating to the 14th century. It was a lovely, sunny day. We checked the timetable, bought our tickets, and boarded the train.
On The Wrong Track
It should have been easy: The Certosa di Pavia has its own railway station, just a short walk from the monastery. So we were surprised to find the train pulling into the station at Pavia, without having stopped at the Certosa. How was I supposed to know that there were two lines between Milan and Pavia, one for express trains and one for stops along the way? What made it all more confusing was that both trains were scheduled to leave at the same time!
We shrugged it off. After all, we said, that was what travel was about. You make mistakes, and then you make the most of them. Now we had the opportunity to look around Pavia before taking the next train back. We checked the timetable — more carefully this time — and spent the next hour exploring the town.
A Very Long Train
We boarded the right train this time, and we breathed a sigh of relief as the white-fronted Certosa, with its statues and carvings, came into view. The train screeched to a halt, and we prepared to leave. Relief turned to frustration: The train was too long for the platform, and we were at the very end. By the time we got to the middle, the train had taken off again!
Reminding ourselves that we were seasoned travelers, we adjusted our plans again. We would get out at the next station and wait for the return train.
It turned out that we would have to wait an hour and a half at the next station. So we trudged up to the nearby town — about half a mile away — to see what was there. Unfortunately, the answer was nothing. We seemed to have discovered the only town in Italy with absolutely nothing to see or do. There wasn’t even a cafe at which we could escape from the glare of the midday sun.
There At Last
Finally, overheated and annoyed, we were on the train again — in the middle carriage this time. It was with a sense of achievement that we arrived at the Certosa di Pavia almost 4 hours after leaving our hotel. We walked up to the imposing building just as — you guessed it — the gates slammed shut. The monastery was closing for lunch.
We were tired, hungry, and rather fed up. The monastery would not reopen for another hour, but would we be able to find anywhere to eat or drink, or even to sit for a while?
For the first time that day, we were in luck. We found a small cafe of the typically Italian kind. It was filled with workmen on their lunch break, and no one spoke English. We ordered baguettes and a glass of crisp white wine, and everything started to look better.
A Place Of Calm
Fortified by our lunch, we walked back to the monastery. It was open again, and our plans were back on track — or, at least, almost back on track. We hadn’t realized that the Cistercians who now occupy the Certosa di Pavia are a silent order, so we couldn’t ask any questions. We tried to tag along on a tour group with a monk who was allowed to whisper information in Italian, but we soon gave up and looked around on our own.
It was the perfect antidote to our adventures of the morning. With visitors expected to converse quietly, if at all, the massive interior of the monastery church was a place of calm. We admired the frescoes and the stained glass, and then took a peaceful walk around the cloisters and the gardens.
I could see the attraction of living in a place like this. Each monk had his own small living space that opened onto the Great Cloister. Each had a patch of garden to tend, and at mealtimes, food was delivered to them silently through a hatch. This was a very different type of existence, without trains, timetables, or the other distractions of everyday life.
The monks grew herbs, too, that they made into drinks and soaps, oils, and perfumes. We found a small shop selling their produce and silently purchased a bottle of herbal liqueur to take home. (It later proved to be undrinkable, a sort of metaphor for the day.)
The Silver Lining
There had been a point in the day when we were tempted to give up the idea of seeing the Certosa di Pavia. But when we finally got there, we were glad we had made the effort. The building was quite magnificent; it had been modeled on the Milan Cathedral and had taken 200 years to build. The mixture of Gothic and Renaissance architecture was striking, and the place was packed with priceless artwork.
And the silver lining of our adventure was that we had now had a glimpse of Pavia, a medieval university town with churches, towers, and a covered bridge. We wanted to see more, and — our enthusiasm for trains undiminished — we left the monastery and went back to Pavia for more exploration and an early evening drink.
In the end, the day was not a complete disaster. We enjoyed our lunch in the small cafe, and we might not have discovered Pavia without our unplanned diversion. And the Certosa itself was well worth a visit.
We were also very lucky that we didn’t encounter any railway ticket inspectors. They might have frowned upon us using the same tickets on three different trains! So I can’t complain that Fortune had completely deserted us that day.
For more to see and do in Milan, see this page.