There are many ways to experience the beauty and verve of Milan, but few as captivating as a boat trip on the Navigli. Eight and a half centuries after the first shovel pierced the ground between Abbiategrasso and Landriano, Four Seasons Hotel Milano is setting sail on the city’s historic canal system with customised cruises taking in pastoral views, historic villas and exceptional dining at a Relais & Châteaux hotspot. The daylong excursion is, quite simply, a lovely way to explore the countryside just outside the city.
Begun in the 12th century and refined repeatedly since, the Navigli is an enduring point of pride for city dwellers. There are five Navigli canals altogether – Grande, Pavese, Martesana, di Paderno and di Bereguardo – each with its own character and quirks. The Grande, for instance, was first dug in 1157, most likely as a ditch in defense against Frederick Barbarossa, who had been crowned Holy Roman Emperor two years earlier. Construction on Pavese was interrupted by technical problems still recalled as Conca Fallata – “Failed Lock.” Di Paderno was designed to bypass rapids on the Adda River and saw everybody’s favourite Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci, experimenting with mitered gates for pound locks that are still in use. The marble for the Duomo made its way on the Navigli from Lake Maggiore to Milan, where it was used for statues and other parts of the cathedral.
These days the city centre district around Navigli Grande and Pavese is among the chicest spots in Milan, with fashionable boutiques, scintillating nightlife, and a monthly Antique Market that runs 2 kilometres and 400 exhibitors. A Four Seasons Navigli cruise isn’t about shopping, clubbing or cocktails, however. It’s about soaking up the beauty of Lombardy at an easy pace.
The day gets going early in a limousine headed west from Four Seasons Hotel Milano to Gaggiano, where a sleek Venetian Taxi from a local water tour operator will be waiting on the Naviglio Grande. Built in 2004, the 9-metre motorboat has room for 15 passengers plus two click-heeled crew, with a range of refreshments available according to guest preferences. It’s the perfect vessel for families or small parties.
First stop: Casinetta di Lugagnano, once a prized destination for successful Milanese who built summer villas along the Grande. Guests will visit Villa Krentzlin (built in 1700); Villa Visconti Maineri (mid-1600s), set overlooking an Italian garden along the canal; Villa Trivulzio (1500s), a former home of Lombardy nobles that was renovated in the 18th century and restored in 2000; and Villa Birago Clari Monzini (1560 or so), probably the first villa in town, now divided into private apartments.
As the sun begins to descend and appetites to rise, passengers will enjoy lunch at Antica Osteria del Ponte – Ancient Tavern of the Bridge – a family-owned Relais & Châteaux restaurant tucked in a 14th century inn with views of the canal and countryside beyond. And enjoy it they will: widely renowned for sophisticated Italian cuisine, Antica Osteria del Ponte combines impeccable service overseen by Renata Santin and the remarkable culinary talents of her self-taught husband, Ezio Santin, whose early focus on freshness and quality made him something of a pioneer of new gastronomy.
Chef Santin dresses dishes with herbs, vegetables and fruits from his garden, fashioned in the Lombardy tradition with French technique. Look forward to specialties such as lobster salad with seasonal vegetables; lasagnette with cream of peas and foie gras; scaloppa of branzino with cream of finocchi; and flan of warm chocolate. There’s a great wine list ripe with popular Italian and renowned French labels to wash it all down.
Relaxed, satiated and perhaps a bit wobbly on their sea legs, passengers can take a late afternoon limousine ride back to Four Seasons Hotel Milano or re-board the boat for a pleasant cruise back to the city, where the chic Navigli district will be waiting canal-side. We know which one we’d choose.
Costs vary based on number of passengers and preferred amenities. Available year-round; particularly recommended from April through October.
Also in Italy today, City.Mobi is celebrating the success of its new guide to Milan.
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