The Navigli Canals in Milan, detailed information and photos

Walk along the canals of Milan

Milan has long been wrapped in a network of canals, like Venice. Goods and people were transported through them, water was used for irrigation, the rotation of the wheels of the mills and the workshops of the gunsmiths.

The Milan ring canal (Cerchia dei navigli) is now covered with slabs and became a road around the historic center; in the past it was used as a defensive moat filled with water. The canals were dug as early as 1156 under the direction of a military engineer, the Genoese Giuliamo da Guintellino. They are fed by numerous springs and springs, a system of locks ensured their navigability. In Milan itself, the Navigli area (which means “canals” in Italian) is the Porta Ticinese dock and the urban parts of the Grand Canal (Naviglio Grande) and the Naviglio Pavese canal. Here you’ll find many fashionable boutiques, local restaurants, and art galleries. It’s a neighborhood of artists, models, musicians and students. There are also romantic corners, like the Vicolo dei Lavandai, a complex of ancient stone laundries, now a historical monument.

Naviglio Grande

The canal begins from the river Ticino, then flows 50 km through the province of Tornavento to the dock of the Darcena di Porta Ticinese in the city limits of Milan. It has no locks and uses the natural slope of the terrain.

Its construction began in the twelfth century on the Gaggiano-Milano section. It was completed to its modern, navigable state in 1272.

Flatboats and barges were used to navigate the canal. It was not difficult to float downstream, but the boats had to be pulled up by horse-drawn drags, and sometimes people did the work as well.

The suburban part of the canal is lined with magnificent villas with shady gardens, for centuries a favorite vacation spot of wealthy Milanese. Particularly beautiful is the Villa Gandini in Robecco sul Naviglio, also known as Villa Gaia (“Merry Villa”), from the period of Ludovico Moro and the Villa Maineri, from the 18th century, situated in Cassinetta di Lugagnolo.

Vicolo dei Lavandai

The Vicolo di Lavandai, or Pracek’s Alley, is an ancient and romantic place. In this part of the Grand Canal there are stone laundries where laundry was done until the 1950s. The narrow passages between the houses, buildings of different eras, styles, and purposes make the atmosphere of this place unique. Nowadays, in the building of the old pharmacy, where soap and laundry bleach was sold, there is a restaurant. The interior of the place with fireplaces and coffered ceilings has been preserved in its original form, which gives it a feeling of antiquity.

By the way, up to the 19th century men and not women did the laundry in Milan. The association of male laundresses existed already in 1700. In the house number 6 on the lane you can see the centrifuge, built in the early 20th century, before the invention of automatic washing machines.

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Water to the washing area comes from the Grand Canal. Laundresses, armed with buckets, brushes, soap and bleach, once knelt on a wooden tray by the flowing water tray, laying out clothes on the stones.

Church of San Cristoforo

Church of San Cristoforo /

About the middle of the city part of the Grand Canal stands the church of San Cristoforo. It consists of two buildings: the Romanesque, built in 1250 when the canal was dug, and the Gothic “Ducal Chapel”, built at the will of Gian-Galeazzo Visconti in 1398-1405. The buildings were always linked together by various elements, but in 1625 the wall separating them was finally torn down, turning the building into a two-nave basilica. The facade of the Romanesque nave has a portal made of burnt stone typical of Lombardy, a round carved window and the coat of arms of the Visconti family and of the city of Milan.

Note the two arcades linking the buildings and the painted wood sculptures of St. Christopher and St. Joseph and Child (14th century).

On the apse of the old church are preserved frescoes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The more modern chapel is also richly decorated with frescoes.

The bell tower of the church of San Cristoforo was a kind of beacon, a landmark for those who came from Ticino towards Milan. Since the Middle Ages, St. Christopher has been considered the patron saint of travelers, pilgrims and boaters. In modern times, he has also taken motorists under his protection. Every year since 1428, the feast of the saint is celebrated on July 25. During the ceremony, the priest does not forget to bless cars as well.

The lock at Vianrenna

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This lock compensates for the two-meter drop between the former lake of Sant’Eustorgio (where the Darsena dock is now) and the circular canal. Marble for the construction of Milan’s cathedral from Lake Maggiore was delivered through it.

When the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Moro, lost his wife Beatrice, he had this canal built to bring construction materials to the Milanese cathedral. Passage through the lock was free for the boats working on the construction. A booth with the Visconti coat of arms and a sign depicting the Madonna protecting the Milan Cathedral with her cloak have been preserved.

Leonardo da Vinci probably studied this lock during his life in Milan and even improved it. His notes on it are preserved on sheets collected in the so-called Atlantic Codex, preserved in the Ambrosian Library of Milan.

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Doc Darsena.

The Dock, or Darsena di Milano, is the confluence of the Grand Canal and the Naviglio Pavese, home to one of the most important historic ports of Lombardy. It was once the site of Lake Sant’Eustorgio, named after the nearby church of the same name.

Darsena is also connected to the Cercia dei Navigli, or Ring Canal. This port has played an important role in the supply of the city for centuries.

Nowadays, in the Navigli neighborhood you will find many music clubs, restaurants, pubs, markets, and Sunday markets for antiques.

In 2015, the reconstruction of the river port was completed. Its water area, docking and mooring areas were improved. And the port has also become a place for entertainment, a place to walk with friends and picnics, with great views.

The city market inside the dock is home to a variety of stores where you can buy or just sample fresh produce. From here you can also admire the sunset over the water.

Church of Sant’Eustorgio

Located near Porta Ticinese. The lake of the same name once stood here, on the site of the dock. It is one of the oldest churches in Milan, founded in the 4th century and restored in the 19th century. It used to hold the relics of the Magi, but they were stolen by Frederick Barbarossa and transported to Cologne. In 1227 the church became the headquarters of the Order of the Dominicans in Milan.

Since its construction, chapels have been added to the Romanesque church, but only to the right. The most famous are the Brivio Chapel (1484) with the Renaissance tombs and the Bergognon triptych and the Portinari Chapel (1462), an example of Florentine art in Milan.

The gate on the left of the basilica leads to the monastery courtyard and a small museum dedicated to St. Eustorgio. Here you can see the early Christian necropolis with carved tombstones, partly in the open air. The museum exhibition concludes in the Chapel of Portinari. Its ceiling is decorated with frescoes by Vincenzo Foppa. Here one can also admire a painting attributed to Benedetto Bembo, depicting the kneeling banker Pigello Portinari before St. Peter of Verona. The tomb of the saint buried here, in late Gothic style, was built by Pisa architect and sculptor Giovanni Balduccio between 1335 and 1339. St. Peter, the martyr killed by heretics on Palm Sunday, was also Prior of Como. At night, the church and its bell tower are beautifully illuminated. In 2011, on the occasion of the centenary of the Municipal Electric Company, its lighting system was renewed, as were the stained glass windows of the Milan Cathedral, the Museum of Science and Technology and the facade of the Central Station.

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At night, the church and its bell tower are beautifully illuminated. In 2011, on the occasion of the centenary of the Municipal Electric Company, its lighting system was renewed, as were the stained glass windows of Milan’s Cathedral, the Museum of Science and Technology and the facade of Central Station.

Naviglio Pavese

The construction of this canal lasted 500 years. The work was very difficult and often stopped. The canal was opened in 1819 and was navigable until 1965. Now cargo barges stand perpetually moored within the city limits and are used as floating restaurants, nightclubs, and beer gardens. The Naviglio Pavese canal runs through many interesting places and monuments: the Red Church (Chiesa Rossa), the Conca Fallata lock, the Visconti Castle in Binasco, the Cartesian Monastery in Pavia.

Conca Fallata

Conca fallata” in Italian means “unsuccessful lock.” For centuries it could not be completed due to technical problems and lack of funding. In the 17th century works on the construction of the canal came to a standstill at this very point. The lock was completed only in 1815, and exactly in the form proposed by Leonardo da Vinci more than 300 years earlier.

In 2006 the Conca Fallata lock was reconstructed and turned into a small hydroelectric power plant. The level difference is 4.66 meters and the water flow is 9 cubic meters per second.

Naviglio Martezana

Naviglio Martesana canal ©

The history of the Naviglio Martesana began in 1443, when the Duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti, approved a project submitted by a group of scientists. They proposed to divert the waters of the Adda for irrigation, the rotation of the mill wheels and the transportation of goods.

The construction itself began later, under the reign of Francesco Sforza. He was well aware of the importance of a navigable canal, built in a strategic location, for the defense and economy of Lombardy, especially against the backdrop of the military confrontation with Venice.

In 1496 the Naviglio Martesana was connected to the ring of canals near Piazza San Marco. Previously, the canal ended near the present Cassina de Pomme garden. According to one version, Leonardo da Vinci, who lived at that time at the Sforza court, was also involved in the construction of the canal.

The name “Martesana” comes from the town through which it passes. Francesco Sforza insisted on it even before construction began in 1460. Many aristocratic villas were built on the banks of the canal. Note Palazzo Melzi in Vaprio d’Adda, 1483. This is where Leonardo da Vinci lived. Here he designed the waterworks, and the surrounding landscape is recognizable in some of the artist’s drawings.

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The canal enters the territory of Milan to the north-east, at Via Idro, and runs up to the Gardens of Cassina de Pomme (via Melchiorre Gioia). From 1968 onwards, the canal runs underground.

What to see in the Navigli area of Milan

Navigli is one of the most intimate areas of Milan that isn’t overcrowded with tourists but delights you with its narrow streets and canals.

At one time no less famous than the waterways of Venice were the Spanish canals – Navigli in Milan. The canal network began to be built about 900 years ago to provide people with drinking water, to create opportunities for navigation, mills and workshops. Over the centuries, the canals have become more and more complex, reaching a total length of 150 kilometers.

The Spanish claim that Leonardo da Vinci created the final design for the canal system.

As a result, numerous naviglias connected the city to nearby lakes and rivers and enabled the passage of ships. As centuries passed, it was the city’s water supply network that became one of the sources of the plague. As a result, most of the canals were closed or completely shut down for lack of use.

If you come to the Navigli area today, you will not see the main circular canal, over which the central highway has long been laid. But every tourist has the opportunity to admire the many sights of the Porta Darcena and stroll along the promenades of the still functioning Naviglio Grande and Pavese.

What to see in Navigli

A walk along the long promenade of the Naviglio Grande, the longest still functioning canal, offers the opportunity to visit many stores and cafés, to look into the workshops of local artists and to buy exclusive souvenirs. The walk is absolutely free and gives you the opportunity to admire the picturesque cityscapes and stroll along the bridges.

Antique and flea markets. If you’ve already reached the Navigli area of Milan, you don’t have to wonder how to get to the famous antiques fair. Right on the banks of the Grand Canal hundreds of vendors offer antiques, and this is where it is realistic to buy a rare painting or exclusive furniture. The flea market is only open on Saturdays, but if you want to buy a rare souvenir for a few euros, it makes sense to stop by.

The Vicolo dei Lavandai, now known as the laundry alley, is no less famous landmark of the area. Here, armed with buckets and soap, hundreds of people used to wash their laundry in the running water of the canals. Today, Prachek Alley can surprise you with its rich architecture and wonderful restaurant located in the building of an old pharmacy.

For centuries, laundry was considered an exclusively male activity.

Walking along the Grand Canal, it is impossible to ignore the church of San Cristoforo. Nowadays the building looks like a two-nave basilica with a portal of burnt stone and coats of arms of noble families. It is worth seeing the ancient frescos, the amazing wooden sculptures and the ancient bell tower.

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Dock Darcena is another popular attraction, which is famous for the Navigli area in Milan . Here was one of the central ports of Lombardy, as well as the confluence of several city canals. Today the Dock is known for its many stores and pubs. This corner of the city is ideal for picnics.

A walk along the waterfront will also allow you to see the Conca Fallata lock and the Visconti crested lock in Viarenna, the Church of Sant’Eustorgio with a small museum exhibit and an early Christian necropolis.

How to get to the Milan area

If you want to see canals (navigli) in Milan, how to get to the right place – you can easily be prompted by any passerby. The options are:

  • By subway – to Porta Genova station;
  • By streetcar № 2 (stop Porta Genova); № 3 (stop Piazza 24 Maggio). The fare is 1 EUR. One ticket is valid for 75 minutes after stamping.

City tours

On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays there are boat tours along the canals. This is a great chance to admire the many bridges, the waterfront, and the church of St. Christopher. The tour lasts 55 minutes and costs 12 EUR for an adult. For seniors and children under 12 years old the ticket price is 10 EUR. Young children under 4 years old can go on the walk for free when accompanied by an adult.

Tourists traveling on a day trip on the Open Bus receive a discount of 10-20% when buying a ticket for a boat ride.

Where to Eat

In any of the cafes on the waterfront you can have a nice snack while enjoying the amazing views of the canals (navigli) that adorn Milan. The food is very varied, most often offered in buffet style. A glass of juice costs 7 EUR, a portion of meat dish with a side dish – 20 EUR to 30 EUR.

If a tourist gets in a restaurant during so-called “Happy Hour”, you will pay only for a drink and meals are free. Most often, the “Happy Hour” in the cafe lasts from 17:00 to 18:00 or from 18:00 to 19:00.

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