If you didn't know already, most Italians live in appartment blocks, well, most of those who live in cities and towns do. Now, you do see some of the most incredible facades at times which are real works of art, but what interests me more is what is behind these facades, something which most people don't get to see, unless they live in a particular block, know someone there, or manage to catch a fleeting glimpse one day when someone has left the enormous 'cancelli' open. The 'cancelli' are more often than not huge wooden doors, and many are beautiful in their own right. However, it is what lies behind these structures which is more interesting.
In the centre of Milan, for instance it is not uncommon to see wonderful fountains in the middle of these generally hidden spaces, or some boast well kept gardens, but in some of the older lower quality buildings you will find the most beautiful effect which is created by the flying walkways which run in front of the appartments. These external walkways are accessed by old stone stairways, which are in themselves particularly charming. It is difficult to describe how you feel when you first come across these buildings. This is partly due to the fact that you really don't or rather cannot know they exist from outside the properties, and that, of course, the gates are more often than not closed. You walk in all unaware and then are confronted by this marvelous sight. Often these complexes are in the from of an elongated rectangle, with the two longest sides not that distant from each other, giving you a feeling of intimacy, which seems quite out of place in the middle of a city. As I said before, once these were the houses of the workers and craftsmen. Now, they have become fashionable and now, what are often quite small appartments, command stratospheric prices, well, they do here in Milan, particularly in the old Naviglio or canal area of Milan, where they have been taken over by young professionals and successful arty types. The other types of courtyard here can be no less wonderful and can hide the most amazing sights. There is one near us which is huge and in the middle of it there is even another appartment building, it almost looks as though the builders of the appartments which surround the central building had high hopes for the courtyard, thinking that it would become the central piazza or square of the area in which it was built. In fact, come to think of it, this may well have been the case many years ago when the area had not been full absorbed into the city.
As you may have noticed from reading my scribblings, I often take the train down to Genova, where grandparents live and on the way back, I always pass this fascinating courtyard, only it's not fully enclosed seeing as it backs onto the railway lines. The things that is fascinating for me is that there is a house which has been constructed up against the wall one of the other appartments which encloses this space. Again, this is difficult to describe. It looks almost as if someone sort of glued the house to the wall, or as if the owner, who was looking for somewhere to build him or herself a new house decided that the best thing to do would be to attach it directly to the wall behind. It looks strange because it is the sort of house you would expect to have a large rear garden or that it would back onto farmland or some other such green space. The house itself is quite beautiful, but it does look oddly out of place in its location. You would never know it was there, if it wasn't for the fact that the rear of the main appartment block is exposed to the tracks. This type of 'slotted' in house is not new to me, for there was one in the appartment where we used to live. It had been tucked, somewhat uncomfortably, in a corner and must have been rather dark inside, not to mention narrow.
You can sometimes wonder innocently through the open cancelli on the off-chance of being able to have a quick look at what seems to be an interesting courtyard, but more often than not you will be shooed away by the building's caretaker. The next time you find yourself in Milan, or in Italy because the country is full of charming courtyards, take a peek through the huge wooden gates when they are open and you might well be surprised at what you will see. I do believe that someone one did a photo-book on the subject of the hidden Milan, but I can't find it. Sorry.