I Navigli – literally, “the canals” – is a district in Milan that today is indelibly associated with night-life – the movida.
The area is thronged with trendy restaurants, boutiques and markets full of fresh and organic produce, and at night the bars and clubs open for aperitivi, music and dancing. It is also the chosen scene for many exhibitions and festivals, such as the annual NavigaMI boat show. And the quiet courtyards that inter-connect in a maze of little alleyways and streets are home to art galleries, antique dealers and bookshops.But the area dates back to the twelfth century, when the city’s five different rivers and canals, first used by the Romans, began to be organised and maintained for freight transport.
Unusually for a major city, no river runs through the centre of Milan – or so it seems. In fact several rivers, now closed and totally built over, flow under the city and once provided the blueprint for the network of navigli.
The Martesana, for example, runs under the major north-south avenue of Via Melchiorre Gioia. To enable barges entering Milan to overcome the different levels it once had a lock, built by Leonardo da Vinci in 1496 – nowadays dry but still visible in Via San Marco
In the twelfth century, the serious construction of Naviglio Grande began: Europe’s first navigable canal. Leonardo later designed a supporting network of canals. He studied the intricate system of waterways to ferry people and merchandise, to irrigate the fields and to defend the city of Milan. To see original drafts of Leonardo’s canal system, tourists can visit the Museum of the Navigli in Via San Marco 40, a two-minute walk from the lock.
The canals – originally little more than rivers – connect Milan with Lake Maggiore, Lake Como, the Ticino river and the Po river, which provided an outlet to the Adriatic and the trading routes of the Mediterranean.
Today’s network of canals took nearly seven centuries to build. They were used, for example, to bring in marble from the shores of Lake Maggiore for Milan’s iconic Duomo, started in 1386. More recently, the navigli district was totally renovated in preparation for Expo Milano 2015, with its hundreds of thousands of visitors seeking relaxation after a day at the exhibition grounds.
Today the canals are mostly used for irrigation and, since 1950, no longer for shipping. Instead, they offer boat tours for sightseeing and tourism. And along their banks cycle tracks, well away from the road traffic, run through unspoiled countryside to the picturesque villages surrounding Milan, such as Gorgonzola.The only two with a tourist navigation system from Milan’s main dock, the Darsena, built in the 1600s, are the Naviglio Grande (50 km) – the most scenic of all – and the Naviglio Pavese (33 km). The Naviglio della Martesana runs 38 km from the river Adda before reaching Milan and being covered over. The remaining two, Bereguardo (19 km) and the tiny Paderno (3 km), are much shorter and have not been developed for tourism.
There are many different ways to reach the Navigli. On foot, the Darsena is a 30-minute walk from the Duomo. It can also be reached by tram 3 and 10, as well as bus lines 47, 68, and 92. The navigli are also reachable by train S9 and metro M2. Because of its modern vocation as a night-life centre, it is also well covered by night bus lines.
by Rachel Wertz
in collaboration with the American University of Rome