“He would go out to take a walk downtown, in the morning. The streets opened before him, broad and endless, drained of cars and deserted; the facades of the buildings, a gray fence of lowered iron shutters and the countless slats of the blinds, were sealed, like ramparts.”
What story is being told here? Sounds like a good sci-fi dystopian tale, right? Actually, these words tell a very different kind of tale. Published in 1963, Marcovaldo by Italo Calvino is about a man living in a city as the seasons change. This particular part is from the chapter, “The city all to himself.” The protagonist, Marcovaldo, is in an Italian city on a day when literally everyone else is on vacation.
If your first visit to Milano happens to be in the month of August, you won’t be surprised to find a growing metropolis with large buildings, wide streets, and lots of shops and restaurants. You may, however, be surprised to find deserted buildings, empty streets and closed shops and restaurants. What gives?
There are a few reasons cities tend to empty out, mostly to avoid the hot, humid weather. Public schools in Italy close between early June and mid-September, so many lucky school children are shipped off to the seaside or the mountains with grandparents or other family members to get away from the muggy heat of the city. Fewer school children means less traffic (no moms and dads bringing the kids to school in the mornings and afternoons) and of course parents have more opportunities to get out of town with the kids too.
And then there’s August. The month during which most larger Italian cities, including Milano, shut down and lose a large majority of its population to the more picturesque parts of the country. This is especially true during that week surrounding 15 August.
15 August is a Catholic holiday that is also a national holiday in Italy. That means banks and public offices are all closed, along with most shops and restaurants. Only a few things will be open in the most touristy areas of Milano. But remember that this holiday is taken pretty seriously, so any visitors should expect to find a very deserted cityscape.
What is Milan good for in August, you ask? Well, new visitors can take advantage of nicely air conditioned museums (get more info here). Or, if you can get out of town, there are some great day trips (more info here) to cooler locations, whether Lake Como, the Ligurian coast or Venice. If that’s not an option, there are quite a few public pools that are inexpensive and outdoors, so you can work on your tan. And don’t forget the gelato!
And if you’re interested in reading more of Marcovaldo and getting a taste for Italian life in August, here’s a longer excerpt from the book. You can find the rest at your local library or bookstore!
“By the 15th of the month all of them were actually gone. Except one. Marcovaldo was the only inhabitant not to leave the city.
He would go out to take a walk downtown, in the morning. The streets opened before him, broad and endless, drained of cars and deserted; the facades of the buildings, a gray fence of lowered iron shutters and the countless slats of the blinds, were sealed, like ramparts. For the whole year Marcovaldo had dreamed of being able to use the streets as streets, that is, walking in the middle of them: now he could do it, and he could also cross on the red light, and jay-walk, and stop in the center of squares. But he realized that the pleasure didn’t come so much from doing these unaccustomed things as from seeing a whole different world: streets like the floors of valleys, or dry river-beds, houses like blocks of steep mountains, or the walls of a cliff.
To be sure, you immediately noticed the absence of something: but not the line of parked cars, or the jam at the intersection, or the flow of the crowd at the entrance to the department store, or the clump of people waiting for the tram; what was missing to fill the empty spaces and bend the squared surfaces was, say, a flood due to the bursting of water mains or an invasion of roots of the trees along the avenue which would crack the asphalt. Marcovaldo’s eyes peered around seeking the emergence of a different city, a city of bark and scales and clots and nerve-systems under the city of paint and tar and glass and stucco. And there, the building which he passed every day was revealed to him, in its reality, as a quarry of porous gray sandstone; the fence of a building-site was of pine-planks still fresh, with knots that looked like buds; on the sign of the big fabric shop rested a host of little moths, asleep.”
Marcovaldo, Italo Calvino