Dear fellow travellers
No-one drives the West Tangent for fun. The tangenziale ovest sweeps around the west side of Milan, cutting through areas where industrial premises have nudged aside ancient orchards and olive groves. There are pylons, piles of pallets and container parks. This is the detritus of modernity which even sophisticated landscaping can never totally conceal. At every exit there are signs to unsung Lombardy communities which have long succumbed to the enveloping reach of the city. We speed past Opera, which has nothing to do with La Scala. In web searches, Opera is virtually invisible amid a sea of other operas on the web - despite having 15,000 inhabitants.
Then there is Corsico, which is more than twice the size of Opera. We cut off the autostrade and discover no evidence of Corsicans in Corsico. The town proclaims its links with Cuba - its twin town is Regla, a satellite of Havana. Corsico evidently makes space for all types. It is home to a Egyptian community and the town also has a large number of followers of Soka Gakkai - a twentieth-century religious movement from Japan that has its roots in Buddhist traditions. The new Soka Gakkai temple in Corsico (Istituto Buddista italiano Soka Gakkai) is an assertively modern piece of architecture, which includes a meditation room that accommodates 900 people. Food for the soul in the suburban sprawl.
That's the beauty of the West Tangent ring road. It reveals another side of Milan. Rolling on beyond Corsico, the satnav ticks away the autostrade kilometres as we cruise past crumbling cascine and industrial estates. Solar panels and market gardens, electricity substations and sleek supermarkets.
A van speeds by in the fast lane, bearing the inscription: 'Nutrire il pianeta, energia per la vita'. That is the Milan mantra for 2015. 'Feed the planet, energy for life'. For this year Milan hosts a Universal Exposition, an Expo, which will focus on themes of food, diet and sustainability. Driving north on the tangenziale ovest, you cannot miss the signs for the Expo site. Workers there are putting the finishing touches to the British pavilion, a striking golden honeycomb made of fine steel lattice which is a tribute to the humble honey bee.
There's a buzz this winter throughout Rho and Pero, communities by the West Tangent which will host Expo 2015. This mega-exhibition runs from 1 May to 31 October this year. The site lies right by the motorway, but the organisers are hoping that visitors will leave their cars at home and travel by train to the event. Upgraded rail links and a dedicated railway station (called Rho Fiera Milano Expo 2015) will make the train the obvious choice for visitors to the Milan Expo - so much so that, in terms of visitor numbers, no other event in history has relied so heavily on long-distance train services to facilitate direct access to a festival or sporting site.
Trains will run directly to Expo 2015 from 40 cities, among them Basel, Geneva, Lyon, Naples, Paris, Rome and Venice. This is not the first time that an Expo has been held in Milan. Last time round was in 1906, and on that occasion the exhibition relied heavily on rail transport for access. The Simplon Tunnel opened in May 1906 to allow trains from France and Switzerland to reach the World Fair. The completion of that tunnel under the Alps was the showpiece achievement associated with the 1906 Expo.
Expo 2015 will showcase a nexus of issues surrounding food and environment. There will be plenty to tickle the taste buds of visitors, while also pricking their conscience. The show will raise issues of biodiversity and food choice. It will nudge visitors towards pro-environmental choices and will raise questions about food supply for cities which are encroaching ever more on good agricultural land. In that context, a ride south from the Expo site around the tangenziale ovest would surely provide good food for thought.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)
You can read more about the rail connections to Rho Fiera Milano Expo 2015 in our latest article in European Rail News.