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Vicolo dei Lavandai
In the heart of Milan there are small cities within a city; gems preserved from the past, sometimes tucked away, whose hidden locations add to their appeal. They are fragments of a former existence that, once rediscovered, reveal unexpected charms that enchant visitors.
With a touch of nostalgia, the Vicolo dei lavandai recalls the city of Milan in a more romantic era, the so-called “good old days". Set on the Naviglio (artificial canals) near the Darsena di Porta Ticinese (dockyards), the historical alleyway takes its name from an ancient laundry that is still in existence. A place where, as recently as the ‘50s, many women service washed for the Milanese public.
The narrow roads and the presence of the canal have kept at a distance the crowds and traffic that inundate other areas of the city. The presence of the Naviglio with its bars and characteristic shops, the variety of styles, eras and buildings for a multiple of purposes, all serve to make this part of the city particularly charming.
Nowadays, the premises of the previous grocer’s shop that sold soaps and bleaches to the workers in the laundry has become the Ristorante El Brellin which, with its fireplaces and wood paneled ceilings, has maintained intact the special atmosphere of the location.
The laundry could be considered as a type of monument that bears testimony to the hard labour of the washerwomen.
Oddly, the alley is named after the male not female laundry workers because in the 19th century it was always the men who were employed in the washing service, organising themselves into an authentic workforce.
In fact, the confraternity of the Lavandai di Milano dates back to 1700. Saint Antony of Padua is their patron saint and there is an altar dedicated to him in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie al Naviglio, about 100 metres from the Vicolo dei Lavandai, on the Alzaia Naviglio Grande.
At number 6 in Vicolo dei Lavandai one can still find the spinner from the beginning of 1900, when washing machines had yet to exist.
The stream (“el fossett” in Milanese dialect) is fed by the Naviglio Grande. Once upon a time the washerwomen, with their buckets, brushes, soap and beach would kneel on the wooden brellin (kneelers) scrubbing their clothes on the stone stands which can still be seen in the alley. The detergent used by the washers was called a palton, a semi dense paste with a base of ashes, soap flakes and washing soda.
The unique atmosphere of the location has inspired many writers and historians of the vecchia Milano, including poets who have dedicated their verses to this corner of the city. The most memorable one being the “Vicol di Lavandee” by Luigi Cazzetta, which won the Carlo Porta prize. The public gardens of Piazzale Gorini are also dedicated to Cazzetta, famous Milanese poet.