Homeyer visits Milan to see 'Floating Piers'

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MILAN, ITALY >> I love art. From the Louvre in Paris to the Prado in Madrid, from the Guggenheim in New York and the Hopkins Center back home, I go out of my way to see great art.

Recently I flew to Milan for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to experience Christo's "The Floating Piers." I got to experience the feel of walking on water (with thousands of others) and watching the colors of the saffron-colored nylon cloth that draped the two miles of piers change color throughout the day.

Back in 2005 Christo, a Bulgarian-born artist who goes by that single name, draped New York's Central Park with cloth in an art exhibit called "The Gates." Unfortunately, it was only up for two weeks and I was in California at the time — and I missed seeing it. So when I read that he was doing another exhibit, I was determined to see it — despite the fact that it was on Lake Iseo (east of Milan), was only running for 16 days, and had already begun. It was immediately added to my bucket list.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, there are cheap flights the week before departure. My partner, Cindy Heath, and I got two round-trip tickets to Milan via Frankfort for about $1,000 each. I discovered that if a flight is not full, you can actually dicker to get a better price.

Cindy navigates the internet like a genie and found us reasonable lodging by using Airbnb — even though more than a million people were going to the exhibit and all hotels were full. This was a totally impromptu trip: We read about the show on a Tuesday, got tickets and lodging on Wednesday, and eight days later we flew to Milan.

There was a festive air everywhere. Trains going towards Lake Iseo were packed, standing room only. But the train company dusted off aging cars and added them on. We all got there, and no one complained. We were all on an adventure.

Christo, who is 80 years old, is a magnificent artist, promoter and engineer. He spent 17 million dollars of his own money to create this work of art which he labeled, "The Floating Piers." Viewing the event was free and no donations were solicited — or accepted.

Christo did not use volunteers, preferring to pay everyone who worked assembling the piers and even those who merely stood in the hot sun handing out free pamphlets or answering questions. We were told by one of the stewards that he bought everyone who worked a new pair of shoes so they would be comfortable when standing up for long hours, and that he provided food for everyone who worked for him. All the workers seemed to speak at least a little English, and all were courteous and helpful.

He began assembling the project last November, and tested every aspect of it extensively to be sure it would be safe. We saw French scuba divers making their regular underwater checks on the anchors and lines that held the piers in place. And we saw Christo himself. He was there every day to be sure all was well.

The piers consisted of 220,000 interlocked high-density polyethylene cubes, each about a foot thick but tapering down to the water's edge so that the fabric flowed gracefully to the water's edge. The piers were about 50 feet wide, allowing plenty of room for the throngs that came. It never felt crowded to me.

About 150 workers worked all winter and spring to get it ready, and then it was installed in just a few days. Sections of piers 100 meters long were ferried into place, connected, anchored and draped with fabric.

Christo specified that 20 percent more fabric was to be used than needed to just cover the piers, allowing the fabric to ripple and fold. The fabric, 100,000 square meters of it, was delivered by helicopter and installed in just 48 hours. It rested on a layer of felt a quarter of an inch thick which made the piers feel soft to our feet as we padded along barefoot. It came in huge pieces, and was then sewn together on the piers with special sewing machines by seamstresses working throughout the day and into the night.

The first floating pier connected Salzano, a sleepy fishing village on Lake Iseo to Monte Iseola, the largest island on a European fresh-water lake. Then two more piers connected Monte Iseola to a tiny island with just one private estate on it, Isla San Paola. And some of the streets in Salzano and on Monte Iseola were also covered in felt and fabric, connecting the two legs that go out into the lake.

I've been to Fenway Park on a winning day, I've attended a Rolling Stones concert, but I've never seen so many happy, well-behaved people. I've never seen so many people taking selfies. Italians are cigarette smokers, but in two days on the piers I only saw two people smoking. No signs, it just wasn't done. It wouldn't have been respectful to Christo or to the art.

Imagine the numbers: the days we were there over 100,000 people walked the piers each day. It was like day after day of a Super Bowl. But the logistics worked: there were enough bathrooms, enough bottled water, enough food. No scalpers or inflated prices that I could see. Kids in strollers, dogs on leashes, elders in wheelchairs. This place was one big party. There was even a 9-year-old girl dressed in a mermaid's costume lounging on a pier while her dad took pictures.

And last, but not least, Christo has guaranteed that everything will be recycled. The fabric, the felt, the polyethylene cubes. And it all was over in 16 days. We stayed a couple of more days to watch it come down. At first I was sad, but then I realized it's like going to the circus or an opera: have great fun, then it's over and cherish the memories. I'm so glad we went.

Henry lives, writes and gardens in Cornish Flat, N.H. His gardening columns appear every Friday in the Reformer. Read his twice-weekly blog at dailyuv.com/gardeningguy.


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