MILAN (Reuters) - When it comes to Italy and canals, Venice has the glamour but Milan has the mileage: three times longer than the waterways of its tourist magnet neighbor.
But the 152 km (94 miles) of historic shipping canals, which Renaissance genius Leonardo Da Vinci helped oversee, are falling apart and experts are fighting to save one of Italy’s lesser-known treasures.
Regional leaders -- looking to join a trend in Europe to revive canals overtaken by land transport -- are betting on a refurbishment of the centuries-old system that made landlocked Milan a top Mediterranean port.
They see a future for the network as a tourist attraction and a green asset for Italy’s industrial and financial hub.
“This density of canals joining a great city to the surrounding countryside is an example that is almost unique in the world,” said Emanuele Errico, chairman of Lombardy Canals, oversight agency for the five-canal system in northern Italy.
His agency hopes to raise a billion euros ($1.42 billion) in investments, with 300 million needed just to rebuild embankments running past rice fields, factories and more than 1,100 historical sites.
The canals have succumbed to three decades of neglect. On a tour of the tree-lined Pavese Canal last month, the brick walls sprouted vegetation, electrical wiring drooped into the water and several crumbling sections were fenced off.
Errico said more than 70 percent of the canals -- a Milan symbol long before La Scala opera house or glittering fashion runways -- needed rebuilding and his agency is targeting private capital to help turn things around.
Boat tours began last year. Potential projects include power dams, hotels, restaurants, cycling vacations as well as heating and cooling systems.
“We’re quite aware of being at the start of a long and difficult road,” Errico said.
Canal revival is booming in Europe. More than 1,000 km (620 miles) of canals have been restored in the last 30 years, mostly for pleasure cruising, according to David Edwards-Mays, vice president of Inland Waterways International, a British-based association of canals supporters.
England has seen the bulk of restoration, which has been encouraged by an 18-20 percent rise in residential property values for homes along navigable canals.
Dating to medieval times, Milan’s canal system was a driver for its wealth. The 50-km (31-mile) Great Canal was dug in the 12th century and more than 200 years later, canals to the Ticino and Adda rivers linked Milan to central Europe and the sea.
Part of a surge in Renaissance canal-building, the system generated riches that drew talents like Da Vinci. Around 1500, shortly after he had painted “The Last Supper” in a Milan convent, the artist -- then a Milan court engineer -- oversaw construction and worked on lock designs.
“Milan is more beautiful than Venice!” 19th-century French writer Henri Stendhal gushed about smaller canals that cut through the city. So many Milanese worked on the water that the city was a big source of sailors for the Italian navy.
MELTING POT OF PROBLEMS
But railroads and automobiles spelled the canals’ commercial end. The last barge shipment took place in 1979 and the canals fell into decay.
“This could be one of the most beautiful spots in Milan. Instead it’s become a melting pot of problems,” said Pietro Lembi, an urban planner and author of a book on Milan and water.
The latest trouble was in August when a tunnel collapsed next to the Darsena, the abandoned canal port in the heart of Milan.
“One of the most emblematic spots in the city risks becoming an open sewer,” Corriere della Sera newspaper said in an editorial after the collapse.
Reaching decisions can be a headache. Those with a say include the Lombardy region and some of its provinces along with 51 cities, three parks and Italy’s notoriously slow bureaucracy.
The Darsena plans have been on hold for three years since cultural authorities halted construction of a parking garage there after builders found remnants of a Roman city wall.
But on a sunny Sunday boat tour last month, visitors passed fishermen casting for carp, tench, bleaks and rudd as they cruised past historic churches, landings and industrial sites, green water curling under the bow.
“This is a lot of fun, it’s really pretty. It’s good to find this kind of relaxation in the city,” said passenger Laura Gentile, manager of a second-hand clothing boutique in Milan.
Pilot Lino Guercilena, 70, said as he tied up the boat, he was optimistic: “This is a good path. To revive the canals, there is the political will to do it.”
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