I feast my eyes on dapper men in Armani suits and chic Italian ‘pearl and mink’ fashionistas in designer clothes and spiky heels, the ubiquitous bag and so comfortable in their skin. The Golden Quadrangle made up of four shopping streets offers high end shopping in this retail therapy capital of the world. We gape at the exquisite shop-fronts of Bvlgari, Valentino, and Louis Vuitton. It’s a dazzling sequence of daring skirts, rich fabrics, high price tags and understated elegance. Twice a year hordes of fashion writers, supermodels and industry honchos come to Milan for the fashion shows which project the season’s must-haves! Every where in Milan we see the signs of the fashion industry- sartorial excellence, Bangladeshi vendors peddling Gucci fakes at street corners, and a modernistic needle and thread sculpture adorning a square outside the Codorna Station.
We walk ahead to the towering, glass and steel, late 19th century shopping mall, the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle named after the first king of united Italy. Talk about grandiose! The great octagonal glass dome, the multi-hued floor and ceiling mosaics with the signs of the zodiac have us entranced. The floor of the galleria is a mosaic representing symbols of the four main cities of unified Italy- Turin, Milan, Florence and Rome. Following tradition, we spin our heels on the ‘privates’ of the bull beneath our feet, which is supposed to bring us good luck! There are elegant boutiques as well as completely over-the-top high-end designer shops like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada and we enjoy an overpriced coffee at one of the stylish restaurants here. Every shop and restaurant here has to adhere to the colour code of the galleria which is black and gold, so we are pleasantly surprised to find a Mac Donald’s without its usual loud yellow and red signs!
We walk past the iconic La Scala, the fabled opera house, recently renovated by a Swiss architect. This venue has seen premieres of incredible operas and ballets, debut performances of musicians like Verdi and Bellini and some of history’s greatests have graced its stage! We hear that its interiors are opulent with ornate chandeliers, exceptional acoustics, plush seats covered with red and gold velvet and an appreciative audience dressed in their best clothes. We rue the fact that we cannot catch a concert here and head towards the nerve centre of Milan- the Duomo.
The spiritual heart of Milan is the Piazza Della Duomo with the gothic Duomo as its centerpiece, a ‘poem in marble’ which looks like a mammoth sand castle. In ‘Innocents abroad’ Mark Twain says that the Duomo was ‘grand, solemn but at the same time so delicate and graceful! They say that the construction took almost 500 years because of politics, physical setbacks and lack of money. You realize that it was all worth it when you look at the swirl of spires, intricately carved statues and reliefs of flowers, birds and fruits all in the pink and white marble. Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned King of Italy here in 1805. Inside, the dimensions are daunting- it can accommodate about 40,000 people and high above the altar is a solitary nail which is said to be the one that pinned Christ’s right hand on the cross. An elevator whizzes you to the top of the Duomo for a bird’s eye view of this amazing city. Right on top is a golden Madonna like the icing on the cake, looking down at the city benevolently over centuries. The Piazza Della Duomo is a huge expanse filled with a million pigeons. There are many cafes here- a perfect spot for the favourite Italian pastime of people-watching! We take a break at a roadside café and feast on panzerotti, a cross between a piazza and a doughnut stuffed with mozzarella and tomatoes. Across the corner we watch a vegetable carver make masterpieces surrounded by a captivated audience.
Milan is noted for its football fans as much as it’s fashion scene! Our guide points out the San Siro Stadium to us, which can accommodate over 80,000 people. This is the scene of high drama when passionate fans cheer their favourite local team! We stroll along the Navigli, a network of canals criss-crossed by bridges which covered the city during the middle ages. Leonardo Da Vinci helped design these canals as a means of transporting the gargantuan marble slabs to build the Duomo as the city didn’t have any large river. Now, the Navigli night life is hip and happening with a host of cafes, bars and restaurants (including some on floating barges) dotting the landscape.
Italians take their coffee seriously as much as their wine. It was on a visit to Milan that the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz had a ‘eureka moment’ which gave him the idea of starting espresso bars in the US. Milan has over 1500 espresso bars and we down several quick cappuccinos Milanese style-standing at a counter served fast and short! We also catch the pre-dinner aperitivo, a happy hour before dinner where a range of snacks is thrown in free with drinks. In Milan it’s the Risotto rice that’s the most popular overshadowing pasta unlike other Italian cities. We have a delicious, creamy vegetarian version flavoured with saffron and grated Parmesan cheese. Another interesting trend that we notice in this city are the branded bars and restaurants opened by leading designers like the Bvlgari Hotel, a Gucci café and an Emporio Armani Caffe!
A ‘Sold out’ sign hangs outside the Santa Maria Della Grazie church, where the walls of the refectory are home to the iconic painting ‘Last Supper’. It’s a known fact that admission is only by reservation and I am smug in the fact that I have done so on the internet almost a month back! Dan Brown’s sensational novel of scheming priests, secret societies and pagan symbols has inspired me to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ capturing the dramatic moment at which Jesus reveals his betrayal. Extensive measures, including an air filtering system and restricting the number of visitors to 25 at a time for slots of 15 minutes are in place to protect the painting from dust and moisture! The painting has survived many indignities over the passage of time which really makes me believe that it has some divinity. The widening of a door on the wall on which it is painted cut off Jesus’s feet and Napoleon’s troops used this as a stable for their horses! In 1943, a bomb fell on the roof of the refectory, but the painting emerged from the rubble, largely unscathed protected by the sandbags! We are entranced by the natural hues of blues, greens and browns on the wall, the tricks of perspective and the detailing.
We take an aged tram (with original wooden interiors and glass lampshades) to Castello Sforzesco, a14th century castle that was once home to the famous Sforza family. It has 12 mini museums including a furniture museum, collections of Egyptian antiquities and Michelangelo’s unfinished Rondanini Pieta-believed to be his last work! This is a story- book medieval looking castle complete with a moat, a draw-bridge, a secret crypt, battlements and two huge courtyards. We try to imagine how life used to be in this maze of hallways and rooms. Behind the castle is the Parco Sempione, a huge expanse of green meadows, lakes and birds- a good place to enjoy some tranquility. There are dapper men in suits, joggers, skateboarders, red cheeked bambinos and fashionable women relaxing here for a break from the city life!
We take a day trip to Lake Como, a popular weekend destination from Milan. The deepest lake in Europe, the three- pronged Lago de Como was gouged out by glaciers and is surrounded by hills, morphing into snow-clad peaks, and lush Mediterranean foliage. There are luxurious million- dollar villas of reclusive, celebrity residents lining the shores of the lake. We visit Bellagio, touted to be the prettiest town here. Strings of al fresco cafes jostle for the timeless views of the lake and serve pastas, cappuccino and of course the omnipresent gelatos, alongside elegant and expensive ultra-chic restaurants. We are back at the Piazza Della Duomo. This time we are watching a street musician performing to a packed audience. The Duomo against the setting sun and the lights of the outdoor cafes packed with well-heeled Milanese, is the image that I carry back home. Milan will never win the battle for the prettiest city in Italy, but this capital of fashion and commerce has outstanding character and facets which have engaged us thoroughly!
Published in Jade magazine, 2010