If the crumbling, enduring edifice of Rome is the beating heart of Italy, then modern, über-sleek Milan is definitely its soul.
Undoubtedly the centre of fashion, culture and industry, the absorbing metropolis is blessed with art and treasure-laden museums and galleries, swanky bohemian enclaves and ancient ruins that cast partial shadows under a shimmering moon.
Situated in the picturesque, flora-rich region of Lombardy, Milan was originally named Medelhan (“in the middle of the plain”) when she was founded by Gallo-Celtic tribes in the 7th century BC. Since then, the city has survived numerous bouts of the Plague (an outbreak in 1629 wiped out almost half of the population) and the indignity of losing her sovereignty to various marauding armies – Austrians, Spanish and French. Napoleon even had the audacity to use Milan as the site of his 1805 coronation when he declared himself king of Italy.
But all of these traumatic events were overshadowed by the gravity of the Allies’ carpet-bombing during WWII: 60% of Milan’s buildings were destroyed or irreparably damaged and thousands of her citizens perished in a torrent of explosions, debris, dust and cloud. Nothing, though, seems to have been able to dent this municipality’s indomitable spirit; so since Cavour, Garibaldi and Mazzini galvanised what was once an assemblage of lose states into the nation of Italy during the 19th century Risorgimento, Milan has grown and prospered to become the country’s second most populous town (with approximately 1.4 million inhabitants).
Milan’s vivid history is matched by her current pre-eminence in the world of fashion, so when I arrived there I knew this place definitely wouldn’t be needing a Trinny and Susannah cut-and-shut makeover. The streets are awash with sartorial gold, especially the beautifully archaic ones in and around Quadrilatero della moda, where Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Missoni, Prada and Versace all have stores. Alternatively, if you’re trying to get hold of discounted apparel, then breeze into the Basement (via Senato 15) or Studio K Fashion (viale Bianca Maria 9), where you’ll find worthwhile savings on anything from chunky-soled Jimmy Choos to that archetype of minimalist prêt-à-porter, Comme des Garçons.
The citadel’s trend-setting legacy dates all the way back to the 16th century, when it was Europe’s most esteemed producer of bonnets, gloves and ribbons. The British even christened the Milanese haberdashers “milliners” because of the unrivalled quality of their fineries.
As it’s always been at the vanguard of what’s à la mode, it’s no surprise that Milan hosts some of the planet’s most appealing and prestigious fashion shows. Men’s events are usually held every January and June/ July at the Fiera di Milan, and when I attended one, my eyes almost somersaulted from their sockets when a bevy of stunning, chiselled models slinked and swaggered down the catwalk.
Such foxy beaux aren’t the only hot ticket in town. In many ways, a visit to the cobblestoned, neon-smattered district of Brera is just as enchanting. With its plethora of funky bars, galleries and cafes, it screams at you with so much style and sophistication, that you’d expect it to be used as a set on the next Quentin Tarantino movie.
The area’s bohemian status dates back to 1776, when Maria Theresa (Austria’s empress) built the distinguished Accademia di Belle Arti here, which soon made it a favoured haunt of painters, poets, musicians and intellectuals. These days, you’re more likely to find Prada-clad fashionistas, captivated tourists and elegant businessmen soaking up the sublime atmosphere in its narrow disjointed alleys, streets and passageways.
I got my fortune read by one of the enclave’s many street vendors, but when she told me I wasn’t going to meet a strapping blue-eyed Italian, I sloped-off to the nearby Bar Jamaica (via Brera 32) for an Apertivo. It’s a quintessentially Milanese tradition to buy an early-evening drink for a set price and then help yourself to an eat-as-much-as-you-like style buffet. Mine was washed down with a mouth-watering caipirinha, before I moved under the verandah and watched some billowing clouds stained by a blood-red sun.
Another vibrant spot in Italy’s most eclectic metropolis is the alluring canal-encrusted district of Navigli. Consisting of the Naviglio Pavese and the Naviglio Grande, the latter was the world’s first navigable waterway, with its construction beginning as far back as 1177. At one point in its development Leonardo da Vinci had a hand in the engineering, so it’s no wonder it’s stood the test of time.
Indeed, almost nine centuries later, the dainty towpaths alongside it and its sister canal are now bustling thoroughfares jam-packed with trendy eateries and drinking holes. A recommended stop is the cool, relaxing Tasca Bar (Corso di Porta Ticinese 17), where my taste buds were permanently wrecked by their succulent albondigas (Spanish meatballs). Later, when I joined most of the locals and spilled out onto the pavement, my senses were refreshingly tickled by the wafting aroma of gourmet cuisine and the ethereal lilt of Jazz and Pop.
Demonstrating that he was the quintessential Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci’s remarkable talents were, of course, responsible for another piece of living history in Milan; The Last Supperfresco. A striking kaleidoscope of pastel-toned greens, blues and yellows, the 15th-century mural commemorates the last meal that Jesus took with his apostles before his death. Housed in a refectory called the Cenacolo (Corso Magenta), it’s easy to believe that the 15 ft x 29 ft painting has actually been blessed with divinity, as over the centuries it’s survived damage from flooding, poor restoration, desperate inmates (in the early 19th century the building was used as a makeshift prison) and a WWII bomb.
The Museo Civico di Storia Naturale (Corso Venezia 55) is another of Milan’s most interesting sights. Founded in 1838, it’s the city’s oldest museum. However, its relatively short existence pales into insignificance compared to the age of some of the breathtaking skeletons, rocks and dinosaur eggs that are kept in its Terracotta building. To glimpse artefacts of a slightly different vintage, head to Museo Storico Alfa Romeo (via Alfa Romeo, Arese), as it’s crammed with stupendous examples of the classic cars that made this distinctively Italian brand glorious through history. If these get your competitive juices and road-rage tendencies pumping, visit the Autodromo di Monza, where you can pretend you’re Michael Schumacher as you whizz around the track in your own ordinary vehicle.
Unfortunately, the heirlooms and ancient exhibits on display in many of Milan’s museums aren’t the only things in Italy that can seem archaic. In general, the country’s attitude to homosexuality isn’t as forward-thinking or liberal as in other parts of Europe. This is largely due to the Catholic Church and Rome’s Vatican, as their corrosive, anti-gay messages seem to seep through to everyone in society. Thus, it’s no surprise that only a few Italian regions recognise coppie di fatto (same-sex unions) and still none gives them anything like the equal rights of a married couple.
Fortunately, Milan is the most progressive city in the nation. It even has the country’s only gay designated area, via Sammartini. Although a well-intentioned idea, the street is now a bit dreary and decrepit, with the bar-come-club Afterline (no. 25) being the only place that’s worth a look. It’s lucky, then, that less than a five-minute Metro journey away, you find the swish, cosy minimalist interiors of the bar L’Elefante (via Melzo 22). Once there, I revelled in nostalgia as the venue’s sound system started pumping out some scintillating 80s’ Pop.
If you’re more into a Lounge and House vibe, head to the predominantly gay G Lounge (Via Larga 8). Centrally located in the heart of town, its swanky, pleasant crowd can often be seen strutting their stuff in hazy tints of red, blue and grey. The avant-garde Plastic (Viale Umbria 120) attracts a young, colourful, alternative crowd, with its regular gay-themed nights and discos. But for something completely different, saunter down to Nuova Idea International (via De Castillia 30), where I thought I’d gone for a spin in Doctor Who’s time-travelling Tardis, as one of its two floors still puts on traditional 19th-century polkas and waltzes.
However, such entrancing dances aren’t the only musical entertainment in this vibrant citadel. Although the Marx Brothers only spent a night at the Opera, if you visit Teatro alla Scala (La Scala), you’ll probably end up being a permanent resident. Famed for its sumptuous red-and-gold interiors, transcendental acoustics and imaginative lighting, if you close your eyes once inside you’ll be forgiven for thinking that the angels have come down to sing.
For an awe-inspiring escape from the city, you should catch a train and travel the 45 kilometres to the idyllic Lago di Como (Lake Como). These days, it’s easy to see why Hollywood A-listers like George Clooney, Matt Damon and Brad Pitt either have homes there or often venture to the place. Nestled in-between the verdant rolling hills of a steep-sided valley, ripples of crystal blue water lap into sun-drenched amber villa-filled coves.
This last adventure made my stay in and around Milan almost perfect. Extremely cosmopolitan but distinctly unassuming, the municipality really has something for everyone, whether it’s iconic landmarks like Castello Sforzesco and the Duomo Cathedral, the romantic canal-side vistas of the Navigli or the pulsating nightlife of areas like Brera, with their accompanying sense of gioia di vivere.
GT travelled courtesy of easyJet, which flies from London Gatwick to Milan 25 times per week (£22.99 one-way / £40.98 (incl. taxes). 08712 442 366 or visit www.easyjet.com.
GT stayed at the Best Western Galles (Piazza Lima 2, 0039 02 20 48 41) courtesy of Hotelopia, www.hotelopia.co.uk. Conveniently located on the bustling Corso Buenos Aires, the Best Western Galles offers reserved and elegant accommodation with a delightful roof terrace, humidor and gym. Double rooms are available from €100 per night.
Designed by Antonio Citterio, the E’spa Spa in the new Bulgari Hotel comes equipped with a gold-mosaic swimming pool and emerald-glass Hammam. Calming teak and stone complete the picture. A two-hour Frequent Traveller treatment costs €240. Via Privata Fratelli Gabba, 0039 28 05 80 52 00.
Milan’s fashion industry is buzzing at the prospect of the new Design and Events Building in Cesar Pelli’s Garibaldi-Repubblica development. The €34m project was won by Grimshaw Architects (Eden Project, Dubai Tower) who will sheath the basic exhibition space in a startling sheet of fabric-like metal.
Town House Galleria:
The Town House opened in December 2006 and immediately dubbed itself Italy’s first seven-star hotel. Prices are certainly suitable (doubles from €700), but promotions can be bagged. Located in the historic Vittorio Emanuele II Galleria, each suite has its own butler. 8 Via Silvio Pellico, www.townhouse.it
A Milan country house hotel extravagantly carved with Moorish minarets and columns, Villa Crespi’s tranquil Novara location is a world away from the Navigli. Perfect for escape and a visit to the nearby Alessi outlet factory. Orta San Giulio, 0039 322 91 19 02.
Newly opened on Via della Spiga, the Prada-owned innovative footwear brand’s new flagship store is designed to resemble the interior of a luxury car, utilising leather, chrome and briarwood. 1, Via della Spiga.
In Pisa they’ve been trying to right the leaning tower for years, but in Milan French architect Perrault has won a €37m contract to build two hotels designed to lean. Not due to open until 2008, they form part of the new Milan Trade Fair complex.
Dolce & Gabbana has added a restaurant to its stable of Milan businesses and unsurprisingly gold is the decor theme (check out the golden bamboo bathroom). The downstairs bar is perfect for pre-club aperitifs, while upstairs is more formal. 2a Via Carlo Poerio.
Milan’s trendiest gallery requires an appointment, but is worth the effort for its exploration of art-form convergence; fashionistas, urban guerillas and anarchist bloggers meet art, music and TV. 2/6 via Morimondo, 0039 289 19 00 16.
Catsuits, vintage T-shirts and disco tops make up this old-school second-hand clothing store buzz with a laid-back vibe. There’s another branch by the Duomo, but Porta Genova gets the models. Piazzale Stazione, Porta Genova.