Saffron, canals, spires, and… bull balls!
In the yuppie Eighties, it was ‘drinkable’ according to the iconic vermouth advertisement that became the slogan of the careerist consumerist generation, and now ‘the city that never squanders but always invests’ buzzes with business, culture, street food and the evening ritual of apericena (A portmanteau of aperitivo and cena, this is the radical-chic weekday ritual that sees locals queueing for the all-you-can-eat cholesterolfest buffet of savory snacks included in the price of your drink) to seal another deal at the office.
In fact, at 6pm, when ‘Generation XS’ clocks out, bars and bistros lay out a selection of canapés and charcuterie to lure in lawyers and tycoons toasting to yet another hostile takeover with clinking glasses of fruity cocktails and slices of bresaola (cured and smoked wafer-thin beef slices) and raspadura (hard cheese ribbon-like shavings) on crispy michetta bread.
Happy hour is a lavish affair that makes dinner redundant when thousands of professionals eventually make it home to the hinterland after a crowded ride on the five underground lines that worm their way under the city, or any of the futuristic-looking tramways that are replacing the historical Art Nouveau streetcars. Lunch is often consumed at the nearest tavola calda, where freshly made rolls or balanced meals are prepared.
Typical of Milanese cuisine and thus available everywhere, from the simplest osteria to the glitziest grand hotel, are minestrone and risotto giallo alla milanese, with or without ossobuco. The first is a hearty soup made with vegetables and small egg-pasta shapes in thick broth, often made thicker with lard, although nowadays vegan-conscious eateries tend to substitute it with margarine; the second is rice with saffron and bone marrow from the accompanying ossobuco, drenched in gravy. If all this sounds too rich for you, never fear: Milan is a hotpot for international food well beyond the classic pizza, with Asian restaurants sprouting everywhere to compete with the Middle Eastern, Indian, Mexican and Scandinavian markets.
Don’t miss out on street food like arancino, piadina, panzerotto, tigella, imported from all over Italy and fully adopted as convenient snack on the move. And leave plenty of room for dessert: Milan is dotted with artisan-made ice cream parlours and confectioneries baking yummy cakes, cupcakes, tarts, the most iconic being sachertorte and kranz, the only positive legacy of the Habsburg domination, according to the true Milanese. A spongy chocolate cake filled with apricot jam and covered in dark chocolate, sachertorte was invented in Vienna and it takes very long to mix and bake, but very short to eat, especially when accompanied by a cup of barbagliata, the thick hot chocolate whose recipe is akin to béchamel. Kranz is a large braided brioche sprinkled with granulated sugar, ideal for breakfast.
If you wish to marry fine dining and sightseeing, the municipal transport company ATM has adapted a historical tramcar into the exquisitely retro restaurant ‘ATMosfera’ offering a tour while serving a selection of typical dishes and wine, with linen tablecloths and silverware reminiscent of the Orient Express. And yes, for a reasonable price you may also add mystery, in which patrons are invited to help solve a murder re-enacted by local theatre companies.
In the Shadow of La Mia Bela Madunina
Full-immersion sightseeing needn’t be murder thanks to the efficient net of public transport, and its app, but for a time-effective comprehensive experience do hop on and off the double-decker that drives by most monuments. However, the beauty of Milan lies in getting lost and found in the embroidery of medieval lanes between boulevards, where traffic is limited, and the path to paradise (the manicured gardens secreted behind stately wooden portals or wrought-iron gates) is paved with large flagstones, or stone cubes called sanpietrini, because they were firstly used in Saint Peter’s Square, Rome.
Milan is one of the busiest European destinations for weekend breaks with most tourists flocking to the Duomo. My advice is not to waste time in the frustratingly slow queue at the metal detector, but take your time to walk all around it instead and appreciate its facades flourishing with bas-reliefs and buttresses. If you are blessed with a crisp sunny day, you must take the lift to the rooftop, where you can ramble among the spires and command views over the Alps to the north and the Apennines to the south. The Duomo’s highest spire is topped by the gilded statue of Our Lady to whom the cathedral is dedicated; it was ruled that no edifice in Milan would stand taller than the ‘Madunina’ (as she is affectionately known), so that replicas have been placed on skyscrapers. The Victor Emmanuel Arcade stands majestically to the left, built when kingdom of Italy was unified under this Savoy king. Two glass vaults cross in a domed octagonal centre, fronted by historical establishments and top-star restaurants. The pavement is ornate with mosaics, the most famous being the rampant bull, symbol of Italy’s first capital, Turin. Legend tells that if one places one’s right heel on the bull’s genitals and pivots around three times, one’s luck is guaranteed, together with a safe return to Milan in the future. The arcade leads to La Scala theatre, staging Donizetti’s ‘Don Pasquale’ and Zandonai’s ‘Francesca da Rimini’ this month, Verdi’s Aida in May, Schubert’s ‘Fierrabras’ and Beethoven’s ‘Fidelio’ in June. However, if opera isn’t your cup of… aperol spritz, you may want to check out the traditional Carlo Colla’s marionette theatre, acting out fairytales and literature classics with handmade wooden marionettes in reproductions of period costumes.
In Manzoni Street you’ll find Don Lisander Trattoria (named after the author of the historical novel ‘The Betrothed’ and home of the saffron risotto) just next door to the Poldi Pezzoli Museum, a seigniorial palace opened to the public to display a variety of armours, pikes and pistols, tapestries, paintings (notable is Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Lamentation over the dead Christ’), and other artifacts collected by this aristocratic family, including the bejewelled pocket watches collection. Right behind La Scala opens the fine arts’ district of Brera, with its Academy and compact Botanical Gardens, narrow cobblestoned streets lined with boutiques, antiques and art supplies shops and touristy eateries.
Blend of architectural old and new
At the other end of Brera stands the modern brickwork block built twenty years ago for the Strehler Theatre, found next to Corso Garibaldi – a high-end high street connecting to Corso Como, a quaint pedestrianised area (reminiscent of Main Street, actually, only larger), where the trendiest nightlife happens, through XXV April Square. Here stands on three levels one of the largest ‘Eataly’ superstores, a must-visit for gourmet food, where you can taste and buy regional specialties and enjoy one of the best Margherita pizzas north of the Po river.
Gently uphill is the ultramodern complex of Porta Nuova; a showcase of futuristic architecture with designer skyscrapers, sculptural office blocks shaped as barrels, and shopping malls, set around the fountain of Gae Aulenti Square, just next the residential towers named ‘vertical forest’ because of their balconies laden with plants creeping from one storey to the next.
Should you choose to forsake Corso Garibaldi and proceed left at Strehler Theatre, you’ll follow a boulevard to reach the Civic Aquarium, a cylindrical Art Nouveau building surrounded by gardens, ponds and animal-related sculptures, where you can meet freshwater and marine life, from trout to sturgeons and the ever popular walk-through see-through ‘sharkade’.
Basilisk and castle
Thence you can proceed into the Sempione Park, one of Milan’s green lungs, landscaped with secular trees and natural ponds that are home to mallards, terrapins and other wildlife, including the odd fox, and of course the Tout-Milan fauna of families strolling in their Sunday best and students lying lazily on the grass. The gated park is comprised between the Triennale (contemporary art museum), the Arco della Pace (a neoclassic pastiche akin to the Parisian Arc de Triomphe, although built to celebrate love and not war), and the Castello Sforzesco, an imposing brickwork compound with several towers, a place of arms and quaint courtyards, dating back to the Renaissance and perfectly restored. It was home to the Dukes of Sforza, successors of the Visconti, under the coat of arms which still is used in Milan, featuring a basilisk devouring a child.
It accommodates most of the city’s museums, featuring Michelangelo’s Pietà Rondanini, well worth weathering the queues. Other museums collect musical instruments, sculptures, furniture and tapestries, unravelling along the castle’s halls and private quarters; do take your time through them all, because the itinerary includes a leisurely walk on the ramparts above the courtyards and unravels from hall to hall, giving you an insight of castellan lifestyle with the added bonus of a glance to Leonardo da Vinci’s Sala delle Asse.
But if you are on a tight schedule, just sneak out the side door and make your way to the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, whose refectory is decorated with Leonardo’s Last Supper (pre-booked admission only). Not far lays the Archeological Museum, partly housed in fortifications dating back to the late Roman Empire: it boasts an impressive collection of Greek and Etruscan vases, Roman glass, some of which featuring colours and swirls reminiscent of our own Gibraltar Museum’s amphoriskos, and temporary exhibitions with exhibits borrowed from institutions worldwide.
Brickwork, Greenery and more museums
If you like artistic brickwork, visit the Ca’ Granda, a stone throw from Duomo Square, now the headquarters for the university, built during the Renaissance as a lazaret and expanded in the Twentieth Century to accommodate Humanistic Studies, Languages and Jurisprudence. Its cloisters are an oasis of peace in the heart of town, although many swear that the Crociera, the lofty hall turned into library and classrooms, still echoes with the shrieks of leprosy victims’ ghosts as much as overworked undergraduate students.
Don’t miss St. Ambrose Cathedral, where the relics of Milan’s first bishop are venerated: its millenary history comes to life around the splendid Volvinio’s golden altar on 6th December, on the eve of the patron saint’s day, with a processions of offers from the whole diocese, which by the way extends its Carnival festivities until the Saturday after Ash Wednesday, in what is known as Ambrosian Carnival. Outside this church stands proud a marble column which bears the sign of Satan’s horns getting stuck in it when he charged the bishop – actually they are the drillings for a metal ring used to tether chariots, but the legend lives on with assurances of absolution to those repenting of their sins while tracing the holes with their fingertips.
More brickwork and more parks at the Indro Montanelli’s Gardens, with a layout similar to Sempione Park, close to the shopping district of Porta Venezia. Within the gardens you’ll find the Planetarium, where you can reach for the stars thanks to the mammoth projector, and the charming edifice of the Natural History Museum, where you can see the besanosaurus, a locally found dinosaur, amongst taxidermy and reconstructions of natural habitats from Italy and the pluvial forest.
Opposite these gardens you’ll find Villa Belgiojoso, a masterpiece of neoclassic architecture opening on a manicured Romantic garden, once the venue for registry weddings and now an art museum most fascinating for the décor of its rooms, particularly the ballroom and the private quarters.
Fashion rhymes with passion
The Quadrilatero della Moda is the network of streets delimited by Via Montenapoleone and Via Spiga, a short walk from Porta Venezia. Here you can enjoy uninterrupted views on haute couture and jewellery by Italian designers, and on the struscio (the evening stroll) of model-spotting fashionistas and bauscia (mildly disparaging moniker for the self-styled upper-crust Milanese) scouring for the next trend, or a lift in the residents’ sports car. If your pockets aren’t deep enough, alas, just move along for high street brands to Buenos Aires Avenue, or the arcaded and pedestrianised Victor Emmanuel Street that will gently lead you back to the Duomo. Once the hub for first-vision cinemas, this promenade has become the showcase for international chain stores, after the closure of historical shops like Fiorucci and Ercolessi.
No visit to Milan, especially in summer, is complete without popping at the Navigli and Darsena, the only canals spared from the covering of a complex system that once criss-crossed the city centre to and fro the rivers. Nowadays it is the destination for discerning leisure time on weekends and long balmy evenings, with art studios and gourmet bistros in the refurbished countryside-style houses lining the waterfront. It hosts a famous antiques market every last Sunday of the month, and twice a year an attractive flower show (the spring one is being held on 8th April this year, and the autumn on 7th October). Don’t miss out on a barge trip with live string quartet!
A short tramway ride will take you to the MUDEC or Anthropological Museum, in a revamped factory on the outskirts of town, featuring a permanent collection of artefacts from all continents as well as itinerant painting exhibitions and monographs on worldwide cultures (pop in for the one about New Guinean Asmat head-hunters).
The old Fiera di Milano with its Art Nouveau buildings was recently extended into the modern shopping district of Three Towers (the third is still under construction) and new commercial pavilions have been built near the satellite town of Rho, where is still visible the extravagant Expo 2015 village. Here a comprehensive market fair of luxury goods from all over Italy and the world takes place on the first week of December, concurrently to the O’bej! O’bej! street market that once unravelled around St. Ambrose Cathedral, but was later moved to the pathway around the castle for safety reasons.
Milan’s topography lies on flat land and it is laid out as a Celtic settlement, unlike the parallel and perpendicular thoroughfares typical of the Roman cardo et decumanus system. To be able to move around like a true Meneghino, just imagine it like a gigantic spider web, with concentric circles linking the radiuses sprouting from Duomo Square.
For its ideal location at the centre of the Po Valley, Milan is the base camp for day trips: half an hour train ride to the university town of Pavia and artistic Vigevano, or hilly Bergamo, one hour to lake resorts like Como or Lugano, north of the Swiss border, two from Turin, Genoa or Verona, three to Garda, Bologna and a fraction more to Florence, four to Venice, and less to Alpine resorts like Bormio and Livigno, Europe’s highest inhabited parish. The morning tilting train nicknamed Pendolino will take you as far as Rome or Naples in time for pomodori con riso or calzone fritto brunches respectively.
Whatever you do and wherever you go in Milan, remember that everyone is perennially in hurry there. Ever heard of the tale of the lion and gazelle having to wake up in Africa and outrun each other for survival? Well, the locals adapt it like so: “It doesn’t matter if you are a lion or a gazelle: when the sun rises in Milan, it only matters whether you’ve retained the fastest broker in the Stock Exchange.”