It’s not as romantic as Venice, as full of history as Rome or as captivating as Florence, and it’s notoriously difficult for tourists who haven’t done some advance planning. But Milan should definitely be on your Italian itinerary. Keep reading to see why.
If you’re not into fashion and you’ve already visited Italian gems like Venice, Rome and Florence, you might struggle to find Milan diverting. At your most positive, you’ll say: ‘Well, I’m here now. I might as well make the best of it. ‘ That was my attitude when my friend Maria and I arrived late one night at Milan airport. We had just taken the train in from Venice and I was still suffering withdrawal symptoms of having left the stimulating lagoon city too soon. The walk from the train station to the hotel seemed to prove my reservations right – graffiti on the wall cursing Berlusconi and grey buildings. I was glad to be in the sterile hotel room instead of on the quiet streets where whiffs of trash hung in the air from overflowing garbage bins, as we passed by.
The next morning proved to be much more promising. Sunny skies welcomed us and after a much-needed cappuccino I was ready to face the day. Milan is made of money and that’s how the city comes across. No charm, no welcome – mostly business. But don’t cut it out of your Italian itinerary because the city does have some gems. Warning: plan in advance or Milan’s best kept secrets will stay that way.
Tickets to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, popularised by the bestseller The Da Vinci Code must be booked in advance either online or through their call centre. When da Vinci painted the seminal moment in Christ’s life when he revealed to his 12 disciples who among them was going to betray him, the artist ignored the convention of the time to paint on wet plaster and applied paint directly onto dry plaster instead. This gave him more time to get the painting done but, the painting began to flake and fade even in da Vinci’s time. This famous painting is currently maintained at a precise temperature and humidity level. Only 25 visitors are allowed to view the painting for 15 minutes at a time, after passing through acclimatisation and de-polluting chambers. This compelling work of art is spread across the refectory wall of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie and is truly worth the visit.
Milan is home to the third largest church in Europe after Seville Cathedral and St Peter’s in Rome. Milan’s gothic Duomo roughly spans 12, 000 sq m and contains 3, 000 statues, 135 spires and 96 gargoyles. Entrance to the cathedral is free though admission charges apply to view the Baptistry, Treasury and roof. A view of the Duomo’s 135 spires from the roof terraces is a must, either by lift or the cheaper option of climbing up 158 steps. The interior of the Duomo has plenty of art and stunning stained glass windows on view. What I found most amazing was the discovery that its vault contains a nail said to be from Christ’s cross. A permanently shining red light in the Duomo’s vault marks where the nail is kept.
Near the Duomo is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a pedestrianised, surprisingly light and airy shopping arcade made of iron and glass dated 1878. Its floor is decorated with mosaics representing the four continents of Europe, America, Africa and Asia. There are also mosaics representing the fields of Art, Agriculture, Science and Industry. But its finest feature by far is the central dome;an impressive display of how to use metal and glass to decorative effect. Look out for the mosaics depicting the zodiac signs where you’ll most likely find tourists rubbing their heels in the poor bull’s worn out testicles, for good luck.
The National Museum of Science and Technology has a dedicated collection of Leonardo’s models and reproductions of his designs, drawings and descriptions of various inventions.
The Pinacoteca di Brera houses Milan’s finest collection of art and an excellent collection of Italian masterpieces. With 38 exhibition rooms, it could take you more than a day to stroll through the entire collection but for a shorter visit some of the highlights on show are Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin, the 15th century Dead Christ by Mantegna, Francesco Hayez’s The Kiss (1859) and Modigliani’s Portrait of Moise Kisling painted in 1915.
The Quadrilatero d’Oro or Gold Rectangle is where fashionistas will want to be. This cosy fashion district is where you’ll find fashion houses Armani, Gucci, Prada, Versace, Ferragamo, Valentino, Trussardi and Dolce & Gabbana to name a few. Though prices are sky-high, the shops reflect affluent Milan’s marriage to chic, understated style rather than Parisian flamboyance.
Performances at La Scala, one of the world’s most prestigious opera houses, tend to be packed. So, if you’re in Milan for only a day, book your seats months in advance. For information on how to book seats, refer to their website.
If you’re into brunches, you’ll be happy to know that they’ve become very trendy in Milan. On weekends, between 10 am and 2 pm, cafes put out a rich American/Italianstyle buffet of brioches, croissants, muffins, eggs, bacon, pastas, risottos, cold meats and cheeses. A few fashionable venues, for a bit of celebrity-spotting, are the Hotel Sheraton Diana Majestic garden and Tribeca Lounge.
Castello Sforzesco is one of the largest citadels in Europe. This monumental structure once housed Milan’s most powerful dynasties. Today, it houses a number of museums. Look out for the fountain that locals named ‘the wedding cake’ after the way the water jets out, layer upon layer.
Once used as a navigable waterway, the Naviglio Grande canal now forms a quiet backdrop to art galleries, workshops and quirky shops that form the bohemian quarter of Milan. From September to June, the last Sunday of the month heralds the Antiques Market with around 400 antique dealers selling jewellery and bric-a-brac along the canal banks. You’ll find cheaper pizzerias, trattorias and bars here, as also a thriving nightlife, compared to the historic city centre.
AT A GLANCE
International flights go to Milan’s Malpensa airport. From there get an express train (45 mins) or bus shuttle service (1 hour) to the city centre
What to bring back:
Reproduction posters make good souvenirs or pick up an espresso cup set from a homeware store
This article appeared in Times of India Crest on 24 December 2011.