I had gone to one of the world’s fashion capitals with a pre-conceived notion. In my mind, I had seen women dressed to make me swoon with wonder at the sharpness of their fashionable sensibility. Well, as does happen with most exaggerated versions that live in the imagination, I found that the women wear their clothes with flair but none that does justice to the epithet associated with Milan.
When I found myself there at the onset of spring this year, the Milanese women had decided that palazzo pants were their It statement for the season. The palazzos skimmed the knees or flapped beyond the ankles often revealing pencil heels. The lone incident when my eyes did boggle was when I was on Via Monte Napoleone, in the posh fashion district of Milan, studded with designer names and appropriately enough referred to as the Quadrilatero d’Oro or Rectangle of Gold. In the twilight of a beautiful evening, a woman stepped out of a sleek dark car in the briefest of mini-skirts, transparent tights, leather jacket and big sunglasses – with a necessary accessory tucked beneath her elbows, a tiny pooch.
I told myself that I needed to see the city during the Milan Fashion Week. But just to offset that statement, I have seen enviable, effortless everyday fashion on the streets of Paris and London. Yet Milan had fashion lacing its genes. Since the medieval period it was renowned for its luxury fabrics. Its very name attests to its fashionable past derived as it is from the old English word millaner. It meant a producer of luxury goods. To keep up with the boom of industrialisation, new factories came up in Milan and the corollary was that manufacture of furniture got a boost – a reason why interior design stores are big in Milan.
Now, it is a distinct possibility that you might like Milan.
When I was in the city, walking all around it trying to locate China Town because my Google Maps had chosen to take me to a completely different area, a former colleague messaged me. In between charting a road that led to a rundown quarter and discovering that I was not where I was supposed to be, our conversation went thus:
She: You like Milan? Strangely, I must be the only person on this person who doesn’t like it.
Me: Well, my husband is with you there!
She: Great Minds
I rattled out a list that had got me going.
She: Yeah the Duomo is great and after that? Dull Grey City, but enjoy it. I got into some design stores for furniture. Felt very poor though.
With that she left me to my zeal to locate China Town. I did eventually get to it and ended up feeling let down. I had built up in my mind the image of a bustling community spread out over a substantial area, and there it was, a flimsy strip filled with Chinese boutiques and cafes.
There is quite a few things you can do in Milan before ennui creeps in. I spent about three weeks living in the city, a large part of which was used up in catching a train to go somewhere else because, let’s face it, my above-mentioned friend was not too off the mark. After a few days in Milan, you do run out of places to haunt.
A few things in Milan manage to stay on in the mind.
CRUSHING THE BULL’S BALLS
A strange Milanese tradition for good luck. It takes place within the shopping arcade of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Locals call it il salotto buono or the ‘fine drawing room of Milan’. People go there to see and be seen.
The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is named after the first king of a unified Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II, and one of the oldest arcades in the world, built by a Giuseppe Mengoni between 1861 and 1877. The soaring glass roof arched over it and the intricacy of the cast iron architecture incited in me a feeling of awe, a reaction that Mengoni wanted to garner for the new industrial Italy of the time, replete with high fashion and high finance.
When I did see a person spinning on his toes, I observed to myself, Probably a kickback from too much LSD. Turns out, he was following a quirky passage of rite. Right.
Looking closely at the mosaic on the floor, in the middle of the gallery, I saw a white bull reared up on a blue backdrop and a big hole now where its genitals once used to be – poor thing has to get it crushed again and again for people to be happy. The bull is the centrepiece of the coat of arms that was shared by the important cities of the kingdom of Italy – Turin, Florence, Milan and Rome.
So, you step your right heel on the bull’s balls, the hole that is, and twirl thrice. Anticlockwise.
The story is a bit grim, but in the gallery, Mengoni suffered a fall from the scaffolding just a few weeks before completion and died. This tradition is supposed to counteract that piece of bad luck. Crushing a bull’s balls and good luck. I am yet to figure that out.
Did I do it? *rolls eyes
A SURREAL VISION CALLED THE DUOMO
The first morning on which I climbed the steps of the metro exit in Milan, Bam! emerged the Duomo. A chimera of filigree in pink Candoglia marble. In its backdrop, the bright blue sky. “A delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath,” as Mark Twain put it after he lay his eyes on it in the summer of 1867. He had also noted that “the figures are so numerous and the design so complex, that one might study it a week without exhausting its interest…everywhere that a niche or a perch can be found about the enormous building, from summit to base, there is a marble statue, and every statue is a study in itself”. He was not exaggerating. There are 3,400 statues, 135 gargoyles and 700 figures adorning the Duomo, more than on any other building in the world.
I had to start with the iconic image that pops up in our collective consciences when we think of Milan. Plus, the city’s protector stands tall on the dome of the Duomo – a gilded Madonnina (Little Madonna) in copper.
To quote Twain again on the Gothic cathedral that took 600 years to complete. “They say that the Cathedral of Milan is second only to St. Peter’s at Rome. I cannot understand how it can be second to anything made by human hands.” So it is not a matter of surprise that on any given day, the queue to see the interiors of the cathedral snake on for miles. I checked again later in the afternoon and the scene was not very different.
Here’s a tip that no one will tell you. When you want to book tickets for the Duomo, do not stand at the queue that forms up at the entrance. Instead, walk into the museum adjacent, on the right hand side of the Duomo, and you will find minimal people waiting to buy tickets.
I did enter the Duomo another day. I climbed the steps to the rooftop and it being a clear day, through the marble spires and pinnacles, I spotted the glistening white peaks of the Alps.
In its crypt is interred Carlo Borromeo, the 16th century cardinal archbishop of Milan. The story is that when Charles Borromeo was born to an extremely wealthy family at a castle in the vicinity of Milan, a brilliant light surrounded it. The light faded away only when day broke. A saint had been born. And well, he was so ascetic in his livelihood that he never revealed any body part to be seen by anyone. He also spoke to no woman without two witnesses at hand – and even then he kept words with women to a bare minimum.
The side benefits of travelling: Stories of human quirk.
AN ODE TO DEATH THAT IS THE CIMITERO MONUMENTALE
That a cemetery can warrant a visit might seem odd. But once you walk into Milan’s vast compound of graves, you know you have struck gold. For a start, it lives up to its name. It is Monumental sprawling over an area of roughly 2,700,000 sq ft and the graves are just elaborate verses in marble. Milanese from all ranks and walks of life lie there but it is mostly the domain of the wealthy, you can tell. I chanced upon the cemetery one day as I was walking down the Maciachini area, on my way to the Duomo. Its Byzantine personality caught my eye.
I could not sidestep it which meant that I spent an entire day roaming around it till my head buzzed with the details and the stories, the lives that were and that could have been. A map acquired at the entrance (which is free, whee!) guided me around the outdoor compound which was wrought in marble and interspersed with trees and plants. It was a landscape to soothe the senses, tranquil and several worlds away from the rush outside on the main road that wound into the city’s centre.
In 1866 this cemetery was opened up to the public for burials of the wealthy Milanesi and even the common folk. The famous architect of the day, Carlo Maciachini, wanted to bring together small cemeteries from around the city under the umbrella of Cimitero Monumentale. So there was the result of his immaculate imagination – the grandest Italian sculptures and Greek temples, obelisks and tombs, designed by the famous artists of the day. It seemed as if the dead could outdo each other in possessing the most resplendent tombs that art and wealth had concocted together. A women with a babe in the arm trying to open the door to the afterlife, the bust of a small child, the nuns praying for the dead,
There is a memorial too for the Jews who died in concentration camps during WWII and in the Lake Maggiore (Meina Massacre when 16 Italian Jews were killed by the German SS).
I doubt there is a second cemetery like the Cimitero Monumentale though I remember a beautiful one in Warsaw, Poland, which was more of a park dedicated to death.
THE MILANESE SET-UP
Milan is old. The plan was simple, it seemed, when the city was designed. Roads diverged from and converged at the Duomo. Everywhere I walked, every street I took was flanked by old buildings with wrought iron balconies, verandas trimmed with neat rows of balustrades, rusted iron, copper and bronze knockers gleaming on antiquated doors. Occasionally there would be the odd (because Milan is just so modern apart from the old architecture) sight of an old man working away on re-caning a chair by the side of a busy road.
In the early hours of the morning the frequently spaced out cafés sent out rejuvenating whiffs of coffee onto the pavement, the ubiquitous gelateria winked at me mischievously with its hoard of colourful iced creams (you do give in eventually and, even if you have it once during the day, the craving to have more, every time you pass by another gelateria, is not to be scoffed at) and the pasticcerias or delis threatened to keep me glued to the display windows with their hoard of pastries and baked goodies.
Milan’s every street and corner held immense possibilities and it was all a proverbial red rag to my food-loving genes.
Food makes me feel at home in any place. Food does not judge. Food welcomes you and makes you a part of the fabric of the city you are in.
To the tune of stopping for coffee breaks every now and then and giving into the allure of gelatos, I took in diverse architectural styles that popped up – the old palazzos (palaces), beautiful churches and museums, legacies of the Lombardian Capital’s past.
The railway stations – the Parisian structure of the Milano Centrale station and the cutesy, red and green Cadorna station – make you take a second, closer look at them. Outside the Cadorna railway station, the Piazzale Cadorna is marked by a distinct ode to fashion. It is the Monumento alla Fashion, a sculpture in red, yellow and green that represents a needle, a thread and a knot. The colours correspond to the three underground lines of Milan – which must be one of the simplest and easy-to-chart metros in the world.
I will let you onto a secret. A few hundred metres down the Piazzale Cadorna is Chocolat. A café that serves the best gelato in Milan. The address is Via Boccaccio, 9. And, you are welcome.
Walking ahead of Cadorna station, I spied the walls of the iconic red-brick castle, Castello Sforzesco. The castle was once home to the mighty Sforza dynasty that ruled Renaissance Milan. If you have watched the BBC show, The Borgias, you might remember Caterina Sforza. I was thrilled to see the castle therefore and learn of the fact that its defences were designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Entry is not ticketed even though the castle houses seven museums. You can enter and decide if you want to see Michelangelo’s final work, the Rondanini Pietà, spend time in the museum of ancient art or browse the museum on antiques.
If your imagination is an active creature, you might want to saunter down to Piazzale Loreto, about a 15-minute walk from Milano Centrale. It is the square where in 1945, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was strung up along with his girlfriend, Claretta Petacci, after they were shot in a village on Lake Como and their bodies brought to Milan.
Hoary incidents are a part of the past of every place you go, it seems. You cannot escape stories that are a constant reminder of man’s insatiable appetite for cruelty.
The other hub in Milan is the Porta Nuova Business District. There the buildings are glitzy enough to make you wonder if they exist in the same city as the Duomo. They are new-fangled environmental-friendly buildings, all decked up in metal and glass. My pick of the lot was the Unicredit Tower that at 760-odd feet stands tall above all in the city and has been declared to be the tallest skyscraper in Italy.
But, I have reserved the best of the lot for the last. Look out for the charming Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore. Going by its rather plain exterior, you might not think of entering the church that dates back to 1503 and was once attached to the most important Benedictine convent for nuns in the city, Monastero Maggiore. Do step in. You will not be disappointed.
I was enchanted by the stunning panels of 16th century frescoes which covered the walls of its interiors. It was so very different from the bombast of Catholic churches you see from time to time. No, this was pure artistic endeavour which is bound to remain as a sigh in the memory.
LEONARDO AND THE LAST SUPPER
Would Leonard da Vinci have recognised The Last Supper?
Here was one of the most reproduced and studied paintings in the world, preserved most carefully in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Where they let you in for just 15 minutes at a stretch because it is a moisture-monitored space for an already fragile mural – that is if you have managed to lay your hands on a ticket which during the summer months is a fairly tricky business. And yet what I was seeing in front of me was not what Leonardo had painted but the work of many painters after who had extensively worked on the original.
I had seen a reproduction of The Last Supper in Poland. It was an unusual copy because the tableau was carved out in salt inside the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow.
Now, I stood inside the convent’s dimly lit dining hall and stared up at the 29 feet by 15 feet mural, witnessing a mural that must have given the friars who used to dine there at one point of time some fodder for contemplation. Leonardo had painted a scene that depicted the last supper of Jesus with his disciples. When Jesus had announced that one of them was going to betray him, much consternation broke out amongst the apostles who are seated at the wooden table in bunches of three and it is in the reactions that there is significant drama. And deceit as we all know.
Around 1495, The Last Supper was commissioned by the Duke of Milan and Leonardo’s patron, Ludovico Sforza. Frescoes were traditionally painted on wet plaster for them to successfully withstand the ravages of time and at the same time they did not allow the painter much time to finish his work. The work had to be finished while the plaster was wet. Leonardo decided that it would not work for him, plus he wanted greater luminosity. He executed his mural on a dry wall as a result of which the paint never firmly adhered to the wall. Oh, but it was luminous alright. Completed in 1498, The Last Supper started to flake by 1517.
A host of artists worked on renovating the 15th century mural which went through a series of damages – it received a fair bit of attention from French revolutionary troops in 1796 who not only pelted the painting with stones but then proceeded to climb ladders so that they could scratch out the eyes of the apostles. Such dedication, isn’t it? If that was not that, the refectory was struck during the WWII bombings and the painting must have undergone further damage even though it had been protected through sandbagging. That is The Last Supper for you.
DOWN VIA BRERA
North of the Duomo is a quaint quarter. The Brera district stands out in a swish city like Milan where there are not many such atmospheric neighbourhoods. Large swathes of ivy dominate the façade of the apartments as do overflowing pots of plants hanging off the verandas that overlook picturesque alleys and add to the romance of the Brera.
The highlight of the area is the Pinoteca di Brera which houses the best collection of Italian classical art in Milan. Art studios, small fashion boutiques, interior design boutiques and dark taverns flourish in the neighbourhood and a day spent walking around the Brera is an idyllic time. When the 20th century began, the Brera was populated by a mixed milieu of classes. Artists, philosophers and architects found themselves living alongside the upper crust of society.
I always ended my walks in the Brera with a gelato at Amorino.
APERITIVOS AND THE NAVIGLI
Evenings in Milan without aperitivo are evenings not well spent. A Spanish friend from the Basque Country, who is partly Italian and a lover of all things Italian, took us to the canal area called Navigli for our first experience of an aperitivo. It is the direct counterpart of the Happy Hour in English-speaking countries and the Tapas in Spain.
The aperitivo, dear friends, though scores way higher. It is truly One Big Happy Hour when you order a drink and end up with unlimited access to a plethora of bite-sized dishes. The bar in Navigli that we sat at had a fantastic spread from olives, cheeses, various pastas, pizzas which disappeared as quickly as they were served up, bruschettas, cured meats, cardoon (thistle-like vegetable) fritters to grilled vegetables and salads. We had some entertainment too when a gaggle of police arrived at the bar, looking very important and serious. They did a lot of checks at the bar. Apparently, they frequently raid the bars in Navigli when they get tip-offs.
On a pleasant high, we stopped at another bar for a bottle of fine Prosecco and then tripped on for spicy empanadas at a small joint set up by a flat-capped, enterprising Argentinian. It was nippy that night when we walked along the canal in the Navigli. Milan was once served by an interconnected network of canals and it is on the barges that plied along these canals that marble for the construction of the Duomo was brought to the city. Artistic boutiques thrive along the canal along with a small church, the Santa Maria delle Grazie al Naviglio, and a row of neat bars and restaurants. A walk in the evenings by the Navigli is a romantic affair in Milan. For what is travel without romance, huh?