12 September 2010


This is another in a series of monthly travel articles inspired by a New York Times article on 31 places to see in 2010. All of the towns are in Italy, and while most are small, rich in history and art and for the most part off the beaten track, this month’s article is on Milan, not small and definitely on track.

MILAN, Italy - The very fabric of Milan is Valentino red, Armani black and Versace gold. And as the glam models strut their stuff down the Milan fashion runways during Fashion Week, they keep the Made in Italy label on the front cover of every fashion magazine in the world. And even after Fashion Week is over and the designers have packed their collections away, the city rocks.

La Scala Opera House 

Milan is slick and snazzy and marches to the beat of a different drummer. It’s not like any other city in Italy, especially not the ones that are so absorbed with their past. No no, it’s nothing like them at all. This northern metropolis lives with one foot in the here and now, and the other foot in the future. It’s about art, it’s about design, it’s about fashion. Oh yes, above all it is about fashion.

Apart from a taxi, the best way to get around is on one of the orange trams that criss-cross the city. Board one going up Via Manzoni heading for super chic Via Montenapoleone, and chances are you’ll find yourself sitting next to the editor of an international fashion magazine or the marketing director for Prada or Dolce and Gabbana. Morning traffic is intense. Vespas zoom in and out, taxis honk and drivers stick their heads out car windows and mutter to themselves. What’s the hold up? . Everyone is in a hurry. No strolling allowed.

Milan is not an easy city to visit and it’s no wonder many first time visitors are disappointed. It is big, confusing and difficult to find your way around. Plus the city has a strange look about it. Yes, the massive Duomo is breathtaking. Topped with a crown of two thousand and two marble statues and a brilliant gilded statue of the Madonna, few visitors realize it is Italy’s second largest cathedral. Only the Vatican is bigger.

Milan's Cathedral

Yes, the Sforza castle is amazing. A thousand years of history right in the center of town, surrounded by a moat complete with drawbridges - but no water of course.

Sforza Castle

Yes, the Galleria’s soaring iron and glass arches were soaring years before Mr. Eiffel built his tower in Paris, imagine that! And every great Italian composer since the 18th century has composed for La Scala opera house. But alas the overall impression is of a city of drab, gray buildings, and not much more. For me, understanding the reason why, seems to make it less so.

The Galleria

If you turn the clock back to the years right after World War II, you find a Milan in shambles. The city suffered heavy bombing, and entire neighborhoods were reduced to rubble. When the dust finally settled, the massive job of reconstruction began. It was the intense need to rebuild in a hurry and get the city working again that gives Milan its strange look. Ultra modern, sleek angular buildings that were simple to design and quick to construct, sit next to ornate 17th and 18th century beauties disturbing the visual continuity.

“Is the city old or new,” visitors ask. Is it in the past, or in the here and now?
The answer is both, at least architecturally speaking. But for the rest, Milan has always been in the here and now. As soon as the war ended and the textile mills that dominated the small towns around Milan were up and running again, textile salesmen were off for New York. They soon realized that in addition to the American appetite for Italian fabrics, there was also a budding interest in Italian clothes.

Within a relatively short period of time Gucci, Pucci and Valentino became household names. Gone were the days when Italian women cut photos out of French fashion magazines and took them to their seamstresses to duplicate. Italian fashion had arrived. The Made in Italy label was successfully launched and on its way to the moon.

Click for a tourists view of Milan
Traders on the Milan stock market follow the fashion shows and the design trade shows. Milan’s financial newspapers run special fashion sections each week, and Milan is home to an international news service dedicated solely to the fashion industry. Who’s lunching with Krizia and who’s having dinner with Donatella are not just items for the gossip mill, but serious industry indicators.

In the spring and fall, when the city gears up for the all-important twice-a-year fashion shows, the trams and subways are crowded with tall, leggy models, male and female, carrying large black portfolios. They make the rounds of the booking offices, anxious to see if they are good enough to walk down Armani’s runway, or if they’re to be relegated to working the show rooms.

When they have an half an hour free, you will find them standing in awe in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, which is in the Refectory of the church of Santa Maria della Grazie. There is more da Vinci at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the world’s first public library, and still more at the Pinacoteca di Brera, a world class museum in a 16th century palazzo. And oh yes, there’s also the Museo della Scienze e della Tecnica, where you’ll find models based on Leonardo’s original sketches. When they are not on the da Vinci trail, they haunt the shops for gifts to bring to the folks back home.

“Who pays these prices,” an American on his first visit to Milan once asked me, “I can get the same things cheaper back home”. And he is right. There are no shopping bargains here and he is not the first to be taken aback at just how expensive a plain navy blue sweater can be. Too bad he wasn’t going to be in town long enough to see the long lines that form in front of Prada, or Ferragamo when the sales are on. He would have been amazed the way the big designer names draw shoppers from around the world. So many in fact that many designer boutiques have started following Gucci’s policy of limiting the number of items an individual shopper can buy.

Shopping in Milan

Soon after I moved to Milan I discovered that while the tourists head for the Armani store on Via Manzoni, or the chic shops on Via Montenapoleone, Via della Spiga, and the other the streets of Milan’s famous Golden Shopping Quad, locals head for Brera, a small neighborhood behind the La Scala opera house.

Some of the narrow cobblestone streets in Brera, like Via Fiori Chiara, are pedestrian only and on weekends, fortunetellers set up their tables in the middle of street ready to gaze into their crystal balls, or let the Tarot cards tell your fortune. Not in the winter, of course.

Brera has always been a commercial area, harkening back to the days when the ladies of the night sat bare breasted in the windows of the houses plying the oldest trade in the world. Milan’s antique row is here, as are art and photo galleries, trendy boutiques, bars, restaurants, all very in and very arty, and very Milan. The prices may not be any better than those on Via Montenapoleone, but the goods are offbeat and one of a kind, just like Milan.

For the latest in fashion news and views from the fashion capital of the world follow me on twitter.com/Italianlife

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