Travel Writings


Milan is not a city that readily springs to mind as one of Italy’s more obvious tourist destinations. One certainly doesn’t encounter the hordes of pilgrims one is constantly falling over in Rome, for example, as they follow the banner-bedecked aerials waved by their group leaders as they are guided around whatever artistic, archaeological or historical treasure they have just been bussed to and simply everybody must see. But that is unquestionably one of the many advantages of taking a break in this centre of fashion, big business and - in recent years - political scandal. A recent holiday touring around northern and central Italy started and finished with weekends spent in the Lombardian capital, and proved that as a city to get away to for a few days, or to dwell in longer, it can more than hold its own with more established European centres which are only a short hop from Dublin, like London, Paris or Amsterdam.









Because I lived in Milan for six months in 1990, teaching English to executives, I had a special interest in seeing what changes had taken place in the meantime and what had remained the same, and in comparing and contrasting my experiences while working in the city then with those of being a flying visitor now. The first observation to make in this regard is that August is an ideal time to see the city, since most sensible Milanese are away at the lakes, the mountains or the seaside, and one can stroll at a leisurely pace through the streets, taking everything in, without as much of the manic hustle and bustle usually associated with any thriving metropolis.
We were lucky also in that we were staying in a friend’s apartment, situated right beside one of Milan’s main focal points, the Castello Sforzesco. This Renaissance palace, which combines a forbidding exterior with a delightful interior, is based on a series of courtyards, the most beautiful of which is a gracefully arcaded square, the Cortile della Rocchetta. The castle now contains, together with sections on Applied Arts, Archaeology, and Coins, the Civiche Raccolte d’Arte Antica. This fine collection of furniture, antiquities and paintings includes Michelangelo’s unfinished sculpture, the Rondanini Pieta. The canvases in the picture collection, dating from the Renaissance to the 18th century, are particularly impressive. The gardens in which the castle stands remind one of New York’s Central Park since, although smaller, they function as place for the young and not so young Milanese to congregate, and where they can lie on the grass and take the sun, walk the dogs, or play guitar or Frisbee.
Another of Milan’s chief landmarks is its giant cathedral, to be found at the very heart of the city in the Piazza del Duomo. One of the largest Gothic churches in the world, it was begun in the 14th century, but not completed until more than 500 years later. The building’s most startling feature is the extraordinary roof, with its 135 spires and innumerable statues and gargoyles. The spectacular view of the city when you climb to the top, as we did, gives some idea of the vast scale of Milan, and on a clear day you can see even further afield, as far as the Alps. Below, the facade of the Duomo incorporates a dazzling assortment of styles from Gothic through to Renaissance and Neo-Classical. The bronze doors are faced with bas reliefs recounting episodes from the life of the Virgin, the life of Sant’ Ambrogio, patron saint of Milan, and scenes retelling the history of the city.
In addition to the great monuments in Milan, like the cathedral and the castle, there is a host of varied and interesting museums, churches and civic buildings, which provide an enthralling mix of old and new. There are plenty of opportunities for cultural activities, gastronomic adventures, designer-fashion shopping or just wandering about.
Off the Piazza del Duomo is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, an ornate shopping arcade known as ‘Il Salotto di Milano’, or ‘Milan’s drawing room’. It attracts the city’s glitterati to its stylish shops, cafes and restaurants, which include Il Salotto, which is said to serve the finest coffee in all Milan, and the elegant Savini, one of the city’s most prestigious restaurants. After walking through the Galleria you arrive in Piazza della Scala, home of the famous Neo-Classical opera house. Tickets to performances are usually sold out months in advance, but we visited the adjoining Museo Teatrale, which features sets and costumes of past productions, portraits and memorabilia of composers, conductors and singers, and theatrical items dating back to Roman times. You can also have a look at the auditorium from one of the gilded box galleries, and savour its trompe l’oeil effects and its enormous chandelier.
Milan’s finest art collection is held in an imposing 17th century building, the Palazzo di Brera. This is where, in the 18th century, the Accademia di Belle Arti was founded, and the picture collection developed alongside the academy. Inside Brera hang some of the best examples of Italian Renaissance and Baroque painting, including major works by Piero della Francesca, Mantegna, Bellini, Raphael, Tintoretto Veronese and Caravaggio. The collection also includes 20th century works by some of Italy’s most famous modern artists, like Modigliani and Carlo Carra. Another museum worth visiting is the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, which houses among its canvases the Portrait of a Musician attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, and the exquisite Portrait of a Young Woman, attributed to his pupil, Ambrogio da Predis. Other masterpieces include the Madonna of the Canopy by Botticelli, a cartoon version of Raphael’s Vatican fresco The School of Athens, and Caravaggio’s Fruit Basket, the first painting in Italy to have a still life as its subject. There is also a strong collection of Venetian art, with paintings by Tiepolo, Titian, Giorgione and Bassano. Then there’s the Civico Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, housed on the second floor of the Palazzo Reale on Piazza del Duomo, a refreshingly up-to-date gallery. It opened in 1984 and is still in the process of expanding, but the emphasis is heavily on Italian works, the most familiar names being those of Carra, De Chirico and Modigliani. Among the non-Italian artists featured here are Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse, Klee, Mondrian and Kandinsky.
Churches worth a look are Sant’Ambrogio, San Lorenzo Maggiore and Santa Maria delle Grazie, the last of which contains Da Vinci’s fresco of The Last Supper on its refectory wall. When we went along to see it at Sunday lunch-time, close to closing time, a huge queue had already formed outside, so we decided to give it a miss. I consoled myself with the knowledge that I had at least seen it before, during my residency in the city.
Night-life in Milan is good, with clubs to cater for all tastes. I renewed my acquaintance with Bar Magenta on Corso Magenta, where the company is interesting and the measures are generous, and found it as big a magnet as ever for the smarter sets among students, media types and expatriates.
All in all, I enjoyed Milan more this time than when I was living and working there, and discovered more of what it has to offer and appreciated it better. But then again, I wasn’t holding down a job and dealing with landlords and tradesmen, and so had more time to relax. The same distinction would apply anywhere you care to mention, I suppose. More sophisticated than Rome, and less exploitative of tourists, Milan is a city that should be on every discerning person’s itinerary. Or, better still, it should remain a well-kept secret.









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