Saturday, 21 July 2012

24 Hours in Milan

Following a two and half hour train journey from Venice, we arrive in Milan around midday on a warm Sunday afternoon. As we dragged our suitcases out of the train station, we find a somewhat different outlook than the picture perfect spot we had just left a few hours earlier. The city is very quiet and the buildings appear dull and grey from years exposure to car fumes. The shutters of the shops are rolled down exposing endless panels of ugly graffiti that appear to have been there for years. Our immediate introduction to Milan is seedy and uninviting and with a few shady looking characters wandering around, we are keen to keep moving toward our more centrally located hotel. Thankfully as we get closer the to the centre of the city, the scene slowly begins to improve, with more signs of life and the place looks distinctly cleaner and safer. By the time we reach the hotel, we can see some shops open, street cafes and a leafy park in the distance, while the occasional tram is now bustling down the main road. We had read mixed opinions about Milan and at this stage our opinion too was mixed; perhaps in 24 hours we would know better!

Our plan is to meet with our son Dave and his fiancé Cara in Milan then travel one-hour north by train to Lake Como to enjoy some time together in a lakeside house that Jules had managed to organize months before our arrival in Italy. As we are all leaving the next morning, we plan to spend the afternoon and evening catching up while exploring what downtown Milan has to offer. We immediately head toward Piazza Del Duomo, which is the most significant of the cities tourist spots and is dominated by the enormous and highly elaborate Milan Cathedral. Unlike the buildings near the railway station, everything in the square appears to have been recently cleaned, with only the spires of the cathedral and the equestrian statue of King Victor Immanuel II undergoing the final touches of renovation. You really have to pay credit to the Italians, they really know how to build a public square and this is certainly one of their most impressive, both in its scale and overwhelming attention to architectural detail. It has been over a year since seeing Dave and Cara so this is the perfect spot to sit in one of the many cafes that surround the piazza to enjoy a cool drink and exchange news while marveling at the sheer grandeur of our surroundings.

Before too long, we can’t resist the opportunity to explore the nearby Museo Del Novecento (The Museum of Contemporary Art), not just for its fine collection of modern art, but also for the spectacular elevated views it provides overlooking the Duomo. From here you can clearly see the Galleria Victor Emanuele II Arcade (clearly he was very popular in Milan) and we are particularly keen to venture through the formidable entrance into what must be one of the most beautiful under cover shopping malls in the world. Built in the mid 1800’s, the Italians again demonstrated their sense of design, style and ingenuity by building an enormous arched glass and wrought iron roof that is both functional and elegant. The Galleria is filled with all of the major designer brands, confirming Milan’s reputation of one of the great design and fashion capitals of the world. Towards the centre of the arcade, the floor mosaic reveals the Turin coat of arms and following Jules’ suggestion, we spin on it three times for good luck, as is the popular

If Venice was all about tourism, Milan  appeared to be more about business (even on a Sunday afternoon), but as we headed back toward the hotel, there seemed to be some quite obvious divides between the various strata within its society. While designer shops spread out far and wide from the central galleria, with plenty of ‘beautiful’ people frequenting them, there also appears to be an equal number of those battling to buy into this glamorous world. I guess it isn't unlike many of the big cities of the world that we have visited over the years, but having just arrived from idyllic, egalitarian Venice, it seemed all the more obvious.

In the evening Milan’s apparent indifference to tourism certainly worked in our favor as we enjoyed our best meal in Italy so far, at a small alfresco restaurant in a laneway not far from our hotel. We had so often been under whelmed with the meals we had eaten in the more obvious tourist spots (as if just being there was enough without expecting the good authentic food too), so we were pleased to finally enjoy a truly Italian meal with a contemporary twist. Around the corner there was an authentic wood oven pizza restaurant with people queuing out the door, but that would have to wait for another time. Tomorrow we would leave the big city streets of Milan and head for the solitude of the Lakes, only to return in two weeks time when we can explore here further. Within the space of 24 hours we had arrived and departed, only just beginning to scratch the surface of this ‘gritty’ and somewhat contrasting city…there was still much to see and we would be back!

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