Milan isn’t Rome. But where else can you find shoes made of chocolate in honor of Fashion Week when the models for Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, and Prada strut their stuff? And where else can you stand on the roof of a Gothic cathedral to see the Alps in the distance, high-fashion types eating lunch on a restaurant terrace directly across, and a monk in a cloister courtyard directly below?
Three hours north by fast train, Milan is the hub of finance and design in contrast to Rome — the city of ancient ruins, the Church, and the ever-unstable government. The northern Italian zest for creativity is revealed in clothing, furniture, and industrial design.
The historic city center is dominated by the Gothic spires of the Duomo, or main cathedral. Begun in 1386, it was finally finished in 1809 on orders of Napoleon.
My husband and I climbed to the roof to take in the view and marvel at the intricacies of design and construction. But when lunch time arrived our eyes moved from the statues topping the spires (and the sight of a woman helplessly watching her cell phone slide off the steep roof into the abyss) to what the people on the seventh-floor terrace of La Rinascente department store opposite were eating.
Sacrificing ancient stones in favor of a caprese under a sun umbrella, we joined the other diners after passing by the chocolate shoes crafted in honor of upcoming Fashion Week.
All the women looked like models or buyers for boutiques and all the men looked like stylists. Next to us was a tiny Japanese woman dressed in Valentino with a face made up so carefully she could have been a geisha. She sat silent and alone while all around her talk was as animated as the swirls of smoke from elegantly held cigarettes wafting in the breeze.
Strolling in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, a monument to the Milanese lifestyle built in 1877, we joined fashionistas gazing at the shop windows. They were filled with tempting fall outfits to wear when strolling along avenues lined with chestnut trees, whose leaves were beginning to flaunt their own fall colors.
The glass-domed mall with its intricate inlaid floors serves as Milan’s living room, where sipping an espresso or Prosecco and watching the passing fashion parade is an ideal way to while away an afternoon.
Wanting our drinks in the sun, we ventured onward to La Scala, one of the premier opera houses in the world. The season would not begin until late fall but we enjoyed a coffee at the bar outside the entrance to the museum, which celebrates the great Italian composers Verdi and Puccini and some of the divas (one from the 1800s had the delightful name of Giuditta Pasta even though Milan’s favorite starch is risotto). Next to us was a trio of well-tailored Milanese businessmen who seemed to have all the time in the world to drink their cappuccinos and gesture expressively in animated talk. While we watched them out of the corner of our eyes we reminisced about our night at the opera several years ago. The production of Rigoletto was superb — equal to the amount of the bribe we paid to get the tickets.
The Museum of 1900s (Museo Del Novecento), set in a 1930s Italian modernist building next to the Duomo, leads the visitor on a survey of Italian art from 1900 to the 1970s. The top floor contains a neon installation by Lucio Fontana which sets off a view to the Gothic Duomo, neatly putting a parenthesis around much of Milan’s history.
Milan is full of other interesting sights like the Leonardo da Vinci Museum, which has exhibits on his scientific and technological projects; the red-brick Basilica of St. Ambrose, founded in AD 379; and the sadly faded Last Supper by da Vinci. Even the central train station with mosaics, romantic frescoes, and shops is worth a visit.
An unusual destination is the Villa Necchi-Campiglio, the setting for the romantic movie, I Am Love. The villa, built between 1932 and 1935, with its gardens, tennis court, and swimming pool, gives a taste of the rich life of a prominent industrialist.
My favorite room is the Veranda with huge windows that slide open in the summer, inlaid marble floor, pale green S-shaped sofa, and a lapis-lazuli table set with blue Chinese vases. It was easy to visualize the former occupants reading or chatting with friends like the Kings of Italy and Spain who dropped by to visit.
But did I mention shopping? Did I mention shoes? Lest there be any doubt about Milan’s focus, our hotel room had maps and booklets stuffed with information about the hundreds of designers whose boutiques and showrooms line the area around Via Spiga and Via Montenapoleone, along with many other shopping districts.
The section on expenses in my 1904 Baedeker’s Guide to Italy advises, “When ladies are of the party the expenses are generally greater.” One hundred ten years later, nothing has changed.
All photos are courtesy of the author, except La Scala and Basilica of St. Ambrose by Spens03 and Idéfix.