Staking Out Milan's Treasures.
Milan can be a tough nut to crack and first impressions aren’t always flattering, writes Mike Yardley.
Extensively bombed during World War II, the central city skyline resembles an architectural lasagne of the venerable and the hastily built brutalist. But give this powerhouse of finance and fashion a chance to reveal her finery and her personality, and you’ll be amply rewarded.The obvious sightseeing contenders start with the cream-marbled Duomo, Milan Cathedral, which is not only the largest Gothic church on the planet, but the third largest cathedral, of any style, on Earth. Lustily adorned with 135 spires and 3200 statues, it’s a heart-stirring masterpiece. Back at ground level, behind the Duomo, join the queue for Milan’s best street food.
Luini makes amazing panzerotti – pillowy fried dough parcels stuffed with tomato and mozzarella. The Milanese have swooned over Luini's tasty morsels since it first opened in 1888, and now there's always a line in front of this hole-in-the wall shop, especially at lunchtime. Panzerotti is street food at its best; cheap, cheerful, quick and tasty.Alongside the original tomato and mozzarella, the ricotta and spinach combo hits the spot too as does the mouth-watering spicy salami. To the left of the Duomo, enter the soaring archway of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, constructed to celebrate Italy’s unification in 1861. Taking 14 years to build, the innovative designer, Giuseppe Mengoni, tragically plummeted to his death just days before the mission was accomplished. (Locals believe that you can avoid Mengoni’s bad luck by rubbing your heel into the testicles of the mosaic bull on the floor.)Arguably Europe’s most glamorous shopping centre and shaped like a crucifix, it boasts designer boutiques, posh cafes and Milan’s most famous restaurant, Savini. For something new with this glass domed goliath, head up to the roofline of the Galleria, which has only been open to the public since May 2015. Costing 12Euro, Highline Galleria serves up giddy perspectives of the building, across to the Duomo, and on a clear day, expansive views of the Alps.If you want to take your Galleria love-affair even further, you can stay over, with an all-suite, impossibly luxurious hotel, Seven Stars Galleria, open for business. A seriously lofty perch for extended people-watching, but room rates are heart-stopping. The far archway leads you out of the galleria and into another evocative Milanese square, Piazza della Scala, adorned with a statue of Leonardo Da Vinci overlooking Teatro La Scala.
La Scala Opera House
First built in 1778, this legendary opera house was all but destroyed during WWII, but was rapidly rebuilt and reopened in 1946,such was its universal affection. La Scala has a very austere facade, but its majestic six-tiered and chandeliered interior, bursting with gilded arches and scarlet-silk furnishings are extraordinary. Trying to score tickets to an opera is not easy, nor cheap, but if you want to grab a glimpse of the auditorium’s lavish interior, head next door to Scala Museum where for 6 Euro you get to gaze down inside this stupendous theatre.
Legacy of Verdi
One of Milan’s favourite sons, Guiseppe Verdi, premiered 10 of his 26 operas at La Scala and on nearby Via Manzoni, take note of the imposing Grand Hotel, an old-school Milanese establishment, where many glittery guests, including Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fontein didn’t just stay a few nights, but moved in. The most famous resident was Verdi, who shifted in 1872 and died in Room 105, in 1901. Horses outside the hotel had their hooves muffled, and the street was draped in carpet to cushion the sound of the carriages, so as not to disturb the dying composer in his last days.The hotel is actually a time-capsule, to the point that you can book the Verdi Suite, the very room where he died, which has been preserved as a memorial. An assortment of his property remains including the desk where he composed the music for Othello, and rather morbidly, the bed in which he died. While soaking up the fashion houses in the Golden Quad, enjoy coffee and cake at Caffe Cova. Situated on my favourite street, via Montenapoleone, where the pavement looks more like a catwalk due to the fine threads flaunted by the passers-by, the café has been business since 1817 and was a second home to all the A-list composers.Order up an espresso and a slice of Cova Panettone, Verdi’s personal favourite – but stay standing at the bar. Sit down and you’ll pay ten times more. Georgio Armani is slowly taking over Milan and if you want to brunch in one of the runway models’ favourite haunts, head to Armani Cafe, next to the Armani Bookstore on via Manzoni. When the café first opened, the soap dispensers in the toilets were Armani originals worth NZ$1000 a pop, but so many were stolen, they’re now nailed down. The hit dish on the menu? Saffron risotto.If you’re shopping up a storm in the Golden Quad, or just browsing, one store that embodies the Milanese obsession with tailored fashion is Maglia Francesco , Milan’s famous umbrella company. In a city where it rains more regularly than Auckland, the trending must-have object of Milanese desire is a bespoke umbrella. You choose the wood, the metal, the insets, the fabrics – even the handle. It’s great fun watching the bespoke brolly browsers in action at Maglia Francesco, on via Ripamonti.
One of Milan’s most adored treasures is also one of the most elusive: Da Vinci’s depiction of The Last Supper.Miraculously surviving the allied bombings, the revered wall mural graces the refectory of Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie. Da Vinci’s evocative work was applied directly onto dry wall, which is the reason for its fragility, and the limited viewing time. The painstaking restoration carried out in recent years is cause for celebration, albeit in a hushed reverential kind of way. I had to pick up my jaw from the floor as I gazed in awe at da Vinci’s Last Supper and its celebrated vividness. Bookings should be made two months in advance, to get your allotted 15 minutes of face-time with the mural. For further information, go to www.cenacolovinciano.org
By Mike Yardley. (March 5,2017) More Italy? Sampling the Italian Lakes.