Magnificent Milan

The Basilica Di Santa Maria Nascente has 135 spires and took more than 600 years to build.PHOTOS:...
The Basilica Di Santa Maria Nascente has 135 spires and took more than 600 years to build.PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
There is more to Milan than fashion, writes Tony Nielsen.

Florence, tick. Rome, tick. And now Milan. My European mission had taken in all the sounds, and especially sights, that I could have wished for. And more. The Uffizi gallery in Florence was a stunning visual experience, followed days later by an immersion in all things Roman. The Vatican with Michaelangelo and his fellow masters, contrasted the previous day by an unexpected and equally awe-inspiring Andy Warhol exhibition timed perfectly for my arrival in the Eternal City.

And so to Milan. A pleasant train journey through the Italian countryside and three days to explore yet another highlight of my journey. I wasn't sure that Milan could match the sheer impact of its sister cities but I was willing to be convinced. Just as well because Milan also turned out to have a unique impression to make on me.

Milan is the capital city of the Lombardy District, and while the city itself boasts a population of around three million, that climbs to over eight million taking into account the surrounding area. While it is known internationally as a hotbed of fashion and design Milan is also Italy's engine room of the finance and industrial sectors, and home to the country's stock exchange. No wonder then that I felt a buzz in the air when I stepped to discover why it was that I had high expectations of my visit.

Firstly and rightfully so I introduced myself to the Duomo, the incomparable Milan cathedral or Basilica Di Santa Maria Nascente. Yes, my travels had already taken me to and inside some beautiful examples of Rome and Prague's dedication to the Catholic faith. But Duomo is something else again. The building of this magnificent shrine commenced in 1386 and took 600 years to be built. From the outside it shows off a remarkable 135 spires, a huge feast for the eyes from the outside in anyone's language. The fabulous candoglia pink marble glistens whatever the weather. It's a uniquely stunning sight from any angle.

Inside you'll also be overwhelmed by more than 3400 statues and exquisitely designed stained-glass windows. It is the sixth-largest cathedral in the world, and the largest in Italy, remembering that Saint Peter's is, of course, not strictly in Italy as it is in the Vatican state.

Luckily, I arrived at Duomo early in the morning because it's like bees to a honeypot most of the day. I strongly suggest you book your Duomo visit with a local tour group well in advance. When I was back in the vicinity of the Duomo during the rest of my time in Milan the crowds flocking to view were huge.

One of the many high-fashion stores in Milan.
One of the many high-fashion stores in Milan.
Having filled my senses with my time at Duomo, I took to the streets of downtown Milan to get a feel for what makes the city tick. Of course you can't help but notice how the fashion world has made its mark on Milan. The most obvious example of this is to take in Quadrilatero D'Oro, the heart and soul of the city's day-to-day commitment to fashion. It's a place where you marvel at the international brands such as Gucci, Giorgio Armani, Prada, Dolce and Gabbana, Fendi and many more as they jostle for attention alongside the numerous local fashion houses which, frankly, are just as appealing, to me anyway. Being on a limited budget, however, tempered my responses to all of the eye candy, although I did settle for a smart locally-made tie, and a sharp-looking Panama hat which still hasn't had too many outings in Dunedin. That said, it was a delight to amble among the fashion quarter, stand-out name shops alongside tucked away one-man or one-woman enterprises. Not something you can accomplish in five minutes, that's for sure. Fortunately, it's also well served by appealing cafes and more substantial dining choices. I wasn't in a hurry and spent quite awhile on one of my favourite travel occupations, people watching. And you can't help but notice that the dress standards for men and women are a notch or two higher than the cities you've already visited. The locals are a class act when it comes to dressing up for their everyday lives.

Milan, of course, is much more than a fashion magnet and the elegant Basilica Di Santa Maria Nascente, the Duomo. Much more as I discovered over the next two days.

Leonardo Da Vinci is a name we can all recall for his art work as well as his forward-thinking drawings and his visions of the future. Luckily we are able to view both aspects of Da Vinci's brilliance in Milan. In the late 15th and early 16th centuries Leonardo Da Vinci embarked on a career that touched so many bases, and, of course, made his name as one of the greatest artists of all time. I visited the Atlantic Codex which houses the largest Da Vinci collection of drawings and notes. It's an enthralling exhibition as we are able to view his descriptions and sketches of early submarines, parachutes, helicopters and tanks. His mind must have been incredibly active because his works also span just about every aspect of the sciences. No wonder that he continues to inspire generations of scientifically-minded students. His inventive mind was just one of the strengths he displayed when he moved from his native Florence to Milan.

Having been amazed by Da Vinci's drawings and notebooks the next adventure took me to the church of Santa Maria Delle Grazie, the world-famous home of his massive Last Supper painting. Alongside the Louvre's equally famous Da Vinci painting, the Mona Lisa, this is a stark contrast. Where the Mona Lisa is a surprisingly small painting the Last Supper is just huge - actually it's gigantic. The Last Supper is housed in the church's dining hall and it blew me away. However, you are not allowed to linger as you marvel at Da Vinci's painting as there is a 15-minute time limit for visitors, which is understandable. If you haven't pre-booked a tour (which includes veiwing the Last Supper) you will miss out. And you certainly wouldn't want to visit Milan without experiencing your 15 minutes admiring Leonardo Da Vinci's famous painting. A visit to Milan must include your date with the Last Supper.

You might think that I could have been venturing into history overload territory as I moved from one European city to the next. That couldn't be further from the truth. As with many Kiwis who ``do Europe'', I woke up equally excited every morning marvelling at what unique aspect of each place I visited had to offer. Milan was no exception. While I had ticked off the primary tourist attractions in the Duomo cathedral and the two Leonardo Da Vinci must-see locations, I eased off my immersion in European history for my last day in Milan. The aspect of Milan that most impressed me was the people. Maybe it was just my experience but in Florence and Rome I found the Italian people somewhat stand-off-ish and, well, not exactly welcoming. In Rome, I even had my only contretemps off my five-week journey around this remarkable continent. While it was a misunderstanding about my reason for wanting to use a bar's toilet before having a beer, the language gap and attitude that followed really threw me off kilter. Rude just doesn't cover it, especially when someone invades your private space and yells at you in a language you don't understand. Enough said. Milan then, was for me a different experience as I found the locals very friendly and proactive in starting a conversation. It made me think that Milan is quite different because of its more international connections through its position at the forefront of the fashion industry. Just my opinion, but the friendliness of the city's people really resonated with me.

Another memorable aspect of Milan was the food and how it's delivered. Apparently Milan has more Michelin hats than any other comparable city, with an amazing 157 Michelin-recognised dining places, including a trio of two-star restaurants. While that level of dining was never going to be compatible with my travel budget, I can safely say that the meals I did enjoy in Milan were the pick of those during my five weeks in Europe.

There are a couple more honourable Milan mentions. Namely the city's place in music. The La Scala Theatre is a major drawcard not just during the opera season but also for other special music performances. Since its first show on August 3, 1778. The Opera season opens in December and, once again, if you are in Milan during the season you will definitely have to pre-book.

I was in Milan in September and it was a perfect time to visit weather-wise, with temperatures in the mid-20s.

Finally, if you're a sports fan, you could do a lot worse than securing seats at San Siro Stadium to see the local football heroes play a home game. AC Milan's roster is always bristling with top talent and being part of the 80,000 crowd would be an unforgettable experience.


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