“Cities that are dedicated to making money, and in Milan they appear to think of little else, seldom have much energy left for charm” – Bill Bryson’, Neither here Nor there’
After the overwhelming success of the previous year’s holiday to Portugal where we used the train service to travel from Lisbon to Porto with various stops upon the way, we decided that we would do something similar again this year. When we were making plans we decided to travel to Italy, persuaded most of all it has to be said by the £40 return air flights to Milan.
Our plan was to use the trains to first visit the Italian Lakes and then to travel through the Region of Emilia-Romagna and stop off at the cities of Parma, Modena and Bologna and finish at the seaside at Rimini on the Adriatic Riviera. We would immerse ourselves in culture and then submerge ourselves in the Mediterranean Sea.
We arrived in Milan late one evening with only just enough of the day left to find our hotel, check in and then hastily find somewhere for evening meal and leave the sightseeing until the following day.
The mile long walk into the City was immediately disappointing. In Italy I like chaos with the street life, chatter and noise, dripping washing lines hanging across the streets, peeling paint, geraniums on balconies, pavement cafés with espresso stained cups, people selling things from mobile shops and groups of men hanging around on street corners discussing the big issues of the day but there was none of this in Milan just a long soulless street lined with shops and offices, boutiques selling expensive adornments for the body, shoes, handbags, jewellery, designer clothing and other pointless stuff.
The place for me lacked any sort of appeal but to be fair it was always unlikely that, as Kim was quick to point out, I would get on well with a city that boasts shopping and fashion as major attractions. In fact Milan markets itself as the World’s leading fashion capital and to prove it this week just happened to be one of the most important weeks of their year – Milan Fashion Week. FASHION WEEK! I broke out into an immediate sweat!
Milan is the second largest city in Italy after Rome and also the richest and most prosperous. The Barcelona of Italy. It concentrates on business and banking, commerce and trade; it prides itself on productivity, innovation and efficiency and as a consequence it lacks the vivacity of Naples, the grandeur of Rome, the heritage of Florence or the theatre of Venice.
This is a city of big business and enterprise rather than street vendors and indolence, hardly like being in Italy at all it seemed to me as we made our way to the historical centre. The reason maybe is that geographically Milan is the most northern major city in the country and only a few miles away from the Swiss border and therefore more central-western than southern European. Maybe also being part of the Austrian Empire for one hundred and fifty years (1706-1861) has given Lombardy and Milan a certain stoic Germanic characteristic that it cannot shake off.
I checked later and wasn’t surprised to discover that Milan has never been considered for European Capital of Culture and I got the impression that people here don’t really care.*
Although Milan is a large city much of it, it has to be said is rather uninteresting and the historical centre is a surprisingly small area right in the middle. As we approached we came first to the Opera House, Teatro alla Scala, one of the most famous in the World but just as the streets we had walked along I found the building exterior to be sadly underwhelming…
This by contrast is the Scala cinema in Ilkeston, Derbyshire which is where I used to live (Ilkeston not the Scala) which seems to me to a lot more attractive. Ilkeston may have borrowed the name for its cinema, maybe Milan should copy the design for its opera house and I think that it would be an improvement…
Beyond La Scala was the first really interesting building that we had come across in nearly an hour of walking and it turned out to be a shopping Mall, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. It is a fine building, four storeys high, built in the grand manner of the mid-nineteenth century with extravagant tiled floors, soaring marble columns and a decorative vaulted latticework roof of glass and steel with a central cupola one hundred and sixty feet high.
This was more like it, I liked this place even though the interior avenues were lined with shops that I have heard of but never used, Gucchi, Prada, Tiffaney, Coccinelle and Versace all with merchandise displaying price labels that had been attached by someone with a grotesque sense of humour. I mean, who buys this stuff when you can get perfectly good replicas from TK Maxx back home or from a Looky-Looky man on the streets?
The main entrance to the building opens out onto what is undoubtedly the finest part of the city, the Piazza del Doumo with an imposing equestrian statue of King Victor Emmanuel II (first King of United Italy) at one end and the magnificent marble Doumo at the other. There was a very long queue today to visit the Cathedral so we thought that we might save that for another time.
We satisfied ourselves today by circumnavigating the exterior of the largest Cathedral in all of Italy and the third largest in the World and then resumed our walking tour of the city which took us through a large park where we stopped for refreshment and then to the modern business quarter, all polished concrete, shining glass and gleaming steel where we didn’t linger long but instead after eight miles of walking made our weary way back to the Hotel IBIS.
In a fortnight’s time we would be back in the city with plans to visit the Cathedral but the next day we were starting our journey by taking a train to Como in the Lakes and for the time being I was glad that we weren’t spending longer here. One day in a big city is generally not enough to scratch the scratch on the surface but to be honest it was long enough for me in Milan.
* Florence (1986), Bologna (1999) and Genoa (2003).