CHECK into the luxurious Principe Di Savoia hotel in Milan and you know you’re somewhere special. In fact, you probably don’t want to check in at all unless you’re sure you can do the sumptuous, over-the-top decor justice.
You’ll want shiny-new Italian shoes, this season’s sunglasses and a new haircut. I shudder to think what any true fashion victim might need to spend before feeling confident enough to wade across the lobby carpet – poor things.
You feel the same need to smarten up your act everywhere you go in this city of fashion. Even the main shopping centre – Galleria Vittorio Emanuele (above) – is a towering, marble-floored, glass dome that’s more like a cathedral than the original shopping mall. Just in case you get confused though, it’s right opposite the Duomo, which goes completely over-the-top in the gleaming white marble, statues and heaven-touching pinnacles department, leaving you in no doubt which is the place to worship god and which the place for more worldly pleasures. Which place the Milanesi worship at the more fervently is another question.
However, for visitors, the real religion of Milan is shopping and most waste no time plunging into the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele or taking one of the rattling old wooden trams to the fashion district between Via Montenapoleone and via della Spiga, the ‘Quadrilatero d’Oro’. Here, the world’s most famous labels decorate shops staffed by drop-dead-stylish ‘assistants’. Never mind that call to your bank manager; these ladies look able to calculate your current account balance to the nearest penny with one condescending glance. Don’t be fooled, though – most of the Milanesi do their designer shopping at giant discount outlets, such as the famous Il Salvagente on Via Fratelli Bronzetti.
Assuage any damaged egos with a pick-me-up at the iconic Cafe Zucca, facing the Duomo. This is where Gaspare Campari’s pioneered his tincture of aromatic herbs in the 1860s and, now restored to its art noveau glory, it’s still a great place to sip a Campari and watch the world go by. In the evening, most of the world will be making its way to the nearby La Scala opera house but, unless you’ve booked about six months in advance, you’re not going in.
It’s worth making that effort, though, to see the Teatro Alla Scala in all its glory, with its costumed attendants, delicate porcelain jugs that once held water in case of fire and 2,000-seat ornate auditorium. This is the place to worship opera at its best and the archaic rules about tickets and performances (they must end before midnight, no-one is allowed late entry) reinforces the religious overtones. If you can’t get to an opera, at least visit the museum, which houses some wonderful artefacts and provides a look at the stage.
Before leaving Milan, there’s one last altar to worship at: the gods of food and drink. Peck, on Via Spadari, is the church for this religion: heaving with mouthwatering offerings of cheese, meats, olive oil, pastries and pasta, coffees and wines. The company has been astute enough to open a restaurant – Cracco-Peck – just across the road where pleasures of the flesh can be firmly dealt with in true Oscar Wilde fashion: ‘The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it’. Not a bad motto to bring to Milan.
Certainly there’s no getting away from that magnificent cathedral. Take the 250 steps (or the lift) to the top for a great red-tiled vista of the city – it’s far from one of Italy’s prettiest but the alpine backdrop adds some beauty on a rare clear day. The neck-achingly wondrous interior needs a guide to be properly appreciated – this place took nearly 600 years to finish and the wedding-cake towers were replaced as recently as 1950, after being destroyed in wartime bombing.
The religious theme continues with Milan’s other must-see sight, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (or ‘Cenacolo’), housed in the Santa Maria delle Grazie. If time is short, you might be better off visiting the eclectic collection – popular with locals – of the intimate Museo Poldi-Pezzoli, which features Murano glass, priceless porcelain, ornate arms and armour, Arab metalwork and Persian carpets, alongside art from such Italian masters as Pollaiuolo, Mantegna, Bellini and della Francesca.
I travelled to Milan on Trenitalia’s Eurostar service – www.trenitalia.com