Matthew Brace discovers a grown-up kind of cool as he shops, sips, and sightsees his way around one of Europe’s most stylish cities.
Before 6pm on a Thursday in May, my wife and I spied the ideal spot for a restorative drop. The window table of a small and cosy winebar called L’Ecurie on Via Madonnina was beckoning us. We sprinted across the street, almost got bowled over by a remarkably speedy tram, and fell in through the open door. The barman brought us two large glasses of Barolo and encouraged us to tuck into the plates of free antipasti freshly laid out on the bar. We ate divine Parma ham and thick, juicy Ligurian olives and watched the city heading home from work. We saw runway models clip-clopping down the pavement head-to-toe in Prada and smoking determinedly, young guns in open shirts and leather jackets, and a pair of Italian lovers kissing furiously as if that was their last minute on earth. We felt that familiar life-giving glow as the wine slipped down. We forgot the aches in our calves and ankles caused by hours of street-pounding and instead we raised our glasses and toasted our new favourite European capital of cool: Milan. Milan is not the ideal Italian city to visit when you are young, single and fun-seeking; that’s Rimini, or the Riviera if you have the cash. Milan is - much like a fine Barolo - something you come to a little later.
It also helps if you have reached a stage in life when you know your Dolce & Gabbana from your dollar shop and your Kartell from your K-Mart, for Milan is Europe’s fashion and design hub. This accolade is what had drawn us here, my wife to track down some hard-to-find Monica Castiglioni jewellery and me to gaze at, stroke and maybe even buy a Flos tablelamp. We tried being loyal to the city’s heritage first by doing the sites - we craned our necks to take photos of the magnificent edifices of Milan’s cathedral (the Duomo), we poked around backstreets and found stone statues and colonnaded walkways, and we shuffled through the vast courtyard of the former citadel (Castle Sforza) and its adjacent park - but we kept getting tempted away by a shop window full of frocks or market selling original 1950s modernist posters.
It was tough even getting out of the hotel - the Boscolo Exedra - because it is the hippest in the city and stacked full of modern design. Our room housed an oversized lime-green Meritalia Shadow chair by the renowned architect and designer Gaetano Pesce, who also designed the floral La Fiorita sofa in the lobby which looks like a small rainforest, while the spiral staircase to the restaurant was graced with Copper Shade lights by English designer Tom Dixon.
Opposite the Duomo is Rinascente, a department store whose basement is given over to an Aladdin’s cave of treasures called Design Supermarket and packed with everything a design junkie could wish for: smooth wooden chairs by Ercol, sleek steel kitchenware from Danish design house Eva Solo, the cutest of modernist, minimalist cuckoo clocks from Italian houseware favourites Diamantinie Domeniconi, and my Flos tablelamps. Surprisingly I passed on the Flos lamps and went instead for a cuckoo clock. Apparently they are becoming hip again but this latest flock are light years away from the old-fashioned dark-wood Swiss variety. These are stripped back pine boxes, open at the back and with stylish modernist designs painted or stenciled on the front, such as pop-art urban and industrial scenes. We wound through the streets north of the city centre and found numerous examples of what Milan has - to its immense credit - preserved: the craftsman’s boutique. There were shops selling handmade books and greeting cards, others whose delicate leather satchels and wallets had been stitched together in a small workshop out the back, a shop which seemed to sell only pens and another dedicated to multicoloured angle-poise lamps. We kept being tempted away by a shop window full of frocks or a market selling original 1950s modernist posters.
Almost everything had been designed and made right here in Milan. Near the Garibaldi train station we got lost in a street market selling cheeses from the Alps and more underpants than there were men in Milan to wear them, and then found our bearings again in time to catch the final hour of trading at Monica Castiglioni’s shop.
Had time allowed, we would have made the taxi ride across town to the southern suburb of Vigentino where the family-owned and run Maglia Francesco umbrella shop on Via Giuseppe Ripamonti is a temple to anyone in need of a stylish Milanese brolly built to last them a lifetime. That’s for next time. We did, however, just have time to sneak a peak at the Triennale Design Museum where some of Italy’s most revered designs are on show. We wished we had set aside half a day to do so. That’s for next time too. On our last evening and just when we thought Milan could not get any better, we got a call from a locally based business colleague. He had two tickets for the opera at La Scala world-famous Spanish tenor Placido Domingo was playing the lead in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra) but couldn’t go and offered them to us. It got even better: the tickets gave us entry not just to seats but to seats in a private box on the right of the auditorium. My wife was dressed to the nines in a Leona Edmiston dress and her new Castiglioni necklace. We stood regally in our box and gazed out over the impeccably dressed audience below as they hugged, kissed and ciao-ed each other as only Italians can do, filling the place with perfume and an overwhelming sense of la dolce vita. Just for a second I wished we were not married, so I could propose in what must be the most romantic indoor space in the world. I did it anyway - and I think someone applauded.
Thai Airways flies 40 times a week non-stop from Australia (ex Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth) to Bangkok with thrice weekly onward connections to Milan, which is just one of their 13 European destinations. Etihad and Emirates also operate flights from most Australian capital cities to Milan through their UAE hubs.
Where to Stay
The hippest hotel in town is the Boscolo Exedra on Corso Giacomo Matteotti. Superior rooms from €500 (A$705) per night not including taxes or breakfast. Website promotions start at €400 (A$563) per night.
Where to Eat
Convivium, via Ponte Vetero
21, Milano, +39 02 8646 3708,
Try the delicious Sfilatino di Capri calzone for €10 (A$14) and a salad ‘esotico’ with mango for €12 (A$17). Icebound, a gelato shop on Via Garibaldi near the corner of a small square called La Foppa, two cups for €6 (A$7).
Where to Drink
L’Ecurie wine bar on Via Madonnina. Zucca, in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, is a famous cafe/bistro (once a hang-out of Verdi’s) with a mosaic of birds on the walls, white-jacketed waiters and its very own aperitivo: the Zucca.
What to Do
Tour the vast gothic cathedral (Duomo), Castle Sforza and the attractive park next door which has shaded walkways named after famous writers. La Scala is a must for romantic music-lovers - buy tickets online before you travel: www.teatroallascala.org. You can also take a tour (same website). The Triennale Design Museum is a haven for design junkies.
Where to Shop For Style
Maglia Francesco umbrella shop, Via Giuseppe Ripamonti 194, Vigentino, +39 02 5521 9333.
Monica Castiglioni jewellery (near the Garibaldi train station), Via Pastrengo 4, Milano, +39 02 872 3797.
Montenapoleone (near Hotel Boscolo Exedra) is packed with exclusive brands. Via Garibaldi, south of La Foppa, has boutiques selling clothes, jewellery, lamps (many local designs).
Corsa Como (near the Garibaldi train station) has a branch of the favourite Italian menswear shop Boggi plus a great store called 10 Corso Como with fashion, jewellery, design and a cute cafe.
Rinascente on Piazza Duomo for floors of fashion and a design basement.