Escape to Milan

With both vaccinations behind her, our writer jets off to Italy to find out if pre-pandemic city chic is back on the cards


In the days before the pandemic, I’d think nothing of zipping off for a city break in Europe for the weekend, packing short-haul trips in between my long-haul adventures. So as the first lockdown bit, I found myself panicking as much about what the pandemic would mean for country-hopping, as about the virus itself.

As the past year has shown, I was right to worry. But with my age group now double jabbed, booking a few days in Italy was a no-brainer for me as soon as the country opened up and travel from the UK resumed in May, despite the need to self-isolate on return.

Rather than make travel arrangements any more complicated, I decided to head for a city with numerous flights per day from the UK, and one that is rammed with culture, style, art, history and luxury: Milan.

Covid began in earnest in Europe in northern Italy, so it felt fitting to start here after emerging from our period of travel hibernation — and celebratory too, a kind of line drawn under this year of tragedy and fear.

While most swooning is reserved for more traditionally romantic cities like Rome, Venice and Florence, Milan still tends to be associated with industry and bad air. But the city is unique in Italy: a business hub, a creative epicentre, and a cultural marvel that spans the ancient to the ultra-contemporary.

First priority: somewhere to stay. Having felt ground down by our third lockdown, I felt in stark need of glamour and luxury, and where more luxuriously glamorous than the iconic Bulgari hotel?

The hotel is synonymous with an international fast-car-driving clientele and a high-fashion crowd — neither of which are me, but I craved its vibrancy and above all, its location in the ritzy, elegant historical centre of Brera, a stone’s throw from Montenapoleone, the Bond Street of Milan.

I wasn’t disappointed: on my second evening, having a bite to eat on the terrace, I befriended a supermodel at the next table who was there to do a shoot for Bulgari jewellery.

My own sights were set on Milan’s rather different gems though: you could easily spend a whole trip just on the city’s ancient offerings. The sheer quantity of historic architecture is astonishing, from Roman remains like the San Lorenzo column, to basilicas nearly two thousand years old, such as the beautiful 4th century Sant’Ambrogio.

And that’s before you consider the museums, eating and drinking in its cafes and bars, or absorbing the fashion scene. After a year of limited travel, I wanted it all, so went for a slightly frenetic mixture.

My first port of call was the Pinacoteca Brera gallery and its Orto Botanica (botanical garden), next door to the hotel. Set within the beautiful 17th century Palazzo Brera, all soaring stone arches, there’s an observatory and library as well as the museum to discover.

The gallery is fairly small but contains an immaculate Renaissance collection, including works by Raphael and Bellini among others. A saunter down long shady hallways to the delicate Orto is a must afterwards: the plants and flowers are labelled to match artworks in the gallery.

To follow, a visit to another remarkable home: the Villa Necchi Campiglio, built in the 1930s, which is part of the Historic Houses of Milan network and the setting for Luca Guadagnino’s luminous film I Am Love starring Tilda Swinton.

Designed by the architect Pietro Portaluppi, the opulent yet sophisticated mansion of the Necchi sewing machine family had an almost futuristic quality at the time, from its advanced intercom system to a heated swimming pool to jutting portcullis.

Even more beautiful in real life, its interiors are a mixture of the chic and minimalist and the grandly historic, with bathrooms of rare marble, expanses of gleaming wood, silver doors, rich carpets and numerous eye-catching trinkets.

It was — and remains — a showcase for a selection of top drawer art too. Sitting alongside 20th century works by De Chirico, De Pisis, Sironi, Balla, Boccioni, Carrà and Wildt, you’ll find Canalettos, Tiepolos, and Carrieras plus the finest 19th century French furniture, Lombard ceramics and Chinese porcelains.

When I visited, the tours were only in Italian, but a helpful paper guide ensured I knew what was what.

Even my much-needed stop for refreshment had its own artistic flair. After a quick coffee in the villa’s striking conservatory café, a little like a verdant glass box, I strolled for half an hour to meet a friend at a classic old wine bar called Bottiglieria Bulloni on the Via Lipari, near the trendy Navigli area. Indoors, drinkers can admire the futurist Enrico Prampolini’s works behind the bar from 1923; we sat outside for several glasses of local Lugana white wine, with plump olives.

Further into the Navigli, an opera singer friend recommended Osteria del Binari. This large, bustling and characterful restaurant was full of locals of all ages celebrating the return of indoor dining, with a lovely selection of pastas, including very good versions of local and traditional dishes too.

Having spent my first day indulging in art, the second was filled with architecture and literature, taking in the 9th century frescoed majesty of San Maurizio church (rebuilt in 1503), and the ancient Lorenzo and Ambrosia basilicas.

But nowhere in Milan quite compares to the Duomo, the staggering white behemoth that took 600 years to finish. The largest church in Italy, the Duomo’s sheer pillared enormity and expanses of black and green mosaic tile puts one in mind of a sacred medieval football pitch.

Once I recovered my breath from the initial impact, I bought a ticket to the cathedral roof, for its staggering views of the cathedral’s own magnificent external vaulting, and out to the Alps, foregrounded, in typical Milanese style, by the Martini building with its distinctive logo.

Then onward to discover another treasure, the collection of books and manuscripts at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana — stopping en route at the original Marchesi 1824 shop on the Via Santa Maria alla Porta.

Among the most elegant pasticceria in Italy, now with several branches in the city, I joined businessmen at the bar with an espresso and a perfect rum baba, picking up a couple of boxes of brightly coloured bon bons on the way out.

Refuelled, I was ready to lose myself in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana’s trove of late medieval and Renaissance Italian masterpieces. Named after the patron saint of Milan, it was founded in 1609 by Cardinal Federico Borromeo, who had his people scour Western Europe and even Syria for books and manuscripts — Lord Byron was enchanted by the collection’s letters between Lucrezia Borgia and Pietro Bembo on an 1816 visit.

The highlight for many are the pages from Leonardo Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, with its drawings of complicated mechanical structures, from cannon release mechanisms to water pumps, on view in the Biblioteca.

Sated on culture — and cake — there was one more destination I couldn’t miss before leaving Milan: the Fondazione Prada, a sprawling art complex paid for by Milan’s top fashion family. Located in a former industrial complex on Milan’s southern edge, it’s full of edgy spaces, distilleries and brewing silos.

I hadn’t booked and so wasn’t allowed in to any exhibits, but even I could see that its range of highly conceptual art will either amaze or appal. Either way, the Fondazione is a vital slice of contemporary Milan and well worth a visit.

Like the delights on offer at Marchesi, Milan has simply too many treats to cram into a single weekend. Well worth PCR tests and self-isolation, I’m planning my return already.


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