Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Arrivederci, Milano!

Milanese Breakfast
The streets of Milan were quiet and deserted on New Year's morning. Our luck ran out with the pleasant weather on New Year's Eve and it was foggy and rainy with a biting wind. We managed to find a small cafe open for 'breakfast.' It's really too bad we overslept and missed our hotel's complimentary coffee and pastry selection because we paid 20 Euros for two coffees, a small piece of apple streudel, and some cookies. Did I mention how expensive Milan is?

Fashion District
After our 'breakfast' we strolled through the Quadrilatero della Moda, Milan's famous fashion district. I'm not obsessed with Gucci, Prada, Versace, and the like but it was still interesting to walk through and window shop. Although I imagine if I had 75,000 Euros at my disposal I probably wouldn't spend it all on an Armani dress.

Unfortunately all of the shops were closed until January 7th. I guess wealthy people need a really long New Year's vacation. I think it would be fun to visit when the shops are open and the beautiful, fabulous people are shopping. On one of the side streets we saw an older woman with perfectly coiffed hair, chic sunglasses, and wearing a snowy-white ensemble right down to her stark white shoes, which were somehow in pristine condition even though the streets were wet and grimy. She was walking purposefully toward an ornate apartment building and as she passed I got a whiff of her expensive perfume. I wanted to follow her and find out who she was but that would have been wrong. And creepy. It was like she had walked off a glamorous movie set from the 1950s.

The architecture was beautiful. Graceful mansions tower over streets that are lined with immaculately-manicured shrubbery. Even if you aren't absorbed by fashion and wealth, it's a very pleasant walk through the Quadrilatero della Moda. And who knows? Maybe you'll run into the woman in white and she'll invite you into her palatial apartment for some wine and divulge her secret about how she keeps her clothing so immaculate.

We were off to a late start on New Year's Day and we were well into the afternoon when the skies finally opened up into an earnest downpour. We decided to go back to the hotel and try again later. Later turned to evening because of the bad weather. We ended up walking several blocks to find a cafe that was open. We ate some paninis (by now our go-to food choice) and went to sleep early so we could take full advantage of our last day in Milan.

We'd heard about the 'canal district' so we decided to trek it over to Naviglio the next morning. The weather was still abysmal but at least it wasn't raining. Naviglio is an up-and-coming area that feels very local. We didn't have the opportunity to see it during the evening but it's known for its nightlife. In recent years it has also become a haven for artists due to low rent costs.

Naviglio, Canal District
The canals weren't as grand as Amsterdam's or as charming as Bruges' but I think those are pretty tall orders to fill. I wasn't too impressed but I think I need to reserve my opinion because we didn't see the district at night when the trendy cafes and pubs are bustling, and the weather certainly put a damper on our spirits. So if I went back to Milan, I would go to the Naviglio district for dinner to experience it the way it deserves.

Santa Maria delle Grazie
We still had a lot of time to waste because of our late flight so we decided to check in at the Santa Maria delle Grazie and see if there were any last-minute cancellations for tickets to view "The Last Supper." Since we ended up in Milan because of Blind Booking, we didn't have enough time to secure tickets. A limited number of tickets are sold per day and it's advisable to order them at least three months in advance. As suspected, we were out of luck.

Santa Maria delle Grazie is worth seeing on its own. The interior is dominated by breathtaking frescoes and we were still able to see some of da Vinci's work in the lunette in the portico.

Biblioteca Ambrosiana
courtyard, flanked by
Santa Maria delle Grazie
Located beside Santa Maria delle Grazie is the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, current home to the Atlantic Codex. It's the largest collection  of da Vinci's drawings, bound by a sculptor in the late sixteenth century. The content encompasses his thoughts of more than 40 years, from 1478 to 1519. It was really intriguing to see the pages in person. Leonardo da Vinci had an incredible mind, advanced far beyond his time. We saw drawings of everything from weather patterns to mythological monsters. The collection was impressive and thought-provoking, and I'm glad we happened upon it.

Our  next stop was the Sempione Park. Its origins go back to the 14th century. The land was originally used as a hunting ground for the Visconti. Today it's a pleasant retreat in the middle of urban sprawl. Sforza Castle flanks it on one side, and on the other is the Arco della Pace (Arch of Peace). It was built in the early 19th century to celebrate Napoleon's victories. The view from the park is impressive, even through the fog.

Arco della Pace
Sforza Castle was saved from demolition at the start of the 20th century. Today it houses art and history museums. The castle was originally constructed as a fortress. It's easy to see because of its layout: four walls with square towers at each corner. It was rebuilt in 1447 after a razing and eventually transformed into a residence.
Sforza Castle

Milan was nice. I think three days is more than enough time to see everything if you make some plans in advance. If I had it to do over again, I would make sure to get tickets for "The Last Supper," have dinner and drinks in the Naviglio district, and participate in Aperitivo.

Aperitivo is my biggest regret from our adventure in Milan. As I mentioned before, it's a very expensive city. We had a difficult time finding filling meals that were reasonably-priced. Aperitivo is basically a happy hour accompanied by lots of appetizers. It's a very Milanese thing to do and most neighborhood cafes host them. We accidentally happened in on one after we'd already had dinner. There were cheeses, olives, bruschetta, meats, potatoes, and vegetables. They typically begin around 6 or 7pm and last until 9. The atmosphere is jovial and energetic. And here's the best part: the only money you must spend to make your way around the buffet is for one drink. ONE! I definitely felt cheated for missing out on this wallet-friendly experience.

So, Milan. I don't know if we'll ever meet again and I don't think I will be too disappointed if this turns out to be the case. I must admit that I wasn't terribly impressed with the food. I think a different region of Italy might be on the menu for next time. People, in general, were kind. I loved hearing all of the Italians speaking. It really is how you imagine; lots of "Pregos!" and "Bonjournos!" Milan certainly feels like a lived-in city. Lots of tourists abound but there are also many people dressed in suits, carrying briefcases, and going to work in large, concrete buildings that smell like money.

Arrivederci, Milano!

Rooftops of Milan, from the Duomo

Saturday, January 19, 2013

New Year's Eve in Milan

This year, we allowed Blind Booking to choose our destination for New Year's. I was very excited when Milan flashed up on the screen. This was my first time in Italy and I couldn't wait to try the food and see the Duomo.

Antica Locanda Leonardo courtyard.
We took a late flight in and then hopped aboard the Malpensa Express to reach our hotel. Antica Locanda Leonardo is right beside the Santa Maria delle Grazie (home to da Vinci's "The Last Supper) and a pleasant 15-minute walk to the city's center. The hotel shares a 19th century building with private apartments surrounding lovely courtyards. It was one of our best finds to date because of its price, location, and ambience.

New Year's Eve was a beautiful, sunny day. We set out to see as much as we could since many points of interest would be closed on New Year's. Milan certainly gives off a business/commerce sort of vibe. The urban streets are bustling with busy people dressed in suits, banks from every country flank the streets, and the scent of wealth and power is strong in the air. It was a refreshing change of scenery to see the grand Duomo.

Construction of the cathedral began in 1386. The building carried on throughout several centuries until its completion in 1965. Today, it's the third-largest church in Europe. The interior is breathtaking, filled with the light from stained-glass windows bouncing off intricately-designed floors. After a long gander inside, we took the stairs to the top of the Duomo. By now we've had the privilege to stand atop several churches in Europe but this was the most unique experience so far because there were no restrictions; we were literally standing on top of the rooftop spires. Unbelievable.

The Duomo sits upon the Piazza del Duomo. It's Milan's main square and is filled with tourists, peddlers, and pickpockets. We walked with our heads down, bags close, and were still surprised by how aggressively people tried to sell us bracelets and birdseed.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele
The Gallerio Vittorio Emanuele is a magnificent glass-domed gallery filled with luxury shops. A majestic arch beckons you in from the Piazza del Duomo. Even if you aren't planning on purchasing anything or stopping for food at one of the many cafes, it's worth your time to stroll through and admire the stunning architecture. You must also take a spin on the bull's balls.

Beneath the dome, various coats of arms are depicted as a symbol of unification. There is a wolf for Rome, lily for Florence, a flag for Milan, and a bull for Turin. The tradition goes that you must put your heel on the bull's testicles and perform one spin on top of them for good luck. It isn't just a tourist trap. If you stand long enough, you'll see lots of people doing it-- including the Milanese. I was taking a photo and suddenly an older, distinguished-looking Italian gentleman stepped upon the bull, caught my eye, and spun. Then he spread his arms wide and said, "Prego!" to me. He watched as I performed the spin and, nodding satisfactorily, rejoined his wife.

Take a spin!
Milan's Christmas market was still operating and it was fun to see all of the different items for sale. It's interesting how each country's interpretation differs. I guess it's in ways you would expect. Germany has lots of bratwursts and gluhwein, Brussels provides the beer, and Italy went heavy on cheese, antipasti, and paninis. We picked up some olives and a bottle of wine to whet our appetite ahead of our New Year's Eve dinner.

Reservations for dinner were difficult to come by, even almost three months in advance. We finally found a place close to our hotel, a charming restaurant with excellent reviews. Boccondivino is in a quiet area on a side street. We were the first to arrive and we received a warm welcome from the manager and a sparking glass of Prosecco. The first of many courses was the pinzimonio: a large offering of fresh vegetables dipped in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper.

Soon the restaurant began filling with lots of other couples and large groups of boisterous Italians toasting each other and laughing raucously. The atmosphere was electric!

I've been to many different dinners with wine pairings. The formula is pretty standard: A glass of wine accompanies each course and it's presented by a knowledgeable sommelier who enthusiastically speaks about the flavor of the wine, its origin, and why it's the best accompaniment to the dish. The course is finished, along with the glass of wine, and the tasting moves forward with the next plate.

At Boccondivino, the process is a little different. There was still a sommelier (a delightful man with a passion for wine and a twinkle to his eyes) and there was still a pairing for every course. But instead of a glass, it was a bottle. Yes, I mean that the ENTIRE bottle of wine was left on the table for refills. We didn't really notice it with the first course but by the second one, we realized that two bottles of wine were sitting in front of us, opened and waiting to be emptied.

"That's weird," said my husband. "Do you think they mean to do that?'

We looked around and noticed that the rest of the patrons were also amassing their own stashes.

"Well, they can't possibly continue to do this for every course," I said. "Maybe you're meant to just have a couple bottles for the whole duration."

That guess was wrong. Course after course continued to arrive at our table. We had everything from cheese and pate to lard and gnocchi (not together). At some point our friendly sommelier stopped giving his eloquent speeches and just eased the next bottle in front of us along with another glass. We became great friends with the couple seated next to us and I think we were shouting in Italian by the end of everything. It wasn't a tasting; it was a downright sloshing.

Suddenly the room darkened and shouts of "Buon anno!" flooded the restaurant. Bottles of champagne were popped open and we ate lentils for good luck. The manager, who by now was red-faced and extra-jovial, shook hands with each patron and wished them a happy new year. Dessert was still on the way and it was accompanied by port or sherry. I can't remember which because I had ceased imbibing about three glasses before that.

Lentils for luck.
By the time our thousand-course dinner was finished, we realized we'd spent almost five hours at Boccondivino. It was certainly a New Year's dinner to remember. As we left, we marveled at the number of bottles and glasses decorating each table. It was surreal and gluttonous. But I suppose the chances of me ever being in Milan for New Year's again are slim, so I guess it's best to do it right the first time. And if 'right' means devouring endless cheese platters, gulping down sparkling whites and ruby reds, shouting with happy Italians, and breaking a wine glass (oops), then yes-- we achieved something.

I don't remember much about our stroll back to the hotel other than it wasn't as cold as it could have been due to our wine coats, we laughed a lot and took many ridiculous photos, and the people in the room next to us were shouting, "Happy New Year!" at the tops of their lungs for several hours into 2013.

Needless to say, we missed the hotel breakfast the next morning but we did manage to make it back out into Milan for another day of sightseeing. But I think I'll save that story for later. Just the memory of Boccondovino has made me woozy.