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.

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