If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the city of Milan in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. We certainly can’t say that Milan whose population exceeds 1.3 million (the urban area is well over 5 million) is undiscovered by vacationers. But as Italy’s media and finance capital it is definitely less tourist infested than many, many other Italian cites. Milan is often considered to be Italy’s most European city. Is that a reason not to go visit? On the other hand, Milan is Italy’s fashion capital and one of the great fashion capitals of Europe, which is an excellent reason for stopping by. (We’ll let you decide which is more chic, Milan or Paris.) Let’s not forget that Milan is home to Europe’s greatest opera house, La Scala. You really should consider visiting Milan, as well as other Lombardy destinations, described in companion articles in this series.
Over the millennia Lombardy has been in the hands of numerous invaders including the Etruscans and the Gauls, then the Romans, Franks, and Goths, and finally the French, Spaniards, and Austrians. Did we forget the Lombards? All of these invaders left their mark, some more and some less. Keep the region’s history in mind as you tour this impressive city.
We start our Milan tour with the Gothic Duomo (Cathedral) whose ground was broken in 1386 under the first duke of Milan and yet was only finished in time for Napoleon’s coronation as King of Italy in 1809. With an estimated capacity of forty thousand it is Italy’s second largest church; only St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome is bigger. To get an idea of its immensity, the Milan cathedral boasts 135 marble spires and contains well over two thousand marble statues. Yet in spite of its size and central location those who seek refuge from the outside world (believe me, central Milan hustles and bustles) can usually step inside and find a solitary corner. Believe it or not there has been a church at this prime Milan location since at least the beginning of the Fifth Century.
The Duomo’s architecture and art are certainly worthy of an extended visit. Let’s quote Mark Twain in his famous travelogue Innocents Abroad: “The central one of its five great doors is bordered with a bas-relief of birds and fruits and beasts and insects, which have been so ingeniously carved out of the marble that they seem like living creatures -- and the figures are so numerous and the design so complex, that one might study it a week without exhausting its interest...everywhere that a niche or a perch can be found about the enormous building, from summit to base, there is a marble statue, and every statue is a study in itself... [and to sum up] They say that the Cathedral of Milan is second only to St. Peter's at Rome. I cannot understand how it can be second to anything made by human hands.”
Right next door to the cathedral is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, a Nineteenth Century upscale shopping mall named for the first king of united Italy. Just before its completion in 1877 its designer fell from scaffolding to his death. Talk about grandiose; the gallery stretches 640 feet (about 200 meters) from the Cathedral to the Opera House. Its arcade is 96 feet (about 30 meters) high and the octagonal glass dome is considerably higher. The Galleria is one great place for shopping and people watching, but bargains are to be found elsewhere. Should you so desire the Park Hyatt Hotel is right nearby and presumably you could “do” Milan with a four-point landing; the Cathedral, the Galleria, the Hotel, and the Opera House (described next). Don’t; there is a lot more to see and do.
In the mind of many the Teatro alla Scala (La Scala Opera House) is another cathedral. Its season runs for about six months, and because there are only 2800 seats you have to scramble for a ticket. La Scala’s beauty is matched only by its magnificent acoustics. Needless to say the performances are top of the line. And make sure to visit the Museo Teatrale alla Scala.
Other Milan museums include the Nineteenth Century Museo Poldi-Pezzoli devoted to paintings including Botticelli and Bellini, porcelain, and textiles, the Pinacoteca di Brera (Brera Gallery) whose collection spans the centuries (Fifteenth to Twentieth), and Villa Belgioioso Bonaparte – Museo dell’Ottocento previously known as the Galleria di Arte Moderna. The Fifteenth Century Santa Maria delle Grazie Church (Saint Mary of the Graces) is worth seeing on its own. Its refectory houses a recently restored da Vinci masterpiece, Il Cenacolo, perhaps better known by its English-language name, The Last Supper. Please note that you must reserve well in advance to get a fifteen-minute look at this masterpiece.
Still other Milan museums include the Museo Civico Archeologico (Municipal Archeological Museum, the Museo Nazionale della Scienzo e Technica (National Museum of Science and Technology) with paintings and technical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, and the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana art gallery with the adjoining Biblioteca Ambrosiana. Make sure to visit the Museo Civico de Storia Naturale (Municipal Natural History Museum) along with its adjoining planetarium and Giardini Pubblici (Public Gardens). The latter is extra fun for the little ones with its pony rides, merry-go-round, and miniature train.
What about food? Of Italy’s twenty regions Lombardy trails only Emilia-Romagna in food production. A lot of the food has a foreign origin, not surprising when you think how often Lombardy fell under outside domination. For example, the Spanish brought saffron and rice, two major components of Milan’s saffron risotto. Lombardy may be home to the only buckwheat pasta in all Italy.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Risotto alla Milanese (Risotto with Saffron). Then try Costoletta alla Milanese (Veal Chop Milanese Style). For dessert indulge yourself with Panettone (Milanese Christmas Cake). Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We conclude with a quick look at Lombardy wine. Lombardy ranks 11th among the 20 Italian regions for both the acreage devoted to wine grapes and for its total annual wine production. This region produces about 62% red and rosé and 38% white wine, but there is little rosé. There are 15 DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. The G in DOCG stands for Garantita, but there is in fact no guarantee that such wines are truly superior. Over 47% of Lombardy wine carries the DOC or DOCG designation. There are three DOCG wines: the sparkling Franciacorta, said to compete with French Champagne and priced accordingly, the red Sforzato di Valtellina, and the red Valtellina Superiore.
No DOC or DOCG wine is produced near Milan. Given its place in the business world one may assume that a lot of Franciacorta is consumed in Milanese restaurants and bars. I recently shared a bottle of rosé Franciacorta with my wine tasting group – and was quite disappointed. I recall that the general consensus was fair to middling, which in no way justified this bubbly’s price nor its reputation.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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