Design and art rule in Milan

As tough as it was to leave the splendor of Castello La Leccia, it was time to depart. The fact that we were moving on to a city I have long wanted to visit made the departure much more enjoyable. The drive to Milan was uneventful and mirrored our trip from La Spezia to Bologna as we backtracked on the Autostrada. Checking into the Hilton in Milan wasn’t too bad, although the parking garage was another peculiar challenge of narrow lanes and tiny parking spots. 

The Hilton Milan is nicely appointed, and they upgraded us to a larger room at check-in. Even though the drive wasn’t that difficult, it wasn’t short, and by the time we were settled in the hotel, we were exhausted and elected to stay in for the night. Thankfully, the Executive Lounge provided enough snacks to satisfy us for the night; we called it a day. 

More cathedrals

The first stop for our tour of Milan was the Gothic Duomo di Milano Cathedral. I should’ve learned my lesson from Pisa but didn’t, so I followed the “rules” for visiting the Duomo and wore pants. The day was hot and sunny, so I was hotter than I needed to be. To add to my frustration, when we reached the cathedral, they were letting anyone wearing shorts in for the tour. At least they were adhering to one of the posted rules and making anyone with bare shoulders or very skimpy outfits cover-up. On top of being hot, I lost my just-purchased metro card at some point when I took my phone out of my pocket. Not exactly a great start to the visit. 

Overall, the tour wasn’t bad, and the fact that you begin on the roof is pretty cool. The view from the rooftop provides a nice contrast between old-world craftsmanship and the detail of the sleek, modern design. The level of detail and ornateness in the rooftop carvings, gargoyles, and figures atop the many spires are exceptional. You also get a spectacular view of the city, including some super modern buildings we didn’t know existed. 

After the tour, we walked to another old area of town to see the Columns of San Lorenzo. The Roman columns were moved to the Basilica of San Lorenzo sometime in the 4th century from their original, 2nd-century location. Even though we have seen dozens of sites that date back to Roman times, I am always impressed by the architecture and the fact that they still stand so many years later. We walked around the square a bit, but the basilica was not open, and it was getting sweltering. We worked our way back to the Metro and then the hotel for an afternoon nap. 

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is one of the city’s premier high-end shopping destinations.

For dinner, we found a place near the hotel that had good ratings and made a reservation for 7 pm, which was when they opened. The restaurant was a pasta place called Miscusi, which is hilarious for anyone who’s watched the comedy Eurotrip. The restaurant will never be confused for fine dining, but the food was good, and we had a great outdoor seat to watch people. I ordered the Carbonara, which I had been craving since we arrived in Italy because it is one of my favorite dishes. Unfortunately, this dish is more of a southern Italy specialty, Rome specifically, and none of the restaurants we have been to offered it on the menu. I’m not sure if it was the guanciale or the sauce, but it was very salty. Crystal’s pesto rigatoni was average but filling, and we were entertained watching the neighborhood people go about their business. 

The Last Supper

One of Milan’s “must-see” items is Leonardo’s masterpiece, The Last Supper. It is so must-see that you must book tickets weeks or months in advance if you want the cheap, self-guided tour. We looked at tickets several weeks prior but did not book them and were left with very few options. Ultimately, we had to book a guided tour for 50 euros per person, with an entry time of 8:30 am. It was not ideal, but the tour guide provided so much information that it was well worth the extra expense.   

The Metro delivered us to a station within a five-minute walk of the meeting spot, making the trip easy. We collected our audio equipment so we could hear the guide and made our way into the convent for our allotted 15 minutes. The people running the show have their process down, and they don’t miss a beat. Fifteen minutes is all you get to observe the painting before they usher you out of the room and the next group is brought in. 

Yes, they cut out the wall and part of the painting for a door…

The artwork is magnificent, and Leonardo’s use of science and math to create art is uncanny. The painting is truly amazing; I wish more of the original work remained. The technique used by Leonardo was good for color variation but very poor for longevity, and the image has been slowly disintegrating since he finished (some say while he was still painting). But the most amazing thing was seeing photos of the bombing damage to the building from WWII. One of the room’s walls collapsed, and the fresco on the other end of the room was utterly exposed. It is stunning that the building didn’t get destroyed and that The Last Supper is still there for us to see. 

After our tour, we went to the Castello Sforzesco and the adjoining Parco Sempione. There are organized tours of the castle and the museums, but we just walked around and had fun making up our version of its history. The park was beautiful, with huge green spaces, dozens of paths, and several ponds. It also led to one of the old walled city gates sprinkled around Milan. 

One of several gateways to Milan.

I knew we were close to the headquarters of the boutique watch manufacturer Unimatic, so I emailed them to coordinate a visit since they do not have a storefront. As a customer and Unimatic watch owner, I wanted to check it out and say Hi. They were super friendly and let us see the entire collection of their watches. They had a massive case with every limited edition they have made, plus the new classic line that is always available and a few prototypes in the works. It was great to meet Giovanni Moro, the founder and CEO, and learn a little about what it’s like to be a boutique watchmaker in today’s market. I wish I could’ve bought a watch from them that day, but their current collection isn’t much different than what I have, and I already spent so much money in Florence. It might have been different if they had a bright blue or green-faced watch in the current lineup.

Before we left, Giovanni gave us a book they worked on about where to eat in Italy, and it was awesome. We quickly found a place we could use the Metro to reach and made dinner plans. La Fettunta was a small family restaurant in a trendy and seemingly affluent neighborhood judging by the number of Range Rovers and Lamborghinis that drove by. Many young and stylish people were hanging out at bars nearby. I can’t fathom how women walk on cobblestone streets in stiletto heels. The food was excellent; we had the traditional risotto Milanese and a Caprese salad. Everything was fantastic, including the house-made focaccia bread, which was so good! It was a great way to end the day, and we were both stuffed!

Modern Architecture

For this day, we set out to do nothing specific; there was no itinerary and no end goal. We took the morning easy and walked out the hotel door with no deadlines or entry times; it was glorious. We wanted to find the modern business district we had seen from the cathedral’s roof; thankfully, it wasn’t far from the hotel. 

A few modern skyscraper buildings, some inventive and avant-garde apartment buildings, and parks make the area desirable. One of the most visible buildings is Bosco Verticale, an apartment building with gardens and trees growing everywhere. From a distance, it looks like a giant terraced garden, but when you get close, you can see how they use the vegetation to make the building green, efficient and cool. Some of the balconies have full trees growing; it’s incredible. I would love to live in a place like that. 

We walked around the central district with its shops and coffee places and had a snack. I took many photos of the buildings, loving the way one building reflected in the windows of another or the contrast in materials from a wood facade next to a glass structure. Then we walked to the Giardino Indro Montanelli park to check out a few statues and fountains. The fountains weren’t working anymore, and the building nearby had been closed up and was in disrepair, but it was still cool to see. We walked around a little more before returning to the hotel for a rest. Dinner would be at Posto di Conversazione in the trendy and vibrant Naviglio neighborhood. 

I love the clean lines and details of this sculpture.

The Naviglio area of Milan is an exciting section of town with working canals a la Venice, but much, much smaller. Restaurants and bars line the canals and create a super vibrant nightlife. It is a fantastic location to catch a meal or a few cocktails and engage in one of our favorite pastimes, people-watching. Our dinner was excellent, and we enjoyed a post-dinner walk around the canals to watch the sunset and walk off a little dinner before boarding the Metro back to our hotel. 

Art and pizza

We spent the morning fine-tuning our plan for our next destination while ensuring we hadn’t missed anything we wanted to see in Milan. We finally decided to walk to the Pinacoteca di Brera art museum. The museum is impressive by any measure. It was only a 20-ish minute walk, and we could take our time since it was pretty hot out. The temps were again in the mid-90s, but it felt even warmer than previous days. 

Commissioned by Napoleon, there are so many fabulous artworks on display that I could’ve cared less about the heat outside; it was enjoyable to walk through. The exhibits are organized chronologically and provide commentary from art critics, historians, and the family members who owned the original paintings. This is a unique approach from what we have seen in other museums. The result was very educational and one of the better art museums I’ve seen. 

After a few hours of staring at paintings, it was time for a pizza and Aperol Spritz at a sidewalk café called Bar Jamaica, which has been operating since 1911. The food and drink were excellent, and it was a fantastic way to cap our trip to this amazing city. Milan is a city that requires time to explore because there are many facets to it, and it is pretty spread out compared to Florence, Venice, and maybe even Rome. It felt like we had no problem walking almost everywhere when we visited Rome a few years ago, but Milan is a town that requires judicious use of the Metro to explore. Milan is well known as a fashion capital, and we saw evidence of that industry, but I was more impressed with the architecture and design of its buildings and parks than the clothing.  

As enjoyable as our time in Milan was, it was time to move on to our second-to-last destination, Turin. 

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