Friday 26 June 2015

A few days in Milan

I recently spent a few days in Milan. The focus of my visit was the Expo 2015 and I will post separately about that, but I also managed to fit in a quick look at the city including some of its more unusual sites!

No trip is complete for me without trying out a city's cafes and I managed to visit two historic establishments during my short stay in Milan. Cafe Campanari in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is in the very centre of the city, just across form the Duomo (cathedral). Opened in 1915, the walls of the main room are covered in exquisitely coloured mosaics depicting exotic birds and flowers. Many patrons choose to stand at the bar to drink their expresso, admiring the mosaics which were the work of Angiolo d'Andrea. It's also cheaper to stand rather than to sit - although many tourists choose to park themselves just outside the cafe in the Galleria itself to receive table service, possibly missing the mosaics and the beautiful little curved wooden staircase in the smaller room. This cafe was once the haunt of  Verdi, Toscanini  and other major Italian cultural figures and still retains its original elegance.

Main bar, cafe Campanari
On the subject of elegance, Cova at Via Montenapoleone 8 is another of Milan's historical cafes. Founded in 1817 by Antonio Cova, an accomplished pastry chef and one of Napoleon's soldiers, its cakes and sweets attract both locals and tourists. The cafe also appears in a number of works of literature including Ernest Hemingway's  short story In Another Country  - "We all understood the Cova, where it was rich and warm and not too brightly lighted, and noisy and smoky at certain hours, and there were always girls at the tables and the illustrated papers on a rack on the wall. The girls at the Cova were very patriotic and I found that the most patriotic people in Italy were the cafe girls- and I believe they are still patriotic". Well the waiting staff are all men these days and we didn't discuss patriotism but they did bring me a rich, dark hot chocolate and an equally rich tiramisu - which is much more interesting!

Still on the subject of food, Milan has some great places to eat. Eataly is a fresh food emporium spread over three floors in Piazza XXV Aprile where the products are divided according to theme and region. Shoppers can walk from floor to floor taking in the colours and aromas of cheeses, herbs, vegetables, fruits and sweets as well as browsing the tubs and jars of olives, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and preserves. If all of this makes you hungry, there are also themed eateries on each floor. I enjoyed a lunchtime plate of "lasagnette" - a thin flat pasta similar to lasagne and filled with pumpkin, herbs, tomato and garlic. Delicious. Previously a theatre, the store continues to supply entertainment in the form of cookery demonstrations with the chance to taste and occasional live music on the upper floor.

Eataly, fabulous food on three floors
Milan is a great city for architecture fans, with buildings from various historical periods and in many different styles, dating from the 13th century or earlier right up to some ultra modern developments. Perhaps the most well known of Milan's buildings is its cathedral - the Duomo. Work began on the building in 1386 and although much of it dates from then, it wasn't finally completed until 1965! The third largest church in the world after St. Peter's in Rome and Seville's Cathedral, it is a huge structure, dominating the city's main square. I visited on the evening of my arrival when the majority of the crowds had dispersed and I was able to take the lift to the roof top and wander through its terraces, enjoying the views of the city. The interior is also worth a visit with its 52 pillars, five aisles and  striking stained glass windows made in the 19th century by the Giovanni Battista Bernini and his two sons who were amongst the first to use the then new technique of enamel decoration.

The Duomo
The church of San Maurizio at Corso Magenta 15, dates from the 16th century and is adjacent to a former monastery, now an archaeological museum. The exterior of the church is very ordinary but step inside to see some of Italy's most beautiful frescos as every surface is covered with biblical scenes or highly colourful decorative detail. The artists included Bernardino Luini who trained with da Vinci, Luini's brother Aurelio and Venetian artist Simone Peterzano who taught Caravaggio. The church is divided into two parts with a smaller hall and series of tiny chapels entered from the main street, behind which stands a much larger hall and chapels accessed by stepping through a low and narrow doorway. This was a real treat as not only was I able to enjoy more paintings and decorative details there, but a string quartet was rehearsing too. it was one of those unexpected moments that can make travel such a joy. 

Detail, Church of San Maurizio
E1/ E2 building, Piazza Gae Aulenti
It will be no surprise that Milan is rich in historical and religious architecture, but I wonder how many people know about its cutting edge modern district in Piazza Gae Aulenti. Modern architecture - sometimes I love it, sometimes I don't. In this case I love it. The main elements of the Piazza include the Unicredit Tower, designed by Cesar Pelli and at 231 metres high, Italy's tallest building and the E1/ E2 building which for me at least, is a take on modernism with its beautiful white lines, extensive use of glass and curvaceous facade. The E1/E2 building is a favourite of mine for another reason too - it houses a branch of Grom who sell what is arguably the best coffee ice cream in the world. A cup with one scoop of coffee and another of Madagascan vanilla ice cream was not cheap, but cor blimey was it worth it. Trust the italians to combine great architecture with great ice cream. Lovely. 

Unicredit Tower, Piazza Gae Aulenti
The space at the centre of the piazza is used for a range of activities. On the day I visited a youth basketball tournament was taking place. The piazza leads to another landmark building -  the Bosco Verticale, or in English, the vertical forest, two high rise buildings of 18 and 26 stories respectively. Even from a distance it is possible to see its green mantle provided by the 5,000 varieties of shrubs and 15,000 types of perennials being grown on every balcony. There are also almond, cherry, ash and alder trees, vines and many kinds of flowers selected for each balcony dependant on its level of exposure to the sun. This is all managed through a centralised irrigation system and more than  1200 ladybirds released onto the building to fight aphids! The design was the work of Studio Boeri, and architect Stefan Boeri.

Bosco Verticale/ Vertical Forest
Fans of modern architecture might also like to visit the new Museum of Culture in Via Tortona. I managed a quick visit here on my first evening. To tie in with the Expo, the museum was staging Mondi i Milano, an exhibition about earlier Milanese expos including those from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries when the world was very different and European powers were keen to show off their colonial possessions. I have to say the art produced to promote those events, the original catalogues and the ornate pavilions was extremely beautiful. But, why oh why was the catalogue not available in English and why were there no postcards or posters available for sale from the exhibition? Back to the architecture. The museum was designed by British architect David Chipperfield.  The star of the show is the covered plaza reached by a flight of stairs which opens onto a surprising curvilinear space clad in sating glass through which natural light floods. I went in the early evening, hence the eerie green effect in the photograph below.

Detail, Museum of Culture
Detail, Casa Galimberti
Regular readers will know of my passion for art deco and modernism as well as for art nouveau architecture. I have already posted about art nouveau masterpiece Casa Galimberti here but can't resist including another picture of it above. 

The city also has some modernist and art deco treasures. Villa Necchi Campiglio was built between 1932 and 1935 for the family of the same name and designed by Piero Portaluppi. It was the home of industrialist Angelo Campiglio and his wife Gina Necchi of the famous sewing machine brand family It has been open to the public since 2011. Sadly it wasn't open on the day I visited as it was being used for a photo shoot for Todd shoes. I was able to snatch a look at the exterior from the adjoining cafe but couldn't get close enough to properly admire the copper door or to see  the collection of paintings by Morandi, Sironi and de Chirico. The Necchi-Campiglios wanted for nothing and the house includes an early intercom system, tennis courts and a heated swimming pool. They counted the nobility amongst their friends including members of the Spanish and Savoy royal families. The gardens reminded me of Giorgio Bassani's book The Garden of the Garden of the Finzi-Continis, set in 1930's Italy. I was very disappointed not to get inside. I'll have to go again.

Villa Necchi Campiglio
Cinema Anteo
I also spotted a great modernist cinema, Cinema Anteo at Via Milazzo 9. I have so far been unable to find any details of the building such as the identity of the architect or the date built, so if anyone reading knows, please post the details in the comments box below! More Milanese modernism in a later post.

So, that's cafes, coffee, a museum and architecture, which leaves shopping and jazz! Milan is a shoppers paradise. There are many design shops selling stylish items for the home, well made clothes, Italian food and drink. This was a very short trip so no time for real shopping but I did browse the book shops in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which are just about hanging on to their place between the high end and expensive designer shops as well as making a quick visit to Corso Como 10 which doubles as the name and address of this concept store. Here, you can find contemporary fashion for men and women, household items by leading Italian designers, posters and postcards and a large selection of art books. There is also a gallery which was exhibiting photographs from the Futurist movement when I visited and a very smart cafe/ restaurant in the green and peaceful courtyard garden. Great for browsing and looking at lovely things even if you don't want to buy.

Galleria Vittorio Emauele II
And finally jazz. Milan is one of a number of cities around the world that has a branch of New York's famous Blue Note Club. There is room for a few hundred seated and standing room by the bar.   Seating is not allocated in advance, so its good to turn up early if you want to sit near the front. Standard club food is on offer. The programme is impressive with a mixture of local and international artists. On the night I went, Brazilian vocalist Rosalia de Souza treated us to a number of songs from the Jobim songbook as well as some more contemporary compositions. She played one good long set and had great support from her quartet. The club has a friendly and welcoming atmosphere.

There is much to see and do in Milan. its possible to pack a lot into a couple of days if you plan carefully and make clever use of the clean, modern and very efficient metro system, but I have the feeling I've only scratched the surface. I'd like to see more.

Detail, entrance to Corso Como 10

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