Imperfect and Unforgettable Milan



Milan is an imperfect city. It’s gigantic and crowded and dirty and it’s the industrial and financial heartland of Italy’s unsalvageable economy. It hasn’t got the culture of Florence nor the history of Rome nor the mystique of Genoa nor the eye-watering beauty of any of those. But Milan isn’t any of those. It’s very much its own city and taken on its own Milan’s chaotic, eccentric, blustery braggadocio can exercise a surprising charm.

The first distinguishing feature you might notice are the Milanese. This city is the fashion and flash capital of Italy and no reference to haute-couture that starts with New York and Paris doesn’t end with Milan. To a large portion of the population and most particularly the younger women this reputation is a mantle of responsibility to be rigorously defended with daringly short skirts or neon-colored sundresses or leather jodhpurs or just exactly what was last on a runway no earlier than the start of the season. The intensity and remarkable sameness of Milan’s vogue can seem a little absurd but it’s inarguably a spectacle and I urge you treat it as such.

Happily, the best places to drink in the human element of Milan are also some of the nicer parts of the city itself. A very handy starting point is Il Duomo — an astonishingly huge let’s say 18th century gothic cathedral that in fact was started in 1386 but only completed in 1965. The interior of the world’s fifth largest cathedral is suited to the size and wealth of its city and while its got plenty of art and reliquary and sainted chapels the real spectacle is the stadium-like expanse. But it’s the exterior where you should install yourself, in the piazza in front of the cathedral in one of the cafés under the porticos on either side of the square and positioned ideally for auditioning the endless catwalk of Milanese society.

Via della Spiga

Via della Spiga

Now you’ve seen the Milanese, go and see who dresses them. Via della Spiga is nearby in the majestic, solidly Milanese quarter surrounding Il Duomo. This is where Dolce & Gabbana and Prada and Armani and literally all their contemporaries have to be if they’re going to be anywhere. You don’t need to go shopping on Via della Spiga and in fact I advise against it but it’s another uniquely Milanese venue for viewing the fashionable in their element. There are elongated beautiful people and clever, expansive shop windows that might have a single dress shirt in one size for €10 000. Of course this bargain is bait to draw you inside to be upsold to the €22 000 jeans.

The show continues on on Via Dante, which also leads to the decidedly more typically tourist draw Castello Sforzeco and its somewhat dingy grounds. By all means see the castle until you want lunch when you can again select your seats for the show in one of the nothing-but cafés or bars or restaurants that spill onto this (mostly) pedestrianized street. At some point every clothes’ horse in Milan will cantor down Via Dante and this pretty street and these pretty people combine into another uniquely Milanese production.

The fashion theater you’ve seen so far has been enclosed in the dense and expensive city center. By evening the Milanese have spent all their money on clothes and choose to get their kicks in another distinctly native quarter, Navigli, by the canal.

In the summer the canal is still and swampy and tremendously popular with mosquitos and Milanese alike and it’s the place to go in the evening to watch them converge. The tables of the bars and cafés mingle too and it’s difficult to determine from whom you’re meant to order but like earlier in the day you’re here for the show. The tiny black skirts have been traded for tinier sequined skirts and if possible everyone looks even better on the candle-lit banks of Naviglio Grande but the real show are the buskers and fire-eaters and jugglers competing to make your evening complete and as thoroughly Milanese as an evening can be.

As often as not if you’re visiting Milan it’s to change planes or trains and passing through to Bologna or Verona or Venice or Pisa or points south and this is one very good reason to be here. But if you make just a little time for Milan itself you’re going to find that you’ve given yourself a thoroughly unique and thoroughly Milanese experience.

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