Monday, 9 July 2012

Bella Italia!

No one likes Milan. Not even the Italians. But I decided to give it a second chance to prove me otherwise. You see, since my last visit five years ago, my relationship with Milan has constantly been at odds with each other. For my part, the list of gripes included the city's notorious weather - since much of the city is constructed over filled-in canals it becomes perennially humid; the dearth of cultural attractions; the lack of reliable public transportation and above all? The attitude. The Milanese are at times so aloof they make the Parisians seem like members of the Welcome Wagon. It is not that the citizens or the place has changed. Milan remains a vain and superficially dull and distant city. But I have recently developed an affectionate knowledge of a city that makes itself intentionally difficult to know.

 Yes the 'Made In Italy' label still signifies that the person who affixed it did so within Italian borders but many Italian designer goods are made in Eastern Europe and The Far East nowadays. But the true gems of the city are the designer outlets and second hand, vintage stores. We came across a hole-in-the wall shop along the hip Navigli district. Louis Vuitton small shoulder bag for a haggled €50? Yes please!

 For instance, it quite possibly has the best meal deal in Italy. When my friend and I were trying to relieve our bank accounts of designer impulse buying, we decided to stop by a bar for a quick drink. To our surprise we discover a drink comes with an unlimited buffet. Too good to be true? That's just how it goes when you have aperitivi in Milan. Loosely translated as cocktail, aperitivo carries an additional meaning there and the rest of Northern Italy: restaurants all over the city, for the price of a single drink you get unlimited access to a buffet of fresh, regularly replenished food. Milan has the reputation for the best aperitivi in Italy. Like I recalled, the fresh, creamy mozzarella still made music with the tomatoes and rich olive oil. Small squares of focaccia were embedded with sweet zucchini and tangled in spaghetti were tiny squid, mussels and shrimp. It was the ultimate frugal foodie experience! 

Aperitivi times, unfortunately, end too soon. By 9pm latest, the buffet tables are cleared and people think about where to go for dinner. Ah Italians! Bellies full but not ready to head back to our hotel, my friend and I decided to hit the town for some dancing.We decided to hit the trendy Corso Como, a stylish strip of bars and fancy boutiques. The city prides itself as one of the world's fashion capitals, lined with D&G, Versace and Armani boutiques but you'll delight as much in the local store designers.  Appearances matter in Milan. For proof just roll past the sites: the majestic Gothic Cathedral, the Duomo Piazza, the Teatro alla scala opera house, and the Milanese. (Yes, they're an attraction too).  We decided to join in on the alfresco cafe culture and do some people-watching of our own.  When in Milan, do as the Milanese do and head to the nearest stop for something suitably filigree to slip into. We stepped into the creamiest gelaterie on the corner of the Duomo piazza. It was absolutely incredible and for €3 it bizarrely kept us going throughout the day!

Milan is one of the few cities where you can see Michaelangelo's art. A massive castle called the Castello Sforzesco houses a number of museums including a Museum of Ancient Art, a Museum of Musical Instruments, and an Archaelogical Museum which has prehistoric and Egyptian sections. In typical tourist fashion,we stumbled upon the contemporary art museum, Museo D' Arte Contemporanea where we saw the much critically acclaimed Marina Ambranovich method exhibition. Controversial to say the least, but I was very much interested in the way the most revolutionary ideas are not only sellable, but mind changing.

On the third day of our stay we were feeling spontaneous and hopped on a train to Milan's neighboring town Bergamo. We were informed by the (much friendlier) girl at the tourist guide desk that we ought to see the Piazza Vecchia - the heart and centre of Citta Alta, the medieval part of the city which sits on the hill from the rest of the town. A funicular operates to connect the upper and lower parts of town but we opted for walking routes down wide cobblestone steps and curving roads lush with ivy that join them. But whichever part of town you are in, the art which is much housed in churches small museums and mansions, the Romanesque structure and picturesque view points, is exceptional. The historical richness came alive for us on a walking tour where we were taken aback by the beauty of a medieval castle now home to one of the most beautiful gardens in the Lombardia region. It's hard not to fall in love with Bergamo. 

  We ended our day with what else? Pizza! Baked in traditional ovens, and with queues of locals lined out the door you know it's gotta be good. Serving both savory and sweet options - think fruit and nutella toppings! - we opted for a vegetarian version: Zucchini squares, red capsicum cubes and mushrooms under molten Bianco Grana Padano and mozzarella. As we ate the heavenly concoction, and took in the mountain views around us, Bergamo's many pleasures melded into one. Gioia!

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