Into Milan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 March, 2010, 12:00am

There are those who denigrate Milan for being a dour industrial city but where else can a traveller let the last notes of Claudio Monteverdi's Orfeo linger in their ears (having been perfectly sung at the world's best opera house) while they stroll across a Palladian square towards a marvellous glass-covered arcade built as a baroque fantasy to honour a 19th-century king? And all this after an afternoon that began amid a series of canals that could have been those of Venice, moved on to one of the triumphs of late-Gothic architecture and finished with a breathtaking 15 minutes in front of Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper?

The charm of Milan is that the things that make the city distinctive are all done supremely well. It has the best tailoring - although it fights for the 'best fashion' title with Paris - the best design, being home to the world's most exciting furniture stores and biggest design fair (held in May, and don't go then unless you must); excellent football (both Internazionale and AC Milan play at the city's San Siro stadium); outstanding opera, at La Scala (where Giacomo Puccini's Madame Butterfly had its premiere, as did his Turandot and six of Giuseppe Verdi's operas); and the most delicious food in Italy, and at the best prices, too.

All these delights used to be an inconvenient journey away as there was no direct flight from Hong Kong to Milan. But that will change next Sunday, when Cathay Pacific begins the first direct service to the city from Hong Kong since Alitalia stopped flying the route in October 2001.

So where to start? First check into a good hotel - and this being the design capital of the world, there is an excellent selection of places that are at the forefront of innovation. Significant openings within the past decade include the Maison Moschino, in a 19th-century railway station on Viale Monte Grappa - the Moschino fashion team left the facade intact but have turned the interior into a glamorous fantasy; the Bulgari, a former convent that's been dressed out by the jewellery company in 300 tonnes of Italian marble; and Hotel Straf, where the interiors come from the architect Vincenzo De Cotiis, who founded 'intellectual' label Haute and is responsible for must-see fashion store Antonia, on Via Ponte Vetero.

If a theme is detectable here it's not surprising. The world of fashion has colonised Milan's hotels to a greater extent than those of any other big city and the result is not just a host of stylish places to stay in but also the associated bars and nightclubs.

For those seeking something more discreet there is the Four Seasons, a refined classic set in a pair of buildings that began life in the 15th century as a convent and a palazzo. The lobby is often so loaded with celebrities that bodyguards seem to be stacked 10 deep around the walls.

For something equally discreet that doesn't cost a lottery prize, there's Town House 31, on Via Carlo Goldoni, located within two 19th-century townhouses. The Dolce & Gabbana headquarters are on the same street and the famous Nottingham Forest bar, with some of the best martinis in Europe, is but a stone's throw away.

Once checked in, head for Cova. This pastry and confectionary shop on Via Montenapoleone has been a magnet for Milan's glitterati since 1817 (and the original is many times better than the ersatz franchise copies dotted around Hong Kong's shopping malls). Order a panettone with a cioccolata calda (hot chocolate). The latter will please all five senses, including hearing, which takes in the ecstatic sighs of other patrons who chose the beverage. The flagship stores of Ferragamo, Armani, Bottega Veneta and Dolce & Gabbana all sit within a few metres, so this is an excellent spot from which to watch glamorous Italian actresses hefting armfuls of shopping bags. The Louis Vuitton guide to Milan advises the impecunious to carry their own luxury-brand bags, even empty ones, so as not to be given the cold shoulder by Cova's ever-vigilante ma?tre d'hotel.

One of the biggest problems with visiting Milan is the bewildering array of attractions. Apart from trips to the headquarters of world-famous fashion brands, there's the chance to spend time in Alessi, on Corso Matteotti, where the best of Milan's domestic product design can be seen in a 1920s dream factory conceived by post-modernist architect Ettore Sottsass. Or there's Poltrona Frau, on Via Durini, a furniture emporium with a storied history.

However, for the next three months at least, a charming itinerary can be built around exhibitions and the buildings that contain them. Start out at the Triennale di Milano, on Viale Alemagna, having first walked through the grounds of the nearby Castello Sforzesco, a 15th-century fortress restored 150 years ago with meticulous authenticity. The triennale itself is a triumph of 30s architecture and includes Coffee Design, a cafe with lovely views of the Parco Sempione and a permanent anthology of 20th-century chair design. At present, the building is also home to an exhibition of actress Greta Garbo's private wardrobe and a retrospective of Roy Lichtenstein's pop art paintings (which runs until May 30). There are more than 100 of Lichtenstein's most important pieces on display.

After that, it's time to retreat a century or so and visit the Palazzo Reale, in the Piazza Duomo. This former royal palace has permanent collections of furniture and royal memorabilia. And until June 27, it will host an exhibition titled 'Goya and the Modern World'. The show consists of 180 works by Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes, the Spanish master painter who is often referred to as 'the first of the moderns', and it's a must-see for anybody who is interested in the revolutionary forces that drove art from 18th-century formalism to the creative anarchism of the 20th century.

Now it's time to get serious. The Last Supper is in the refectory at Santa Maria delle Grazie, a 15th-century church on a piazza of the same name. Da Vinci's masterpiece is highly sensitive to humidity, which means the number of visitors allowed to see it is restricted, they can only view the painting for 15 minutes and tickets must be booked well in advance through the church's website. Those who like a more impromptu arrangement can use a tour company such as Zani Viaggi.

For Euro50 (HK$500), a Zani Viaggi tour guide escorts parties of 10 to the Last Supper, the Gothic Duomo, one of the world's largest and most spectacular cathedrals, and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, built between 1865 and 1877 in honour of the first king of united Italy. The tour ends in the galleria and that means a pit stop for a prosecco or a campari and soda at Biffi, where you can plot the assassination of whoever allowed an enormous McDonald's to be located directly opposite, or look up at spectacular frescoes.

If the soul-sucking fast-food odours don't kill your appetite, now might be a good time to experience one of Milan's true delights - delicious and plentiful appetisers (known locally as apertivi) available for the price of an alcoholic drink. Using a guide such as chowhound.com or gamberorosso.it, it's possible to dine entirely on apertivi for the duration of your stay. Take the Iguana Cafe, just around the corner from the Piazza Vetra. A Euro7 glass of wine here grants unlimited access to a buffet that includes succulent meatballs and roast potatoes herded into sticky clumps by melted mozzarella and spicy arrabiata sauce. The 150-year-old Moscatelli, on Corso Garibaldi, has a tremendous selection of wines from Lombardy and Tuscany along with rustic dishes in large ceramic bowls that always seem to be full and steaming.

After sufficient fortification, head to Navigli, especially on a summer evening, when the sunset seems to hesitate for hours. This district is set among a pair of canals designed by Da Vinci and it feels like a better, cleaner version of Venice. It also has a fine collection of eccentric stores and interesting restaurants, should your shopping bags or stomach still have room for more. Milan - what's not to love?