WITH MY FIRST GLIMPSE of Milan’s central train station, top, a Mussolini-era monument that gives the Roman builders a run for their money, I realized I had plunged from a gentle pastel resort town into the heart of a big, brusque, muscular business city, with a frantic energy not unlike my hometown of NYC.
But like all European cities, it seems, dense flocks of humanity congregate in just a few places. Wander down an ancient side street and you are by yourself.
Piazza del Duomo on Saturday night, in front of the jaw-dropping cathedral that looks like dripping candle wax and took 450 years to build, had Times Square crowd levels, as did the 1865-67 Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the universe’s first shopping mall, an iron and glass wonder of the early Industrial Age. I had to see that pulsing shopping heart of the city straightaway, to get my bearings and know I was really in Milan. Below: chocolate shoes.
This is a city made for shopping, and I did in fact, buy myself some dangly earrings (in a pharmacy!) I went briefly into Rinascente, a brightly lit modern department store, which has all the charm of Bloomingdale’s (if you think Bloomingdale’s has any charm; I don’t). The first thing I was drawn to was a skirt with a unique funnel shape; it turned out to be DKNY. I moved on to the top-floor food court, thinking I would forage for supper, but couldn’t handle the mob scene.
So my first meal in Milan was take-out from Peck, below, a temple of gastronomy since the 19th century: a farro and vegetable salad and chicken with black beans (quite delicious), to be happily eaten later in my hotel room with a glass of red from the little bar in the hotel lobby. See how they wrapped it!
I love my hotel, the yellow-ochre Gran Duca di York, below, perhaps the most cheering sight in a city of mostly gray edifices. My room is slightly larger than a breadbox, with an airshaft view, but comfortable and pretty, and intensely central — a few blocks from the Duomo, yet, as I said, a tranquil world away.
Few would say Milan is a beautiful city. I might disagree. The architecture in the historic center, much of which is 500 years old, is forever intriguing and often gasp-worthy. But there is an almost complete lack of greenery and color. It is drab. The sight of an orange tram going by is a vivid shock.
Sunday was Leonardo day. The city is milking the da Vinci Code phenomenon, which endures in crowds from all over the world. There are several Leonardo-based exhibitions going on, and the sounds of German and Japanese fill the air. Right around the corner from my lodgings is the Pinoteca Ambrosiana, below, and that’s where I headed first. It’s a 16th century cardinal’s library with an exquisite art collection (27 rooms in all). Most of the paintings are religious and sumptuously beautiful, making one realize how many masters there were besides the relatively few well-known names, but there are also landscapes, Dutch paintings of the era, and even a room devoted to Milanese impressionism of the late 19th century. In the final room, a two-story library, 45 pages at a time of da Vinci’s original drawings, called Codex Atlanticus, are mounted under glass; they rotate every three months.
I had tickets for The Last Supper at 4:15, bought months ago, and time to kill, so I walked toward the Brera section, said to have small shops and cafes — but it being Sunday, everything seemed closed. I had lunch at a dramatic high-ceilinged restaurant called Convivium, below, drawn into it simply because it looked nice. It was quiet when I entered, but soon filled up with Italian families eating pasta for Sunday lunch.
Followed it with coffee at one of those dowdy old-fashioned cafes you find in Italy, below.
At Santa Maria delle Grazie, below, where da Vinci painted The Last Supper (unfortunately in quickly fading temperas) in the late 15th century, when the church was new, we were given 15 minutes to view the masterpiece. I was taken with the dynamism of the figures, how each of the 12 apostles reacted to Christ’s news of his impending betrayal with uniquely expressive body language; it seemed very modern in that way. I also loved how a chunk of the painting was removed in later years by monks who wanted to create doorway into the kitchen next door
So the transition from bonjour to buon giorno has been made. My time in Milan so far has been gray and drizzly, but I haven’t been chafing against the bad weather as I did in Nice. It seems to suit this city.
Above, a peek into the courtyard of the archaeological museum.