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BY MY THIRD DAY IN MILAN, I started to feel like I was trapped in a giant shopping mall. Each name brand designer has half a dozen stores here, and every American chain is represented. Tonight, my last in the city, I walked up Corso Vittorio Emanuele, one of many major shopping streets, and have to concede that even New York doesn’t have that concentration of stores anywhere. It’s store upon store, along the side streets too, as far as the eye can see. This is Italy’s fashion, design and finance capital, and the spending prowess is here. I climbed to the roof of the Duomo today — an unmissable experience — and was surprised not to find a Dolce & Gabbana billboard up there.

My genteel hotel, Gran Duca di York, while tucked away in a quiet back street, is a few minutes’ walk to Piazza del Duomo, top, with all its hawkers, buskers, street artists, shoppers, students, tourists, locals. (I think I finally figured out what the latest street vendors’ product, a three-foot-long long metal stick which holds an iPhone or camera on the end, is for: taking better selfies.)

Starting May 1 and continuing through the summer, there’s going to be a World’s Fair here, Expo MilanoSo there are street repairs and construction going on everywhere, adding to the chaos.

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Above: The entrance to the Galleria, the Victorian-era shopping mall, is currently enshrouded in scaffolding and wrapped in a billboard.

As an antidote, I needed some culture. I paid a visit to the Museo del Novecentro (Museum of the 20th Century), below, opened in 2010, and loved it. The five-story museum’s architecture is outstanding, its ramps, escalators, and glass walls always visually connected to the historical surroundings. Almost exclusively Italian works are presented in order of their execution, from Futurist painting and sculpture of the ‘teens and ’20s through conceptual installations of more recent decades, like rooms empty of anything but moving laser beams.

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The climb to the top of the Duomo was the equivalent of nine floors, according to my iPhone’s pedometer, via a narrow twisting stair. (There’s also a lift.) Emerging onto the roof, face to face with all that intricately carved marble, you marvel at the fact that it took only 500 years to put together. The view is astounding in all directions.

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From the top I spotted Torre Velasca, below, the 1958 skyscraper whose top floors are cantilevered over the rest, an idea never to be repeated. It remains a unique symbol of venturesome  Milanese design. I later walked underneath it in my quest for lunch.

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I walked and walked, taking in more of the city, including the area around University Statale, below, full of bookstores, cafes, motorcycles, and of course, high-spirited students.

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My eventual lunch spot, Cantina Piemontese, below, in the same location on via Laghetto since 1908, is a find — I loved the ambience and the food (that’s my starter, artichoke hearts with bufala mozzarella). All that bread’s for me?! (They charge for it, and I keep forgetting to tell them not to bring it.) As usual, I was early, but the place soon filled up with well-tailored businessmen and ladies who lunch. All locals; I was the only non-Italian-speaker within earshot.

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I walked and walked and walked some more. Since my first evening in town, when I was afraid I wouldn’t find my hotel, I’ve been comfortable walking around the city after dark. There are people everywhere.

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Milan is a complex, exhilarating place. It’s stressful to navigate, in the same way midtown Manhattan would be for a newcomer. But I’m not opposed to spending more time here at some point, particularly as it is often the least expensive European city to fly in and out of. After three days and four nights, I know I only scratched the surface.

 

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I THOUGHT I WAS RACING THROUGH EUROPE until I met a young California couple in Milan’s central train station, consulting their Eurail map. They are doing nine countries in three weeks. By that standard, my trip — three countries in four weeks — is leisurely. Yet my three-and-a-half hours in Verona, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its medieval architecture, was ridiculously inadequate.

I had braved the Metro for the first time, taking it four stops from the Duomo station near my hotel to Milano Centrale, and found it very civilized. Not crowded, well-marked, 1.5 euro/ride. My intention was to take an 11:35 train to Verona, but I needed a reservation. I took a number (#741) and waited to be called to one of a dozen windows. They were up to #687 when I got there about 10:45, and the line wasn’t moving fast. At 11:38 I had my reservations — on the 12:05 to Verona, with a return to Milan later (but not late enough) the same day.

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When I got off at Verona after an hour-and-a-half in first-class comfort, I couldn’t spot a tourist information stand or a billboard with a map on it or anything. So I approached a limo driver who was holding a placard outside the station. “Scusi, signore, dove il centro?”  I think I fooled him with my perfect accent. He gave me some rapid-fire directions accompanied, fortunately, by clear hand gestures. After 10 minutes of walking along a busy boulevard, I came to an arched gate, above, clearly the place where the old city began. And just beyond it, yet another Roman arena, huge and so intact it’s used for a summer opera festival. (At this point, I’m blasé about Roman arenas.)

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Verona is a very pretty town,  After an earthquake in the 12th century, the city was rebuilt in Romanesque style. Much of that, especially church architecture, remains. The pink and yellow buildings, with peaked windows, turrets, towers, and balconies, reminded me somewhat of Venice, less than two hours away.

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I joined the throngs of visitors dodging each other’s cameras. With limited time and zero advance prep, all I could do was walk, and look, and eat.

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I had lunch outdoors in Piazza Erbe, below — a cold seafood salad followed by the best spinach tortellini in memory.

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Then I retraced my steps, more or less, to the station, and tore myself away from Verona, having had no more than the merest glimpse of a potentially enthralling place.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Followed it with coffee at one of those dowdy old-fashioned cafes you find in Italy, below.

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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 doorIMG_0021_2IMG_0013_2

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.

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Above, a peek into the courtyard of the archaeological museum.    

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HOW DID I END UP IN MENTON, France, of all possible places I could have roosted for two unplanned nights between Nice and Milan? It was a default decision, but I’m not sorry. Candy-colored Menton was a treat.

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My original thoughts were Lyon, France, or Turin, Italy; either could have kept me busy for two days. But friends said they found Turin ‘boring,’ and the weather had finally turned good in the South of France (sunny and 60). I wasn’t ready to leave the coast. And I was curious to see whether Menton still resembles the town in the vintage hand-colored souvenir photo I have on my dining room wall back in Brooklyn. (It does.)

So I made a reservation at the Hotel Napoléon, below (the kind of design-y boutique hotel I wasn’t able to find in Nice), took a half-hour train ride from Nice Thursday morning, and got off in this small city in France’s southeastern-most corner, practically on the Italian border.

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At the corner of the block, next to the hotel, below, a 16th century chapel remains. 

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Menton has a uniquely warm microclimate and therefore an abundance of famous gardens, many open to the public. “Are you doing all the gardens?” a British traveler asked me at the exotic botanical garden Val Rahmeh, part of France’s National Museum of Natural History, as I followed numbered signs from bamboo glade to lemon grove. It was a logical question. The garden-visit options in and around Menton number about a dozen, including Serre de la Madone, an English garden transported to the Cote d’Azur by Lawrence Johnson (of Hidcote fame), and Hanbury, a 22-acre garden in nearby Ventimiglia, Italy, that would have required a day I didn’t have. Anyway, I adored Val Rahmeh. Below, a taste of what there is to see.

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High on my list for Menton was the Jean Cocteau Museum, opened in 2011, and the Salle des Mariages (marriage chamber) at the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall), below, whose walls and ceilings Cocteau exuberantly decorated in 1958. The multi-disciplinary artist loved the city, and I love the graphics, expressiveness and originality of his drawings and his campy films, on loop at the museum.

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As soon as I got to my room at the Napoléon, below, I decided to linger for two whole nights in Menton. Built in 1962 and renovated to a high standard with a modern-art theme, the hotel had heretofore unimagined luxuries like a rain head walk-in shower, free water and juices in the minibar, a swimming pool I didn’t use, my own miniscule balcony with a sideways sea view, three separate passwords for my three devices, a room safe that actually fit a laptop, a TV with 6 or 8 English-language channels I didn’t watch, and room service (this was the first hotel I’ve been in with a real bar and restaurant downstairs). Although the place looks like it could be in South Beach and should be populated with beautiful young people, most of the hotel’s guests were part of an elderly British tour group.

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My one disappointment in Menton, and the South of France in general, has been the food. I’ve slacked on restaurant research and have just taken my chances. My big meal of the day has been a casual lunch at an outdoor café or creperie. So I’m leaving France with just one great food memory: the late-night fish meal in the bar at Collioure. I can’t believe I didn’t have a good salad Niçoise in Nice!

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Menton was restful, though somehow I clocked 14,000 steps (approximately 7 miles) on my iPhone’s pedometer each day. Today, my feet get a break. I’m on a high-speed train to Milan (just under four hours) as I write this, sharing a 1st class compartment with five Italian women, four of a certain age buried in newspapers or tabloid magazines, and one young thing with closed eyes and earbuds.

The day is gray, the scenery so far uninspiring. It seems that many of Europe’s high-speed trains run on newly-built track that goes through industrial areas; I’ve seen a fair number of warehouses, electrical towers, and smoke-belching factories. I’m planning to do at least one post on European train stations and the experience of rail travel in Europe, but I’ll say just this for now: the efficiency is stupendous, but the romance is gone.

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FROM NICE LAST TUESDAY, when clouds reigned, I took a half-hour bus ride up into the hills above the coast (itself worth it for the views). I was headed to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, where the Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, between 1905 and 1912, built a fanciful pink villa overlooking the Mediterranean, surrounded by a series of thematic gardens. They are spectacularly beautiful, as are the views of the sea.

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I made short work of the villa, full of Sèvres procelain, Gobelins tapestries and Old Master paintings; I was too eager to be outside. But the audioguide filled me in Béatrice’s early marriage to an associate of her father’s, the banker Alphonse de Rothschild; their eventual separation; and how, after the creation of these artful and enduring gardens, she spent the last decades of her life gambling at Monaco.

But that’s neither here nor there. The gardens are very much here (thanks in part to Culturespaces, the French equivalent of Britain’s National Trust), and available to visit year-round. There’s an atmospheric tea room that shares the villa’s decor and vistas, so no worries about lunch.

There’s a Spanish garden, below

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and a Florentine garden, below, both of which instantly evoked those places for me.

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There’s also small Japanese garden; an Exotic or cactus garden, with specimens I had never seen; a Rose garden, barren at this time of year; a wild Provencal garden that was the least structured of them; and the more formal French garden nearest the villa, which contains music fountains that spew water and Mozart every twenty minutes.

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