Milan, Italy: Chasing da Vinci, discovering architectural wonders and visiting a Wes Anderson designed café

Dates: April 30th – May 3rd

Distance walked: 53.89km

Steps: 78,022

Temperature high: 25°C

Art, fashion, cuisine, wine, football, opera, architecture, exploration, cars, science and philosophy. What do these all have in common? Italy has excelled at them all. On our travels so far Italy has etched it’s way into the culture in each and every one of the places we have visited, be it their cuisine or architectural influence, it is perhaps the most celebrated of all European countries having given so much to the world across so many different fields.

If you have read this blog previously you may have noticed that both my partner and I love all things Italy. As such, when we arrived in Milan for the sixth leg of our trip we could barely contain our fervid desire to discover one of Italy’s most famed cities.

We took the metro from our accommodation into the city centre and the first sight that we were greeted with was the spectacular Duomo de Milano. Also known as the Milan Cathedral this church is the biggest in Italy and third biggest in the world. The exterior gothic architecture is quite unique as the building was built over hundreds of years so incorporates many styles of varying quality. Nonetheless it made for a fittingly flamboyant icon to welcome us into the fashion capital of the world.

If shopping is your vice then you don’t have to look far in this city to find your fix. Immediately to the left of the Milan Cathedral as you look at it is the Galleria Vitorio Emanuele II, Italy’s oldest shopping centre. Housed in a four story, 150 year old grand arcade this elegant and lavish building has long been a meeting point for the Milanese bourgeoisie. Today it retains popularity among locals and tourists with many expensive restaurants and cafés inside as well as iconic high-end boutiques such as Prada, Gucci, Swarovski, Armani and more.

A glamourous backdrop for a shopping spree if you are feeling flush

We took the opportunity for a spot of window shopping in the magnificent structure and whilst doing so observed a strange and amusing local tradition. On the floor in the centre of the galleria is a mosaic depicting the bull of Turin. The bull was originally painted in all it’s glory and it was said that by standing on a certain area of the bull and spinning thrice on your heels, you would be granted increased virility. Over time the ritual damaged the mosaic and there is now a plain stone circle preserving the bulls modesty, however tourists still carry on the quirky tradition with gusto.

For the remainder of the day we explored the streets of Milan’s centre, browsing in some of the many, many shops. We also visited the grounds of Sforza Castle for a passing glance (more on the castle later) and then stumbled across a statue of Italy’s most prominent historical figure and the universal genius that is Leonardo da Vinci. A man that would prove incredibly elusive for the remainder of our stay.

The master painter’s influence can be seen all over Milan

Having satisfied the necessary sightseeing for the day, in the evening we pursued what we had truly come to Italy for, pizza. A ten minute walk from our accommodation in the Calvairate district of the city lies the PepeNero pizzeria. A modern restaurant with an open plan kitchen in the dining area where the ingredients are all fresh and prepared to order. There is a vast selection of pizzas to choose from, each painstakingly crafted before being cooked Neapolitan style in a huge wood-fired pizza oven.

Thankfully Milan delivered what we were looking for and we enjoyed some of the best pizza either of us have ever eaten. If you’re planning a trip to Italy and long to try some great, authentic pizza then PepeNero’s in Milan certainly has to be in contention as one of the best pizza restaurants to go to outside of Napoli.

Salami (top) and the chef’s ‘nduja speciality (below)

Prior to leaving on our travels we had read about boutique shop turned café/restaurant, 10 Corso Como and decided to book a table for lunch during our stay. Whilst making our way there in the morning of our second day we happened upon some more of the cities striking architecture, Bosco Verticale or Vertical Forest.

Designed by architect Stefano Boeri this environmentally friendly structure consists of a pair of office buildings sprouting a plethora of lush trees from it’s exterior high into the sky. The buildings perhaps look off-key standing tall in the Porta Nuovo district however they certainly strike a pleasing note for anyone with a passing interest in quirky architecture or even those just looking for an Instagram-able shot of Milan.

Modern eco architecture on show

On arrival at 10 Corso Como we were welcomed by a bucolic setting. A thriving forest of plant life and the chirping of the tiny chickadee-like birds which flutter around in abundance within the outdoor seating area makes for a delightful scene that you would happily lounge around in all day, if only the prices were a little more modest.

That said the restaurant is definitely value for money, I ordered the ’10 Corso Como’ risotto and Kirsty ate the garganelli pasta with zucchini, mint and prawns and both dishes were delicious and presented in a manner befitting of the picturesque setting. Beginning in Milan in 1990 the establishment now boasts locations in Seoul, Shanghai Beijing and New York so if you have the fortune of visiting any of these cities, check it out for some high quality dining in a gorgeous setting.

10 Corso Como is likely the most scenic café in Milan

We walked off our lunch through the streets of Milan, meandering our way back to the centre via an ice cream parlour. Another field which the Italians have perfected into that of an art form is making ice cream and so we simply couldn’t visit without partaking in some. Vendors are commonplace on the street corners of the city centre and you need not worry about finding one that’s good, as far as we could tell (and we ate a lot of the stuff) they are all fantastic.

Our walk led us to Parco Sempione, a 38.6 acre park which is home to the Sforza Castle grounds and the monumental Arco della Pace (Arch of Peace) as well as a museum, bars, fountains, sculptures, a pond and even a stadium. Locals and tourists alike flock to the park during pleasant weather and we joined them for the better part of the afternoon, enjoying the sights and sounds on offer in these sprawling city gardens.

A view of the pond in Parco Sempione

Much to our delight, although to the shame of our waistlines, we spent little time deliberating on what to have for dinner inevitably settling on pizza. Again. We opted for a typical, cosy Italian place named Baja Sardinja which again served up authentic pizza dishes however is primarily a seafood restaurant. Another great spot for dinner in Calvairate area.

Milan’s most famous artistic possession is the original Last Supper mural by Leonardo da Vinci which is kept within the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie church. Unfortunately however, it is infuriatingly hard to witness the iconic painting in person as it requires advance booking and when we looked into it every single slot was booked up, not just for our visit but for the entire two months for which booking was conceivably available. If you are an art lover and plan on travelling in hope of seeing the painting, be wary and check the availability before booking up flights etc.

Luckily Italy’s proverbial boot is filled to the brim with masterpieces from the innumerable famed artists which the country has produced. As such, on our second last morning in the city, we headed back to Sforza Castle which has a host of museums containing artistic works by Michelangelo, da Vinci, Mantegna, Caravaggio, Canaletto and hundreds more. There is also a museum of musical instruments, a museum of furniture, an armory and a collection of Egyptian artefacts.

Antique armchairs which belonged to Milanese royalty

With all this available to view for a €10 admission fee, we happily spent our entire afternoon in the castle grounds marvelling at masterpiece after masterpiece contained deep within the castle walls. Unfortunately da Vinci eluded us again here as the Sala delle Asse (Room of Wooden Boards), a room decorated by Leonardo himself, is currently undergoing restoration work.

We did however have the fortune of getting some alone time with one of Michelangelo’s notable works, the Rondanini Pietà. Worked upon into his dying days, this was the artist’s last sculpture and now has a hall to itself inside Sforza Castle. When we entered the room in which the sculpture is stored it was empty bar us, a stroke of luck which was long overdue after missing out on two da Vinci’s.

Michelangelo’s final work of art

In the evening we headed to what remains of Milan’s Navigli canal system. Originally built for transportation of goods including materials for the construction of the Duomo, the area is now a booming nightlife spot. Awash with chic bars, cafés and restaurants aplenty this is the ideal spot to unwind away from the hectic centre. We spent hours knocking back cocktails in the relaxed and elegant Mag Café and visited the cosy diner Vetusta Insignia for some delicious pasta. For the remainder of the night we explored the many bars which sit on the banks of the canals and eventually called time on a fun filled evening.

Our architectural love-in in Milan was far from over and on our final day we woke ourselves up with a trip to Bar Luce for a coffee. Designed by film director Wes Anderson for Fondazione Prada, a museum of contemporary art and culture, this café is a fantastic spot to relax in the afternoons and was the perfect scene for our last morning in the city, both being lovers of coffee and Wes Anderson.

Even if you have little interest in either of these things, it’s worth stopping by for a look at the supremely aesthetically pleasing interior design. Taking inspiration from 50’s and 60’s style Italian decoration whilst striving to maintain the quintessential Milanese café vibe, Anderson has avoided creating a soulless movie set and succeeded in bringing to life a vibrant, hip coffee shop.

Inside the pleasant Bar Luce

We spent the later part of our final morning into the early afternoon sipping cappuccinos in hipster paradise and in general we had a pretty chilled out final day. In the evening however, we couldn’t help but return to our favourite pizzeria, PepeNero for one last taste of Italy before embarking towards our next destination.

Not quite as glamourous as Milan, we will be leaving the mainland of Europe and returning home to British shores next for a two day stay in Manchester, England.

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