If there were ever a city with a reputation for not living up to its fame, it would be Milan. Everybody has heard of it, but those who have ventured inside Lombardy’s capital rarely seem to have too many good words to say about their visit. The least Italian city in Italy, the urban landscape seems more influenced by global fast food restaurants and clothing brands than authentic stone-baked pizzas and freshly made ice-creams. And upon arriving there one mid-June afternoon, my first impressions were indeed on the underwhelming side.
However, I discovered throughout the course of my two-night stay that visiting Milan doesn’t have to be a dull and disappointing experience. The difficulty is that it will be if you don’t find the right places to go, as one could very well end up wandering for hours on end through a maze of shops selling overpriced handbags and items of clothing. Such matters not being of great interest to this particular backpacker, it seemed as if a trip was being wasted until some other aspects of the city began to reveal themselves.
Opera aficionados will doubtlessly be familiar with the name La Scala, but achieving familiarity with more than just its name will be a difficult affair for anyone whose bank account is going through strenuous times. Having vainly looked into the possibility of attending a performance about six weeks before travelling to Milan, I was left disappointed with any operas already sold out and a concert only remaining available to those who aren’t averse to triple-figure ticket prices. The museum is worth a visit though, exhibiting several old musical instruments and original operatic scores along with statues of many of the genre’s best-known composers. Visitors can also get a brief view of the venue itself from one of the corporate boxes, although looking at an empty stage can feel a bit like having salt rubbed in the wounds for those of us lacking the required funds to take in a performance.
Outside of the prestigious La Scala, more affordable opportunities to see some live music do also exist in Milan. A small and beautiful church proved to be a perfect find for a classical guitar enthusiast such as myself, as I managed to get a front-row seat mere yards away from an Italian guitarist backed by a string orchestra. With a programme consisting of some contemporary works and some staples of the plucked-strings repertoire by native composers such as Mauro Giuliani and Antonio Vivaldi, the concert’s intimate setting suited the music perfectly. So if anyone is hoping to catch a live performance of some kind in Lombardy’s capital city, don’t let the extortionate prices of its most famous venue put you off; have a look for other options and you will more than likely find some.
Having not quite had my share of ogling at old musical instruments (to be honest, I never do get sick of such an activity), it was time for a real binge in one of several museums in Sforza Castle. A bit of a walk from the ugly city centre, the outside and inside of this majestic castle are both well worth the trek. Having already been impressed by the outer walls and courtyards, visitors are in for many treats when they enter. It is home to a multitude of museums and art collections, of which the museum devoted to musical instruments was my undoubted personal favourite with its vast collection of lutes, early guitars, bowed string instruments of all sizes and harpsichords.
Another one of the castle’s museums deals with the customs and history of Ancient Egypt. Like its musical instrument counterpart, it is extensively detailed, giving accounts of Egyptian writing, the everyday lives of Pharoahs and of their less affluent contemporaries as well as displaying some fascinating sarcophagi and mummies. Perhaps those prone to nightmares should give it a miss, but those brave enough to descend to the basement and see how Egyptians once lived won’t be disappointed!
Art lovers will struggle to leave Sforza Castle, with collections gathered from various eras and styles. Works by such greats as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea Mantegna are on display while one can also explore sections devoted to specific topics including applied arts and ancient art.
Those of you who already know a bit about the touristy side of Milan are probably now wondering ‘Why is this guy over seven hundred words into his article and he hasn’t even mentioned the Duomo yet?’ Contrary to widely-held beliefs, the mighty cathedral is not the sole sight worth seeing, although it is true that it shouldn’t be missed. With two queues respectively catering for paying tourists and free-entering worshippers, I must confess that I pretended to be in need of a pray in order to avoid the ticket prices, my atheism preventing too much fear of being struck down for my misdemeanour.
I did cross a line, quite literally, once inside, taking a photo without realising I had wandered into the area specifically reserved for those wanting to worship. That altercation with a security guard aside, my visit to the much-hyped cathedral was more than worthwhile, its beauty fully justifying its fame. From its majestic outer walls through its stained glass windows to its elaborate interior, Il Duomo truly is a sight to behold.
Eating and drinking
If readers were taken aback by how long yours truly took to get to the point of writing about the cathedral, you are probably nothing short of bewildered as to how I can possibly have written so much about any place in Italy and not reached the topic of food yet. With Milan’s size and cosmopolitan nature it comes as no surprise that the food on offer ranges in quality, price and origin. The Duomo-surrounding centre probably isn’t the easiest area in which to find good value for money, but the zone in which my place of residence was located is a far safer bet. Staying in the highly-recommendable Ostello Burigozzo, it was only a short walk to the Darsena/Porta Ticinese dock, from where one can roam past any number of pizzerias, ice-cream parlours and – more so than in many Italian cities – restaurants specialising in oriental cuisine. The streets lining the two joining canals are particularly rich in culinary options as well as modern bars that give the area a trendy, lively vibe.
A prime example of how first impressions aren’t always everything, Milan has a lot more to offer than its artificiality and its lack of aesthetic appeal might suggest. However, many visitors have been left disappointed, and you could very easily join them if you arrive unprepared for the city’s unsuitability to aimless wandering. It’s simply a question of knowing where to go, and if you do know where to go you can get a lot of benefit from a short stay in the northern Italian hive of activity.
The photos for this article were very generously supplied by writer and artist James Clayton, whose blog can be found here: https://enterjamesclayton.wordpress.com/