By William J. Furney
On the first night of the last time I was in Italy, several years ago, a power surge fried the hard drive of my laptop, sizzling all kinds of vital files and a lengthy story I had written about a disturbing pot experience in Amsterdam.
This time, the current — so far — is stable.
As I write, from the northern fashion and design capital of Milan, Gianni calls and says to meet him nearby in five minutes to get the keys to an apartment across the city I booked at the last minute. Because the hotel I’m in, and that I’ve booked for a few days, is a catfish dump. It’s Hotel Metropoli Milano, run by a Chinese family, who advertise the facade of a grand building as theirs, only it’s the ornate Central Railway Station across the street.
Instead of opulent surroundings, I found myself in the corner of a far plainer building housing another hotel underneath mine; I immediately wanted to leave, but it had been getting on for midnight.
Hotel Metropoli Milano was like a grim hospital ward and had a tiny, central reception desk staffed by a young Chinese woman with tiger eyes and a few chairs and tables beside it. That was the dining area, and I was glad I had brought my breakfast with me, from England (wholegrain bread, avocado, apple, nuts), because I would not be having it in that silly space.
I went to sleep and awoke, eight hours later, to an Italian man roaring endlessly in the room beside me, seemingly into his phone. In another room a smoke alarm kept going off. I guessed they were smoking; the place was so depressing, I felt like lighting up myself.
“My travel plans have changed,” I told the tiger woman at reception. She gave a weak smile and said nothing. I imagined it had been her who had been helpful in getting me two extra nights, when the hotel, if you could call it that, had been fully booked for those dates. I felt I was letting her down, even though the accommodation was a letdown.
Not ‘Liking’ My Flight, or Bus Journey, to Milan
The night before, on a flight from Manchester, had been uneventful, if you discount a loud, young American man near me who said “like” every one or two words — “I, like, went, like, to, like, Boston, like, and it, like, was, like, really, like, great.” These are the kinds of irritants you hear when travelling solo; with no companion to talk to, and dim your ears, sounds are amplified and impossible to ignore.
I could not wait to get off to escape the guy (wearing a Boston cap), but then found myself several rows ahead of him on an airport bus to Milan city centre, and had to endure a further 50 minutes of his absurd loquacity. That’s how long it takes to get to the centre of Milan from the northeasterly Bergamo Airport, also, and slightly confusingly, known as Orio al Serio International Airport. The city has two other airports: Malpensa, in the northwest and the largest of the three, and Linate, just 7 km east of the city.
Only Malpensa — which, err, translates as “bad thoughts” — has a direct rail connection to central Milan, the Malpensa Express. Those of us arriving elsewhere have to bus it. But there are plenty of coach firms operating from Bergamo, including German-owned global operation Flixbus, which I took from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, and it was great, with free wifi, a jolly driver and individual bags for rubbish.
Bergamo Airport is dominated by Ryanair, Europe’s largest airline by passenger numbers, which is good news if you, like me, are fond of generally low fares and on-time departures (my flight with them from Manchester to Milan was around £10, and took off exactly on schedule; from Milan, it was about €120 and 20 minutes late leaving).
Ordinarily, arriving late into an airport I haven’t been to — or even late afternoon, when I flew into Marrakesh — I’d have a prepaid transfer or find a taxi; but given the distance from Bergamo to central Milan (around 56 km), and fares of well over €100, the bus (€12) was the only sensible option.
So I bought a ticket in the arrivals hall, and as I waited outside, a young Englisman came up to me and asked, in broken Italian, where the Flixbus was. I told him, in English, that one had just departed, a few minutes earlier. “Your English is better than mine” he said, before telling me the reason for his stay here and how he would later be meeting his girlfriend somewhere. People like to overshare when travelling alone.
Back on the plane earlier, and descending into Milan, a youngish Alaskan man with pockmarked skin who was seated by the window in my row and who had been exhibiting peculiar behaviour — ordering several soft drinks and food, including a heated lasagne, which he devoured with gusto — leaned over for a chat. He looked and sounded like he was on something, and he told me this was his first time flying Ryanair. Whoopee.
* * * * * *
Gianni, the man with the new flat keys, approached me on a busy central Milan street and said he knew me, as he had seen me in Spain. Europe is a small world.
I’d had a hectic morning, what with the hotel nonsense and also a Zoom with my colleague Nick, in England, and a new client, and I wasn’t in the mood to criss-cross the city on the Metro, and then try to find the place. So I took a taxi from a truculent rank at the Central Railway Station.
Twenty minutes later, and €20 lighter, I arrived at the apartment — a newish complex in the historic and canal-lined area of Navigli, in the south of Milan.
I realised I didn’t have the flat number, so I messaged Gianni and asked. He said to video call him and he’d give directions, because the flat didn’t have a number. As I held my phone out in front of me, so Gianni could see where I was going, he directed me straight, right, open a door, up a flight of stairs, turn right — there’s your flat.
It didn’t have a number.
* * * * * *
These February mornings in Milan are cold and sunny; by the time the sun rises to its highest point of the winter day, it’s almost balmy. Both are perfect for running, and I did multiple along a canal in this trendy district full of hip bars and pizza restaurants. At midday, the effervescent Milanese — fond of sprinkling tiny circles of coloured paper called coriandoli (not to be confused with confetti, which in Italian is a sweet) as they wander the streets in groups, festival or party-mode, such is their innate zest for life — and their visiting brethren sipped long birre at outdoor cafe tables lining the languid and oddly clear waterway while I sprinted past, dodging amblers, cyclists and fellow runners. It felt like living a Renaissance day, one steeped in long centuries of heady history and unchanged to this 2023 day. You almost felt as though you were immersed and suspended in a vibrant oil painting made with thick and luxurious brushstrokes.
Italians, I feel, percolate high culture and art throughout their days, an enviable life evidenced to the visitor in the many art channels on TV — some selling works — and snippets of opera on news television; and pop-up bars that dot the city and are even found in corners, miniscule alcoves and on bridges over canals (music blasting).
An upstairs neighbour in my apartment building was playing the piano when I returned from a long run early one Sunday afternoon. I turned off Rai News 24 on the TV and listened to the impromptu concert while cooking wholewheat noodles I’d brought with me from England and that I would mix with beetroot, chickpeas, peas and green olives.
Like in other cities I’ve visited in Italy, including Rome and Florence, Milan exudes an air of refined tranquillity that makes you feel relaxed and right at home. And unlike in other parts of Europe, the people are mostly slim and chic and have a ready, affable smile — they are the embodiment of a global style destination, one of four to hold an annual fashion week, along with London, Paris and New York.
It almost feels as though the modish Milanese have a duty to personify the soul of the place they inhabit. And I love the melodic, rolling language that’s so full of expression and emotion; even visitors, like me, feel compelled to speak Italian with the accent.
With the first woman running the country — Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who recently described her job as a “marathon” — there’s a sense that Italy has overcome its recent, turbulent past and is on a path to greater and previously elusive glory, or at least something approaching a Renaissance of good times and fine living.
A Central Cathedral Surprise
After running and walking around 30 kilometres over the weekend (according to my iPhone), and a workout and run on Monday morning, I decided to give my body a rest for the rest of the day. So I took the Metro to the Duomo. Thankfully, and just like London’s Tube, which I had used several times the week before, you don’t have to bother with baffling machines to get a ticket on Milan’s Metro: just tap a bank card on entry and the system calculates your fare when you tap again on exit.
The Duomo is otherwise known as Milan Cathedral and is an otherworldly, Gothic shock as you rise out of the ground on a Metro escalator and see its pink-white granite walls and many spindly spires that look as though Heaven is tugging at them. The holy building famously took 600 years to complete and is Italy’s largest church (St Peter’s at the Vatican, inside Rome, is bigger, but that’s not Italy).
I walked around the expansive piazza in front of the Duomo, fringed by brands like Tiffany’s (one of two in Milan) and with tons of tourists taking spectacular shots, until two people — a young Italian woman and man — stopped me and asked to take a photo of them on their iPhone. Hadn’t they heard of selfies? I obliged and took several artistic pictures for the thrilled if technologically challenged couple.
It was cold; my frigid nose was running; and I declined entry to the religious site, where you had to pay to pray — an entry fee that also allowed you to clamber up on the roof for a sweeping view of the city. The fee didn’t bother me, but the queue to get in, although sparse this mid-afternoon, did — no, grazie.
Instead, I touched a wall of the cathedral, and descended into the ground, taking the Metro back to canal-lined Navigli. On arrival, I stopped at a local church and went in for a moment of calm and meditation. It was empty, a sign said phones were not allowed and two women were hurriedly coming into the spiritual sanctuary as I was leaving: a respite from the harsh outside world.
The restaurant beside my modern apartment building only opened for lunch, then closed and opened again, equally briefly, for dinner. Like most Italian restos, it specialises in pizza, pasta and vino, but the bright-orange concoction found on the tables of most street-side bars — Aperol spritz — was nowhere to be seen.
Da Vinci’s Aryan Race Last Supper
One of my reasons for coming to Milan was to see The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci’s portrayal of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas; it’s over 525 years old. It didn’t cross my mind that the fragile fresco, in a friars’ refectory at the Santa Maria delle Grazie church and convent in the centre of Milan, would be difficult, if not impossible to visit.
I discovered that the official website for the world-famous work listed only one day in February when there were tickets available — over two weeks away — and that was it. It said that following restoration projects in recent decades, visitors were limited to just a handful of people at a time, and that the space was hermetically sealed, with guests gaining access via a pressurised zone so that the internal atmosphere, and humidity, was not disturbed.
The no-tickets part turned out to be an obese lie. Because I went sleuthing and found loads of them, and at varying prices.
“All the tour companies buy up the tickets as soon as they become available,” Cristina, my guide, told me. Instead of €15 — viewing time 15 minutes — for official tickets that are not actually available, people, like me, are forced to fork out €50, €100 or more for the fleeting faded-masterpiece experience.
As soon as our group was allowed entry through airtight spaces and into the refectory — a high-ceilinged dining hall that was reduced to rubble during World War II allied bombings, although The Last Supper, one of two frescos in the hall, survived, in what Cristina said was a “miracle” — most made a beeline for da Vinci’s work. The few of us left in the tour group were instead first taken to a fresco at the opposite end of the hall, where we viewed Crucifixion by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano, representing the execution of Jesus. Clearly unimpressed, Christina described the fesco, completed in 1495, as “flat” and lacking the depth and perspective of the celebrated wall painting across the hall.
Then it was on to the main event, a fresco that surely everyone has seen in history books and pop culture, if not in the flesh. About 20 or so people were packed in front of the work, looking, snapping, taking selfies — cameras allowed without the flash. I imagined da Vinci’s hand daubing his pigments over half a millennium ago, and I wondered at the friars dining amid the artistic splendour — of both works. Did they provide succour for their monastic life?
Back then, there were upwards of 80 friars living at Santa Maria delle Grazie, Cristina told me. Now, there are only around eight. “How come?” I asked, and she shrugged and laughed.
I asked Cristina why da Vinci painted Jewish people — Jesus and his 12 disciples — with blond hair and light skin, instead of the dark and olive of populations in the Middle East, and indeed Italy. “They painted according to the ideals of beauty at the time,” she said.
Hitler, and perhaps Mussolini too, may have been proud.
“That’s an interesting question, though,” Christina said after we exited the hall, as though she had never heard it before, and surely she had. A young American woman beside me who overheard offered: “There are theories that Christ was modelled on da Vinci’s lover.”
The Last Supper is idealised, for sure, and those attending the final knees-up may not have even been seated at a banquet table but small tables scattered about, according to the late monk and bible scholar Bargil Pixner. His research also says the King of the Jews was not crucified hours after the meal but three days later.
Stairway to Heaven: At La Scala
If you feel like shelling out over 500 quid for a pair of front-row tickets at La Scala — arguably the most famous opera house in the world — you might find yourself out of luck. Because Milan’s high-society theatre, just around the corner from the central Duomo, is usually booked solid.
Teatro alla Scala, which will be 245 years old in August this year, is a mecca for opera buffs local and visiting, and, in the week I was in the city, it was also staging performances of experimental dance, classical ballet and piano recitals. The theathre’s name means “staircase”, as it was built on the location of a church called Santa Maria della Scala — so called because a sick child was (allegedly) cured after a statue of the Virgin Mary was placed on a landing of the church.
I browsed available seats on La Scala’s website for Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani and found one in the gallery — five of six floors up, and facing the stage — for €50 and booked it. Most tickets were in the hundreds; those right in front of the stage were selling for €252 apiece.
I Vespri Siciliani is a heavy-duty rebellion-war opera of five acts that premiered in 1855 and runs to almost four hours, although there are two half-hour intermissions. I’m not a particular fan of opera and so I didn’t plan to stay for the entire extravaganza — just attending La Scala, however long, is an experience and a privilege.
* * * * * *
If you’re looking for pre-show dinner or drinks, you’ll find several upscale and casual-dining restaurants are beside and around the famed theatre, and, as I had 50 minutes to kill before the performance, I opted for one called Pasta e Pizza alla Scala, thinking I might finally get a vegan pizza on a trip to Italy.
It resembled an old curiosity shop more than a restaurant, with books, posters and knick-knacks strewn around. An elderly woman sitting by a cash register, unmoving, was heavily caked in makeup, and I thought for a second she was a waxwork; a man of similar age appeared behind a counter heaving with heavy pastries and other confections and asked what I’d like.
“A vegan pizza, please.”
“Pizza margherita, with cheese?”
I told him to hold the cheese and just use various vegetables, like mushrooms.
“Sure, why not?”
Several minutes later, seated at a small downstairs table while opera music played in the upstairs dining area, the man appeared with my dinner: a leafy salad and no pizza. I reached into my tote bag and retrieved several store-bought falafels I had warmed up in the oven and added them to my sparse meal. A pot in my bag contained my back-up dinner: black rice and a lentil curry.
* * * * * *
It was a full house at La Scala that evening. Ushers, mostly young people and dressed in black, flowing capes with a chunky, mayor-style chain around their necks, took guests to their seats in the circa-2,000-capacity theatre that first opened its doors in 1778. You must dress the part, or at least no shorts and t-shirts — “in keeping with the decorum of the theatre, out of respect for the theatre and for other viewers” La Scala says on its website — and any children who start babbling will be asked to leave, along with their parents.
The orchestra was warming up and soon, upwards of 100 performers were on a stark, grey stage of machine guns, a tank and around 100 performers, many bearing rifles. The singing was rousing, the mood foreboding — and if you didn’t know what the storyline was, an LED at the back of the seats flashed the lyrics, in English and Italian.
It was a world away from a production of Les Misérables I had seen in London the previous week — a slick, easy-listening, singalong show designed to entertain the masses. This was hardcore, and not for the faint of heart.
Thanks to tech, you no longer have to visit La Scala if you want to see one of its blockbuster operas, because you can watch them streamed live on LaScalaTV, although there really is no substituting for the real thing, in the spectacular, blood-red theatre setting.
La Scala audiences are famously demanding, but also rewarding. They want the most — the best — out of the performers and are thrilled when a singer delivers. When Marina Rebeka, a Latvian soprano in the title female role of Duchess Elena, finished a soaring aria that made your hair stand on end, a man near me couldn’t contain his excitement.
“Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!” he roared, over and over, as he clapped with unbridled approval (although he really should have said “brava”).
You could say the same about Milan.
- Title image is of the Duomo, or Milan Cathedral. (Photo: William J. Furney)