Viva Italia

Published in Primo Life Magazine July/August 2014

"Anna Hartley and her regazzo fall in love with Italy's most chic northern city, Milan, during a short stay packed with unforgettable moments"

Milan, I thought, is a grey city full of slim fashionistas stalking cafes where they drink tiny, piping hot espressos. Everyone wears black. This vague impression, conjured from god-knows-where, was blown to dust within moments of touching down in Malpensa airport.

My boyfriend and I had got up at an ungodly hour to make our flight from Paris, but emerging from the metro into the bright spring sunlight any ideas we might have had about a quick nap were dismissed. Donning shades we pushed through our grogginess to explore the center of town, walking past the Scala Theatre, through the high, glass roofed luxury shopping haven of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, to the magnificent Duomo Cathedral. Its first stone was laid in 1386, and it famously took almost six hundred years to finish, representing nearly as many different tastes and styles as it has years. Sitting in the middle of the piazza, admiring the Cathedral’s huge, triangular form, I basked happily in the first Italian sunshine of my life. An endless stream of young women were taking selfies with the Cathedral as a backdrop, making me wonder what those long gone architects, masons and sculptors would have thought of our modern insta-art. Then I realized that I was in deep thinking territory, and this was a holiday.

We were due to meet friends at 7pm in the Porto Sempione district, which took us directly through the gorgeous Parc Sempione. The air was alive with pollen, the large, fine tufts of it floating like snow in the sunny sky, flying into every open window, and tickling every nose. We slowly worked our way through the lush park and through the archways of the Sforza Castle, but our lazy stroll wasn’t to last. The rapidly darkening skies swelled threateningly, and before long they burst open. We raced through the park, dodging hailstones and large puddles that seemed to have materialized in a matter of seconds. Breathless from the run, caught under a flimsy café umbrella and listening to the excited melodic chatter of our co-imprisoned, even the squelch of wet shoes couldn’t ruin my mood. And anyway, we had an aperitivo to look forward to. Milan is famous for serving the best ‘happy hour’ feasts in Italy, with bars and cafes serving heaped platters of grilled vegetables, salad, local olives, pizza, salsa and homemade lasagna to the evening crowd. Milanese aren’t shy about going back for seconds or thirds, so with a bright and bitter Campari in hand, I happily nibbled my way to a full stomach.

Later, in the heart of the Chinatown district, the night was just beginning. In a sea of Chinese restaurants and Asian grocery stores, Cantine Isola on Via Paolo Sarpi is a tiny haven of Italian vino. A wine store by day, with wooden shelves crammed full of hand-labelled bottles reaching high up into the roof, at night it transforms itself into a buzzing place to be, serving high-quality drops to the young and cool Milanese and expat community. By way of a translator and plenty of gestures, a tiny Italian woman guided me towards a delicious glass of rosso. Stronger in flavor than the delicate French bouquets I have come to love, its rich colouring reminded me of long summer afternoons and even longer summer nights.

Sunday dawned bright and clear, and my head was neither. Too many red wines and not enough sleep had me glaring irritably out the window at the still-floating pollen, dancing joyously in the pretty morning light. But my mood lifted quickly, because I was in for a treat. Lake Como, approximately an hour and half drive north of Milan is famous for a couple of things: glorious, sprawling mansions built by the old rich Milanese families, inexpressibly beautiful views, and George Clooney. I didn’t see the lake’s most famous sometime resident, but it didn’t matter one little bit. I use the word ‘inexpressibly’ with reason. There are no words to describe the vast turquoise lake, ancient green hills and snow-capped mountains of this area without immediately succumbing to cliché. See? It can’t be done. We had lunch in the sunny Hotel Cipressi in the town of Varenna with a view over the terrace and the lake beyond. I had the fish battered in delicate and light tempura, with a fresh yoghurt dressing. It was very good, the locally sourced fish flaking easily under my fork, well balanced with the rocket and vinaigrette salad, but if I’m honest, they could have put a plate of raw camel meat in front of me and I would have been enchanted. Did I mention that there was a view?

During summer, the shores of the lake are thick with slow moving, gelato licking crowds but this weekend was unusually calm, so we dawdled, exploring their tiny narrow alleyways and miniature beaches at leisure, easily finding a warm place to stretch out.

Lying back and drifting into my second outdoor nap in as many days, listening to the small waves rocking the smooth stones back and forth against the shore, with the sun high and bright in a cloudless sky, I marveled that I could ever have thought of Milan or its surrounds as grey or rushed. Nothing could be further from the truth.