Friday, 24 October 2008

Taking It Milan-easy

I hadn’t originally planned on visiting Milan next; I’d intended for it to be my last stop as my flight home was booked from there. I’d had an idea to move on to Venice after Florence, but when further research (which somehow I fitted in between all my Forster reading and art ogling) failed to find my two key travel requisites of 1) sensibly priced travel at sensible times and 2) a good central hotel, at least for the first night, I decided to save Venice for another time and look at other options. Before I’d left London, My Eldest had made the tantalising suggestion that while I was in Italy I fit in a visit to Bellagio, on the shores of Lake Como, to see his good friend and my sometime drinking pal Sarah – and a quick look at train timetables showed that Bellagio could be reached with ease and in hardly any time from Milan. Figuring that a weekend in Italy’s – some would argue the world’s – fashion capital would be rather more exciting than a weekend in a sleepy lakeside village, I decided to stop for a couple of nights in Milan en route to the Lakes; within a few clicks my hotel was booked and train times confirmed, and I was on my way.

Although marred as far as Bologna by two noisy brats belonging to parents who seemingly couldn’t have cared less about my discomfort, the train journey provided some beautiful views, firstly of Tuscan countryside, then the hills of Emilia-Romana and on into the clear green plains of Lombardy. Approaching Milan though, things aren’t so pretty, as scenery gives way to the grey urban sprawl that one would expect from what is, first and foremost, an industrial city. I hadn’t expected much of Milan architecturally anyway; no-one I’ve spoken to who’s been has been able to muster much enthusiasm for its aesthetics, instead extolling the virtues of the city’s two main attractions (certainly to me) of its world-beating shopping opportunities and vibrant social scene. So that was all I was expecting to do: shop and socialise.

Things started well when, having reached the Hotel Ariston by a combination of the Metro (as grimy as Rome's, but fast and cheap) and tram (fabulously rickety and retro) I found that it lived up to its description of being bright, central and modern. My single room was small but very comfortable, and being high up on the sixth floor had what I guess a creative travel agent would sell as 'Duomo glimpses'; I could just see the uppermost spires of Milan's wedding cake of a cathedral. I made that my first port of call; although I'd taken the tram from Duomo station to the hotel to save lugging my suitcase, it was only a very easy walk from the hotel so I wandered up via Torino and across the piazza to see inside. It wasn't amazing, to be frank; while from the outside the Duomo is pretty spectacular, its immense peaked roof a mass of over 100 spires and many hundreds of statues all topped with a golden Madonna (of the blessed Virgin variety, not Ciccone, though that would be fun...), inside it's rather gloomy, austere and repetitive although it does boast some impressive, monumental stained glass windows and the jewel-laden crypt (and corpse) of the 16th century zealot San Carlo Borromeo.

I moved on to my kind of place of worship, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Adjacent to the Duomo and accessed by a soaring, ornate archway, the Galleria comprises a vast cross-shaped arcade rising up four storeys to a beautiful domed glass ceiling. While certainly classy, it's an odd hotch-potch of shops; of the four prime corner spots at the centre where the two promenades meet, one each is occupied by Prada - the original 1913 store, no less - and Louis Vuitton, while the others are a McDonald's and a Mercedes-Benz store. Elsewhere there's a Gucci store which boasts the world's first Gucci Caffé, a Tod's, and various high-end outfitters, but there's also a dozen or so very run-of-the-mill book stores, CD shops and mobile phone retailers which detract from the Galleria's cachet. Largely however, what shops there were was academic, because with very few exceptions (Prada among them, joy of joys) everything in the Galleria was closed for a holiday. Slightly perturbed but still determined, I set off for the famed Quadrilatero d'Oro or 'Golden Square', the rectangular block of streets delineating one of the world's most exclusive shopping areas where the scores of designer flagships offer up goodies unavailable anywhere else in the world.

First was via Manzoni, home to the Armani megastore; occupying an entire block and housing not only every one of his lines from Emporio Armani down but also the Armani Caffé, florists, bookstore and chocolatier, as well as Armani/Nobu and a nightclub, Privé, with Armani Hotel coming soon: Closed. Then the length of via Montenapoleone, home to the likes of Ferragamo, Etro, several more Prada boutiques, a massive Gucci...closed. Left down via San'Andrea, for Ferre, Trussardi, Moschino, Chanel...Closed (and in the case of one of the only two shops, along with Prada, that I'd really wanted to see, the bonkers upside-down, Alice In Wonderland palazzo of Viktor & Rolf, closed down!) I'm guessing that by this point you can probably guess what I found on via della Spiga, destination address for the Dolce & Gabbana world flagship? Yes, all chiuso, to use an Italian word I learned the hard way. Surely there were other things to see and do, I hear you cry? Well frankly, not really; turning up in Milan on the weekend of Ferragosto (August Bank Holiday, if you like) is the fashion-lover's equivalent of seeing Pompeii on the only day it's up to its ass in molten lava. Window shopping is all well and good as a time-killer, but when you're in Milan with time on your hands and a platinum card burning a hole in your pocket only to find all the shops shut, well it's like that moment in every Indiana Jones movie where he gets his hands on the priceless treasure only for it to explode/melt/crumble to dust.

Gutted, but wanting to get something out of Milan, I ambled back to the hotel to consult my trusty guide books as to what else might be worth seeing, and was pleased to find that there were few points of interest nearby. The church of San Sebastiano on via Torino provided an enjoyable few minutes admiring its barrel shaped interior, and I was intrigued by the black-and-white columned confines of the piazza dei Mercanti, the mercantile hub of medieval Milan where trade has been carried out for over seven centuries (except, one assumes, during bloody Ferragosto...) By now it was time for some food, and just the right time of day to try out Milan's famous aperitivi culture. As with cañas in Madrid, so too do Milanese bars give away some tucker with early-evening drinks, but on a rather grander scale, and just across the corner from my hotel I chanced on Pan e Vino which offered a choice of drink (I plumped for a nice large glass of Gavi di Gavi) and all-you-can-eat from a heaving buffet of mostly meats and salads with some bruschetta, pasta and fresh fruit for good measure, for just €8. Now it's a well known fact that 'all you can eat' are my four favourite words in the English language, so you'll see that suddenly Milan was seeming a lot more attractive. Several platefuls, enjoyed at a terrace table, later, I waddled back to the hotel for an early night, pledging to sample the nightlife the following night.

Day 2 in Milan started well with a superb brekker in the hotel; although only the usual self-service continental type affair of cold meats, cheeses, pastries, fruit etc, pretty much everything on offer was organic and of very high quality, including some delicious jams and breads and, oh heaven, Twining's English Breakfast in the tea caddy. Fortified, I set out to explore some of Milan’s notable, non-retail based sights and in the course of a few hours walking took in a great deal. I began at the church of San Ambroglio (Ambrose), where the mummified remains of Milan’s patron saint are on display, along with two faithful crusaders, in an eerie, subterranean spot-lit glass sarcophagus. Together with some other interesting statues and chapels and a peaceful, high arcaded cloister, it made for a worthwhile visit. From there I went on to the church of Santa Maria della Grazie, home to Michelangelo’s Last Supper, but not having thought to make the absolutely essential advance booking to see the same (as far as supper bookings go you've got more chance of getting a Saturday table at The Fat Duck) I had to content myself with a nose round the nave.

Fancying some greenery, I skirted the Parco Sempione, which perfectly fits the part of ‘blissful oasis in the heart of the throbbing metropolis’, on the way taking in the landmark Torre Branca (I’ll take Wallpaper*’s word for it that the views from the top are great, my head for heights not being one of my stronger characteristics) and the looming medieval fortress of Castel Sforzesco. From here I strolled along via Dante – comparable to Oxford Street with its big mid-market stores, almost all closed, of course – coming out pretty much back where I’d started on piazza del Duomo. Here I was at least partially able to satisfy my urge to shop, as I found that La Rinascenta, whose ubiquitous paper carrier bags had caused me to write it off as being some sort of naff high street chain, was in fact a very swish department store, and my enjoyment of roaming the aisles of designer delights was dimmed only slightly by the unwelcome attentions in the fragrance hall of easily the most aggressive phalanx of spritz bitches that it’s ever been my misfortune to encounter. Running the gauntlet has nothing on D&G Light Blue vs. Dior Homme Higher Sport in this gaff, I’m telling you.

Dodging over-keen, over-tanned scent salespeople is hungry work, so having been impressed with my first visit, I took myself off back to Pan e Vino for the aperitivi buffet (the selection on which, pleasingly, was different from but just as generous as the night before) and having filled my boots decided to check out the night-time scene in the Ticinese district just a few blocks south of the hotel. It’s a funky, trendy, slightly edgy area, very much like London’s Hoxditch and indeed Chueca in Madrid but without either’s abundant gay scene (the two gay bars on my map in the area being, yup, chiuso). There were a whole list of places I’d wanted to check out, bars both gay and straight (the Dolce & Gabbana Martini Bar being right at the top of the list) and clubs likewise (Armani Privé, as well as some of the grittier gay clubs) but a little online researching found that – AGAIN! – they were all either shut or, in the case of the gay clubs that were open, required the purchase of something called an Arci-Gay Card, a kind of all-in-one membership card that allows the bars to circumvent licensing and gender equality laws to be open all hours and strictly men only. A good idea if you want to be able to cruise for sex pissed at 3AM without any risk of your sister walking in on you, but bad for the international gay jet-setter only in town for 48 hours. Grr.

Oh look, I’m going to stop boring you now with all these dull descriptions of places I didn’t go; if you’d wanted to know what the outsides of places in Milan looked like you’d be on Google Earth, not reading this guff. I had a much more successful time in Milan, which I’ll tell all about in due course, on the way back from Bellagio – and Bellagio is an altogether much more exciting story.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Gay Ol' Nights in Florence

I was bursting with excitement as I sank into my vast leather armchair of a seat on the 12.50 Eurostar (no relation) to Firenze Santa Maria Novella. On my first (and to date, only) visit to Florence, with the family in 2007, I'd seen pretty much all of the city's star sights thanks to my sister's expert organisation and so on this visit I was looking forward seeing 'the rest', and to being at liberty to do so at my own pace and not, as had been the case last time, with mum in tow (love her as I deeply do, seeing Florence in intense June heat with a short-legged 70-year-old is not necessarily an experience I would recommend). Coffee in hand, I got stuck into A Room With A View, the first half of which is set in Florence, and in just an hour and three quarters and seven chapters, I arrived.

I took a cab from the station and a few minutes later was dropped outside the Pension Orchidea, a Rough Guide recommendation I'd booked before leaving Rome. I couldn't have wished for more Forster-esque location: the Orchidea occupies the first floor of a twelfth century palazzo in a cobbled street just behind the Duomo, Florence's immense, breath-taking, technicolor cathedral. The rooms are basic but perfectly fine for a short stay, and the Italian-American owners have done wonders at making the place homely - when I found that there was English Breakfast tea included in the selection of help-yourself-anytime drinks in the lounge area, I practically wept with joy. Best of all though was the location, right in the centre of the city within easy walking distance of just about everywhere, and so I set out on foot for my first destination.

Now, while Florence's top three attractions are undoubtedly the Duomo, the Uffizi gallery and Michelangelo's David, for a fashion and footwear junkie such as I the fourth has to be the Salvatore Ferragamo Shoe Museum. I'd not been able to persuade the family to go last year - funnily enough, they were more interested in seeing Botticelli's Birth of Venus than Eva Peron's slingbacks, the Philistines - so on this visit it was right at the top of my itinerary. Tucked away in the basement of the Ferragamo flagship store and company headquarters on the heavenly shopping stretch that is via Tornabuoni, the museum (€5 admission and worth every cent) is a compact but fascinating collection of sketches, photographs, lasts and of course shoes, spanning the eighty-odd years history of this (sadly deceased) shoemaker to the stars. Here the hand-whittled lasts of the shoes of Hepburns Audrey and Katherine; there original artwork from Ferragamo's iconic Art Deco-style ad campaigns; here photos of Sal himself ministering to the tootsies of Marlene Dietrich; there, Judy Garland's very own, sky-high rainbow wedges in a glass case. After about an hour of pure camp cobblers, I sashayed out onto the street and into the boutique thinking I might invest in a slice of Ferragamo glamour all of my own, but compared with Marilyn Monroe's original red rhinestone-encrusted stilettos, the conservative if beautifully crafted men's collection could only be an anti-climax.

Taking a left onto Lungarno Corsini (factoid: the embankment streets are all called Lungarno something-or-other from lung'arno, literally 'Along the Arno', the river which bisects the city), I strolled down to the Ponte Vecchio, the only one of Florence's bridges to survive the Nazis' bombings when they retreated from the city in 1944. It's a remarkable structure, with its higgledy-piggledy piles of shops and alleyways, famed now for its myriad jewellery shops all seemingly peddling the same eye-wateringly sparkly and buttock-clenchingly expensive gew-gaws which everyone comes to gawp at but never, it seems, to buy. I did, with a long-term view to perhaps popping the question to a certain young man, actually pop in to look at a very nice platinum and diamond ring, but when told that it was a replica of the rings designed by Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston for their ultimately doomed marriage my interest quickly waned. From there I ambled back to the hotel via the Piazza della Signoria, half-ignoring the statuary for which it's best known to instead make a bee-line for the plaque marking the spot of the Bonfire of the Vanities, so brilliantly and evocatively described in Sarah Dunant's novel The Birth of Venus which I'd recommend to anyone who's been to, or might like to visit, Florence.

After a couple of quiet hours spent reading my Forster and enjoying some Japanese nibbles and beers from the Asian grocers I'd been delighted to chance upon on via S.Egidio, I headed out for some supper at Trattoria da Benvenuto (it translates, sweetly, to something like 'The Welcome Inn') where I enjoyed juicy marinated sardines followed by roast rabbit and veggies, washed down with the house red which, at €2 for 250ml, was a bargain in a city where it's perfectly possible to eat extremely well, and likewise reasonably cheaply, but very rarely the twain in one place. (A footnote here about restaurants; I had hoped to re-visit the wonderful Coquinarius on via dell'Oche where as a family we'd enjoyed a couple of superb meals last year (their pappardelle with rabbit ragu is worth a visit in its own right), but alas like so many small businesses it was closed for most of August and scheduled to re-open, frustratingly, two days after I was due to leave!) Replete, I thought I'd check out the scene, but a quick flit to three of the bars on the list found them all pretty much empty (in one I was in fact the only punter, even at 11.30) so I called it a night, moseyed back to the Orchidea and snuggled under the covers with Edward Morgan.

Next morning I was up early and, wanting to live out Chapter 2 of A Room With A View, 'In Santa Croce with no Baedeker', headed to the church of Sta. Croce where Miss Honeychurch has her memorable encounter with the Emersons. Whilst externally the church is almost as elaborately beautiful as the Duomo, Forster's description of the interior - "But how like a barn!" - proved highly accurate, the high beamed ceiling and sparse decoration indeed resembling a farm building, but I was nonetheless quietly wowed by Michelangelo's tomb and the Giotto frescoes so highly praised by Forster's Mr Eager and berated by old Mr Emerson. I moved on to the Bargello museum, home (ostensibly) to much of Italy's finest sculpture as well as collections of bronzes, pottery and miniatures but usually overlooked by most visitors in favour of the city's other show-stoppers. While there are some beautiful works in the collection - I especially liked Giambologna's statues, and particularly his Ocean - a couple of things niggled. Firstly, the published entry fee, like at the Colosseum in Rome and as would prove to be the case elsewhere in Florence and beyond, was bumped up a few euros by a non-discretionary extra charge for a 'special exhibition', which in this case proved to be some bronzes and statues which whilst admittedly impressive, were almost entirely taken from the museum's permanent collection. Secondly, one of the museum's main draws, Donatello's androgynous bronze David, was being restored and consequently face-down in a special frame in the room it usually occupies, and while I know conservation is part and parcel of a museum's role, there are plenty of places in Florence where I could see a gorgeous young man's firm behind without it costing me €7. Finally, the Bargello's famous Michelangelo room, which on paper has one of the most comprehensive collections of his work throughout his life, was remarkable on my visit less for what it contained than for what it didn't; many plinths were empty due to the works being either on loan, under restoration or indeed in the 'special exhibition' across the hall. Had any of this been pre-advised at the entrance I might have though twice about visiting, but on balance it was a worthwhile experience and one I'd recommend.

Continuing the Forster trail, I took a stroll through town to Lungarno della Grazie where, at number 2, Forster located the Pension Bertolini and, within, the room with (or more specifically, without) a view of the book's title. While these days the building is a smart private hotel rather than the simple pension run by a Cockney where Forster himself stayed with his mother, it was still great fun to see the building and idly speculate, looking up, as to which of the windows looking out onto the Arno and beyond might, had fiction been truth, have belonged to the room occupied by Lucy and Miss Bartlett. After lunch at a large, noisy but reasonably priced brasserie, I crossed the river to the district known as Oltr'arno - what we might call in English 'T'other side of the Arno' - to visit Florence's second biggest gallery after the Uffizi, the Palazzo Pitti. This was a revelation. Every single ornate, gilded room in this spectacularly well-preserved palace yielded something noteworthy, from masterpiece after masterpiece by Titian, Rubens and Raphael to sculptures by Canova, and from the sumptuous draped and flocked interiors of the royal apartments to the odd, and oddly fascinating sight of Napoleon's bathtub. While the Gallery of Modern Art, housed somewhat incongruously in the same building, contained very little of interest, the main floors more than made up for this and I was so fascinated that I was more than happy to kill time, waiting for the spectacular lightning storm which had blown up outside to subside, by going round the entire collection twice.

That night, after having given into temptation and just this once foregone fine Italian cuisine for a McDonald's (which I at least ordered in Italian, if that counts) I decided to give the scene another try - it was Friday, after all - and was greatly pleased to find that Thursday night's near-total desertion had been an exception and that Florence's gay community was alive, well and drinking. Starting off with a couple of beers at the trendy, friendly café-bar Piccolo (busier outside in the smoking area than the smoke-free inside: welcome to Italy!) I moved onto the creatively-monikered Y.A.G. Bar which was pleasingly packed and noisy, with a big video screen showing mostly British and American pop acts allowing me to have the unbridled joy of throwing shapes to Girls Aloud and Whitney Houston while the Florentines watched aghast. Unable to find putatively the scene's most popular club, Tabasco, the tiny street given as its address not appearing on any of the maps in my possession, I rounded off the night with a quick visit to the dark 'n' dirrrty Crisco, a men-only joint very typical of the late night gay scene on the Continent complete with 'Ring Bell For Entry' sign, a peephole for the doorman to size you up through, a nose-bleed techno soundtrack and very, very old, grainy porn (had there been sound I would have expected 1920's clipped vowels and the odd "What-ho Albert! Steady on as you penetrate old chap!") showing on a big screen. There, I was befriended by a group of Italian lads who taught me some choice Italian phrases in return for my help with English profanities, but I turned down the invitation from one of them to put words into action and instead heeded Miss Bartlett's advice to Lucy on their last night in Florence, to "Go to bed at once dear. You need all the rest you can get."

In the morning I left for Milan.

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