An elegant city, Milan bustles with well dressed people rushing in a fast-paced lifestyle amidst the backdrop of old Renaissance history. It has the physical characteristics of a major Italian city, yet possesses a sophistication in style more akin to the Swiss or French, and an industriousness more aligned with Germany. Italy in my experience up to this point has closer cultural ties to the Mediterranean, but Milan and Northern Italy feel distinctly more like mainland Europe.
Milan is the second largest city in Italy at a population of 1.3 million and a metro area of 5.2 million making it the 4th largest metro in the European union. It has the third largest economy among European cities and has been named the fashion and design capital of the world. This reputation was born from the success of local fashion houses in the 1980’s including Versace, Armani, and Dolce & Gabbana. The beauty and history of the city attracts over 8 million visitors every year and its museums hold some of the most important art collections of the world. With Erin tagging along, we felt reinvigorated with a desire to see the major historical sights, museums, and cultural attractions. We spent our time in Milan well with visits to museums, Davinci’s former residence, and Milan’s greatest landmark - the Duomo.
We started our first full day in Milan by enjoying a beautiful breakfast on a terrace overlooking the Duomo, which allowed a relaxing view of the landmark and the bustling square below. While I enjoyed my breakfast, I eyed a man enjoying his morning coffee and writing in a journal. Ferragamo loafers, colorful socks, designer jeans, seersucker suit, and bespoke glasses – this middle-aged man had more style and thought wrapped up in his one outfit than I did in my whole wardrobe. I knew quickly I was going to stick out like a sore thumb here. We wrapped up breakfast and headed into the main square for the Duomo.
The Duomo or Milan Cathedral took almost six centuries to build and is the largest church in Italy and the third largest in the world. Construction was started in 1386 with the last details finished at the turn of the 20th century. Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned the king of Italy at the Duomo in 1805 and a statue of Napoleon was placed at the top of one of the spires.
We decided to pay for tickets to explore the rooftop. I was told it is the most impressive portion of the church and not to be missed. We climbed countless steps up to the top, and a few stops along the way allowed for a peak inside the church. The substantial number of statues and intricacy of the stone work astounded me. Almost everywhere you look there is a life-sized stone sculpture and every surface is gilded with skilled stonework. The level of detail throughout this vast towering complex is overwhelming. After a climb up more stairs, we finally arrived at the top level of the Duomo. From this very high vantage point, you can see all of Milan and the surrounding area.
Without fail, seeing churches of this scale, complexity, and décor always remind me of the vast impact the Catholic church had on European history, power, and development. Without the church we would have been devoid of many of our most amazing landmarks and advances in art, architecture, and design. Italians used the church to show themselves and the world how much they as a society were capable of, and it leaves a powerful lasting impression.
The rest of our time in Milan was spent eating amazing food, exploring the streets, and taking in some of the Renaissance art. We enjoyed a small tour of Leonardo DaVinci’s former private residence which even held a small vineyard with grapes genetically descended from the same vines that DaVinci had planted himself. What amazes me about history is how big the characters become in our mind yet, how similar they are to us. While the house was large, it wasn’t palatial, and I couldn’t help but think of DaVinci walking the same halls as I am now, standing in the same garden. How much he impacted the world with surroundings no different than mine.
After almost a week of Italian food every night, we decided on a light dinner our last evening. We ended up at an amazing sushi restaurant owned by an Italian chef who had lived and studied sushi making in Japan for some time. When I informed the chef of my allergies to most fish and all gluten, he rushed back into the kitchen. Minutes later, he came out with a tailored meal of my own of four different vegetarian rolls. The rolls were so good, I quickly forgot they lacked any meat. The rice in the rolls were soaked in beet juice which added a punch of color and flavor. I was blown away by how good the food was. Mandy and Erin enjoyed traditional sushi and it was some of the best we have ever had. The point was proven once again that Italians know food, and the one non-Italian meal we had was still incredible.
Milan was the last of the major Italian cities I had yet to see. I came away from my time in Milan feeling like I had found the last piece of the puzzle necessary to understand the dynamics of Italian identity. The feel of Milan though hard to pinpoint, is both richly Italian and distinctly European. Italy itself is incredibly diverse as it has many different neighbors and climates which influence life there. Given Milan’s proximity to mainland Europe and countries like Switzerland and France, the fashion, architecture, demeanor, and pace of the city makes Milan the most European representation of Italy. Italy for me more than any place shows the transition from the Middle East, to the Mediterranean, and on to mainland Europe. No other country even comes close to expressing those three distinct regions at the same time while a constant Italian culture is woven through the fabric of Italian society holding it firmly together. // Jeff