The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Italian adventure

They say when in Milan, do as the Milanese do: shop till you drop at La Rinascente, be on the ball at the San Siro Stadium or take a stroll around the Gothic Duomo. But I soon discovered there were other things to be done — you could join a belly dancing school, take Italian language lessons or even learn the secrets of Italian cuisine.

Belly ballet, however, isn’t meant for those with a rigid body frame, just like the Italian language. You have to be willing to take the pain to utter each and every syllable distinctly — let it roll off your tongue and watch it crystallise into magical melody. But then, if you aren’t up to it, make sure you know at least some Bengali phrases, as Italy is one European country where Bengali can often come to your rescue.

Bangladeshis, mostly street vendors, though ghettoised like the Chinese in Milan, are usually warm towards Indians and especially towards Bengalis. Most will give you a discount, without your having to ask.

But if you want a taste of Italian fashion, be sure to familiarise yourself with a few uncommon Italian words, especially if you want a haircut. Don’t enter a beauty parlour and opt for the first word that is written outside.

“It will look good,” the veteran explained to me in Italian, assuming I wanted to know how ‘piega’ would look on me. I went for it, and came out with my hair stiff and unnaturally straight.

But then, “piega” is a favourite with the young and old alike in Milan, a city known as the world’s greatest fashion hub. Under the scanner, the financial capital of Italy transforms into a ramp with haute bods sashaying up and down.

Most Milanese will, of course, tell you they don’t care for fashion. They needn’t, as it is second nature to them. Casual but elegant, the woof and weft knit a story that belies expression, more so on Monte Napoleane, the high street of fashion which specialises in brands like Louis Vuitton, Versace, Gucci, Armani, Prada, Dolce and Gabbana, and Yves Saint Laurent.

This is a street where things work in the reverse order. Window-shopping is permitted but shopkeepers literally open the glass doors of their stores only to those who are evidently loaded with cash.

Monte Napoleone, however, is more an exception than the rule. Around Piazza del Duomo, which is the city’s geographical and spiritual heart, you can actually walk into Zara, Pramod, Calzedonia or even the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II — a glass-and-steel- roofed shopping arcade, shaped like a crucifix, and home to elegant boutiques, cafés, and even a McDonald’s — with a skip in your step. If you are lucky, you could be privy to a group of talented musicians staging what seems like an impromptu concert right at the centre of the Galleria.

The Galleria is adjacent to the magnificent Duomo, which took two centuries of construction, and towers above all else in the city. A swirl of flying buttresses, 135 spires, 3,200 statues, this cathedral, commissioned in the 15 th-century by the Visconti family, is made of pink-tinged Candoglia marble and can accommodate 40,000 people.

Crowning this Gothic splendour is a gilded copper statue of the Madonna, the city’s traditional protector, though the usual bell tower is missing. Inside the cathedral with 146 stained-glass windows and intricately carved pillars, high above the altar there’s a barely-visible nail, said to have been the one that impaled Christ’s right hand on the cross.

Talking of the Duomo, it would be remiss to not mention Leonardo da Vinci. “It was he who solved the logistics of transporting the vast stone slabs by the canal lock mechanism that raised water levels in Navigli — the canal district of Milan,” said Franca Cavagnoli, a writer, teacher and translator, who took me to see the Navigli.

Da Vinci, of course, is incomplete without The Last Supper. Housed at Cenacola Vinciano, you are allowed just 15 minutes of face time to see the mural on one of the walls, which narrowly escaped being destroyed during World War II. The restoration of the work began in 1977 and was completed in 1999.

That, perhaps, explains why bookings have to be made months in advance, just for a glimpse — though it’s certainly worth it. Another must-see is Pietà Rondanini, Michelangelo’s last unfinished work featuring Christ and Virgin Mary at the Museo d’Arte Antica housed at Castello Sforzesco’s, the Visconti fortress whose defences were designed by Da Vinci.

Milan, unlike Rome, is more about its people and their fashionable lifestyle. Fashion runs through its veins and is symbolised by a huge needle and thread which crops up at Cadorna, one of the busiest streets in Milan.

The well-dressed beggars (who get clothes from the churches) too have a fashionable style of begging. Squatting by roadsides, they look down penitently. It’s only when you notice the small bowl and a photograph of Jesus Christ placed strategically in front that you realise their objective. As for those notorious pickpockets of Italy, they operate as they do elsewhere in the world. If you exercise caution, they can hardly get to you.

But Milan does, in a good way. Roberto Benigni, the Italian filmmaker’s Oscar film perhaps aptly summed up the experience of being in Milan — life is beautiful.

Ready reckoner

Getting there: All major airlines including Lufthansa and Emirates operate flights to Milan, the former from Linate Airport in the city itself and the other from Malpensa.

Staying there: There are lots of hotels, hostels and B&B’s to choose from, depending on your budget.

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