20 million people are expected to come to Milan this year as it hosts EXPO 2015. But other attractions await the visitor in the fashion capital of Europe, which sits close to mountains, lakes, and coast.
The sculpture depicting a gigantic needle with a multi-coloured thread that dominates the Piazza Codorna in Milan symbolises the city’s influence in the world of fashion, but there is more than designer clothes and bags on view in the north Italian city this year at EXPO 2015, which runs between May 1 and October 31, 2015.
The universal exposition remains an unmissable showcase for countries of the world, where they display the best of their technologies and innovations, and this year – appropriately for a country renowned for its love of fine cuisine – the theme is food.
“Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” is the common thread of Expo Milano 2015. It aims to encourage international discussion through events organised both inside and outside the exhibition space. The participating countries, of which there are more than 140 to date, will present and share technical solutions at their Pavilions. But The Milan Expo is designed not just to demonstrate technologies for a sustainable future, but to be a global and interactive event.
Built as a city, with streets, restaurants, places for events and concerts, and areas for children, the exhibition area will be a live stage from morning to night, animated by thousands of performances, concerts, workshops, and exhibitions. Expo Milano 2015 extends over an area of about 1 million square metres located northwest of Milan and is linked to two highways. It is a few kilometres away from the airports of Linate and Malpensa and is connected via high-speed rail line and the metro.
Wishing to see what Milan has to offer visitors away from Expo, I began my exploration at the Duomo, the heart of Milan’s historic nucleus. From here a star of arteries radiate out through the city to the suburbs. The Duomo itself is the world’s fourth largest cathedral, and took 400 years to complete. It is an elegant mass of marble with more than 100 spires and thousands of statues and gargoyles. I walked all the way to the top of the structure from where there is a magnificent view of modern-day Milan, which includes the iconic Pirelli Tower and the quirky 1958 Torre Velasca, an office block designed along the lines of a medieval fortress.
Linking the Piazza Duomo and the Piazza delle Scala, home to the famous La Scala opera house, is Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle II, Milan’s magnificent arcade said be the world’s first shopping centre. With its mosaic floors and vaulted iron and glass roof the belle-époque building is a far cry from the Westfields and the other modern shopping malls with which I am familiar. It is worth a stop is the glamorous Campari bar right at the end of the Galleria where the drink was supposedly invented by a barman.
A short stroll takes me to the famous Golden Triangle (Quadilatero Della Moda), a plethora of beautiful boutiques, which are magnets to the rich and famous.
But away from the designer shops and smart hotels I sought out some of Milan’s real treasures. The convent of Santa Maria Della grazie, in the Magenta district, is home to Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, which the artist painted on the north wall of the convent refectory between 1494 and 1498.
The number of visitors to see the work is limited to protect the painting, famous for its use of perspective that makes spectators almost feel part of the scene.
In July this year, the largest Leonardo exhibition ever staged in Italy, with over 10 of his drawings on show, can be seen at the Palazzo Reale, Milan.
The Milanese take full advantage of the city’s proximity to the Italian lakes, Alps, and the coast, with many locals spending each weekend out of town.
A short coach ride finds me in Brescia, a small city in the commune of Lombardy. The charming cobbled streets belie the fact that the factories here are famous for producing weapons (including the renowned Beretta pistols that James Bond wielded).
My favourite spot in Brescia is Santa Giulia’s cloister. This museum and former convent houses a massive collection of art and archaeology dating back more than 10,000 years and explores the region’s history from pre-history to Roman occupation to the Lombard invasion.
The museums here also contain foundational remnants of Brescian houses from various periods. I found time for lunch before heading to the lakes, and a simple plate of casoncelli (fresh pasta) cooked with herb butter and sage was just what was needed, eaten in Le Soste, a beautiful former stables decked out with antiques and, I noted with caution, the odd Beretta pistol.
Lake Como is only 40 minutes from Milan and together with Lake Garda is one of the loveliest Italian lakes. Como is home to the fastest funicular in Europe, which will whiz you up to experience views of the lakes and of Milan, but I opted for a slower, sedate boat ride across the lake.
Surrounded by the snow-capped Prealps (they sit in front of The Alps themselves), the 46-kilometre-long lake is best known for its array of elegant villas. Visitors flock here for a glimpse of George Clooney who owns a house here, but residents – who tend to live here only in summer – also include rich Russian heiresses and celebrities. The lake has its sombre side too. The picturesque lake was where Benito Mussolini was assassinated in 1945.
The cypress-surrounded villas with their gardens, fountains, and sculptures were built for cardinals and generals from the 15th century onwards, but these days can often be seen featuring in movies such as Oceans 12 and Star Wars or simply as playgrounds for the wealthy.
I glide away on the boat back to Como without spotting any celebrities, but compensate with an apertivo at the Palace Hotel and reflect on the infinite possibilities for visitors to Milan this year.
For further information visit:
The official tourist website of Milan and Lombardy containing information, updates, descriptions, images, and videos about the beauties of the area, as well as a range of proposals for travel, accommodation, and services offered by Lombardy to its visitors.
Judith Baker is a travel writer and editor based in London, UK. She is a member of The British Guild of Travel Writers.