Milan: The way life ought to be

By Paul Rush

You're never far from a cocktail and a smiling waiter in Milan. Photo / Paul Rush
You're never far from a cocktail and a smiling waiter in Milan. Photo / Paul Rush

Visiting Milan is tantamount to taking a post-graduate course on appreciating Italian culture and the finer things of life.

There is something inspiring and even life-altering about the experience. Every human activity is pursued with passion and panache by the success-orientated 'glass half-full' people of Milan. Fashion, food, finance, football and fine furniture are the phonetically harmonious features of this prosperous, bustling city.

Setting out from the very elegant, centrally located Hotel de Ville, I begin to wander the streets at will. It soon becomes evident that Milan is a city of contrasts; Roman ruins exist beside ultra-modern glass towers, haute couture fashion struts the sidewalks along with skinny hipster jeans, high culture at La Scala exists alongside grassroots street soccer inspired by AC Milan. I pass Palazzos, piazzas, power-walkers and pampered Pomeranians in the avenues and alleyways.

June is the most temperate month in Italy and this day is like a diamond that sparkles.

My simple unexpected encounters with local people show them to be warm-hearted and welcoming.

As the morning advances the milling crowds gravitate towards cafes and trattorias and the aroma of cappuccinos and expressos fills the air and mingles with the bouquet of piquant sauces from busy kitchens.

Every living soul appears to be clutching a flip cellphone, which they expect will ring at any moment. Immaculately dressed bella donnas hold the phone before them as if they are sending out a sonar beam. Latin Lotharios have it permanently clamped on their ear like a fashion accessory. The cell appears to be a mandatory aspect of the dress code, enabling the wearer to be in constant touch with the entire known world while patently ignoring people passing by.

Passion and romance spills out into the crowded streets and I cannot fail to notice that kissing in public is something of an endurance sport, where after marathon sessions no clear winner emerges.

Any cafe, park or fountain can seemingly become the stage for a grand contest of staying power. One couple is locked at the lips in a passionate embrace as I enter a cafe. When I leave they still present themselves to the world at large as an inseparable entity.

The ubiquitous scooters and motorbikes do what they do best, swerving in and out of the traffic with reckless abandon as if it's a hilarious game of cat and mouse. I dodge one buzzing swarm of Vespas (Vespa is the Italian word for wasp) and do a double take when I see the zippiest scooter is ridden by an Audrey Hepburn lookalike straight out of Roman Holiday, exemplifying the absolute height of cool.

Midday arrives and the city pace slows noticeably to allow for the luxury of a long lunch and a siesta. I meet up with my tour hosts, Susan and John of Etruscan Pleasures, a New Zealand company that specialises in boutique tours of Italy, Portugal and Croatia.

We are dining at the very fine Trattoria Bagutta where the antipasto selection occupies a six-metre-long counter. I succumb to the proverbial 'When in Rome' philosophy and sample the hors d'oeuvres along with a main of grilled swordfish and a gelato dessert, accompanied by a superb Barbaresco wine.

The country of la dolce vita has made an art form of eating, drinking and merry-making but somehow they manage to do it in a civilised, leisurely Slow-Food way.

People buy fresh produce daily, prepare it with great care and gather the extended family around the table and turn the meal into an enjoyable feast. Food has a cultural worth far beyond its calorific value and it underpins the whole concept of 'The good life'.

Local tourist guide, Lorenza, has organised our afternoon activity, a walking tour of the main city highlights, which begins under the great glass-vaulted dome of the Gallerie Vittorio Emanuele, a vast shopping and dining arcade.

I draw a sharp breath of astonishment as we leave the gallery and gaze in wonder at the exceptionally large and elaborate Duomo, the Gothic cathedral, glistening in pristine whiteness. This magnificent array of carved stone spires, soaring stained glass windows and countless statues of saints rising ever higher into the sky, took five centuries to complete.

As the city materialises before us on our tour we experience its shapes and colours, twists and turns, highs and lows. The patina of faded ochre walls, the crazing of old stucco, the paving stones and cobbles worn smooth by passing traffic. It's a classic Italian tableau vivant, embracing antiquity and modernity, siren sounds and sweet serenity.

I love the city, the food, the vino, the Latin energy and passion.

Above all I'm pleased that the warm-hearted Milanese seem so happy to see me as a tourist. I just need to keep a firm hold on my credit card.

On this short visit I have experienced the finer things of life in the unique Italian way and I will do my best to carry the passion and panache home with me.

If you hear a shout of Bravo Milano or Grazzie Mille Italia in the street in downtown Auckland at any stage, you'll know I've succeeded.

FACT FILE

Etruscan Pleasures Italia Ltd specialises in guided and individual tours of Italy, Portugal and Croatia for discerning travellers who wish to experience all aspects of the local culture.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies four times a week from Auckland to Milan, via Hong Kong, as well as offering a daily connection to Rome.

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