Ti amo, Milan!

Venky Vembu | Updated on December 28, 2018

In the frame: Attention to detail characterises the display at almost every shop window in the city   -  VENKY VEMBU

The peak tourist season may still be some months away, but the winter air of Italy’s commercial capital crackles with good cheer

Go on, said Corrado, our companion of the evening, sensing my hesitation. “It’ll bring you good luck.”

The pursuit of good fortune may have led me to do some pretty outlandish things, but encouraging though Corrado was, I wasn’t sure I was up to doing a triad of pirouettes with my heel implanted in a bull’s nether regions — with an army of gawking tourists, with smartphones for eyes, standing by.

But when in Milan, you do as the Milanese do. So, beneath the majestic iron-and-glass-ceilinged Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping complex, which had come alive with shimmering festive decorations and the understated elegance of old money, I gamely stepped up to the mosaic bull pattern on the floor — a representation of the coat of arms of the neighbouring city of Turin — and, metaphorically twisting the Taurean testicular sac, spun three times around with such balletic grace as might have won me a standing ovation at the La Scala opera house nearby.

“Bravissimo!” exclaimed Corrado. From among the onlookers, a signorina with supermodel-level good looks batted her eyelashes at me. Perhaps my luck had already turned…

Winter in Milan is a wonderland of fairy lights, and a celebration of the spirit of born-again revivalism that defines Italy’s commercial capital. The peak tourist season may still be some months away, but the weather at this time is bracing, and the air crackles with good cheer. Even the chimes of the bells at the Duomo, the stately Gothic cathedral around which life in Milan revolves, have a spirit-uplifting tone to them. And every time the flocks of pigeons in the Piazza del Duomo, the expansive cathedral square, take off to a chorus of flap-flaps, they bear aloft with them — on a wing and a prayer, so to speak — the timeless joy of la dolce vita.

In Milan, intimations of the Good Life leap out at you virtually every step of the way. Sauntering through the fashion district, I drank in the refinement of design that characterises luxury that doesn’t have to announce itself. Every shop window is framed in minimalist art, with the most painstaking attention paid to the elemental simplicity of display.

And it’s not just on High Street either. Turning whimsically into a back alley, I gave in to a sharp intake of the cold Milanese air: Ahead of me was a street bedecked artfully in Christmas lights, and lined with restored villas with old-world charm oozing out of every Roman column. I chanced upon an antichita store, through whose window I espied a regal-looking woman, nearly as old as her antiquities, hunched over her desk. Here, again, was Milan’s born-again spirit at work.

That same ceaseless renaissance fervour was in abundant display at the Excelsior Hotel Gallia, where I spent several nights of becalming repose. An artistic fusion of Belle Epoque architecture, Art Deco features, and contemporary aesthetics, the heritage hotel, in the emerging Porta Nuova area, is in equal parts a museum that showcases over 500 pieces of art, including paintings, sculptures and photographs. In particular, the 1,000-sq-m seventh-floor Katara Royal Suite, one of the largest in all of Italy, elevates luxury to new heights: It has four bedrooms, two terraces and a private spa. At the Terrazza Gallia, the rooftop bar and restaurant, you can drink in both the heady cocktails and the panoramic view of the city that it commands.

Arguably nothing illustrates the artistic and ecologically sustainable evolution of Milan better than Porta Nuova, and in particular the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest). What at first glance looks like hillocks of designer bonsai turn out to be two residential high-rise towers designed to accommodate trees, shrubs and floral plants on every floor. The towers, and the broader Porta Nuova neighbourhood — which is Europe’s richest business district — show the way for envisioned city districts to rise from the ghost of their impoverished past.

On my last evening in Milan, I found myself drawn yet again to the Duomo. The cathedral is a thread that binds the city’s medieval past to its post-modern present: Construction on it began in 1386, and continued well into the 1900s. I watched as faithful worshippers, their lips quivering in silent prayer, trooped in to light candles for a virgin mother whose golden statuette overlooks the city from the tallest of the 135 spires. A calming hush descended on the timeless scene. And then the bells began to chime — this time, they resonated with the rhythms of my heart.

(The writer was in Milan as a guest of Air Italy)


Travel log

Getting there

  • Air Italy (airitaly.com) has thrice-weekly direct flights to Milan from Delhi and Mumbai.


  • Accommodation in Milan can be pricey, even in off-season. But if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing in style. I stayed at the uber-luxurious Excelsior Hotel Gallia (excelsiorhotelgallia.com), which is centrally located.
  • The Sheraton Milan Malpensa (sheratonmilanmalpensa.com), the only one inside the airport terminal, is a comfortable alternative.


  • Milan is in Italy’s “rice bowl” region, so there’s a lot of risotto on the menu; try the saffron-laced variant. Bread is a staple at every meal; try the piadina, a flaky flatbread. For a fine-dining (and multisensory) experience in an erstwhile perfume factory, check out the Da Noi In Restaurant; their tiramisu is from another planet! Also, a visit to Milan is incomplete without savouring the panettone, a sweet bread typically eaten at and around Christmas.

Published on December 28, 2018

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