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A weekend in Milan


Milan, I hold the thought in my head like a talisman. The lights of London flash by with a swiftness our omnipotent transport minister seems to reluctant to replicate. People often wonder at us Brits, our stoic reserve, what lies beneath the austere face we present to the world?

After several hours waiting for a bus that’s timekeeping resembles that of a student with a 9 o’clock lecture, and surrounded by the intellectual conversation of the masses vomited forth by London’s clubs at two in the morning I wonder if it’s best for most of us to keep our thoughts to ourselves. Ironically I doubt they would make pretty reading.

And yet in time-honoured national tradition my heart beats quicker in excitement with the aid of that great British emotional aphrodisiac, and chance to get out….Bloody lovely old chap!

For Two precious days I will be representing Queen and Country in Milan, Italy with the forlorn hope of attempting a budget weekend in, reportedly, one of the most expensive cities it Europe.

So with passport and particulars meticulously packed I find myself flying like the wind across London with all the success of a man running head first at a wall, just a little more painful. A cheap 6:40 flight from Stansted seemed such a great idea at the time…a snip at only £25.00…however now with the words “innit” “bruv” and various other choice phrases ringing out behind me…ah well stiff upper lip and all that!

We arrive in Milan in a haze of sleep depraved excitement, a quick and efficient bus to central Milan swiftly blows away stereotypical fears of Italian organisation. Centrale Stazion and indeed much of the architecture in Milan is beautifully imperial, a throw back to the Neo classical that exudes the sort of testosterone Wayne Rooney seeks to aspire to. Though admittedly far more easy on the eye.
 It is worth noting here that I found the easiest way around was the extensive Tram network, packed with local Italians of all ages and travelling to hundreds of stops around the city, including several the operators, in their undoubted wisdom, decided were not worth noting on any of the maps! Ah, viva Italia…

We stayed at the Hotel Corallo, a mere 10 minute tram journey from all the major sites and reasonably priced at around 50 Euros a night. The staff were helpful, the breakfast included, and there ore to a student nothing short of biblical, while the rooms had all the basics and were great value for money. 

After arriving and a swift power-nap our “budget” weekend in Milan begins in earnest. 

So as with all travellers in my experience our first thoughts were of our stomachs. So in my smartest attire (this consisted of swapping my trainers for shoes,) we head out. I was delighted to discover Milan is truly immersed in this fantastic “aperitif” culture. For those of us educated at public school this means a glass of wine or beer, usually around 5 Euros, comes accompanied with plates piled high with bread, pizza, pasta, olives, cheese, quiche and vegetables easily enough to fill the emptiest travelling stomach.

My advice is to head to Corso Garibaldi which runs through the central district. Here the streets are littered with café’s and small Trattoria’s, all classically Italian with excitable friendly waiters, peeling paint facades, dimly lit with great food and even better wine all accompanied by the dramatic shouts and exclamations only Italian conversation seems able to achieve.  Snoop around for the best price for the drinks and avoid the restaurants where the even the waiters appear dressed in Prada or Gucci and a very reasonable, (and slightly blurred,) evening awaits you.

After Eating the Scalla Opera theatre was a five minute stroll down the surrounding streets so despite being as cultured as a Carling (out of a can not a glass!) we bought a couple of tickets. Now we discovered the opera season runs from around May to July but classical concerts are hosted all year round. Tickets can be bought for as little as 5 Euros for reportedly the most famous opera house in the world.

The venue itself is well worth the pittance of an admission. As I looked around, attempting to ignore the fact I was the youngest punter by some ten years, the 2,000 capacity hall began to fill. With row upon row of rich red seats, gilded gold banisters, statues and a domed sculpted ceiling it really is something special.

With a great fanfare of musical brilliance the concert began and…I have a confession…I fell asleep! As I mentioned earlier I am not the most cultured soul and with my head slumped against a beautifully ornate banister and my mouth open wide (not to mention my girlfriends elbow frequently jabbing into my ribs,) I reflected that possibly I’d had a little to much wine…but the seats were comfy…REALLY comfy.  Though all joking aside whether a lover of the classics or not the hall is well worth a look and if you like your opera I’d imagine few better places to experience one.

Afterwards the night air was a wonderful cure for drowsiness, once away from the traffic and industry of Milan you can almost imagine the air with a slightly alpine feel to it. We made our way towards the Duomo, Milan’s famous cathedral and centrepiece which again was only a short way. The streets were surprisingly quiet with only the occasional immaculately dressed couple for company, having spent a great deal of time in Rome quiet Italian cities were somewhat of a novelty to me.

I found there was a certain thrill walking down Milan’s central arcade at night, a live pianist’s music echoing elegantly amidst the vast steel arches while the masses walked past shops and restaurants they could neither afford to shop nor eat in.

All the glitz and glamour that was Milan…shattered as a street vendor makes a beeline for me and attempts pedal me a plastic toy helicopter, “you want, you want,” he attempted to impress we with its motorized flying capabilities…I resisted its temptation with an effort.

The Duomo at night is nothing short of breathtaking. Eerily lit up from below this behemoth of a Gothic cathedral dominates in an altogether daunting and forbidding fashion, for the want of a better literary analogy the, “bad guys castle,” from some Disney epic. The piazza was packed with people, dressed in all their finery, street vendors, pick pockets, bored Polizai and a scattering of wide eyes tourists.

A stage and a big screen was set up, however, Italy is certainly not famed for its contemporary music and as something that resembled a sub- standard Abba tribute blared out we moved swiftly on.

Now I was warned Milan was not a city for wandering, however in autumn the streets are quiet, the traffic minimal at night and we wandered aimlessly down small cobbled streets that resembled some small Swiss or Austrian mountain down more than the perceived gritty industrialism of Milan.

These can be found of Corso Garibaldi around a church called San Simplicano, well worth a visit if you pass during the day, entry free.

Follow this, and a good deal more wine and beer, ( I’m English and abroad, go figure,) we had a blissfully easy tram ride home, which runs until about two in the morning, and sleep followed quickly.

We were up at something I’m told is called “nine o’clock,” for a good continental breakfast, the Hotel really is a fantastic stop for those on a budget but not looking to stay in a hostel.

Afterwards, camera in hand, we stepped out into some beautiful autumn sunshine and headed back in towards the sights.

Now first on the list, any hapless blokes who, like me, are blessed with a partner of the fairer sex take heart. For us Milan can fill you with dread for one reason only, shopping, and the prospect of seeing your mental health deteriorate in correlation with your bank balance. Yet in the centre of Milan we find a shop selling to my (un-educated,) and my girlfriends, (far more educated,) eye stylish boots, heels and shoes all for 30 Euros.

However, our thoughts of budget shopping were quickly brought down to earth as we passed a large park, more specifically an Armani park. What this means I’m not entirely sure, but there it was complete with trees, flowers, a fountain, and a sign that said, “A park of Emporio Armani”. Only in Milan!

The inside of the Duomo is every bit as Gothic as the exterior. The groaning organ sets a grim backdrop and the air itself is heavy with incense and seems almost oppressive. A vaunted domed roof to rival the Vatican in Rome supports dim laps that cast a murky ethereal light.

As with most cathedrals there are a multitude or ornate statues, beautiful stained glass windows and great arches and pillars of stone. But for me what sets the Duomo apart is the stillness, the threat of judgement it purveys. For and atheist it was unsettling, for a Christian I imagine it is both beautiful and terrifying. 

Another must see we crossed off the list was Parco Sempione, a huge swathe of green a short walk from the centre, complete with small lakes, avenues of towering trees and wide expanses of green grass southern Italians must dream of, all bathed in beautiful Autumn sun.

My advice would be to grab some cheap food from one of the multitude of supermercado in the area. Assemble a platter of cheeses and Italian hams and bread and watch the world go by for a few hours, (more wine and beer is advisable.)

We went on a Sunday and as the day wears on the locals turn out in their hundreds. Elderly couples in their finest, families out for a stroll in the sun, regazzi complete with football and crates of beer, all partaking in the time honoured Italian tradition of passegiata.

This essentially means walking, very slowly, in no particular direction, to no particular destination, while looking beautiful and watching others do likewise, (usually with the aid of sunglasses.) All in all it’s a very relaxing experience and thoroughly Italian. I comically tried imagining a similar occurrence in central London, I doubt track-suits and baseball caps would complement the look and I’m not so sure of the effect the incessant downpours we are prone to year-round in old blighty would have had, I think we’re better of sticking to pubs on a Sunday.

After hours lounging in the park our time was running short so we made our way to our last stop, Castello Sforzesco. This huge medieval castle overlooks the park and was home to the Sforzesco family of Milan.

If you head along early enough you can climb the battlements for unparalleled, and conveniently free, views of the city. The museums are only 3 Euros and if you have an hour free well worth a look, maps and articles detailing the history of the city. Another notable is the fountain to the front of the castle, a prime spot for a token holiday snap, towers of water shooting high into the air behind with the castle looming in the background.

As I glance at my watch I suddenly realise I’ve been operating on English time since my arrival so, with many a choice swearword and with my girlfriends face promising retribution on an epic scale if we miss our flight we make our reluctant way back to the metro station and then swiftly homeward. 

So Milan on a budget I reflect, definitely do-able, definitely enjoyable. Forget the high end fashion outlets and over-priced restaurants, for those of us for whom our pockets have all to definable bottoms Milan has a wealth to offer, from quality affordable Italian food in classic settings to engaging sights and an atmosphere that somehow is both relaxed yet humming with activity.

Notables include the Duomo Cathedral, the Castello Sforzesco and Parco Sempione aswell as the bars around the Navigilli canal area and Corso Garibaldi.

The best flights I found were from Stansted Airport with Ryanair and averaged at about £30-£40 at the weekend but make sure you shop around. One night in the Hotel Corallo worked out at about £40 for a double room.  All in all we spent around £100 each for the total trip, possibly allowing a little more for alcohol, dispelling Milan’s myth as an expensive city, the whole weekend amounting to the equivalent of a wild night out in London.

As I finish reflecting and sit back on the plane I see the faces around me grimace at the thought of the monotony we return to, the clouds into which we are no doubt descending thankfully hidden in the dark.

The Captains voice sounds out,

“We are now beginning our decent into London standard and will be landing in approximately twenty minutes.  We should be in London ten minutes ahead of schedule where the temperature is 5 degrees and there’s some heavy rain.”

I hold my head in my hands and silently beg the captain to take his time. Ciao.

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