Stuart Forster joins a food and fashion tour of Milan, Italy.
If you were on the road and given an opportunity to select a guided tour from a handful of themes that pique your interest what would influence your choice? I was recently faced with exactly this dilemma in Milan, Italy.
Would you plump for something you already know well or choose a tour about something you know very little? Do you base your choice on personal interest or, if you are a travel writer, select the theme that you’re most likely to write about?
Milan, of course, is one of the hubs of the global fashion industry and Italian food is perennially popular. So when I was shown a list of guided tours in Lombardy’s capital – the host city of the Expo Milano 2015 – one entitled Milan: Food and Fashion caught my eye.
Leonardo da Vinci’s legacy in Milan
I would have loved to have learned more about the works of Leonardo da Vinci and to view The Last Supper in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. However, one of my great passions, after a long day at my laptop, is cooking supper. Any opportunity that might provide insights into Milanese-style cooking sounded delicious.
Among the dapper dressers of downtown Milan, I joined a band of camera-toting tourists shambling along the broad streets behind a guide named Laura. “Not Law-ra, Low-ra,” she explained with elegant hand gestures that rose and fell like those of a conductor in front of an orchestra. The Teatro Alla Scala, the famous opera house that’s often known simply as La Scala, was one of the first stopping points on our three-hour tour. The building was commissioned in 1776 by Austria’s Empress Maria Theresa.
Milan under Austrian rule
In the late 18th century Lombardy was still under Austrian rule. Italy was not then unified and “a mere geographical expression,” according to Klemens von Metternich, the aristocrat who served as the chancellor of the Austrian Empire from 1821 to 1848. The Risorgimento – Italy’s national awakening – would change that. We paused to hear Laura talking about Milan’s grand, Neoclassical architecture in front of the house once occupied by Alessandro Manzoni, the author of The Betrothed, and a key figure in the evolution of Italian patriotic feeling.
We sashayed into the airy Galleria Vittoria Emanuele II, which is sometimes described as one of Europe’s oldest shopping malls. Some of the biggest names in haute couture have stores in the glass-ceilinged gallery. Keeping tourists together during a tour has been compared to herding cats.
Laura let us off the leash to view store windows dressed with clothes fresh from the catwalks then rounded us up to head to the Duomo. Remarkably, the vast cathedral was not completed until the mid-20th century, though the ornate Gothic façade hints at origins 600 years earlier.
The heart of Milanese fashion
Walking on, we learned that nobody wanting to see the current season’s designs in the flagship stores of leading fashion houses should miss a stroll along Via Monte Napoleone, Corso Venezia, Via Sant’Andrea and Via della Spiga, streets in Milan’s fashion district.
Was it was the chilly January breeze that caused my eyes to water when I saw a price tag for €21,000 neatly printed by a chic red handbag in one shop window? Many stores don’t display prices, making me wonder if viewing the displays can then really qualify as window shopping.
Stylishly presented Italian cuisine
Prior to commencing the tour, I’d eaten lunch at Larte (Via Manzoni 5, +39 0 2 89096950), a smart restaurant serving well-presented, modern interpretations of traditional Italian dishes. Food had been conspicuously absent from this alleged food and fashion tour. Maybe in Milan, with strong culinary and couture credentials, it would have been better to take a tour focusing on food or fashion rather than one that attempted to combine both?
Laura said arrivederci (goodbye) at the entrance of the wonderfully named Eataly (Piazza XXV Aprile 10, +39 02 49497301) food concept store. Occupying the site of a converted theatre, this cavernous place should be on the itinerary of any foodie visiting Milan during the Expo. It’s a combination of delicatessen, book store, grocery shop and wine emporium with several areas to dine and drink, including a Michelin-starred restaurant, Alice (tel. +39 02 4949 7340). Eataly has a kitchen for cooking lessons and live music is performed each evening.
Italian fashion is highly regarded but who says food needs to be regarded as any less stylish when it is presented correctly?
The Italian Tourism website has information about visiting Italy.
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