Miracle In Milan 2012: Italy’s Muscular Metropolis Goes Global

Rome stands for romance, history, art, architecture and fab food. Florence is for culture; Venice is for moody beauty and atmosphere.

What about Milan?

Milan is where the technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti comes from, the little gray man whose job is to save Italy from bankruptcy. Bankruptcy seems unlikely: in the midst of this unending “recession,” Italy prospers and Milan is booming.

Muscular Milan is Italy’s biggest city, the source of a third of this fabulously rich nation’s income, the location of most of Italy’s high tech and heavy industries, the capital of the country’s fashion, business, finance and banking.

Milan is also an experiment in globalization, Italian style. It is pioneering a new brand of tourism-friendly Dolce Vita. This may be bittersweet but it looks like a way forward for aging, debt-plagued Italy.

Kaleidoscopic armies of immigrants are pouring in, opening shops and providing services, cooking, cleaning, doctoring and melding with the locals. Colorful disorder – homelessness and shantytowns included – is repainting a dour town that used to be nicknamed “the moral capital of Switzerland.”

Compared to the joyless workaholic city I lived in nearly 30 years ago, Milan is unrecognizable –except for the perennial streetcars, outsized cathedral and other hulking old buildings. It’s not only multi-ethnic, but also animistic and chaotically alive. Much of the city center is closed to traffic now and has been re-landscaped and groomed. Café terraces spill where trucks and buses once thundered along. The prospect of frivolous enjoyment of the kind reserved for Romans now energizes the streets – especially those nearest to the center of the spider web cityscape.Does anyone remember the classic neo-Realist movie “Miracle in Milan” by Vittorio de Sica, an uplifting postwar fable about survival, generosity and abject materialism, complete with the dove symbol of the Holy Ghost and the comic Totò cast as a slum-dwelling Christ figure?

Today’s Milanese miracle is profane, messy and not always comical. Most surprising for the Milanese, this may well be a post-Catholic miracle. The capital of the Roman Empire when Christianity was declared the official religion, the fountainhead of saints Ambrose and Carlo Borromeo, the historic home of Italian bigotry and site of the Duomo – possibly the world’s most astonishing, cavernous cathedral – appears to have officially relegated religion to the B List.

Business always came first. Now pious religiosity comes after shopping, wining, dining and soccer.

Global millions cheer for Milan AC and Inter, the city’s two A-Series soccer teams. Who cheers for Saint Ambrose or Carlo Borromeo? San Siro is the hero!

On a recent visit I helped a group of Indonesian soccer fans find their way to the San Siro stadium, then picked my way between passing street cars, through herds of wannabe fashion models to the cathedral, known locally as the Duomo.

The Duomo rises from the center of the spider web of Milan’s ancient streets. It bristles with spires. Topping the porcupine roof on a pinnacle is a statue of the Madonna called “La Madonnina.” She’s visible for miles, the tallest thing around, though currently her spire is under restoration – and is about to be relegated to second-tallest by Milan’s pointy new skyscraper. Maybe that’s why the Madonnina’s magic is ebbing.

Hundreds of feet underneath her in the cathedral’s crypt the embalmed body of Saint Carlo Borromeo lies in a crystal casket wearing fancy dress. At ground level an eerily realistic statue shows Saint Bartholomew flayed, holding his skin. The Madonnina, crypt and flayed saint have been pilgrimage sites for centuries. Today 99 in 100 visitors see them through a camera lens and don’t know what or who they are. Visitors wear sinfully casual clothes, babel in tongues and seem indifferent to symbols of religion and authority.

After a frothy cappuccino under the glass canopy of the Galleria – one of the world’s first shopping malls – I did the rounds of my favorite churches. Milan has dozens of gorgeous Romanesque and Baroque places of worship. Was I surprised to find them empty? Not really.
San Babila was closed for restoration, wrapped in scaffolding and flanked by an unusual Fashion Madonna.

A single Italian voice echoed in the 1,000-year-old apse of the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio as a group of baffled Chinese sought the bones of the Magi.

In the exquisite smallness of San Satiro, American art historians lectured loudly about the cleverness of Bramante in creating his false architectural perspective.

But it was the lonely priest in the abandoned pews of San Bernardino alle Ossa, the city’s repository of age-mottled skeletons, who spoke volumes with his silence. In the church’s secret ossuary, once packed by the pious, I had the skulls and crossbones to myself. It was chilling, a memento moriout of sync with the times, a message not of hope but of resignation.

Walking from church to dark, incense-scented church, I glanced up and saw the underfed fashion models staring down from giant advertising posters. Their bones looked oddly like clothed horses. Had any of them visited San Bernardino alle Ossa or seen Saint Bartholomew at the Duomo?

But these pre-modern thoughts were drummed out by the joyous ringing of streetcar bells and the voices of merrymakers partying everywhere, enjoying the unpredictable, unexpected miracle of life in Milan 2012.

Author and guide David Downie’s latest books are the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light” and “Quiet Corners of Rome.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com, http://wanderingfrance.com/blog/parisand http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.

Get to know the real Milan, Italy, through Milan Dreaming

While spending a few months living in Milan, Italy, New York-based filmmaker Francesco Paciocco decided he wanted to create a short film called “Milan Dreaming” that told the story of Milan through its essence, people, and places. The background music, “A Necessary End” by Saltillo, gives the video a slight sense of darkness as you see locals going about their everyday business. While the video is shot in high definition, Paciocco doesn’t go out of his way to beautify the city but instead shows the natural aspects of Milan as they are, from aesthetically-pleasing Gothic architecture to dark cement hallways covered in graffiti. You even get to experience a speeding car crash from behind the wheel. To make the movie, Paciocco used a Canon 60D, Canon 24-105 mm f/4 L, Sigma 50 mm F1.4 EX DG HSM, and edited using Final Cut Pro 7.

Moleskine notebooks introduces new bags, reading, and writing accessories

Few products (analog, at least) get travelers, writers, and artists as excited as Moleskine. The classic black Moleskine notebooks have been used by Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and Oscar Wilde, as well as many a journaler and design-lover. A new collection unveiled this week at Milan’s Salon del Mobile is the stuff of many travelers’ dreams. The Reading, Writing, and Traveling series from Italian designer Giulio Iacchetti includes bags and computer cases, pencils and pens, reading glasses, a rechargeable reading light and an e-reader stand. Each piece is designed for maximum mobility, and to complement each other as well as the original notebook, complete with the signature black elastic band.

The new collection is on view in Milan now and at the ICFF design show in New York in mid-May. See more photos and details on the Moleskine Facebook page and on the design blog core77, along with an interview with the designer.

We can’t wait to get our hands on a Moleskine laptop bag, though we can’t help hoping they branch out to luggage as well. What Moleskine products would you like to see?

Photo courtesy of Moleskine on Flickr.

New “crumpled” city maps for tourists

Milan-based industrial designer Emanuele Pizzolorusso centers on themes of sustainability and durability in his work. A 2008 honors graduate of the Politecnico di Milano, Pizzolorusso’s oeuvre includes a waste paper bin made entirely out of recycled paper (designed with Ricardo Nannini and Domenico Orefice) and an award-winning prototype of a map of Rome’s fountains.

It is Pizzolorusso’s crumpled, crushable city maps, however, that are likely to pique the interest of the travel industry. Produced by Florence-headquartered Palomar, these maps are made of tough waterproof material. They weigh around 20 grams (.7 ounces), can be opened and closed in seconds, and include key tourist sites. (Wonder how many if any of the German capital’s famous public toilets have made it onto the Berlin map.)

Maps collapse into a very small configuration for convenient travel and are sold with a pouch for easy transportation. With these crumpled maps, rushed travelers won’t have to obsess over finding the creases in their maps for precise folding.

Thus far, Palomar has produced maps for five cities, New York, Paris, London, Rome, and Berlin. Hamburg is up next, and Pizzolorusso tells me that another five or ten maps, depicting cities in the US and Asia, are on deck. Crumpled maps can be purchased for €12 ($16) on Palomar’s site. In the US, maps are distributed by Ameico, and are currently retailing for $18.

Daily Pampering: Luxury travel shopping experience in Milan

What do you get for the fashionista who has everything? A luxury travel trip to Milan to explore high-end boutiques along Via Montenapoleone and attend two exclusive trunk shows with industry leaders Valentino, Stella McCartney, Dior, and more.

The luxury travel package, worth more than $13,000, is offered by Pure Entertainment Group and includes everything from a suite at The Four Season Hotel Milan, a private tour of the city, dinner at the exclusive Dolce & Gabbana Gold restaurant and a complimentary bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne upon arrival.

What’s a luxury shopping experience without a new pair of shoes? Absolutely nothing. While you’re here, grab a new pair of stilettos and hit the catwalk in style.

This ultimate pampering package includes:

  • 4-night stay in a Junior Suite at the Four Seasons Hotel Milano
  • Daily full breakfast
  • Welcome amenities with complimentary bottle of Veuve Clicquot Champagne and fresh flowers
  • 2 Exclusive Trunk Shows at the boutiques of your choice on Via Montenapoleone with catering and champagne. Luxe designers include Valentino, Dior, Stella McCartney, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and Armani.
  • Exclusive discussion with some of Milan’s fashion designers
  • Preferred shopping privileges in Milan’s most exclusive boutiques
  • 1 gourmet dinner at Michelin-Starred restaurant Cracco Peck (alcohol not included)
  • Private guided tour of Milan (3 hours)
  • 1 dinner at Dolce & Gabbana Gold restaurant (alcohol not included)
  • Personalized airport welcome with limousine transfer to/from hotel

The price for this shopping package starts at $13,075/4 nights and is available through May 15, 2011

Want more? Try and beat this luxury travel package with more daily pampering.