All of Southern Europe
goes on vacation in August, a very practical thing to do since air conditioning
isn’t nearly as universal as in the States. Milan, one of the world’s fashion
capitals, is particularly hard hit, as designers, craftspeople and models all
head for the beach or the mountains.
So my time in Milan wasn’t
as rock & roll as it would have been if I’d even come just a month later,
say, mid-September when the fashion world gears up for major shows in New York,
Paris and Milan. Yet despite the fact that part of the city resembled a ghost
town during my visit, Milan still offered many juicy glimpses of its charms. In
fact I actually had two of those accidently magical travel experiences in
Milan, which involved gyrating women and “anguria.” More on all that in a bit.
For anyone looking for
good food and a real European dining experience, LaBrera is to the place to go
in Milan. LaBrera is a series of connected streets filled with cafes and shops.
Jamaica (32 Via Brera’/www.jamaicabar.it), which had been highly recommended to
me, was closed for August, but I still had amazing piazza across from there at
the New Art Cafe [Via Brera, 23 20121 Milano (MI), Italy +39 02 72080518 /
http://www.artcafebrera.com/] The crowd was very adult, laid back and mostly
By day LaBrera was more
crowded. There was actually a celebration of the area’s 200th
birthday underway, so there was a long line to worship at a ornate local
church. Several venders sold paintings. A few were creating on the spot. These
weren’t the cheesy celebrity pix you’d finding Times Square or Piccadilly
Square, but artful landscapes created by stylish women in high heel shoes.
Had very well made lasagna
for lunch at the Orient Express, which despite its kitschy train motif, had a
very solid Italian menu. The Maître d at most of the LaBrera spots double as
servers, so working on your “excusi” to get their attention is good idea.
Gelato, the Italian
version of ice cream, which is made sans eggs, is sold at a very elegant shop
in LaBrera in a complicated mix of flavors, all of them in Italian so be
prepared for a lot of pointing before you get your order filled. But on a hot
August day gelato is a dream.
For anyone who loves great
architecture and spirituality Duomo Di Milano must be seen. Truth is this
cathedral is hard to miss in Milan, since it is the city’s identifying image
much as the Statue of Liberty is to New York. The Duomo dominates a large
square (Piazza del Duomo) bordered by large an large electronic billboard and
the Galleria, a large outdoor mall constructed out of several restored
Renaissance era buildings.
In the Duomo Plaza you’ll
get your first major sighting of the African community in Milan. You’ll see
brothers hawking various items, from tee shirts to guide books. But you’ll also
see families coming in and out of the Duomo after prayers and sight seeing, and
then heading over to the Galleria to shop.
Probably the sexiest area
for dining in Milan is Naviglio Grande Canal area, stuffed with restaurants,
gelato spots and Mom & Pop retailers. It looks great, day and night, and
despite the heat was teeming with life. My dining suggestion when you come to
Milan is just stroll around Naviglio until a place catches your eye. Be warned,
however, that in summer the canal’s relatively still water attracts mosquitoes.
Because it was August
Milan’s usually vibrant, fashion forward party scene was pretty quiet. In
season spots to run by include the Colonial Fashion Café (12 Via Edmomdo de
Amicis), the jazz club Le Scimmie (Via Cardinale Ascanio Sforza 49) and one of
the world’s most famous opera houses, La Scala (Via Filodrammatici 2). But a
too peaceful trip to Milan turned magical on a blazing hot Sunday afternoon.
For all of August Milan
was having a Latino Americando festival, celebrating the Latin Diasporas’ music
and culture. Everyone from Gloria Estefan to Enrique Iglesias was performing in
town. Sunday’s at the Sforza Castle or Castello Sforzesco, a huge, imposing reddish
stone fortress in Milan’s center, free events are held, which bring out entire
families. Kids, and quite a few adults, jump in a massive fountain in front of
the castle fully dressed.
As I passed the fountain I
could hear music the distance. I walked through an enormous courtyard that was
at the center of castle, a vast space right out of an epic like Lord of the
Rings, and through another wide space on the castle grounds, through to a park
where I was transported to South America.
Bands and dancers from
Peru, Mexico and, most spectacularly, from Brazil were warming up before
throngs of Milanese. Not only did this sight affirm, again, the multi-cultural
nature of 21st century Europe, but was one hell of a party. I saw an
adorable little brown girl dancing and asked where her parents were. Turned out
her Pops was a master drummer with one of the Brazilian samba schools at the
event. He didn’t speak much English, but I was able to find out he was from
Senegal, had been in Milan eight years, and made his living as a musician. I
wanted to talk more but a procession started and there was drumming to be done.
If there’s anything more
beautiful than Brazilian samba dancers swaying and shaking through their way
through a castle in full Carnival costumes, it’s to hear these same women speak
to you (albeit all too briefly) in an exotic combination of Italian and
Portuguese. The whole event was hip swinging cultural mash up that moved from
the castle grounds onto the sleepy streets of Milan.
Once the Brazilians had
left the castle grounds, reality hit me. It was 90 degrees, I had danced and
sweated bullets, and the idea of jumping in the fountain was becoming very
appealing. I asked my driver, an affable Roberto Benigni look-a-like named
Alberto, where I could get some watermelon.
What? No, I wasn’t trying
to fulfill a cultural stereotype. Watermelon aka anguria is grown all over this
part of Italy. I’d spotted some around town and was anxious to get a taste.
Alberto’s face lit up. “I know a place,” he said in halting English. He drove
me far from the city center to a public housing project at Piazza Po, a place
not in a tourist books. We drove up a sidewalk restaurant with picnic tables
and a awning that protected dinners from the sun. A large green sign read ‘Anguria.’
Several tables of Milanese
folk – grandparents, parents, and kids – were noshing on juicy looking anguria.
The locals checked me out, not sure what to make of me. Clearly not too many
black anguria eaters came out this way. Alberto, some fiends with me, and
myself were all happily eating anguria under the August sun when I leaned down
and slurped up some of the juice from my plate.
An old Italian man
laughed. So did I. So did Alberto and my companions. Suddenly the ice broke.
The old man’s daughter suddenly wanted a picture with me. So did her son. Some
were all taking pictures and laughing. The owner motioned me to look at an
object that was covered in a large cloth. The owner pulled it back to reveal
the biggest damn anguria/watermelon I’d ever seen! It had to be four feet long
and nearly two feet high. Through Alberto, the owner told me this massive melon
was gonna be cut that night as part of a special holiday celebration that the
whole area was invited to.
Sad to say I missed the
cutting of the giant anguria, but I loved the unexpected fellowship in that
most unlikely place. Much like the singing I’d experienced at restaurant in
Rome, I’d bonded with a group of Italians in a warm, convivial manner.
So I may have missed the
fashion crowd, but between the Brazilian dancers and the anguria lovers, I got
a sweet taste of Milan’s people.
MILAN TID BITS: Back in
the late ‘80s Terence Trent D’Arby was a Grammy nominated singer-songwriter,
who was American born, but who first broke through commercially in the United
Kingdom. D’Arby had several hits albums before his career hit some bumps and he
faded from view in the U.S. Well nowadays he goes by the name Sannada Maitreya
and lives full time in Milan. He was on vacation when I was in town, so we didn’t
hook up, but he’s got a very active MySpace page. My favorite of his album
under his new name is ‘Wild Card,’ which you can order from him directly or on
I-Tunes…Speaking of black
musicians who have re-surfaced in Italy I was watching Yo MTV Raps in Italy
(yes, they still have it there) and saw a recent Coolio video. I didn’t catch
the name of the song, but Coolio was rapping in a suit, hat and trademark
shades. Most of the video was shot in Venice and featured the MC with a
multi-racial trio of models and a full string orchestra. Who knew Italy was
where old rappers go to chill?