I recently joined my beloved on a business meeting in Milan thereby enabling me to reacquaint myself with some of the city’s many charms. I had first visited Milan in the early 1980s when working as an internal auditor for an American bank and fell in love with it. Most days, after work, I would spend hours walking around its labyrinth of streets, particularly those in the Old Quarter.
Over the years, my beloved and I have visited the city on a regular basis though infrequently in the past five years. I was about to remedy that oversight. As you know, I love nothing more than a spot of pavement pounding in clement weather.
Our hotel was in the newly redeveloped Porta Nuova business district, close to my beloved’s client. In the 1990s, the former heavy-industrial powerhouse of Milan had stacks of industrial wastelands and unused railroad tracks crying out for transformation. This area’s redevelopment project kicked off in 1997 on a large tract of central Milan affected by decades of urban decay and failed projects. The entire mixed development area and its marque towers are is now owned by one of the Gulf States’ wealth funds.
Fortunately, Porta Nuova is adjacent to one of my favourite areas, Brera, located within Milan’s historical core. To discover the neighbourhood’s most authentic atmosphere I find it best to wander along the cobbled pedestrian streets that branch off from the main thoroughfares. More or less in the centre of town, between the castle (Castello Sforzesco) and the cathedral (the Duomo – header photo), Brera is one of the most charming and relaxing neighbourhoods in the city. Within its magical enclave are little, shy streets lined with art galleries and elegant shops, quiet lanes housing cosy inns, and restaurants serving delicious homemade meals.
At Brera’s heart lies the gallery Pinacoteca di Brera and the art school which, since 1800, has attracted and formed generations of painters and other artists. All around, quaint streets are filled with craft shops and coffee bars, some of which have become legendary for the writers and intellectuals who hung out there in the ‘30s. The city’s better-known intellectuals and artists still have their studios here.
The history of this neighbourhood – which lies between Via dell’Orso and Largo Treves, and between Via Mercato and Via Borgonuovo – can be traced back to 13th century when some members of the Umiliati, a Lombard brotherhood, began to build cloisters on meadowlands and orchards (or braida , from which the name Brera is derived). Today three churches survive from medieval times on three squares not too distant from one another. They still stand silent and peaceful, their old, red Roman bricks glowing against the sun, while the city has grown up around them over the years.
Via Brera, the neighbourhood’s main street, is filled mostly with art galleries and interesting one-off shops. The residential buildings are in the typical style of the area, a mixture of austerity and elegance, with facades in faded yellow, ochre or brownish red, with grey shutters which house apartments with steep prices.
In truth, the real essence of Brera is hidden, off the main streets. It’s in the flavour of little yards, little craft shops and old restaurants, an ancient world full of memories and nostalgia. But one has to look in order to find the secret spots.
The more commercial, newer Brera lies along Via Solferino, on which some of the older shops still remain. Via San Marco, in the Brera district, is located at the intersection with Via Ancona and Via Montebello, exactly where once stood the San Marco dock, a small port of the Martesana canal just before the circle of Navigli, which were covered over in 1930 and where the San Marco market is held on Mondays and Thursdays. On the last Sunday of the month, there’s a famous Antiques Market in Ripa Ticinese, near the former Naviglio Grande – a lovely way to while away a Sunday.
You might be wandering about the afore-mentioned “Naviglio,” these were artificial canals constructed between 1179 (Naviglio Grande) and 16th century (Naviglio Martesana) to make Milan more accessible. The Navigli were not only to get merchandise in and out of Milan but were also used to transport Candoglia marble used in the construction of Milan’s Cathedral and, in more recent times, transporting the rolls of paper used by the typewriters of Corriere della Sera.
I mentioned they’ve been covered over but it’s still possible to admire the innovative system of dams conceived by Leonardo da Vinci at the end of 15th Century. As soon as he arrived in Milan, Ludovico il Moro asked him to devise a way to navigate from Lake Como to Milan. Leonardo, who’d already designed the system of the dams to solve the problem of height differences, made further sketches that are today preserved in the Navigli Museum. Competition from the railways saw the navigli fall out of favour and they were eventually covered over – such a shame!