Sunday, August 18, 2013

Milan's Unforgettable Visual Impressions

Milan, possibly of international interest mostly as a European fashion capital, deserves more love -- and better descriptions. Yesterday, someone who has never been here told me he's heard that it's "an industrial town." This is hardly a surprising characterization (If I'd had to describe it from memory before my latest trip here, I probably would have gone that route, or thereabouts), but it's somewhat misleading, considering the antique-looking architecture that dominates the part of the city that's generally of most interest to visitors (which would be a significant chunk of inner Milan), and the limited automobile traffic coursing through the streets and lanes there.

I suspect that part of Milan's negative image stems from the fact that it's not as quintessentially Italian as the country's other major cities. Consider the locals, who, though warmer than the ones I encountered in Berlin, still keep a somewhat cool distance: Last night's invitation to Lake Como aside, nobody in Milan has ever taken more than a casual interest in me -- including the policeman from my last trip who fined me 16 euros for riding the tram without a ticket and then proceeded to grill me about life in the Big Apple -- while on each of my two previous Roman holidays, I was taken on a day-long private tour of the city by a local whom I met less than 24 hours after my arrival. I wonder how the Romans will receive me next week.

The Colonne di San Lorenzo and the Chiesa di San Lorenzo Maggiore  -- quiet and mostly deserted by day, bustling after dark, and just about 100 meters from my hotel -- is one of my favorite spots in Milan, mostly because of the statue of Constantinus Augustus that stands between them. The sculptor appears to have caught him mid-call to arms, which, at night, when the monument glows in the dark (thanks to strategic lighting) and the crowds close in on the area, leaves passersby on the trams that go up and down Corso di Porta Ticinese with the visual impression that Augustus has drawn a swarm of onlookers with his rousing oratory.

It's just one of many examples of what I love most about Europe, from a visual standpoint: its often-breathtaking sculpture. Walking through parts of some of the continental cities is almost like being in a giant outdoor sculpture museum, with another must-see statue on virtually every block. In Berlin, they're frequently placed strategically on rooftops, so they hover over the city, striking elegant poses like the world's first supermodels.

Possibly my favorite spot in Milan: The Piazza della Scala, site of the world-renown opera house and a statue of Leonardo da Vinci that I could easily spend hours staring at. A street performer offered Saturday-afternoon entertainment today, playing guitar and covering such English-language European pop hits as Randy Crawford's "You Might Need Somebody" and Jamiroquai's "Too Young to Die," which made it even harder to drag myself away.

Although it is to Milan what the Colosseo is to Rome (the best-known visual representation of the city), I hadn't thought about the Duomo in nearly nine years until I was standing in front of it on Thursday evening, for the first time since my last time in Milan. I'm not so sure why it didn't stand out in my previous memories of Milan. One theory: It has to compete with Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II, the luxury-shopping drag adjacent to it. It's been only in the years since 2004 that I've become more interested in churches than shopping when I'm on the road.

Though I appreciate the Duomo more this time than I did in the past, it's somewhat spoiled by the gross commercialization that surrounds it, particularly the video screen attached to it on the Vittorio Emanuelle side. Imagine if Rome's city planners built a supermall across from the Colosseo -- as if the metro stop isn't bad enough -- and then slapped a video screen onto the ancient amphitheatre. The outdoor and indoor scaffolding only further diminishes the mystique of Il Duomo.

Would this logo fly in the U.S.A.? In a country where you can't create a soap opera featuring four Latina maids without inciting controversy over "racist" images, and one in which you look at a black person the wrong way at the risk of being deemed racist, I wonder what the politically correct crowd would think of a restaurant using as stereotypical an emblem as Mama Burger on Via Vittor Pisani in Milan. I mean, would Aunt Jemima be acceptable if someone were just coming up with her now? That's something to think about the next time I order pancakes in the U.S.A.

Parco Sempione can't touch the green land in Hamburg or Berlin's Tiergarten, but it's still the source of my one regret in Milan: I've yet to go running here. I'll blame proximity -- or rather, the lack of it. If I were staying in Castello Sforzesco across from Sempione instead of in Piazza San Eustorgio several kilometers away, I'd probably be giving Sempione the runaround right now.

The song playing on the radio of the food vendor as I'm leaving Sempione on my third day in Milan -- "You Make Me Wanna..." by Usher -- makes me wanna go jogging even more. Interestingly, I recently heard the 1997 No. 2 single, Usher's first big hit, for the first time in years when my iPod landed on it during the bus ride from Milano Malpensa Airport to Stazione Centrale, and it reminded me how quickly the last 16 years have flown by. As I'm leaving Sempione, it reminds me how quickly the last three days have flown by, too.

Even if it weren't for its often-overlooked visual appeal, I'd say this much for Milan: It has an excellent soundtrack.

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