Milan Cathedral, known as the Duomo, is the city symbol. Begun in 1386, it has been in continual evolution ever since, much like Milan itself. Indeed, `as long as the building of the Duomo’ is a typical Milanese expression. Much like the Duomo, Milan is a work in progress, building with more panache than anywhere else in Italy, for good or ill.
Milan is doubling the reach of its metro system, creating new expressways and upgrading its railways. Dilapidated industrial areas are being transformed, and Futuristic districts created. The major project may be EXPO 2015, designed to relaunch Milan as a model of urban renewal. But elsewhere, historical districts, such as the bohemian Navigli canal quarter, are also being given a facelift, along with the adjoining Zona Tortona design district. Milan continues to open new galleries, including the ravishing Museum of the 20th-Century. One would expect nothing less revolutionary from a city where Leonardo da Vinci made such a mark.
Yet `old Milan’ survives, whether in the elegant area around the Cathedral, and its enveloping galleries, or in the romantic Brera district, where bohemian bars overlook charming churches. As for the arty Navigli, sitting in a rustic waterside inn, with the faint rumble of trams beyond, it feels like provincial Italy not the Milanese metropolis. Throughout the city, cutting-edge restaurants are outnumbered by cosy inns, grande-dame hotels and old-fashioned patisserie shops. The Milanese love tradition as much as they love change.
The Duomo is the geographical and spiritual heart of the city. The central piazza, milling with people and pigeons, is awe-inspiring, but lacks the carefree charm of a typical Italian piazza. No cafés spill onto the square, but the historic `Camparino’ is tucked under the porticoes, created by the founder of the Campari dynasty in 1867. It was here, at the entrance to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, that Verdi used to enjoy a drink after concerts. It was here, in 1877, that the Milanese nobility flocked to see the first experiment in electric lighting. And it’s here, in this Art Nouveau interior, that stressed Milanese still lighten up over a coffee or Campari. Orlando Chiari, the owner, distinguished by his handlebar moustache, reveals that it’s an ancient tradition to arrange first dates outside the café.