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  • Writer's pictureCristina Dwyer

Italy in Winter: Milan, The Fashion Capital

Updated: Mar 1

The city of Milan (Milano) was the glorious finale to my 2024 Italian winter adventure.

I arrived by train, in the morning, from Peschiera del Garda (we stayed near by the last days) and planned to spend the day and night in Milan. My small and quaint hotel near the Milan Central Station (Milano Centrale Stazione) was “hiding” in an older building in a residential area, and it reminded me of the hotel in Rome. I primarily chose it for its proximity to both the railway and subway stations, which was convenient for my early next morning train and getting around town on that day. I must admit I really enjoy this style of accommodation as opposed to big hotel chains, as it offers a more intimate experience akin to being a guest in a friend's home rather than a tourist in a foreign city.

To the world, Milan is the “Fashion Capital” but to me, Milan is primarily home to the Milan Cathedral (Duomo di Milano) and Leonardo’s “Last Supper”. Determined to experience them both, I wasted no time upon arrival. I checked into the hotel, dropped my luggage, and headed out to the historical city center.

This was my second attempt to see the Milan Cathedral (Duomo). Over ten years ago I wasn’t in much luck as the Cathedral was closed to the public and partially covered with renovation tarps and scaffoldings, leaving me with little to remember and some doubts that it would live up to its fame. It didn’t take long for me to find out.

My route from subway station to the Piazza del Duomo was rather dark and cold, as it was following the narrow streets winding within the tall buildings’ shade and made me feel a bit chilly. But when I stepped into the piazza, it felt like a sudden burst of light- the Duomo, gleaming in its white marble facade, dominated the square and its surroundings.

At first I wasn’t quite sure how to start “seeing” it - stay far away to have a better grasp of its grandeur (it is after all the largest church in the Italian Republic and the third largest in the world), or to get closer to the intricate sculptures that adorn the cathedral like a marble lace.  I ended up doing both. After a solid 10 minutes of marveling at its façade, I unintentionally circled the cathedral twice in search of the ticket office for picking up my audio guide and finding the entrance to the terraces. This unplanned tour further deepened the feeling that I was near an architectural giant.

I started my self guided tour by taking the stairs up to the roof terraces. As I emerged from the darker staircase, onto the first, main terrace, I stepped into a marvel of pinnacles and spires, rising from ornated buttresses that contribute to both the stability and the beauty of the design. In-between, gigantic arched windows were bringing a nice variation to the texture of the exterior marble design while serving the interior of the cathedral with the much-needed light.  Delicate sculptures adorned every available space, transitioning seamlessly from one section to the next.

The very resistant marble of Candoglia covers the entire façade and roof of the Cathedral, being extensively used for its construction as well. The slightly pink and blue hues of the marble project a feel of warm elegance.

As I explored the terrace, I felt an irresistible urge to reach out and touch, as if to confirm the reality of such beauty.

From the main terrace I ascended to the central terrace via a short flight of marble stairs adorned with intricate sculptures. There, I was greeted by a scene so perfect it felt almost unreal. Standing atop the Milan Cathedral on a sunny January day, with not a cloud in sight to disrupt the azure sky, I found myself immersed in a quiet and serene atmosphere: no big crowds, people taking selfies, friends sharing a laugh and playing silly for the camera.

I was in no rush to leave so I decided to spend a bit of time in the middle of the terrace, to admire the view and enjoy the sunbathed early afternoon.  The city of Milan was unrolling its glorious history and lively present in the shade of the venerable building that is still the heart of the city. As I gazed out over I couldn't help but wonder if any of the newer, shinier buildings on the horizon would ever eclipse the timeless fame of the Duomo. Only time will tell.

The interior of the Cathedral was equally majestic: the massive pillars, the exquisite floor, the immense stained-glass windows depicting more scenes that one can distinguish with the bare eye, the design of the altars, the organ – the largest in Italy and the second largest in Europe, just to name a few. It took six centuries to build the Cathedral and that day I understood why.

After bidding farewell to the Duomo, I made my way towards the Scala Theatre (Teatro alla Scala). With no prior bookings, I simply hoped to get lucky and get a ticket at the door. Well, I wasn’t - a performance was taking place and doors were closed to the public. So, I resigned myself to take a picture of the not very impressive façade of the world’s most renown opera house and added it back to my  bucket list for another visit.

To get to the theatre from the Duomo I passed through the Vittorio Emanuelle II Galleries (Galleria), a superb construction hosting luxurious fashion shops and restaurants. I got myself a gelato and enjoyed the lofty, colourful galleries, watching passersby.

The “Last Supper” tour was still a few hours away and, lacking any specific objectives, I started ambling on the streets emerging from the Piazza del Dumo to breath in some Milanese air and scout for hidden architectural treasures. I stumbled upon a few iconic buildings like the Bank of Italy and the Old Post Office, the latter being transformed into an impressive Starbucks Reserve. The most unexpected encounter was the statue in front of the Italian Stock Exchange House, that I have later learned is titled “L.O.V.E.”, acronym of "Libertà, Odio, Vendetta, Eternità" (Freedom, Hatred, Revenge, Eternity). To not misinterpret the statue, one needs to look at it carefully – the fingers are severed, not bent; the statue is, in fact, an anti-fascist statement. Failing that, its placement in front of the trading house can stir anyone’s imagination. Yeap, it did happen to me when I first set eyes on it from the wrong angle.

Walking around mostly in the shade, I started to feel rather cold and decided to enter in a small café to warm up. What a treat that was. I was going to have just a cappuccino, but it took about 5 seconds to give up on my initial thought and got a light cannoli as well. I sat down and started observing the people coming and going into the café.

You can always spot the regular locals in Italian cafes – they don’t sit down; they remain in the front of the high counter, order a “caffè”, which is technically an espresso, catch up with the multi tasking barista, and then they carry on with their day - coffee break “all’italiana” !

Warmed up and rested, I was all set and eager to start the tour that was going to introduce me to “The Last Supper” of Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most famous, enigmatic, and fragile paintings in the world.

The huge mural painting, 4.6 x 8.8 m is still in its original place - the wall of the refectory (dining room) of the monastery Santa Maria delle Grazie, a former Dominican convent.

We only had 15 min in the refectory, a measure taken to control the temperature in room, part of the ongoing conservation effort.

The painting, despite its faded colours and missing sections, draws you in like a magnet. The more I looked at it the more I had the feeling that Jesus and the twelve disciples, were right there, alive, in front of me, just about to move.  The deceivingly simple composition is the result of an exhaustive, complex, and elaborated suite of studies of human emotions that Leonardo had completed to capture what he had called “notions of the mind”. Each of the disciples is portrayed with a gesture, posture or expression that is specific to the man’s personality. The great art lies in the details of the painting, some barely visible right now. Luckily, artists of the time have recognized very early on that the painting was a masterpiece and that it would not be long lasting. Thus, copies have been made of the early original and, nowadays, they help us filling up the gaps and understand the artist’s entire composition. These details and Leonardo’s unique interpretation, more earthly and humane, has also been source for new theories and famous novels, among which the very successful and attractive “Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown.

The survival of this painting is nothing short of miraculous. The first culprit for its fragility is … the artist himself. Leonardo had decided to break away from the popular, traditional fresco technique, which consists of painting on a wet gypsum foundation. This technique would force the artist to plan everything ahead, so that he can break his work in daily sections, “giornata”, and paint while the base would still be wet.  Leonardo decided to try a new “dry” technique, by which he firstly prepared the entire gypsum surface, let it dry and later painted with tempera and oil. He replaced the fresco technique with a mural painting. Although this new approach allowed the genial Leonardo to paint when he wanted and what he wanted, it came with a price – the fragility of his masterpiece, which started to deteriorate in less than 20 years after its completion in 1498.

And, as if that wouldn’t have been enough, time brought more menaces: floods, the conversion of the room into Napoleonic stables, the monks’ poor redecorating decision to cut a door through the base of the painting, the destruction to the roof and walls by an allied bomb during the Second World War.  Somehow, “The Last Supper” is still on the very same wall that Leonardo painted it on 1498.

I was lucky to have a very passionate and knowledgeable tour guide, that really helped getting me into the mindset needed to have a memorable experience.  I highly recommend booking a tour in advance not only for the advantage of receiving expert information, but also because tickets are limited and sell fast. For me, a guided tour was the only way to get in on the desired date.

As I made my way back to the subway, fatigue settled in, but so did a profound sense of gratitude for having had the privilege to admire these two remarkable masterpieces.

Over the past week, I had journeyed through time, spanning centuries, and bore witness to the astonishing testament of human creativity and genius: art, architecture that cannot be replaced or equaled by technology, as they carry the very human essence of their creators, their beliefs, passion, love, pain, aspirations, dreams. My words, I fear, may fall short in capturing the real value of these wonders. Yet, I hope they serve as an inspiration for you to experience them firsthand.

Travel to Italy, if only once in your lifetime! You will not regret it, I guarantee.

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Feb 27
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Good to read you again - this brings back lots of memories of Milan (our first trip with my now wife) magical!!

Cristina Dwyer
Cristina Dwyer
Feb 27
Replying to

Thank you TT , for reading it and taking the time to leave a note! Glad it resonated with you . So much to see in Italy !

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