BIG IN

Milan, Italy. Sforzesco castle and Piazza Castello fountain, night
Milan Stock Exchange

 It had been a busy week. I could have done with a slow Sunday. 

Paul Mulligan hops aboard a new flight from Cardiff to the Italian capital of cool

MILAN

Instead, I was up at 6am for a rendezvous at Cardiff Airport. I was not at my most chipper. And finding out that we were to be shadowed by a film crew all weekend didn't help at all. I'd rather have my teeth pulled than watch myself on film. A speedy check-in and leisurely brekkie in the executive lounge helped, but it wasn’t until we were aboard our FlyBe flight and cruising over the Alps, with a sparkling vista of snowladen peaks, that I started to get in the right frame of mind for a trip to Milan, the Italian style-capital.

Milan is just one of a number of new FlyBe routes from Cardiff - a clear indicator of the Welsh Government's determination to move things forward at Cardiff Airport. Improved facilities and new airlines, such as FlyBe, are all part of the new improved package.


Milan may not be an obvious choice for a city break, unless you’re into fashion or football. But as I discovered, the city has plenty to offer aside from the San Siro and fancy threads. For centuries it’s been Italy’s wealthiest city and it’s this constant prosperity that’s made it such a fascinating, culturally rich and seething metropolis.


E.c.ho. - our ‘eco-chic’ hotel - was all you’d expect of a modern Milanese hotel. Comfortable and effortlessly stylish. Its green credentials include solar panels, optimal energy efficiency and sustainably sourced furniture and food. But it was the city that I was here to see and I was chomping at the bit to start exploring. We started with a walking tour of ‘old’ Milan which is perfect for just ambling around. Medieval cobbled streets, delightful Renaissance churches and Roman ruins sit cheek-by-jowl with uber-cool boutiques and cafes serving fantastic espresso. There are grand historic buildings too, like the huge and imposing Castello Sforzesco, which was home to the Dukes of Milan in the Middle Ages. It's now the site of a number of museums and art galleries, where you can see amongst other impressive pieces, Michelangelo’s last Pieta.

“Here in Milan even the 
mundane 
becomes a design pièce de résistance”
FACTS:
The 80,018 seater San Siro 
stadium is home to both AC 
and Inter Milan

Milan boasts an underground 
and tram system

Milan is the home of Armani, 
Versace and Dolce & Gabbana

On 29 April 1945 the corpses 
of Mussolini and his mistress 
Clara Petacci were hanged in Piazzale Loreto.

Milan is home to other famous works of art like Da Vinci’s Last Supper but it also possesses many lesserknown treasures from the Renaissance. I was blown away by San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore. This amazing church has recently been renovated and it’s like the Sistine Chapel but on a more intimate scale. The walls and ceiling are a feast of stunningly colourful frescoes and intricately detailed wall paintings - most by largely unknown artists.


If your taste in art is more contemporary, or you just want to be truly gobsmacked, check out L.O.V.E by Italy's most famous living artist, Maurizio Cattelan. Pride of place in front of the Borsa Italiana, Milan’s stock exchange, the sculpture is popularly known as The Middle Finger. A raised, phallic middle finger from the front, it’s a comment on the finance industry’s contribution to Italy’s current economic problems but, cleverly, it’s also a fascist salute from the side, perhaps a nod to Milan’s prominent role in the rise of Mussolini. To lighten the mood we headed off to the bright lights of Milan’s cathedral square and shopping district with a quick detour to La Scala which, as one of Europe’s most illustrious and impressive opera houses, was a box that had to be ticked - even if it was closed.


En route was a shop window displaying designer meat slicing machines. But you’d never see anything like these in a British butcher's. These slicing, dicing masterpieces were veritable works of art. Here in Milan even the mundane becomes a design pièce de résistance. If you want to really window shop though, the place to head for is the vast Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. A mid-19th century, grand shopping arcade of sculpted steel and glass it’s a breathtaking architectural gem. It plays host to a gamut of top designers and I found it perfect for people watching as Milan’s great and good mingled with the tourists.

Day two started with booze. It was perhaps a little early to be drinking, but a visit to the 170-year-old Branca Fernet distillery is fascinating even if you're not in the mood for a tipple. This bitter herbal aperitif is an acquired taste - though I found the mint and brandy versions immediately more palatable. Actually, they were really quite drinkable.

 

Heads spinning just a little, we then set out to explore the city's modern ‘skyscraper’ area of Porta Nuova. The tour was as much a commentary on recent social and economic change as it was a journey around Milan’s more recent architecture.

Being the guy he was, Mussolini had prevented the construction of buildings higher than the tallest building to bear his statue. (Now that’s an ego for you.) Post war, once he was out of the way, Milan’s industrialists scrambled to build skywards. (Perhaps inspired to show the ex-dictator that middle finger?) Most notable of the early skyscrapers is 1959’s Pirelli Tower. As well as remaining the tallest building in Italy for decades, it's - of course - one of the most stylish skyscrapers you’ll ever see.


Today, Porta Nuevo’s recent development is inspiring. After years of neglect, massive regeneration has reconnected working class areas with the old centre, and produced a model of future inner-city development. The area includes the Unicredit building (2012), Italy’s tallest, and CityLife, a stylish mix of piazza, skyscrapers, luxury retail and residential which is car free and has 50% of the space given over to parks and gardens. Nearby are the award-winning ‘green’ towers of Bosco Verticale, Milan’s most sought after des-res, with awesome vertical forests bedecking its balconies.


Dinner was just as inspiring too. Ristorante Alice in Eataly (a posh authentic Italian food emporium), is a Michelin-starred restaurant renowned for its imaginative, fish based, cuisine and it didn’t fail to impress.


But Milan comes to life at night and we went for a final blow-out at the nightclub Loolapaloosa, where the beer, Prosecco and Fernet flowed, and even the camera crew downed tools to join the party.

“Medieval cobbled streets and delightful Renaissance churches sit cheek-by-jowl with ubercool
boutiques and cafes”

San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore
Porta Nuova
170-year-old Branca Fernet distillery
 Loolapaloosa nightclub

CRUCIAL INFO
Getting there: FlyBe (www.flybe.com) direct from Cardiff Airport

(www.cardiff-airport.com)
Staying: E.C.Ho., Viale Andrea Doria, 4, 20124
Milano. www.starhotels.com

Short and sweet from Cardiff
There's a heap of FlyBe short
break options from Cardiff now. Here’s our pick for a great city break.


Berlin
Cutting-edge cool, culture and
clubbing are at the heart of the German capital’s appeal,
making it a must for anyone
with a zest for life.


Amsterdam
Far more than ‘brown’ cafes, canals and bicycles, Amsterdam has a thriving club, bar and restaurant scene and more cultural attractions than many larger cities, thanks to a heritage that includes Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

Paris
Where to start. Arguably the
most evocative city in the
world, it has bags of charm,
romance, style, art, food,
architecture and history. A city
you’ll never tire of. Ever.