Just the two of us…
“Right, we’re off to Milan…” I say, to my teenage son, who’s buried beneath his duvet, “…don’t forget to walk the dog, water my tomatoes and drive safely if you go out. And look after your sister.” A couple of weary eyed hugs, a sleepy goodbye and we’re off. Our first holiday without the kids. Well, a short break to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary actually, but still some sort of midlife milestone.
We’d always loved our family holidays, and never had any desire to travel without the kids when they were younger. But year by year, their interests naturally lay elsewhere; five on tour became four, then three and now… here we are, travelling as a couple again. Whilst the early morning guilt trip made us question our decision, surely this new chapter in our lives offered us a new and exciting freedom? We were about to find out…
After a two hour Ryanair flight from Manchester, we landed at Aeroporto di Bergamo, took a 50 minute coach transfer to Milan’s imposing Stazione Centrale and navigated the efficient metro system to the 4 star Hotel Grand Visconti Palace, just 4 km south. On arrival, we were greeted with a free upgrade to a superior bedroom with marble bathroom and introduced to the helpful concierge, who advised us where to grab some food nearby. He booked our table and gave us directions. Very impressive, as was the hotel with its piano lounge, gym, indoor pool and spa.
We thoroughly enjoyed a long, late lunch at Ivan e Frank Ristorante – a classy, authentic Milanese hostelry. A small beer, a glass of wine, bruschetta and a beautiful seafood pasta dish, for just €16 each. Our anxieties about leaving the kids were subsiding rapidly. Family holidays rarely gave us this opportunity to relax and unwind, take our time and just chill out.
Suitably refreshed, we dragged ourselves away to do a bit of sightseeing. Despite being Italy’s second city, Milan is easily walkable. We covered in just a couple of hours some of the key sites. First up, the gothic style Duomo cathedral, the largest church in Italy and the fourth largest in the world. The rooftop terrace with its stunning panoramic views of the city is a ‘must-do’; you can take the lift for €13.50, or walk up the stairs like we did for €9.
Next, the elegant glass-domed shopping arcade of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, with its luxury retailers, restaurants, cafes and bars, and the fashion district of Quadrilatero della Moda. This block of streets between Via Montenapoleone and Via della Spiga is the base for the world’s most prestigious fashion houses, such as Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Giorgio Armani and Prada. I can’t say we bought anything, but it’s a great place for window-shopping and people watching, which we did from the terraces of some wonderful coffee shops, such as the grand old Café del Opera in Montenapoleone. We couldn’t imagine the kids tolerating this leisurely trail, so it was again a great chance to rediscover the things we used to do before they were on the scene.
In the evening, the child-free adventure continued as we set off to explore Milan’s nightlife. We headed for the Ticinese and Navigli neighbourhoods, following the route on Google maps. Our first stop was at La Bodeguita del Medio, a Cuban bar on Via de Col di Lana, serving great Mojitos and Daiquiris. Next up, the Navigli and it was aperitivo time.
This is Milan’s canal neighbourhood, once a hive of industrial activity but now the centre of the city’s nightlife. The streets which line the canals are alive with the Milanese enjoying themselves at the numerous bars and restaurants which spill out onto the roadside. And this is where the favourite local pastime of aperitivo is at its liveliest.
Basically, you buy a drink at prices just over the odds (about €8), but in return you get small dishes of local food which are constantly topped up. The bars all compete with one another to attract the crowds, so all in all it’s a really good deal.
We visited Gesto and the Village Café on Via Ripa Di Porta, both lively and fun bar/restaurants on the side of the canal. But our favourite was Rita, which is just set back from the canal on Via Angelo Fumagalli. Here, the cocktails are a little bit different, such as the Psychodrama, a gorgeous mixture of Jamaican rum, Roots Diktamo, Amaro Ramazzotti and other ‘local’ ingredients. My wife chose the Al Pachino, a tequila and Campari mix made with honey and ginger beer. Delicious. Our plates were constantly filled with tasty local dishes.
Day two, a slightly later start than we intended, and we were off to do another child-free sightseeing trail. First up, the imposing Castello Sforzesco, which dominates the skyline with its huge towers and fortified walls. Impressive and interesting in its own right, the castle also houses a number of fascinating museums. We paid €10 each for a ticket which is valid for one day and includes entrance to all the Castle Museums and the Leonardo exhibitions.
We visited the Museo d’Arte Antica, a series of rooms containing a wide range of historical items from the city’s ancient past, and the Museo delle Arti Decorative, which contains the castle’s art gallery and exhibits furniture and decorative arts. The best one of the lot was the Sala delle Asse (Room of Planks), the location for a wall and ceiling painting of “decorated intertwining plants with fruits and monochromes of roots and rocks", by Leonardo da Vinci, dating from about 1498. At first sight, it doesn’t appear to be much, but then the lights go down and there is a highly entertaining and informative multi-media light show and commentary which brings the artwork to life. To follow, in the next room, there is another impressive show, involving holograms, lights and sounds, which tells the story of Leonardo. Stunning.
The final part of our day was spent looking around the Romanesque Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio, one of the most ancient churches in Milan, housing the remains of its patron saint. We didn’t have time for ‘The Last Supper’ at Santa Maria delle Grazie, so decided to save that for another trip.
We spent our final evening at Bere Buono Birra a brilliant craft beer bar, with local and international beers on tap and in bottles, all lovingly explained by Philipo, the friendly owner. We followed this with one final dinner at Osteria II Gran Burrone, which was just by the hotel on Via Mantova. Some more fantastic seafood with pasta, again at a very reasonable €55 for three courses with wine.
I have to admit, we’d been in constant contact with the kids throughout our short break, via text message and social media, so they never really felt that far away, in a comforting way. But, we’d had a great time, doing things we used to do; we were just 25 years older. A new and exciting freedom? Could be…
- Steve Garthwaite