Milan is not one of Italy's most-visited travel destinations. Guide-books often say it's a two-star city. Rick Steve's excellent Italy 2014 says, "OK, it's a big, intense city, so you probably won't linger." But he's speaking here to the average tourist. He also says, "Many tourists come to Italy for the past. But Milan is today's Italy, and no trip to this country is complete without it." Good advice.
August in Europe below the Alps is always described as a kind of inferno, a heat-blast with sweltering humidity. While generally true of the first two weeks, after ferragosto, August 15, an old holiday in Italy and the Feast of the Assumption in France, the weather breaks. August 15-30 in Southern Europe can be delightful as it has been during a stay in Milan my wife and I are winding up. (It was the same last year in Munich.) In addition, hotel prices drop drop and restaurant crowds thin out as Europeans reluctantly head towards home to get ready for, la Rentrée (France), the beginning of the school year.
I like to distinguish between traveling and tourism. Travel broadens the mind; tourism doesn't. Tourism is some kind of group or personally organized trip to see cultural and historical sites in well-known, much-visited cities and towns. Tourism is a holiday or a vacation. It's what we call sightseeing, going from one place to another with your luggage in tow.
In contrast to tourism, travel is a voyage, going somewhere to experience life somewhere else: another country with its history, society, social structure, culture and people. Travel is about stretching the imagination, trying to imagine what it's like to live in that place, to imagine the history of that place with the people who lived at various times. In fact, the "sightseeing" involved in tourism is the wrong word. Tourism is really sight-looking. You stand in front of, or inside, the Duomo (the main cathedral) in Milan or Florence, maybe you hike up the stairs for the grand perspective on the city. You go (or are guided) past Michelangelo's David or Pietà and Leonardo's The Last Supper.
What is happening in tourism is not thrill or thrall, an emotional engagement with architecture or sculpture or painting. You can't get close enough for that. You are looking at a famous object; you're in its presence in a big room or a grand piazza. In its way of course this is a fabulous experience, one to write home about and to remember always. But you don't feel much or learn much from it. You are just in the same room with it. This is visiting vs. experiencing, going through a wonderful, unfamiliar place to look at the sights rather than getting free, putting yourself not only in someone else's shoes but in their mentality.
Here are a few suggestions about traveling as opposed to tourism.
Instead of arriving somewhere and checking in, taking a spin around town to see the sights, then hurrying to the next place and its hotel, why not set up in an interesting place close to other interesting places, know that you've got time to use the Jacuzzi several days in a row and you'll do side trips. Milan is a great city in itself (not only it's monuments -- beginning with the mind-boggling train station and the famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II) but the fashion that suffuses the city and the beautiful people who wear the clothes as if it were natural to the human being).
Guidebooks say, outrageously, that one full day is enough for Milan. If you want to travel, to experience the world, however, living in Milan for a week or ten days with a few escapes is an education. The price can be unbeatable as is the sense of temporary rootedness.
My wife and I are just finishing a stay in Milan. With a package purchase online we got a round-trip flight New York/Milan and twelve nights in a four-star hotel for $3200. (I blinked, verified on my screen five times in 20 seconds and pushed the yes button hard before it went away.)
How to begin to travel Milan and environs? The first thing to do is...nothing. Find the nearest café with a terrace and spend an hour watching people go by. In addition to the Milanese themselves, you see a rainbow of foreigners. Young men, some with a lot of style, others with a New York T-shirt and a menacing look. There are young Japanese girls with mini-skirts you'd never expect to see on young Japanese girls, and Muslim families with fully-veiled women. There are pickpockets (as often women as men) and dignified waiters and waitresses for whom it is a profession with its own principles and social stratification.
Spend a day or two in Milan seeing the sights but also imagining what it's like to live there. I always ask myself could I live here. What are people thinking as they amble along or rush by? How does it feel to be so handsome or so beautiful?
As for some trips out of Milan: our first was to take the train (the train system is great) to Lake Como, an hour away and in the beginning of the Alps. (The Alps were generally visible from our room on the eighth floor of the hotel.) At Como we stopped in the village of Varenna, which didn't care that we were there, and took the ferry across to Bellagio where, getting on the ferry back to Varenna, arrived a small parade of American-looking couples in swell hats and great grins driving classic cars as if F. Scott Fitzgerald had set the scene. There was Venice (my wife, Chinese from Beijing, had dreamed of Venice forever), Verona (a student of mine, an Afghanistan and Iraq veteran who lives nearby in Vicenza met us), and a two-day trip up and back through the Alps to see an old German friend in Frankfurt.
It was of course some tourism but always it was back to Milan where there's just a lot of life, Italy's second city, the astonishing St. Ambroise's Cathedral with its even more astonishing Treasure Room, and La Scala (1778) with its echoes of Maria Callas and Enrico Caruso. A tourist is allowed into a box in the second balcony with a view of theater. This puts the Met and its traditions into some perspective.
We're leaving day after tomorrow back to New York. This morning, August 25, the weather is chilly, almost cold because of a wind that blew the paper napkin away from my coffee on the terrace café just in front of the Statione Centrale. More summer days are certain but the overcast sky is nonetheless a broad hint of fall. Fall is Autumn Leaves and Autumn in New York and it will be welcome except it means that we're all getting a little older. Eternal summer would be too much of a good thing. Even with a good eye, winter's snow is not yet perceptible over the horizon. But it will come too.